The debt that’s owed to Magazine and Howard Devoto, both musically and stylistically, is massive, from Radiohead’s paranoid melancholy to Joy Division’s jumpy genius. Morrissey, a fanboy from early on, would never have made his career complete without summing himself up to the point of self-parody in Devoto’s line I know the meaning of life / It doesn’t help me a bit. And on a Tuesday night in the twenty-first century, after the end of office hours, with London’s South Bank still marinading in post-Bank Holiday blues, peerless post-punk outfit Magazine are ‘reconvening’. The future ain’t what it was, alright.
This is my first gig at the Royal Festival Hall, and it feels about as incongruous as you’d imagine. Most of the glass-and-air-and-exhibition-space complex has the feel of an aircraft hangar, and waiting for the gig to start is akin to sitting around, sipping from plastic glasses of overpriced drink, in the hours before your flight is called. The bar urges you to order your interval drinks in advance to avoid the rush.
At a respectable hour we’re ushered to the fifth floor and out into seats in a box to the right of the stage. The whole venue is odd from up here. The boxes jut like cars on the slope of a rollercoaster and the crowd, spread out below us, is balding and bare-armed in the anticipatory heat. Magazine have always attracted the self-styled intelligentsia and that part of their fanbase appears to have grown in the thirty years they’ve been away. It is, as my companion observes, a very paunchy audience. There are children, there are mums and dads, there are ageing Camden casualties with their hair still – or perhaps, once more – an ill-judged peroxide. It feels very much like we’ve taken a night out from the present day and our current personae to not so much step back in time as step outside it.
The lights dim. Showtime. Projected onto the back of the stage is The Soap Show: Episode 2009. The spotlight glints off a glistening pate. It’s Devoto, dull-suited and scarlet-shirted, glaring round and holding the eye of the crowd like a ringmaster. He’s very far from his Bambi-eyed boyhood, but then aren’t we all. He’s aged with all the advantages of a teenager who started out looking fiftysomething, and he moves like a cross between Dr Evil and Nijinsky.
For the first hour or so the band run through third album The Correct Use of Soap, all the songs in order, including their bizarre and broken cover of Sly Stone’s ‘Thank You’. In between songs, Devoto deadpans quotes from the anonymous writer of Caring For Your Record Collection, a pamphlet which must be older than the thirty years the band are making up for. Its pay-off line is ‘Try to avoid, ever, lending records to your friends’.
‘Turn the guitar up!’ shouts a voice from the back, several times. The band pay no attention at all.
The album’s highlight as played tonight is ‘You Never Knew Me’, a swirling, tauntingly tender glimpse of the Buzzcocks roots which otherwise stay as well-hidden as a teenage tattoo at a job interview. They close the first half with ‘A Song from Under the Floorboards’, which Devoto introduces as a song detailing ‘what happens when you don’t manage your coping mechanisms properly’. Like Radiohead’s indebted ‘Let Down’, the song pulls you down with it, spreading its hands to show you Kafka’s bureaucratic nightmare extended to a world glimpsed only through the cracks. Devoto nails the chorus, snatching an imaginary insect from the air with precision so pinpoint that I flinch.
On the show’s second half the record is flipped. They open with Dave Formula playing the RFH organ halfway up the wall at the back of the stage, while behind a lectern at the stage’s lip Devoto intones his spoken-word piece ‘The Book’, the story of an entrance into hell, and for the rest of the set Noko’s guitar licks and Barry Adamson’s basslines come boiling, scourging, coruscating across the stage like something tangible.
As I’ve often said to emo kids in love with the validity of unconventional attraction: if you must form emotional attachments to the tubby and balding and call it cool, then Devoto’s your man. Like Morrissey these days, he’s got an odd balletic grace that transcends his age and stockiness. He slips the microphone out of its stand like he’s unsheathing a dagger, legs twisted and spine crooked like Steerpike, and his control of the stage tonight is something to behold: not a movement or a moment wasted. He doesn’t touch an instrument all night, but he’s dead-on in touch with the music: fingers snap, wrists flick, arms windmill, imaginary whips are cracked over the rhythm section. More than once he leaps, both feet off the ground, and brings his hands down flat at the split second the music stops dead. It’s something beyond dancing, something short of conducting: a blindingly obvious and perfect balance between controlled and controller.
In this mood, when he gives the off-the-cuff command that we don’t have to stay seated, within seconds there’s a rush for the space in front of the stage. The back rows and balconies rise and from there on in the set is thrown at us head-on, ‘Permafrost’ snarling unsettlingly out of the speakers with Devoto transformed from avuncular maitre d’ into something darker that holds the eye and ear transfixed. At the song’s apocalyptic apex, with the presence and possession of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, Devoto sneers ‘I will / drug you / and fuck you / on the remains of the permafrost’ and the possibility that the little freak won’t doesn’t even cross the mind. (And with manual dexterity like tonight’s? Bring it on.)
Straight on into ‘The Light Pours out of Me’. Songs this good should be strictly rationed. Even – or especially – in the mouths of fiftysomethings, nothing sums up bored adolescence like the listlessly buzzing, chopped-out lines ‘Time flies / time crawls / like an insect / up and down the walls’. Always a band ahead of their time, post-punk while punk proper was still revving up and sounding no less undateable thirty years on, Magazine have achieved something like timelessness. There’s no ‘Shot By Both Sides’ tonight, due one suspects to their pioneering contrariness as much anything else, but the whole of the set has been a reminder that the best a band can offer is the chance of losing yourself in the crowd.