oward Devoto is what you might call “a character.” Though the initial form that character took can be tricky to pin down, especially at a distance of twenty-plus years. People in my position, who didn’t get the Devoto experience first hand, only have the key points to go on; which may or may not have been confusingly diluted by history, mythology, and hearsay. He (probably) organized the Sex Pistols performance in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, for an audience that seems to expand every time a famous musician of that era is asked whether they were in attendance. He was (definitely) a member of the Buzzcocks when they released the rather marvelous Spiral Scratch EP on their own label. Perhaps realizing that this EP would survive as a reasonable answer to the question “so, that punk thing, what was that all about eh?,” Devoto left the band, and wouldn’t emerge with another release until 1978.
Which is where Magazine come in. “Post-punk” in the most literal sense (they had punk pedigree and were mostly active...um... after it), the band are, inevitably, much more interesting than that umbrella term suggests. Virgin certainly seem to have realized this, because they’ve suddenly decided to reissue the four Magazine studio albums in crisp-and-crunchy remastered form. Bonus tracks have been gathered from the old Scree compilation and scattered as decoration, though these are unlikely to be sufficient in enticing long-term fans, completists aside. For anyone new to the group, however, these re-releases provide the perfect opportunity to delve inside Howard’s way.
Devoto’s sabbatical was evidently spent plotting and planning, as Real Life saw the group arrive practically fully formed. In an age that supposedly frowned on such a notion, each member was an accomplished musician. Although the band would morph somewhat over the course of subsequent releases, the debut exhibits (as far as such a thing is possible to pin down) what can be recognized as an archetypal and enduring “Magazine sound.” In practice, this involves a fraught and taut rhythm section providing a steady platform for a pre-Banshees John McGeoch and the (gasp!) electronic noodlings of Dave Formula to go mental over. McGeoch in particular is in full spooky-thriller-tension mode, building suspense one moment only to unleash a series of nerve-shredding screeches the next (though the most famous riff, that of “Shot By Both Sides” was written much earlier and is shared with the Buzzcocks’ “Lipstick”). At the center of it all is Devoto, twisting and cackling like a pantomime witch, weaving fragmented and distorted snapshots of a society gone wrong. His sparse tales are like a short-story anthology censored by a faceless and sinister organization, who not only wish to leave a lingering sense of doubt in the reader, but also plan to ensure that meaning remains tantalizingly out of reach.
Secondhand Daylight, from 1979, ramps up the menace even further, and bothered critics at the time by allowing Dave Formula even greater freedom with his imposing synth noises. Accusations of prog-rock miss the point (and are a ludicrous throwback to an era where sticking a weird keyboard bit in your songs was asking for trouble in certain media quarters). Magazine’s second record is really an extension of their first, stretching the feelings of unease to the point of genuine fear. Whereas before the enemy was perceived in the shadows as a lurking threat, now they are giving chase, tirelessly pursuing each protagonist across a real or metaphorical arctic tundra. More frequent periods of space between instruments, and Devoto’s vocals—this time delivered with a permanent sneer which suggests either self-loathing, loathing directed at the listener, or, indeed, just loathing at the world in general—flip and reverse the roles of hunter and hunted. At times these mantles seem to blend and merge into moral ambiguity, until each appear as one and the same. Structural oddities and occasional bursts of saxophone color a landscape which otherwise remains resolutely chilly, windswept by Formula’s icy interventions.
Fortuitously, this gloom relented before it could consume the band. The Correct Use of Soap, as well as generally being considered to be Magazine’s finest hour, offers lengthier insights into a somewhat perverted sense of humor which, in truth, had always been present. It’s just that all the previous chuckles were concealed slightly beyond nervous glances over the shoulder. The veil is also lifted on some of Devoto’s highbrow influences, in contrast to the oblique hints present on its forebears. This comparative openness feels symbolic of a more expansive Magazine, a band partially thawed from previous endeavors and welcoming a new lease of creativity. The decision to introduce a touch of funk to the album could have gone slightly wrong, but Barry Adamson’s marvelous bass playing steers a strange cover of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettineme Be Mice Elf Agin)” along the right path. The rest of the band are on equally magnificent form, and with Martin Hannett at the production controls, Magazine reached the peak of their powers.
Alas, only to crest into a proper dip. Despite continuing a run of thoroughly splendid album titles, Magic, Murder & the Weather can only be classed as a disappointment. John McGeoch’s departure from the band meant that Formula’s keys had to adopt even more duties, but there are problems with the record that run deeper than outgoing band members. Though there are still points where the old form shines through (lead track “About the Weather” has a lovely raindrop rhythm and playful vibe), Devoto sounds as though his heart is no longer in it. The vibrancy found on The Correct Use of Soap has all but ebbed away and much of the record is bogged down by leaden, uninspired sounds that would have been unimaginable on earlier releases. Far from recreating the beautiful desolation of Secondhand Daylight, these merely serve as audible proof that the band would like to call it a day. Even the reissue seems to realize that it is the weakest member of the Magazine family, offering just two b-side bonus cuts as opposed to the four tracks appended to each of the others. Unsurprisingly, Devoto disbanded the group almost immediately after Magic’s release.
This should not unduly tarnish what is an otherwise near-flawless discography. Magazine were able to take the blossoming energy of punk and blend it with Berlin-era Bowie, snatches of glam and lighthearted intellectual posturing, until their own strange creation sparked extraordinarily into life. Far more than an exercise in spot-the-influences, this collection of ingenious individuals were somehow able to unite their expertise and forge a unique path. Their run of three outstanding records (and one outstandingly average one) are unequivocally identifiable as Magazine—and no-one else. Rather than abandoning Devoto and the gang to the nebulous clutches of “post-punk,” their explorations into paranoid pop, uneasy amusement, and artistic apprehension can be more wisely summarized by a lyrical turn of phrase found on The Correct Use of Soap: “maybe it’s right to be nervous now?”