Like history as a whole, the chronology of music is not a neat, compact narrative. However much some might try to corral it all into tidy, reductive processions of cause and effect, it’s far too multi-layered, unscripted, complex and, in truth, messy, to be so easily, glibly packaged into received wisdom. Did Buddy Holly’s death and Elvis’ draft really lead directly to the neutering and ocean-level dilution of rock ‘n’ roll? Was the Beatles’ vertiginous take-off in America truly the result of a bereft and bewildered nation looking to assuage its grief over its slain leader? And can anyone really definitively call New Rose the first British punk single, as if genre can be as precisely prescribed as geography?
Near the head of this parade of assertions, which marches along the main thoroughfares, bypassing the blind alleys, cul-de-sacs and branch roads which lead to equally captivating destinations, is the notion that the Pistols’ gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in June, 1976 directly unleashed the ferment that would pour forth from the city for the best part of two decades. Without question, it was a catalyst, but in the literal, chemical definition of accelerating something happening independently. The proof is that the event – an alternative to an evening’s viewing which included Des O’Connor Entertains and Winner Takes All with Jimmy Tarbuck – was organised by two Mancunian minds which had been fizzing with original but hard to fulfil ideas for some time – Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley of the slowly but resolutely burgeoning Buzzcocks.
Shelley had already been exploring electronics for a number of years – his composition Sky Yen, recorded in 1974, resembled a loop of the ZX Spectrum programme he would later include on his solo album XL1 – while ultra-literate humanities student and Dylan fan Devoto (ne Trafford, a name too Mancunially loaded to keep in that city for long) would soon be honing one of the sharpest and most original lyrical styles in music.
After Buzzcocks recorded the groundbreaking and still astounding Spiral Scratch right at the end of ’76, Devoto was out before British punk had even got its Docs on. He already found it had become “aesthetically ugly;” while it wouldn’t be truly straitjacketed until the lamentable arrival of oi!, he was right to be plotting a way out before expectations became too rigid and the horizons of some barely spanned from thumb to forefinger.
His response was Magazine, who announced themselves with Shot By Both Sides, not so much a single as a manifesto, broiling with as much energy as any of its peers but voicing cold war anxiety in a manner which reminded you that these weren’t just pat, flip cliches – if somebody flips a switch, that’s it, for all of us. This, you feel, is what Devoto is getting at when he declaims: “I was shocked to find what was allowed;” no one had ever sounded as sardonic as this – not Dylan, not Reed, not even the Rotten rapidly turning back into Lydon – and you can hear his mouth crumple into a virulent grin at the end of every line. But the shock is not the synthetic outrage of a middle-market tabloid reader. It’s that of someone with a conscience, a moral centre, unable to take in what they see, when “They all sound the same when they scream,” like the creatures at the end of Animal Farm looking from pig to man and man to pig, by now indistiguishable.
Magazine and Buzzcocks actually took closer paths than is often acknowledged – behind the beguiling melodies and ambiguous love songs, the latter were continually messing with texture, rhythm, noise, the Can influence always just a micron below the surface, and Shot By Both Sides was the gene Devoto left behind. With Shelley’s lyrics, it became Lipstick for Buzzcocks, ushering in a small but significant post-punk strand of joint custody songs (also Read It In Books by the Bunnymen/Teardrop Explodes, Adventures Close To Home by the Raincoats/Slits, Sister Midnight by Iggy/Red Money by Bowie and Our Lips Are Sealed by the Go-Gos/Fun Boy Three.
The keyboards are barely audible on Shot By Both Sides but, beneath the fingers of Dave Formula, they would be what most immediately set Magazine apart from most of their contemporaries – apart from Ultravox!, hardly any others dared to commit such a technoflash transgression. Compared with the concert-piano level synths by then being deployed by Bowie and Kraftwerk, Formula’s are harpsichords and spinets but like those instruments, they radiate extraordinary beauty, like the Heath Robinson glories of Eno’s non-musician adventures in Roxy Music or the HG Wells future visions of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr – a Magazine fan from the start who would later have the effrontery to purloin the title of Real Life for his own band’s worst album – once declared that, Devoto excepted, they were “wallies…dullheads, completely unaware of the greatness they were part of.” Well, he met them, I didn’t, but it seems an extraordinarily harsh judgement on Formula, a former R & B musician whose youthful imagination had been fired by Yuri Gagarin’s trade union-brokered 1961 visit to Manchester; on bassist Barry Adamson, who would go on to be the heartbeat of darkness on the Bad Seeds’ most unforgiving adventures and to legitimise almost single-handedly the whole dubious enterprise of imaginary film soundtracks (his reward being to get to soundtrack actual films by Carl Colpaert and David Lynch), and on the late John McGeoch, born in Greenock – not 20 miles from where I’m writing – who approached the guitar in the way a brutalist architect might approach bricks, not setting out to make something beautiful and making few concessions to accepted notions of beauty but frequently achieving it anyway.
Take Definitive Gaze, one of the most assured and self-possessed openers in history. Adamson pursues the melody, a vigorous funk figure trapped in proto-video game Pong, while drummer Martin Jackson displays as much flair for tension and release as any chops-wielding session pro, pocketing the odd rimshot when nobody’s looking, and Formula combines freeform discordant piano flourishes with suitably spooky synth (I once put this song on a tape for an obsessive Cure fan who, disappointingly, found no trace of the influence on his heroes, instead hearing only the theme from Scooby Doo). McGeoch plays only what he needs to play – not a note more or less – and Devoto describes an all-seeing eye which appears to be more curse than gift (“Clarity has reared its ugly head again…Now I’m lost in shock/ Your face fits perfectly”).
He takes a similarly skewed view of affairs of the heart on Burst and Parade, the songs which once closed each side. On the former, McGeogh takes Hendrix’s The Burning Of The Midnight Lamp as a tuning fork but heads off in a very different direction, creating a claustrophobic and clenched setting for one of Devoto’s finest anti-love songs (“Once you had this promise/On the tip of your tongue/Needless to say/It went on too long). Despite the title (as in “burst into flames”) it’s compressed, a big crunch waiting to happen as Devoto repeats “You will forget yourself in my happiness,” like the incantation of a contract hypnotist – all as taut and coiled as Television’s Torn Curtain.
Parade is mellower, more refined, with elegant piano by Formula, frissons of wah-wah by McGeoch and a striding rhythm box underpinning Jackson’s tympani-like thunderclaps. But it’s still Howard Devoto out front and he sounds no more comfortable than before, still refusing to bow to sentimentality (“Sometimes I forget that we’re supposed to be in love/Sometimes I forget my position) offering yet more claustrophobia, this time shackled to paranoia (“It’s so hot in here/What are they trying to hatch?”) and proposing desperate courage as a solution (“We must not be frail – we must watch). It’s the fate of all slow and stylish songs to be labelled ballads but it would be an outright misnomer for songs as fraught and gripping as these – if you can think of a better word, let me know.
The fleet and the florid combine in Motorcade, where early languour yields to a pace almost beyond human capacity and McGeoch triumphs again, building on a well-worn siren sound by twisting it into unidentifiable shapes. It seems to allude to the Kennedy assassination but it may be too obvious – and where does the bathos of “The man at the centre of the motorcade/Has learned to tie his boots” fit in? Still, no one ever got right to the root of Oswald’s motive, so enigmatic images of “a snake in the closet” and the choice between coffee and tea are yet more layers on an unfathomable puzzle.
Magazine were never more brilliantly brash than on The Light Pours Out Of Me – come to think of it, not many others have been. Its rhythm could keep a city’s lights on if played on a loop and McGeoch takes a familiar glam riff out of its platform heel into a glass slipper. Formula’s synths are again sparingly used but the space left by their absence creates a canyon for Devoto to descend “like an insect/Up and down the walls.” He’s still accepting no commissions from Hallmark – “It jerks out of me like blood/In this still life/Heart beats up love-” and we’re back to full Buzzcocks circle, with the last line escaping from its earlier appearance on the sleeve of Spiral Scratch. There are more thrilling, elemental, force-of-nature songs than The Light Pours Out Of Me – but not many.
Unfortunately, many of those in awe of Magazine missed the opportunity to make their own magic from their influence. Magazine inspired Simple Minds at their best but were powerless to prevent them sinking to their worst. Mick Hucknall is said to have been a regular at their early gigs. Marti Pellow once averred that, early on, Wet Wet Wet wanted to be Magazine – Magazine, a band of potency and dexterity, utterly devoid of clumsiness, smarm or schmaltz – what happened? I guess it’s just real life but you can always turn to Real Life instead (PG).
One might surmise from his recordings that life for Howard Devoto was a cruel joke. Love meanwhile was a pointless charade, a game played by fools. There’s a 1980 Australian TV interview with him (sporting a Nietzsche baseball cap) larking around in a laundrette – where he discusses ‘superior hygiene’ and ‘ulterior cleanliness’ as well as his imaginary Ni-etz-sche Removal & Trucking business venture. Devoto cultivated the image of irascible bugger, someone to rival Mark E Smith or John Lydon for ultra-contrariness, Scott Walker or Eno for inscrutable mystique. What is more interesting about the interview is Devoto’s response to being questioned about his decision to leave The Buzzcocks in order to form Magazine. He attributes that to his ‘revolutionary idea that one could play slow songs‘. If Magazine harnessed some of the fizz and fury of punk, they also recognised in its mediocre uniformity, something stultifying rather than liberating. Without question, Howard would rather have been Bowie than Strummer, and Magazine likewise Can, Roxy or Ubu instead of The Pistols.
“You could do me a favour/Do whatever you want to/I will let you hurt me/Because I know it hurts you/It hurts you.” Devoto snarls with trademark acridity on the wonderfully odd ‘I’m A Party’, which while featuring a slightly extraneous jazz break, unfurls to reveal Dave Formula’s filmic synth and John McGeoch’s nervy guitar lines. McGeoch was one of the great under-rated lead guitarists; he often sounded like he was working in his own little bubble, nowhere more than here, surreptitiously stitching out taut geometric patterns redolent of a column of ants scratching out a new colony. Or listen to him virtually ignite his fretboard on the magnificent speed-fuelled ‘Philadelphia’. Here is Magazine in all its glory – Barry Adamson’s throbbing bass bubbling like a pregnant geyser, Formula’s shrieking keyboard wizardry and Devoto’s rueful witticisms: ‘Everything’d be just fine/If I had the right pastime/I’d’ve been Raskolnikov/But mother nature ripped me off…‘ Glorious stuff.
In some ways the flamboyance and range of the music is utterly at odds with the bleak cynicism of the lyrics. And Devoto makes true on his promise to play some slow ones, these offering a sharp contrast to their more convulsive companions. The stately piano and soulful backing vocals on ‘You Never Knew Me’ sound warmer, but Devoto’s lyrics remain implacably acerbic (‘Thank God that I don’t love you/All of that’s behind me now/Still seems to be above you’), rivalling Dylan at his sardonic ’65 peak; while elsewhere he confesses to his own (masochistic?) weakness and compulsion: ‘But I still turn to love, I want to burn again.’
That dark sense of humour is accompanied by both political observation (‘Model Worker’ envisages the moral quandary of the Soviet proletarian who dares to dream of a better future: ‘I’m sick of working on the land/I wanna work with machines and look handsome.’) and an incisive eye for detail: ‘We drank from cups on standard issue/Sofas under scaffolding/Informed sources said we were seen/By observers it’s a meeting.’ (from ‘Sweetheart Contract’ – a genuinely classic single).
One can as easily imagine Devoto firing the band and taking himself off in a huff to record the whole thing on an acoustic guitar. Then he might have delivered a rival to ‘Sister Lovers’ or ‘Blood On The Tracks’. But as he says himself: “I know beauty and I know a good thing when I see it” so thankfully Magazine’s audience was gifted with songs like ‘Stuck’, a squelching stinging funk conundrum which comes across as something like a post-punk Weather Report and is quite magnificent.
If their brilliant debut ‘Real Life’ had a bold, metallic and expansive sound, Magazine’s follow up, ‘Secondhand Daylight’ was dense, feverish and – on the colour spectrum – undoubtedly grey. With Martin Hannett – having recently applied the finishing touches to ‘Closer’ by Manchester’s more celebrated musical sons – at the mixing desk, ‘The Correct Use Of Soap’ successfully managed to add a layer of polish to proceedings, but the album’s claustrophobic sound and misanthropic soul gave new meaning to the old cliche ‘all that glitters is not gold’. It sounds as thrillingly vibrant today as ever and stands unparalleled as a gallery of lavish but caustic portraits, a repository of glistening miserabilism. (JJ)
PS. ‘I’ve got a good face for memories’:
The first critics poll of greatest albums I remember (and still my favourite list of this kind by miles), was the MME’s (100) Greatest Records Ever Made, published in November 1985. It was the first time I had ever bought an issue of the NME, and I in my innocence immediately took the contents of its poll as gospel, seeing in it the definitive selection of the essential albums every serious music fan should own. It was a marvellously flawed collection, by turns intriguing (only one Stones, no Sgt. Pepper), eclectic (plenty of jazz, blues, reggae and soul alongside a plethora of post-punk) and bewildering (no Can, Byrds or Fall, while ‘Mad Not Mad’ at no. 55 today looks simply bizarre). To the best of my knowledge, it is the only such list ever to feature The Correct Use Of Soap, a mere five years young at the time.* I built my record collection around that list, beginning with the low/mid-price albums which had the coolest sleeves and graduating on to the more expensive ones afterwards. It was an education of sorts. I eventually got round to buying The Correct Use Of Soap, fittingly from Virgin Records, in January 1987, proudly clutching to my chest its glitzy post-modernist sleeve alongside another purchase I made that day, Sly & The Family Stone’s star-spangled ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’. My abiding memory of that evening is hearing two very different but equally blistering versions of Sly’s ‘Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again’ which to my complete surprise, appeared on both albums.
*[Sounds magazine retorted with their own Top 100 and that one featured Real Life, but as it had four Alice Cooper albums in there, I figured the NME probably had it right. No harm to Alice Cooper, but four!?]