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? Continue reading
Most of my favourite bands are in some way preposterous, with an awareness of their own absurdity as their biggest saving grace. One of the best things about Magazine is the fact that a band of such glacial heights and dour, majestic melodrama were also perfectly capable of keeping a straight face and playing for laughs. There are productions and performances too at odds with expectation and image to be taken entirely seriously, while at the same time constituting serious brilliance.
Take Magazine’s Peel Session of 1978, which includes a version of ‘Boredom’, the song written a year earlier for Howard Devoto’s only official, trailblazing recording with the Buzzcocks. The original goes like this.
Although boredom found a natural home in punk neurosis, it is a concept that belongs to an earlier generation of existentialist philosophy. The Buzzcocks’ original took the 50s-rooted sense of isolation and imprisonment in spectacle and distilled it in subversive, snapped and snappy couplets, undercutting its pale and intense intellectualism with that gleefully amateur two-note guitar solo as sharp as an ironically raised eyebrow. Magazine’s cover sees this subversion break the surface, spilling over in an obnoxious psychedelic froth of keys and manic drum fills that swirl around a dry but sugar-high vocal burlesque. Giddy and exquisitely piss-taking, the song of a bubblegum pop trio composed of Sartrettes in white gloves and ponytails smoking candied clove cigarettes, it abandons both punk’s blank-eyed minimalism and philosophy’s aching po-face to twirl its black beret around one finger, kick up its circle skirt and turn cartwheels across genre boundaries.
Like all good covers, this makes no sense until the moment you hear it and afterwards makes all the sense in the world.
All the ink excitably spilled over the Spiral Scratch EP, its importance to the punk moment and its surrounding DIY culture, is for once entirely justified. It is the definitive work of a definitive band – the Shelley-Devoto era Buzzcocks, rather than the melodically lovelorn troubadours, still excellent but not extraordinary, which Buzzcocks became through their post-Devoto reshuffle. It is four songs in eleven minutes of jittery speedfreak punk and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Aptly titled, the music here is at once constrained and claustrophobic, panicky screeds of guitar and frantic drum fills hemming in breathlessly gabbled lyrics, and an irritatingly insistent, needle-like pricking at the hindbrain. The gleefully amateur (two notes, or three?) guitar solo that slices ‘Boredom’ in half is pure punk minimalism. Likewise, Devoto’s stab at capturing the sub-Rotten delivery, that uber-obnoxious yammering where the vocal cords appear to be entirely composed of snot and amphetamine, comes close to producing (or pre-emptively parodying?) the definitive punk vocal. It captures, more accurately, what you think Rotten’s going to sound like until you listen and realise how inimitable and curiously feline his voice actually is, but it still happily gobs in the eye of all other contenders.
The lyrics, again, form a litany of tactics and techniques that would come to define the genre. Beyond the obvious tenets of boredom, isolation and dysfunction, ‘Boredom’ mixes all-encompassing ennui with the knowingly self-absorbed self-abstraction of ‘you see I’m living in this movie / but it doesn’t move me’. The band are, as Devoto keeps reminding us, only acting dumb. The lyrics are, winningly, shot through with a sharp-edged wit which punk often singularly lacks, kicking off with ‘Breakdown’s laugh-out-loud understatement of ‘If I seem a little jittery…’, continuing with the dry ‘I can stand austerity but it gets a little much’, and running through Shelley and Devoto’s deadpan call-and-response dissection of relationship dissatisfaction in ‘Time’s Up’. Another of the many tensions more widely explored in punk but encapsulated here is that between an impulse towards glee in deviant pansexuality (cf also the still-astonishing ‘Orgasm Addict’), and a viscerally disgusted horror of intimacy (cf Devoto’s shriek in ‘Boredom’ of ‘who are you trying to arouse?! / get yer ‘and out of my trousers!’, like an outraged maiden aunt).
There is a sense here of there being too many words and notes for comfort or relaxation. Too many disparate thoughts and ambiguous intrigues are packed into a line like ‘I hear that two is company for me it’s plenty trouble / though my doublethoughts are clearer now that I am seeing double’ – is it discussing infidelity, alcoholism, mental disconnection or the intertwining of all three? – which neither the careering music nor the desperate vocal can stop to explain. Having too much to say in too little time is a function of punk’s peculiar certainty of built-in obsolescence and impending disaster, the impuse to throw all that you have at the world before both you and it are overwhelmed by anarchy in the UK. While ‘Boredom’ and ‘Breakdown’ write this large (‘I’m already a has-been’; ‘I just came up from nowhere / and I’m going straight back there’), the petty domestic reflection of a preoccupation with the future’s destructive ferment is nailed in the musical and lyrical impatience that has the protagonist of ‘Time’s Up’ chainsmoking and tapping his foot while his girlfriend deliberates. There is no time to waste before your time’s up. The product of a band that were over in this incarnation almost before they began, Spiral Scratch is both a document of and testament to a social and cultural moment where if you were going to do anything, you had to do it now. Everything that follows may as well be a footnote.
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.