Sunday, April 12, 2009

Thumbing Through A Magazine

When singer Howard Devoto assembled the line-up for his new band during 1977, much was expected, given his involvement in the formative stages of the seminal punk outfit Buzzcocks. In April ‘76, Devoto had co-founded Buzzcocks with singer/guitarist Pete Shelley (see separate post), but less than a year into the enterprise, Devoto parted ways with the band (in rather acrimonious circumstances) shortly after the release of the ‘Spiral Scratch’ EP. Buzzcocks went on to become one of the pre-eminent punk-rock acts, with Shelley assuming vocal duties. By the Spring of ‘77, Devoto had assembled a new roster of musicians that together would constitute the music pages of the band Magazine. Guitarist John McGeogh, bassist Barry Adamson, drummer Martin Jackson and keyboardist Bob Dickinson joined with vocalist Devoto to form the first edition of Magazine. The band played rehearsals for about six months to get their sound just right, then chose the final night of the legendary Manchester punk club, The Electric Circus, to play their live debut in October of ‘77.

From the get go, Devoto and crew took the base recipe of punk and decided to imbue it with some more experimental stylistic elements. Shortly after their debut gig, Magazine signed with Virgin Records on the strength of a demo tape. Keyboardist Bob Dickinson left the band prior to their debut single, which was completed as a four piece, giving ‘Shot By Both Sides’ a decidedly punk-guitar edge to it. Released in January of ‘78, the song’s guitar riff took on an iconic status in the post-punk movement, and the very same riff featured in the Buzzcocks song ‘Lipstick’ later that year (it had been co-written by Devoto and Shelley during Devoto’s tenure with Buzzcocks). ‘Shot By Both Sides’ (UK#41) was defined by a stark, in your face style, and struck a chord with all of those punk aficionados now in pursuit of a new, more substantive sound. In April ‘78, a second single was released, ‘Touch And Go’, for which Magazine had recruited a new keyboardist/synth player, Dave Formula (ex-St. Louis Union), a move which would reshape the sound of Magazine.

The band toured the U.K. relentlessly during mid ‘78, in support of their debut album release ‘Real Life’ (UK#29). Produced by John Leckie, the album was declared an instant masterpiece by critics and fans alike. Devoto’s engaging intellect shone through in the lyrics which were drenched in social commentary and poetic barbs, and were augmented by Formula’s icy keyboard textures, with spikes and shards of keyboard fills and guitar hooks layered across the chilly, atmospheric soundscape. It was a raw undercoating of confrontational, edgy, guitar driven punk, draped in an emotive, but controlled synth driven, art-rock inspired overcoat. In time, Magazine’s ‘Real Life’ album has come to be regarded as a defining moment in the evolution of the post-punk movement, and a lasting influence on generations of musicians to come. The BBC’s John Peel became a major advocate of Magazine, and the band soon had a fast growing cult fan base. At the conclusion of the album’s support tour, drummer Martin Jackson left the band, and for a few months during 1978 was replaced by Paul Spencer. By October of ‘78, Spencer had left the pages of Magazine, and John Doyle was added as a more permanent feature in Magazine’s table of contents.

In March of ‘79, Magazine issued their second album, ‘Secondhand Daylight’ (UK#38), preceded by the lead out single ‘Rhythm Of Cruelty’. Magazine adopted an even more liberal engagement of the synthesizer, combined with less jarring rhythms on the album (produced by Colin Thurston), but continued to push the experimental envelope even further than synth-pop contemporaries like Human League and Ultravox. Though Devoto and McGeoch remained the principle song writing team, synth player Dave Formula played a much stronger hand in painting Magazine’s cold, futurist soundscape - a balance that didn’t please everyone. During 1979, three members of Magazine, John McGeoch, Dave Formula, and Barry Adamson hooked up with the Steve Strange led studio project Visage (see separate post), which also featured Ultravox’s Midge Ure and Billy Currie, and former Rich Kid Rusty Egan (see future posts). McGeoch and Formula, in particular, maintained ties with Visage over the next few years, and used the studio based group as a vehicle for creative freedom, beyond the Devoto controlled Magazine.

But the full Magazine staff turned up to record the band’s third album, ‘The Correct Use of Soap’, released in May of 1980. Fans had been offered a taster a few months earlier via the lead out single ‘A Song From Under The Floorboards’ which had failed to surface on the charts. Devoto had employed the services of producer Martin Hannett for the ‘Soap’ album, and Magazine returned to more commercially accessible territory. Guitar driven punk edged riffs, and an energetic rhythmic chassis helped propel the album along at a considerably more engaging pace than its predecessor. The album’s formula called for less Formula, and more McGeoch, Adamson and Doyle in the mix. Devoto retained his acerbic, world weary lyrical edge, but the album was altogether more welcoming to the listener. It featured an intriguing cover of the Sly Stone classic ‘Thank You’, and yielded Magazine’s second (and final) British chart hit, with ‘Sweet Heart Contract’ (UK#54) - a song that, to me, sounds like it could have come straight from the Phil Judd songbook (early Split Enz era). All up ‘The Correct Use Of Soap’ (UK#28/ OZ#98) represented a cleaner, sharper, slightly less rarefied article from between the Magazine covers. Shortly after the album’s release, Devoto’s long time lieutenant John McGeoch left Magazine to join Siouxsie & The Banshees (as well as continue his involvement with Visage). Recent Ultravox member Robin Simon (see future post) hopped on board for Magazine’s world tour, which yielded the live set ‘Play’ (UK#69 - recorded at Melbourne Festival Hall), but McGeoch’s departure was a major blow to Devoto and the rest of the band.

Robin Simon’s contribution to Magazine was no more than a short article, as he left the scene early in the recording process for the band’s fourth album, to hook up with ex-Ultravox front man John Foxx (all of these post punk tributaries tend to link up). Devoto put in a call to an old college mate called Ben Mandelson (ex-Amazorblades) to fill the guitar wielding void. The album’s lead out single, ‘About The Weather’, released in May of ‘81, was actually the first Magazine song I recall hearing (I think I was a bit young at the time to really get into serious post-punk bands), and it came via the tracks inclusion on the Rhino Records set ‘New Wave Hits Of The 80s - Volume 4’. With McGeoch out of the mix, the remaining members of Magazine shared song-writing duties with Devoto. The single ‘About The Weather’ had a slight northern-soul feel to it, laced with splashes of icy keyboards - in fact it had a real four seasons in one day feel to it (as reflected by the cover art) - sunny yet paradoxically gloomy. I imagine it to be the kind of song that can adapt to reflect whatever mood its listener is in. The balance of the album ‘Magic, Murder And The Weather’ (UK#39/OZ#95) reflected a band on the decline, in the sense that it was regarded as a patchy effort. Dave Formula’s cold, piercing keyboards once more dominated the instrumental mix, washing over and around Devoto’s bitter, nihilistic laced lyrics. It didn’t sound a happy album, and likely the band weren’t very happy during its recording. Devoto in particular had become disillusioned with the direction of the band and announced his departure from Magazine over a month before the album’s release. The rest of the band were left to contemplate life in a Devoto-less Magazine, and promptly decided to end the publication…er band, altogether.

Devoto resurfaced in 1983 with a solo album titled ‘Jerky Versions Of The Dream’ (UK#57), and retained the services of keyboardist Dave Formula, along with Alan St. Clair (guitar), Martin Heath (bass), Pat Ahorn (drums), and Neil Pyzer (keyboards). Adamson and Formula continued working with Visage, and Adamson later worked with ex-Buzzcocks front man Pete Shelley (see previous post), and later on still, joined Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds for an extended stint (four albums). From the late 80s on Adamson gained acclaim for recording soundtrack style albums (some for imagined film noir films, some for real films). After a three year stint with Siouxsie and the Banshees, John McGeoch played with John Lydon’s PiL project. Following several failed attempts to launch new music projects, McGeoch left the music business - he died in 2004. Post Visage, keyboardist Dave Formula played with a number of acts, including Ludus, and Design For Living. Drummer John Doyle also collaborated with Pete Shelley in the mid 80s, and worked with old bandmates Barry Adamson and Dave Formula on solo projects. Original drummer Martin Jackson went on to form Swing Out Sister in 1985 with Corinne Drewery and Andy Connell (see previous posts).

In 1988 Howard Devoto launched a new project called Luxuria, alongside Liverpool born guitarist/writer Noko (Norman Fisher-Jones). Luxuria appealed to virtually no-one beyond the most hard core Devoto devotees, and after releasing two albums and a handful of singles, Luxuria quietly evaporated into pop ether. Devoto pretty much left the music business after that, and took up life as a photo archivist, though in 2002 he rekindled his old creative partnership with Pete Shelley, on Shelley’s album ‘Buzzkunst’.

As has become standard practice for bands of bygone eras to do, the iconic post-punk mavericks Magazine announced a 2009 reunion tour, featuring most of the surviving members, Devoto, Formula, Adamson & Doyle. Though commercial returns largely eluded Magazine, what was produced from between the band’s boundary pushing covers can’t be underestimated in terms of its influence, both at the time, and on subsequent generations of musicians.

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