The Vichy Government
The synth pop duo disproving the adage that pop and politics don't mix
From the moment one hears Jamie Manners’s undisguised Belfast brogue address controversial topics ranging from Northern Ireland’s Protestant community and the ’War on Terror’ to arranged marriages and the death of pop music, one instinctively welcomes a fearless and eloquent voice.
Hearing it complemented by the ear-catching rhythms and melodies eked out of a drum machine and Casio keyboard by Jamie’s Cambridge-based collaborator, Andrew Chilton, one feels sure that what one is listening to must bear, at most, a tangential relationship to anything previously produced.
Add to these elements the spectacle of the duo’s live performances – wherein the iconoclasm of Jamie’s lyrics may be offset by his distribution of paperback classics, and Andrew’s tuneful but highly spartan music by Jamie’s dandification – and one can hardly fail to be convinced of The Vichy Government’s thought-provoking singularity.
‘If there’s anyone else who does what we do,’ asserts Jamie, ‘I’ve yet to come across them. There are of course figures who inspire us, but I wouldn’t claim them as forefathers. My inspirations are polemicists and outsiders – the early Caesars, Swift, Defoe and Celine, Patrick McGoohan, Cathal Coughlan, 1980s Momus, and Luke Haines.
‘When you match those with Andrew’s way with a tune and his appreciation of great pop music – Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, Tamla Motown – you get something odd enough to seem no less deserving than anything else of being sent out into the world.’
Unsurprisingly, given the Casio minimalism of The Vichy Government’s music and the provocative nature of much of their lyrical content, not everyone will agree. Since forming at Cambridge in 2002 (Jamie, then a student in the city, having met Andrew at the latter’s club night), the two men have garnered adoration and hostility in equal measure – and nowhere more so than in Jamie’s city of origin.
That early Vichy Government compositions included the titles ’The Protestant Work Ethic’ and ’Orange Disorder’ should provide an idea as to why.
‘Are you local?’
‘The Protestant Work Ethic’ finds Jamie, a native of Belfast’s Protestant Shankill Road district, taking a withering look at both the culture of Northern Ireland’s Protestant community and how it is perceived in other countries.
‘If you’re a Protestant and you leave Northern Ireland,’ says Jamie, ‘You realise that, in the popular imagination of the rest of the world, the Irish are angels and martyrs and your lot are frowned upon. You’re born into the sin of being “the occupier”.’
‘Orange Disorder’, meanwhile, is a three-minute caustic diatribe which indicts the whole of Northern Ireland on the charges of parochialism, underachievement, intransigence, and the veneration of murderers and terrorists.
Inevitably, a repertoire featuring both of these songs served to make The Vichy Government’s first Belfast shows, in Jamie’s words, ‘very exciting’.
‘We’d been perceived as a curious sideshow at our first few gigs at Cambridge,’ Jamie recalls. ‘But when we came over to Belfast we elicited official complaints from bouncers and found people threatening violence – and all that on a £20 keyboard and miniskirt! We found it hysterical that people took so seriously what we’d originally conceived as an elaborate prank.
‘A year later we were back in Belfast to play to 600 people as the support band to Scissor Sisters, who had the biggest selling album of 2004, and I had to wonder how it had come to this.’
The expedition of Jamie Manners
In that year to which Jamie refers, much had changed in his personal circumstances. Having graduated from Cambridge he was now living and working in London, where the majority of Vichy Government performances have since taken place.
The lyrics he has produced since the early months of the band make no explicit return to Northern Irish issues, and he is now, he says, ‘starting to think of London as home’. Jamie has, however, some way to go before joining the majority of Northern Irish lyricists whose roots appear largely incidental to their work.
‘Oliver Cromwell In Weimar Berlin’, an example of what Jamie calls ‘the ambiguous, developed narrative’ style to which his lyrics now tend, has its origins in the discrepancy between the abandon of London nightlife and the markedly less secular environment of his early youth.
Another recent composition, ‘Mickey Mouse’, is one of numerous Vichy Government songs which expose the emptiness of the rhetoric used to gloss over the baser elements of politics. Might this theme’s recurrence be due in large part to early political disillusionment?
Jamie: ‘I think most people end up cynical about politics, but politics in Northern Ireland are such a grotesque, embarrassing farce that it gives you a head-start. That is what made me fight shy of ever being “politicised”, regard the individual as sacrosanct, and view anyone who subscribes to any type of politics with the utmost suspicion.’
Though all of the songs referred to in this article have, with diverse others, been captured in recorded form on unofficial albums entitled Carrion Camping and Whores In Taxis, Jamie is now convinced that ‘nobody in a position to do so will ever be intelligent enough or stupid enough to release our music’.
However, he and Andrew remain enthusiastic in continuing The Vichy Government’s activities.
‘The live show is probably the only area of my life which gives me adrenaline,’ says Jamie, ‘And we have had some odd experiences. Harry Potter listing one of our songs among his 50 favourites in Q magazine was one. Also, we’re playing in London tonight, and I’m told a crowd from the Institute of War Reporting are coming because they’ve heard our song ‘Serbian Warlord’.
‘Being in The Vichy Government has thrown up countless situations which are mildly amusing and which we wouldn’t have found ourselves in otherwise, so for that if nothing else it’s been worthwhile.’