Nick Abadzis

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A Weekly Song: Episode 21 - Magazine

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Magazine were the first art-rock band I ever really got into, largely because the group of mates I hung around with at school were into them and I realised, beyond that process of social osmosis, that I actually really liked this strange band’s strange music. I could also have liked (and did - pick one, pick several) The Cure, The Monochrome Set, Elvis Costello, Bauhaus and The Psychedelic Furs but Magazine appealed to me for their oblique lyrics and juxtaposition of punky attitudes with arty, wry presentation – they were a sort of New Wave cabaret performance.

Over time, Magazine became something of a band’s band, championed by the likes of Radiohead, Jarvis Cocker and Mansun; covered by Ministry, Peter Murphy (of Bauhaus fame), Half-Man Half-Biscuit among many others. Frontman Howard Devoto was sought out for collaborations by both ex-bandmate (the late) Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks and Apollo 440 frontman Noko. The Buzzcocks were of course, one of the first great punk bands, and Devoto was their original singer, appearing only on the Spiral Scratch EP before leaving to form Magazine.

Magazine’s personnel are a kind of dream Who’s Who of cool anti-mainstream musicianship. The bassist was Barry Adamson, who also played with Nick Cave’s Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds and who remains an astonishingly creative solo artiste in his own right. John McGeoch – a truly excellent and idiosyncratic musician – moonlit with both Siouxsie and the Banshees and Peter Murphy and, post-Magazine, would work with Richard Jobson of Scottish punks the Skids before finding adulation as PiL’s permanent guitarist. He, with keyboardist Dave Formula and Adamson, was part of the loose-knit ensemble that was Steve Strange’s Visage and which begat a massive hit Fade to Grey across Europe in 1980/81. 

Yet, in spite of all this, and despite being critical darlings in the UK Music Press of the period when the band existed, they seem to me to be widely unknown. They’re not the kind of band where you can begin a music nerd conversation with the whiplash opener, “What’s yer fave Magazine track?”

Maybe it’s because they never achieved a major chart hit, never had much acknowledgement elsewhere, in Europe or the USA. Maybe it’s because they were never featured on a Bratpack movie soundtrack, like contemporaries Simple Minds or The Psychedelic Furs, themselves bands who began their careers as arty outfits who then evolved into regular chart challengers by aping U2’s stadium mannerisms.

Maybe it’s the lyrics. I always loved Devoto’s turns of phrase; his ability to sound both deadpan glib and quixotic, often at the same time. Perhaps it was his voice – he could sing, but he’d often half-say a line to deliver an extra level of sarcasm or panicky cynicism. It certainly wasn’t due to the songs, which are both accessible and incredibly varied.

Somehow, this band have fallen under the floorboards, and not because they were underachievers. If anything, they were an incredibly creative outfit with an impressively diverse output. To be sure, they were a little odd, perhaps a little difficult to categorise, which is a big part of their appeal. They really are one of the greatest “lost” bands that I can think of.

It’s really difficult to pick a single, representative Magazine track that gives a new listener a sense of what they’re like. Every album they made signifies an utterly different era and iteration of the band – they’re all really different. Their third album, The Correct Use of Soap is widely considered to be their best album by aficionados and to my ears it certainly sounds like their most assured collection. The balance of wry humour and darkness is exactly right; Martin Hannett’s production adds just enough gloss to make each track gleam without blunting the band’s eclecticism and eccentricities. Their fourth, Magic, Murder and the Weather is probably the least instantaneous in terms of listening pleasure, but Secondhand Daylight (second) and Real Life (first) are, simply, little gems, each of a very different nature.

I almost  – almost – picked non-album single Give Me Everything, a drivingly brilliant artefact of post punk, but that, again, doesn’t really deliver an accurate impression of what this band were like. I also have a special affection for this song, as I picked up the 7” 45rpm from the market stall in Kingston, SW London where so much of my early vinyl record collection was bought.

The effect of Magazine is cumulative then, but I settled on this as an introduction. Parade is the closing track from their first album Real Life.

It fades in with an elegant piano refrain that weaves around the synth line that comes to the fore as the song proper begins, mournful and beautiful, erratic, as if too full of high quality booze served in the lounge where this music might be playing. The piano line is a rebuke to any formal stylings that punk and its offspring had adopted at that time. It complements the synth which goes from magisterial to mockery, at times mimicking Devoto’s vocals. With the second verse, the song becomes almost Brechtian, adopting an almost stomping didactic tone, which detours again into sophisticated loungecore as a mellifluous sax solo descends over proceedings and Devoto offers this killer line:

What on earth is the size of my life?

(Or is that “lie?” I was never sure.)

It’s a lounge song in that it feels full of both hope and regret, or worry over mistakes, more potential than past. I actually have no real idea what it’s about, and that opacity was a big part of Devoto’s genius as a lyricist – he’d make you want to know what the story was, and force you into myriad interpretations. The music is credited to Dave Formula and Barry Adamson, and if you know Adamson’s solo work, this serves as an intro to his many soundtracks for grandiose, unmade films (films that would never have matched the music).

If you do know this band, revisit them. There aren’t many that sound genuinely timeless, and Magazine have aged like a fine wine whose flavours linger and find new expression through the listener’s senses. If you don’t know them, I envy your exploration of them. They were one of the best bands of my youth.

Notes

A live version of Parade from 1980 (I think this is the version featured on the live album Play).

Boredom by the Buzzcocks (featuring Devoto on vocals) from Spiral Scratch is one of the greatest songs ever recorded. I know because I’ve just played it.

Parade reminds me of a James Bond film title song – there’s a lot of John Barry in it (Adamson is a huge fan) married to what might be one of those sinister villain themes. Maybe I’ve been missing what the song actually is all these years. Radiohead’s Spectre is the best “lost” Bond song ever, and with those shifts of mood Devoto and company were also so adept at, it don’t ‘arf sound like a big budget Magazine cover. 

I haven’t even mentioned Magazine’s cover of Sly and the Family Stone’s Thank You (Falletin Me Be Mice Elf Agin. Or Goldfinger. Look, I could go on and on… I’m not going to link to those, you’re just going to have to go and find them…

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Scree  was a collection of non-album singles and rarities, but it was replaced by a box set which also featured a load of Peel Sessions… which I don’t have!

Scree was a collection of non-album singles and rarities, but it was replaced by a box set which also featured a load of Peel Sessions… which I don’t have!