No.3 Real Life • Magazine
(Virgin Records, 1978)
When Howard Devoto decided to walk away from the Buzzcocks in 1977, punk fans across England threw their hands up in despair. What was he doing? Had he gone mad? The Spiral Scratch EP had been released to trumpets of praise. It had laid claim to be the first independent single of the New Wave, and great things were predicted as the Buzzcocks signed a multi-album deal with United Artists.
But Howard was a wise man who knew exactly what he wanted. He began by advertising for personnel in order to create a brand new group, and the quality of musicians who replied, more by luck than anything else, were outstanding: John Mcgeoch on guitars, Barry Adamson on bass, Dave Formula on keyboards and Martin Jackson on drums.
A record contract from Virgin, who had dipped their toe in the heady water of punk by signing acts like XTC, The Motors and of course The Pistols, was offered and accepted. The first fruits of this arrived in the New Year of 78 with a single that caught everybody by surprise. Shot By Both Sides was one of those unforgettable snapshots of that amazing era, when all-time classic records seemed to be issued on an almost weekly basis.
Commencing with that climbing, bold guitar riff, the song went on to describe the neurosis of paranoia in a decidedly articulate way. Why are you so edgy, kid? asks the man with the voice. 'I wormed my way into the heart of the crowd, I was shocked to find what was allowed" snarls Devoto, as the band career into a series of impressive and exhilarating instrumental passages, culminating in a whiplash solo from Mcgeoch and a weird middle section, where a detached voice on a loop chants the word 'crowd' in a ghoulish baritone, as the guitar growls impatiently in the foreground, building towards an unbearable climax of frankly incendiary excitement.
Single Of The Week in most of the music papers, and one of John Peel's favourite singles of all time. The group was dubbed Magazine by Devoto, and the first album was Real Life. Definitive Gaze starts things off, a rather unlikely funky bass alongside a sci-fi keyboard. Tight arranging here, with synthesizer, guitar and Howard Devoto's sneering vocal taking us on a disturbing tour of this gifted man's fractured psyche. An instrumental refrain halfway through is full of strange pips and pops, odd noises that seem to have strayed in from an Eno album.
My Tulpa is next, announced by a menacing, deep, almost John Barry-ish keyboard motif, before levelling out into the main track. A Tulpa is the original word for the imaginary friend that some of us as children believe is with us all the time. Now if you still have this person with you by the time you reach your teens, then something is definitely wrong! 'I want to see you, dont you want to see me?' demands Howard, knee-deep in alienation- 'I've lost my way in my feelings'. Magazine's talented guitarist, John Mcgeoch, was the biggest discovery among an embarrassment of riches musician-wise, and here he holds his own with a variety of stabbing, searing passages.
After Shot By Both Sides (already discussed) we have Recoil, with its rotating snare-drum, clever phased guitar and manic vocal from Howard on the breakout, punky verses. 'You scratch my back and I grow claws, falling in love awkwardly'. In true punk fashion the song lasts for hardly two minutes, ending in a stop-start fade of additional buzzes and sparks.
Magazine were to the New Wave what Roxy Music had been to the earlier 70's: elegant power, literate narratives, atmospheric arrangements, brilliant musicianship. Roxy without the Romanticism, you could say. This is illustrated nowhere better than the next two tracks on Real Life: Burst and Motorcade. Lush, grand guitar ushers in some economical tom-tom work from the drummer, Martin Jackson, who would be replaced by John Doyle after this album. Howard steps up to the microphone and begins his sarcastic put-down: 'all the straws you clutched at have burst into flames'. A traditional rock guitar solo of yearning melancholy is followed by the fade, with Devoto warning, 'you will forget yourself'.
And now one of the truly great tracks, Motorcade. Starting with tinkling, high, cold-war keyboard notes over booming drums and Mcgeoch's stately, imperious guitar, Devoto describes a bizarre scenario in a voice rendered spooky beyond measure by reverse-delay. 'Shadows flicker sweet and tame, dancing like crazy mourners' until, 'moving like a snake in a closet, holding sway in the boulevard' comes the motorcade of the title. The ghost of Kennedy is invoked as: 'me and the rest of the world await the touch of the motorcade'. As the grassy-knoll goes by in a blur, a shot rings out and the pace deadens- 'in the back of his car, into the null and void, he shoots'. John Mcgeoch, a Jimmy Page for the New Wave (seemingly a contradiction in terms) gives us another fantastic guitar solo, making two or three chords go a long way.
The circus is in town! Spiralling, trebly organ and oompah-oompah bass introduces The Great Beautician In The Sky, like something out of an old Batman comic, the Joker grinning beneath a clown's pancake. 'Laughter staggers on' Devoto snarls, stretching the words into exaggerated directions. 'The brave and bold weep', he slurrs drunkenly, the organ piping its Mr. Kite-isms, until it all suddenly falls away and the next, quicker section gets underway. 'Everyone is irresistible!' thanks to The Great Beautician In The Sky, a cynical tirade aimed at the religious brigade, which climaxes with a simple schoolyard rhyme: 'roses are red violets are blue'.
The penultimate track is one of the classic Magazine songs, the awesome The Light Pours Out Of Me. Arrangement is the key element here, with everything in place, nothing cluttered; intelligent thinking and basic good taste means that a tense, cinematic atmosphere is established immediately by thudding snare and bass drums, then the bubbling, ominous bass, followed by the prowling grandeur of Mcgeochs astounding guitar lines. 'Times flies, time crawls like an insect up and down the walls'. With this superb line tossed in as a throwaway, Devoto sets the scene for a nightmare of power, dynamics and sheer menace. The drums never let up. High, reedy synth helps maintain the feeling of all-pervading dread. 'It jerks out of me, like blood, in this still life, heart beats up love'.
After recovering from that magnificent track, we come to the end of this exceptional debut album, with Parade, which fades in with European piano and synthesizer. 'We've been praying for a brighter and clever hell' he sings in his deadpan manner. The track is augmented by a bluesy saxophone and double-tracked keyboards, making it probably the most traditional-sounding of these songs. 'Sometimes I forget that we're supposed to be in love'. A pretty detached statement, I'd say. And this was only the first Magazine album! A David Bowie for the punk generation, Howard Devoto was and remains one of the most underrated men on earth.
SJ review No.4 The B52's