The outside of everything: a Howard Devoto primer.

Speaking of boredom, let’s start with Tony Wilson’s gloriously earnest and nonchalantly pretentious Buzzcocks/Magazine documentary from 1978. In many ways it seems far longer ago than that, what with girls who work in Woolworths and all that quaint smoking indoors. Don’t make ’em like this anymore, eh?

More on punk’s finest bisexual lovelorn troubadour Pete Shelley anon, but Jesus, look at Howard Devoto there. Ridiculous even for then, even for now. A Dostoyevsky protagonist as scripted by Alan Bennett.

I’ve written previously about Devoto’s Buzzcocks-era stuff. As someone noted in an uncharacteristically erudite YouTube comment, you need the Spiral Scratch EP more than your knees.

A majority of the musicians I most respect are men out of time, wilful absurdities. (Even/especially Carl Barat – yeah, yeah, get to fuck – a casually self-sabotaging cultural throwback who fell among bloated industry men and slack-jawed scenesters.) Devoto, not to labour the point but seriously, poor sod: redefined punk, defined post-punk, impossibly influential, a fascinating talent and one of the last great English eccentrics. But he made hardly any money off music and received hardly any recognition, had one refusenik Top of the Pops performance that actually sent the single in question back down the charts, cut a very particular swathe through the 80s to almost universal disinterest, took retirement from music that was half fit of pique and half withdrawal in disgust, and then spent twenty years proper-jobbing in a photographic archive while half his recorded work went out of print and now hardly any fucker knows who he is. Here’s an article says it better than I can.

Ignore, if you can, the ads for Punk Grandad t-shirts which are likely to molest this next clip. Look at his sharpness, his intensity, his disdain, his crossness, see Thom Yorke and Ian Curtis spring to life in a twitch of his eyelid:

NB You’ll no doubt have noticed that Magazine also had an achingly cool bassist. That’s the former graphic designer, subsequent Bad Seed, and still achingly cool Barry Adamson.

Seriously, Magazine. Who else covers Beefheart, Bond theme tunes, and Sly Stone with such aplomb? ‘Definitive Gaze’ sounds like it soundtracks a car chase between rival gangs of French philosophers. The single version of ‘Rhythm of Cruelty’ has the most comical, incongruously chirpy backing vocals I’ve ever heard. And you know ‘Shot By Both Sides’ already: that visceral disgust which gives no quarter, that power of recoil, that urge to shudder and twist until you shake yourself free of your unsatisfactory skin, that first chorused ‘shot’ like a box to the ears that knocks you into the riff’s trajectory, straight up and out.

Magazine split in 1981. Fine, not everyone likes icy cerebral post-punk sung by a man half intergalactic!Sartre, half praying mantis. More fool them.

In 1983 Devoto tried a solo album. Often daft, often (hopefully) self-parodic lyrics, absurd effects, overblown delivery and a wheelbarrowload of horrible synths that make it sound oddly dated, given his usual gift for timelessness. I do like this album, and some songs have a good line in sketching the messy paradoxical joys of functional alcoholism (I assume, or maybe I merely project, like that time I thought ‘Marquee Moon’ really got to grips with the ins and outs of a previous relationship of mine j/k), but if Bryan Ferry, say, were responsible for this, I’m not sure I’d have given it a second spin. That said, it has got ‘Waiting for a Train’, the best song Ray Davies never wrote.

Devoto’s next stab at stardom was Luxuria, who were a bit like an existentialist Pet Shop Boys, and an even more spectacular commercial failure than Magazine despite being one of the 1980s’ few saving graces…

… and his 2002 reunion with Shelley produced a sporadically good album of droll, baroque and irascible electro:

Finally, I saw Magazine play Shepherd’s Bush Empire this month – kind of reformed, lacking the late John McGeogh and the now permanently absent Barry Adamson. I seemed to be the only unaccompanied female in the place. Devoto was impish, diffident, playful, antic, in loose black like a dan if existentialism was a martial art. There was ‘Parade’ – a delicate, elegant web spun of silvery keyboard – and the relentless, majestic ooze and slither of ‘Permafrost’. In between songs Devoto grilled the crowd on track listings, quite possibly because this is the sort of thing a certain kind of Magazine fan enjoys knowing by heart.

Old bands reforming are generally a dreadful thing, and Magazine’s 2009 reunion tour wasn’t without its detractors, but remarkably they’ve manage to avoid making this an exercise in losing dignity. The music retains its power and clarity, and Devoto’s aesthetic in particular lends itself to ageing gracefully. And of course one fairly obvious distinction between this and unexamined ancestor-worship or retromania is that they’re writing again and have a fifth album out. (I’d forgotten about their fourth album, and I suggest you do too.) Maybe you had to be there.

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2 comments

  1. bowlingatvincent

    Wow. I’m not the only one then. Carrying the words to ‘Floorboards’ around like some restorative fucking herb – invincible on it, actually. Bless you and chapeau to that fabulous writing thing you got going. I’m kindofa daft sporty-blokey equivalent but – likewise I’m sure – still glowing with pleasure at my own stupidity.

  2. dee

    does anyone play their own versions of the tracks you mentioned definitive gaze in particular great description

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