|I know beauty and I know a good thing when I see it|
music, Magazine, bedroom romantics; plus coffee, nostalgia, good graphics and dreams of God
In the early summer of 1982, in a basement club on Baker Street, London, I met the singer Howard Devoto. Our encounter was brief and never to be repeated.
It was Monday night. The band Dislocation Dance were playing on a small stage under dim lights, featuring a trumpet in an extended line-up. The venue had a low ceiling, exposed concrete piers, and doesn’t exist any longer. (It might be a cinema these days – but I can’t tell.) I think my memory is accurate in putting Devoto in a black bomber jacket, skinny jeans and white footwear; while my outfit included a patterned vintage American shirt bought earlier that evening from Flip on Long Acre in Covent Garden.
I walked up to Howard and asked for a light and he appraised this callow, un-introduced stranger – an expectant cigarette hanging from my lips – and said, No. His expression was not very friendly. Best you could call it is indifferent. I said a redundant thank you and slowly shuffled off sideways, back to my friend – who was watching from the edge of the scattered audience. That was the sum of my meeting with Howard.
The friend was laughing at my feeble retreat from the indie rock luminary. He was pretty much wetting himself, in fact. But then we’d had several drinks and powders by this late stage, and he had noticeably passed sober a long way back.
We were both of us first years attending a university an hour from London, in a town not far from the sea. We’d travelled to the big city that afternoon – up on the train, with cans for the journey. We took speed for the first time, doing our debut line together in the carriage toilet. We were excited and laughed and blew some of the powder on the toilet floor.
We got the speed from a second year who came up with us to London. The second year was friends with a guitarist in a fringe band who we hooked up with at the club. It turned out the guitarist knew Devoto. And after the two had finished chatting, I seized my moment with Howard.
Devoto was lead singer and lyricist for Magazine from 1977 to 1981. (He also wrote some of the music.) Magazine were a cult Manchester band who made critically valued records that mainly sold poorly. The pop writer Paul Morley once called Howard Devoto ‘The Most Important Man Alive’. Hyperbole isn’t guaranteed to age well, but a lot of the band’s music has, with tracks such as You Never Knew Me, Parade and Philadelphia still quite beautiful, troubling and modern.
Although their output was variable, like the weather, for a while – certainly for two LPs – Magazine were immaculate. The band created an un-classifable sound laced with abstruse lyrics concerning consciousness, power, alienation and the absurd. The Magazine sound blent several of the compound sub-genres music critics reach for in moments of non-clarity – post-punk, prog-punk, avant-pop, avant-funk, art-funk, jazz-metal.
It’s a taxonomy tile game; music sub-genre bingo. But then deadwood phrases are hard to dodge if you’re conjuring something beyond words. After all, Magazine’s skewed beauty is not easily described and Devoto’s brainy stanzas deliver their meanings obliquely. For this, and all kinds of other reasons, their music had a significant impact on my developing mind. During a key period, through late adolescence into early adulthood, Magazine were top of the pile in the upper vault of my personal pantheon – looking down on Joy Division and Roxy Music even; Talking Heads, Scritti Politti, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Scott Walker, Eno, Marvin Gaye and Frank Sinatra.
The idea of hero worship has never sat well – not with my ego. Better to describe it like this: Devoto was an accomplished artist of influence, while I was the young listener; the very close, very invested, young listener.
Being in the same space as Howard was definitely a moment for the 19-year-old me. It was important that I say something clever and meaningful. But as I closed in on Devoto, a brain disruption took hold. A flash memory reared up and swallowed my head. I was back at a youth club disco five years earlier, in a church hall in East Ham. Back to that terrible moment when I stupidly approached the best looking girl in the building and asked for a dance.
She was wearing a glittery boob tube. She was a bit older than me and out for the night with a gang of girlfriends, many of them also wearing boob tubes. But she was the one who stood out. I’d noticed her several times through the evening. She was dazzling.
She was dazzling – and I wasn’t. Regrettably, this was a time in my life in which I’d started reading books where sometimes the lead character did reckless, out-of-his-league things that didn’t necessarily backfire badly, or leave him feeling rotten. Boldly I decided to transfer the lessons of literature into a real world situation. I weaved through the crowd and asked the dazzling beauty to slow-dance with me. And she burst out laughing.
I had no choice but to immediately swivel round and withdraw. Returning to the wallflower borders of the crowded dance floor, I looked back and saw the girl pointing me out to her friends, all of them in stitches.
A stinging rejection like this could hold you back in life. (It might also sour a burgeoning relationship with stupid fiction, and its useless, unrealistic ideas.) Certainly the bad memory swamped me momentarily at a crux moment, stopping my thinking self from constructing something outstanding to say to Howard in my five second opening. I should’ve wooed with insightful commentary on his words and music. Or serenaded with an unexpected take on existence, twisted desire, hegemony… something. I asked instead for a light.
|All police leave has been cancelled/We always imagine we’re being followed|
Several years passed by, as is their way. Now that I was all grown up, I occasionally wrote book reviews for a weekly news magazine. One spring week the editor passed me a contemporary state-of-the-nation novel for a solus review. The ambitious, state-of-the-nation novel interleaved Magazine lyrics as chapter headings. I didn’t love the novel and explained why not in eight hundred words. Two days after the piece came out, I got a letter from the reviewed author, who was a quite prominent figure on the young literary scene, thanking me for my critical observations. I assumed he was being sarcastic.
He asked me to call him. I dialled his number out of curiosity, braced for an ear attack. But he wasn’t cross, just grateful, he said, that I’d engaged with his novel, with its ideas and his style of writing – whereas all the other write-ups had been vengeful kill jobs by rivals he’d previously reviewed unfavourably.
We agreed to meet for a drink. But the conversation didn’t flow. We sat side by side in a pub in Finsbury, scratching around for things to discuss. I blurted about the Magazine references in his book. Yes, he said flatly, I know Howard.
He didn’t say, You’re fan too? What an amazing band! Didn’t Devoto write astounding lyrics? No, he just plainly stated without elaborating that he and Howard were mates. I foolishly responded with my story about asking Devoto for a match. Now that I was thirty, I considered it a charming anecdote. I assumed the author would smile wryly at the folly of fandom and youth, and this would help us to bond. Sometimes we abase ourselves in the hope of long term benefit. But the anecdote felt abject and our one evening together soon petered out. (A year later, the author was on the Booker Prize jury. He recorded a video diary for BBC’s Late Review on the sheer burden of reading all those books. I can’t say I felt a great amount of sympathy.)
|I had liberty of movement|
Last week I bought a book – the only book written on Magazine that I know of. I didn’t want to buy this book, not really. I didn’t expect to like it much and have never been a completist. Everything that is special about Magazine’s music is within me now, years of meaning and memory laid down in sediments. How could another person’s words sloshing about in my head prove desirable?
The book did look rather attractive on the website though. The publisher used the same graphic designer from the Magazine record sleeves – Malcolm Garrett, still the master after all these years. I felt my resolve weakening. The allure had always been visual as well as aural. Maybe acting like a completist for a change could be a positive variation – do the reading, you know. So I pressed buy.
The book is delivered to work, like all of my shopping. Magazine: The Biography of the Band by Helen Chase (2009). I get a call from the post room. The usual routine, if it’s clothes, is to collect the package and head straight to the disabled toilet for a try out in front of the full-size mirror. This time, however, I take the parcel out for a coffee.
Hmm, where to go for my coffee, here in the heart of the world’s most diverse city? Well, there is Pret. And then there’s Pret. And, of course, there is also Pret. There are in fact six Prets less than a minute’s walk from my office. In retail planning this is called clustering – you can have any coffee you like, so long as it’s Pret. I think I’ll go to Pret.
I mentally set course for my chosen branch; the quiet one – left, round the corner and across the street. The traffic is heavy and instantly I’ve got London in my throat. There’s a dead phone box on the corner and it makes me think of last night’s reading in bed. I’m three quarters through Karl-Ove Knausgaard’s Some Rain Must Fall. It’s Book Five in the Norwegian’s cycle of non-fiction novels, with Karl-Ove now in his late 20s and struggling to make it as a writer. He just can’t find the words. All his literary friends are getting book deals, while Karl-Ove’s getting drunk and going nowhere.
Then finally inspiration lands when the young novelist watches from a cafe as a young woman gets off her bike. Describing her simple actions in ordinary language unlocks his voice. He swiftly maps out his debut novel. The story includes a quirky vignette. The young protagonist walks past a phone box, and on a whim, he goes inside and dials the number for the family home from when he was ten – the property his parents sold on divorcing. The phone rings three times before his ten-year-old self picks up – and the two Karl-Ove’s have a chat about their life so far.
I arrive to Pret. Less than sixty seconds. The automatic door swings open with a slow fart sound. It’s mid morning, empty and quiet. There’s no queue. I order my coffee and pay with my phone. (I like paying for stuff using my phone.) I take the coffee to a window seat in the far corner, where the lighting is dim, and open the package.
The book feels expensive, deluxe and heavy as it slides from the cardboard sleeve. The cover is green and black and white and very much in the style of Garrett’s previous design work for Magazine. (Garrett’s graphics firm Assorted iMaGes also provided visuals for Simple Minds, Buzzcocks and Duran Duran.) The paper is thick and glossy. There are bunches of photos as well as reproductions of band posters, tickets and flyers pulled up from the archive – I imagine a dusty shoebox under Devoto’s bed.
The extensive end-pages feature band bios, a detailed recording history, lyrics, discography, and a chronology of the band. The main text describes the life and times of Magazine and concludes with the band retaking the stage for a series of live reunion shows in 2009.
|the ‘most important man alive’ only lost his tie|
The story goes like this. Howard Devoto (born Howard Trafford) grew up in Leeds and moved to Lancashire to go to college. In early 1976, Howard Devoto (still Howard Trafford) was studying philosophy in Bolton. He saw an ad in a music paper warning of the imminent arrival of a new kind of rock band: ‘Don’t look over your shoulder, the Sex Pistols are coming.’
Howard feels the tug of history. He borrows a friend’s car and drives to High Wycombe to see the Pistols live. Howard is inspired by what he sees. ‘It seemed an interesting bunch of elements: aggression, sexuality, the name of the group, that line “We’re not into music, we’re into chaos”.’
The next night Howard goes to see the Pistols again. This time it’s in Welwyn Garden City. He then takes an entrepreneurial punt. He seeks out the band’s manager, Malcolm McLaren, and books the group to play in Manchester.
The Sex Pistols played Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall on June 4, 1976. This now legendary punk event attracted a modest audience, but one that included several curious misfits off the local scene – Morrissey, Ian Curtis (Joy Division), Tony Wilson of Factory Records and Mark E Smith from The Fall.* This brings to mind what Brian Eno once said about the poor early sales of the Velvet Underground’s Banana album, which shifted just a few thousand units: ‘but everyone who bought one… started a band.’ Or, as Paul Morley wrote thirty years after the legendary Manchester gig, ‘Johnny Rotten was like a psychotic lecturer explaining to these avant-garde music fans exactly what to do with their love for music, the things they wanted to say, and their unknown need to perform.’
When The Sex Pistols visited Manchester six weeks later for a return show at the same venue, the support act was a new local band called Buzzcocks, featuring on vocals Howard Devoto (no longer Trafford); and playing lead guitar, his best mate Pete Shelley (previously Pete McNeish).
Within six months Devoto and Shelley had borrowed £500 and done something incredible. They self-funded the recording and manufacture of one of the first ever independent records (no record company was involved). The EP was called Spiral Scratch and it sold tons of copies and became a minor hit. By then, however, Devoto had already left the Buzzocks, swiftly bored with the ‘unrelenting nature’ of punk as a creative straitjacket.
‘Tired of noise and short of breath’, Devoto returned to college in a bid to complete his degree. ‘I didn’t really like punk any more; it had got aesthetically ugly.’
In May 1977, Howard Devoto advertised for musicians to join him in a new project ‘to perform and record fast and slow music.’ He recruited a funky bass player called Barry Adamson; the cathedral keyboards of Dave Formula, who’d previously played cocktail piano in a hotel bar; and John McGeoch’s jagged, complex lead guitar. After a few false starts, John Doyle landed on drums. All of the players had virtuoso tendencies. McGeoch had epic riffs and Adamson brought melody and dance to his bass-lines, while Formula’s piano had an ornamental drama, covering the waterfront from jaunty to ethereal to moody. By record three, the band’s aesthetic peak with The Correct Use of Soap, they were produced by Formula’s flat mate, the unique and quirky Martin Hannett (who also produced Joy Division), a man who could shape sounds in space, his sonics built out of gaps, echoes, sharp lines and absence.
I take a sip of coffee, and Sweetheart Contract, off The Correct Use of Soap, starts playing in my head as I gaze through the window.
We drank from cups on standard issue sofas under scaffolding
Informed sources said we were seen by observers, at some meeting
A young woman on a silver bike pulls up outside the window. She’s wearing a matching silver helmet. The bike is a racer and looks light and easy to handle. I watch the woman fix the bike to the side of the railings at the edge of the pavement, using a U-lock she pulls from a fancy sand and charcoal saddle bag. She removes the silver helmet and sorts her hair and puts the helmet in the saddle bag and walks into Pret.
I wormed my way to the heart of the crowd
I was shocked to find what was allowed
Magazine officially launched to fanfare and fascination in January 1978. Their debut single was Shot By Both Sides, with its dramatic guitar line and chorus, plus a galloping middle eight. The bold energy of the song saw critics swoon, proclaiming in unison the dawning of a new era for punk, for music in general, and even, perhaps, for all humanity.
The record swiftly climbed to the lower reaches of the singles chart. Top of The Pops invited the band onto the show, but Howard turned them down. They asked again a fortnight later and this time he agreed. Devoto worried about being seen as a sell out. His head wasn’t straight on the night of the show and he delivered a dire performance. He pancaked his face in pale make up and stood statue-still for the duration of the song. It wasn’t a moment of rebellion, but frozen confusion – not so much shot by both sides, as caught between two stools. It didn’t look good. There were people watching at home who wondered if the singer was suffering some kind of fit.
Ordinarily, a slot on Top of the Pops was prime promotion guaranteed to give your single a major boost. For Magazine however the reverse occurred – the single actually dropped out of the top thirty and sales stalled. Had the band’s one shot at bigness been squandered? Magazine never returned to Top of the Pops and didn’t ever trouble the charts again.
But any regrets, or might haves, were slow to rise. In the early days of Magazine the expectation was of greatness round the corner. Howard was a face on the scene with a striking attitude. He was a walking cult – smart, sharp, modern. Interviewers found him aloof and difficult to read, ‘leaving them convinced he knew something they didn’t,’ writes Simon Reynolds – who also describes the Devoto of 1978 as ’Glam mysterioso’. (I know, I’m not sure either. But it sounds fun.)
Devoto was actually swimming in confusion at this time, putting on a front while struggling to know what to think. ‘It’s one of the most difficult places to live,’ he confessed in an interview, ‘making the paradoxical and contradictory the focal point of your life, just holding on to them and making them dance.’
The inner turbulence and cocksure exterior was part of Devoto’s glamour. A well-read sceptic, his lyrics mainlined alienation, flaunting a library of Penguin Modern Classics for back-up – Dostoyevsky, Camus, Kafka, Huysmans, Beckett… all the usual upsets. He said he wanted ‘to explore other places, and for those other places to take me to more other places.’
|I used to make phantoms I could later chase|
These were the harvest years for indie’s literary dandies, name dropping and paraphrasing, turning out three minute novels set to music: Joy Division, Orange Juice, Josef K, The Cure, The Fall, The Smiths – all the smart ones were doing it. Devoto transcribed Notes from the Underground, Dostoyevsky’s feverish novella concerning a perplexed nihilist juggling toothache and black thoughts. Devoto called his adaptation A Song from Under the Floorboards. The song begins with a power riff up there with the opening to Shot By Both Sides, the keyboard and rhythm section in harness, escalating forcibly towards Devoto’s dramatic opening declaration: ‘I am angry, I am ill, and I’m as ugly as sin.’
I’ve got a grey T shirt at home with these lyrics on the front – stylishly rendered in a Malcom Garrett typeface. The song’s revelations continue: ‘I know the Meaning of Life, it doesn’t help me a bit.’ In my kitchen at home I have a tea mug with these words pasted on the side in black and yellow. Here’s a picture.
It’s strictly a tea mug, not coffee. I ordered the mug and the T shirt at the time of the Magazine reunion of 2009-2011. The mug was a surprising selection, but I feel it’s worked out well for me.
This meaning of life lyric must have drilled deep into the Annoying Son’s head during this time. (He was ten or eleven.) A year later at school he had a woodwork project in Product Design. The brief was to make a wooden box with a lid featuring an inscription. The teacher said it should be a gift for a parent and to carve some words you think they’d like or find meaningful. ‘Love you, Dad’, was probably what the teacher had in mind. But I got better than that. I got a beautiful wooden box – to store keys and loose change – with a lid featuring a ring of Howard’s words, enclosed by a jagged spiral halo that could almost be a heart reading from an electrocardiogram.
I keep the wooden box near the front door. And the meaning of life is this: that in the case of an emergency, the box is coming with me down the fireman’s ladder.
From 1978 through to spring 1981, Magazine settled into the usual pop life pattern: write songs, rehearse songs, record songs. Promote record, tour. Come off tour, write songs, rehearse songs, record songs… Their music developed and grew. But the sales didn’t happen. And gradually, then suddenly, the band ran out of momentum and Howard walked. He broke up the band on the eve of the release of their fifth studio LP, Magic, Murder and the Weather. ‘The weather’s variable, so I move.’
I could love you out of weakness/Is that what I was afraid of?
The words come from Stuck, off side two of The Correct Use of Soap. The question posed is one we could ask not only of a lover, but equally our cultural attachments. This Magazine love affair, an involvement that’s lasted decades, where did it derive from, and what was (or is) its true substance?
It has already been established that the passionate regard wasn’t mutual, given the way Howard snubbed me in Baker Street. No, this wasn’t personal, but aesthetic. So my query is, was the music objectively, undoubtedly good – were Magazine a pure manifestation of something brilliant? Or did the adolescent listener blow them out of proportion?
For many years I stopped listening to Magazine. (Maybe we were on a break – but also I sold all my records in my early twenties and moved abroad.) And then the long lay off ended through a renewed attachment via CDs and downloads (Yes, yes, poor substitutes for the original vinyl). And the shock – and comfort – was how good it all sounded.
I met your lover yesterday/Wearing some things I left at your place/Singing a song that means a lot to me
And then Magazine returned for a reunion tour after 28 years away – and as the Guardian observed, ‘What’s striking is not only that they sound fantastic, but how contemporary their 30-year-old material seems… That their records sounded timeless and unique to start with.’
But was the journalist being critically balanced, or swept up in the swell of sentiment? Can we ever divide taste from nostalgia? Especially if the original bond was formed at an impressionable age – perhaps the most impressionable age of all, that is, the bedroom romantic years.
Back to the adolescent’s bedroom we tread: the sovereign space where our descent down the long slide begins – a journey into ideas and self definition. The instar phase between old and new states of being, the transforming teenager, as Rebecca Solnit observes, ‘urgently constructing a persona to confront the world.’ This is heavy, serious work. It could take a lifetime to fully play out.
The first admission is that I was not an entry-level Magazine fan. I didn’t flip for Shot By Both Sides. (Still don’t.) I came to the band late, towards the end of their story, in the winter of 1980. The gateway record was Magazine’s fourth LP. This is embarrassingly sluggish, given they released a total of five.** But it gets worse. Not only was I slow to the show, but my first exposure was a live LP. This is nearly as bad as getting acquainted via a band’s greatest hits; which is not very cool at all.
At the time of its release, the write-up in the NME dismissed the live record as ‘pure filler’ between proper studio albums – a cynical ploy by the band to gouge money from vulnerable fans; the sort of crass, grasping, fat-cat record company trick punk supposedly banished. And yet the purchase of Play remains one of the most significant cultural moments in my life. The ‘pure filler’ that set my cheeks on fire.
I flip to the discogaphy at the rear of the book, run my finger down the track listing for Play: ten songs; forty four minutes…
Suddenly a woman’s voice sounds in my ear, interrupting the obsessive thinking.
Pasta and tuna bake.
I turn to look. It’s the silver bike woman. She’s next table down, talking into her phone.
Yeah, pasta and tuna bake.
She’s got a south London accent. She’s younger than I thought. I look away and listen to her telling the phone, a friend, about her day so far. She’s being full-frontal ordinary and it’s mesmeric. She says she was up at six. That she cooked dinner before leaving home at eight. Pasta and tuna bake. This way, her younger siblings will have food waiting for them after school. They can pop it in the micro. Their parents won’t be home until later. She declares the pasta’s really good. She says she’s brought a portion with her in a Tupperware. She’s just come from college, an early lecture, and is going to work after this coffee. She says she’ll eat the pasta as a late lunch, mid-afternoon probably. After a full shift at work, she’s going back to college to study at the library and hopes to go out later with friends. Maybe they could meet after? So, it’s a possible date she’s talking to. I didn’t realise at first. I thought it was a mate. But not a fresh date – this sounds like a third or fourth meeting. There are no traces of coy in her voice. She’ll be free from eleven, she says. That’s almost twelve hours to go. I’m exhausted just listening to the itinerary.
She says she has to go now – Later! – and abruptly bins the call. She jumps up and waves at a young woman who’s just come inside. (Did she also get the fart from the door?) The women rush to each other and hug. The bike woman touches her friend’s cheek fondly. The friend goes to the counter to get a drink and I return to my book. I’ll have to go back to work soon.
Play was released in December 1980 and purchased from a independent record shop on Green Street, Upton Park. The first temptation was the look, not the music. The front sleeve for Play features a photograph of the band taken at a London rehearsal studio. The photo is deliberately grainy and blurry with a diffuse flash of light refracting across the rear brick wall. As the artist Linder Sterling once observed, ‘Magazine had everything to do with a quality of light. How do you best show light?’
In the photo, the band are at rest – ironic for a live LP. They are not on stage or playing their instruments – also ironic for an LP called Play. The photo is suspended in a thin blue border framed by a big surround of clear white. Malcolm Garrett deployed an austere, modernist layout with quantities of empty space, using a typeface that is ‘neither classic nor purely modernist.’ The chosen look is a ‘play’ on the artwork of Garrett’s design contemporary Peter Saville, at Factory Records (the man behind the austere, funereal Joy Division record sleeves). But also ‘a play on the cleanliness of the typography he [Saville] might have used’.
|Joy Division artwork by Peter Saville|
The rear sleeve, the inside label, the track listings, the personnel, production details and credits, all of this has been rendered in the same stylish typeface. Every mark counts. (Even the full stop after ‘Play.’ which begs to be interrogated: What are you doing there? Why?) Garrett was a new breed of designer in music artwork, where every aspect of graphical content was treated with care, using the sleeve information, from the name of the engineer, to the prominent catalogue number, as integral parts of the visual proposition. This was the message being transmitted; and there I was late at night in my East Ham bedroom, receiving the signal. I would play the record and look at the art work. And look again. And look some more. In ways that I now find inexplicable and almost suspect, I was transfixed by this cult object.
I will never return to that precocious, intense state of mind. (This is mainly welcome but also disappointing.) No matter, the early stages of this Magazine love story involved this prolonged intense gaze, a repeated appraisal of Play’s cover art, reading the minimal text, trying to unlock something from the basic credits: ‘Produced by Magazine and John Brand’. ‘Recorded at Melbourne Festival Hall, 6th September 1980.’ ‘Engineer – John Brand’ ‘Stage – Malfunctions’. These words, the sharp typography, the deliberateness, the graphic display, all of it seemed to hint at much more than the bland surface information being communicated – cargo meanings I thought one might decipher, but failed to. The indefinable signals were part of the glamour. We live beyond our perceptions. Language cannot contain all that we are. And mystery and irresolution are the best that art can be.
So, after all of the above, I think we can agree that Play had become hugely loaded with projected yearning, before we’d even put the record on.
Look, no strings, look, no strings, look no visible means… of support.
Okay, so finally to the music. Sit up – because we’re about to listen up.
Needle to the groove… Crackle, crackle, small distant boom, then voice: ‘And now… three little words.’
Track one, Give Me Everything. Guitar squawks, bass rumbles, keyboards spiral, with synth and bursts of Hammond organ combined. Then bring on the nasal vocals.
You’re gonna give me immunity
You’re gonna receive punishment
I’m gonna lose myself in you
Because you’re not quite of this world
So, no lagging. We are pitched immediately and headlong into turmoil – impasto daubs of desire, alienation, power and psychic dissolution. Four minutes and thirty seconds later, Give Me Everything concludes with the repeated press: I Beg of You, I Beg of You, I Beg of You.
I’m seventeen, raw and uncooked. I don’t know a thing. Certainly not my place. I even pick the wrong women at the disco. And now I’ve gone and opened a box of oddball delights. Listening on my candlewick bedspread, I’m struggling to get this processed.
But there’s no time to linger. We’re already into track two, to the widescreen brilliance of the keyboard and guitar intro to A Song From Under Floorboards. Devoto lurks at the mic in the role of the underground man of lesser qualities, where the brightest jewel inside of me/Glows with pleasure at my own stupidity.
Next up, for track three, it’s Permafrost – I will drug you and fuck you (blimey!) – followed by the Kafkaesque noodlings on time and decline with The Light Pours Out of Me.
Devoto is not by any stretch a great singer. The pipes aren’t dulcet – this is no place for melodious pop baritones to warble. Instead Howard has great timing, swagger, presence, and some deadpan lines threading the songs together. The concluding track of side one is, we are informed, ‘a song with real moral fibre’. It’s Model Worker – I’m sick of working on the land/I wanna work with machines and look handsome – a song which manages, somehow, to hook Ronald Reagan to Gramsci’s hegemony in a single snippy lyric.
So, that’s side one, and well, it’s been dark and quirky and beautiful and clever – and a bit breathless. Time to get up and turn the record over. To boldly explore the other side…
Slowly from the scratchy rotating silence rises a piano – a gorgeous isolated echoey keyboard refrain, repeating and developing as it grows in volume. The piano intro is a miniature Satie. The track is called Parade.
The full song begins as the electric piano switches to organ, with a drunk Addams-family Wurlitzer matched to a guitar line that John Barry might have written. Devoto starts to sing about an experiment and a man in hell: I think we’ve been forced to our knees, but I can’t tell. And soon it’s the chorus, where the Devoto motif of miscommunication between lovers continues:
Sometimes I forget, that we’re supposed to be in love, sometimes I forget my position
Sometimes I forget, that we’re supposed to be in love, sometimes I forget my position
From first hearing the swooning piano entrée to scaling Parade’s bitter, romantic chorus, I think the world actually turned for me. Not everyone is going to listen and hear or feel the same. But even this afternoon, as I return to Parade, I am delivered back to the clutch moment in my life when sound first lifted me off my feet.
Verse two continues with variations of doubt, What on earth is the size of my life? The towering chorus repeats. And after this a curious thing occurs. (Of course it does.) The song abruptly stops. All that’s left is a single extended bass note in the auditorium, followed by silence. And then Howard breaks the silence, to speak of his current – albeit imaginary – situation, his alter ego stranded in an Edward Hopper painting, alone in space, ‘And my position… is somewhere between the waitress and her… table,’ he says ‘…. But the service is very, very good.’
This casual line would become imprinted on my brain through the countless repeat listenings down the years. A throwaway piece of idle chatter from a poseur that just lodged there. And then in 2011, at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, watching from the balcony, wondering how they’d perform Parade after all this time, they did it again – hard stop, the flange of bass, ‘and my position is… STILL somewhere between the waitress and her… table.’
Oh, this was everything. For several moments, this was all. The collapse of decades. The ecstasy of return. The glimpse of a shared understanding. A pleasure which left me scrabbling for the right words, grabbing for something, I don’t know, epiphany, bliss, something peak and metaphysical. But the words, they didn’t, they don’t do it. Really, what I’m saying is that the moment was personal.
As Parade gradually plays to its conclusion, Howard speaks of ‘small mercies’ as a cue for the band to launch into a squelchy, lubricious cover of Sly and the Family Stone’s Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin). The subtitle’s rococo phonetics never caught on.
The lovers’ torment continues on track eight with the minatory Because You’re Frightened, as the swift live show heads towards a finale with a joined up Twenty Years Ago – You turn pandemonium/Into pantomime for one – and the undulant Definive Gaze. The segue opens with distorted bass under a disturbed, angry guitar spitting random sparks and squalls, and a rolling piano middling out the mix. On top of all this, Howard is perilously, existentially stranded ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea’, his head spinning in a dodgy location ‘where the Roubles are doing, international, gymnastics…’ And yet, with an end in sight, the realisation dawns that confusion could be a kind of coming together, ‘now I’m lost in shock, your face fits perfectly.’
And then the show is done. Finished. Thank You, Good Night. Exit Stage.
|min kamp continues|
I close the Magazine book. The jacket’s tight grid of green and black lines dance at the corner of my eye, so I tuck it out of view as I tune back into the world – the world as it is around me, and not as it bounces up and down in my head.
The young woman and her friend are talking fast and quiet, but then occasionally loud, cutting through the stillness. The friend mutters something. The young woman shrieks back – No way! I’m not a skank.
They both laugh. Then whisper. But the tone suddenly switches to weighty. The silver bike woman’s voice rises several notches as she clearly, unambiguously says something that throws me off. The silver bike woman reveals that she had ‘a wonder dream’ last night.
Not a ‘wonderful dream’, she clarifies, but a ‘wonder dream’.
I dreamed about God. There was a miraculous event, she says.
What do you mean?
She describes being lifted off the ground by God and blessed for eternity.
No way! says the friend.
My eyes bulge at the last of my coffee. Yeah, No way! This is a strange moment of coincidence sent by random life. Really peculiar, in fact. Not because someone had a celestial dream. But because the young Knausgaard narrates a quite similar vision in Some Rain Must Fall. The dreams in his books often act as presentiments of transformation. This particular dream of salvation occurs just before he finds his voice as a writer. I read it two nights ago, and re-read the passage just now:
I awoke in the darkness a few hours later from the most fantastic dream I’d ever had.
I sat up and laughed to myself.
I had been walking down the road outside our house in Tybakken.
Suddenly there was a roar from above the earth. The noise was deafening, I knew there had never been such a roar before, it rolled across the sky like thunder, though infinitely louder.
It was God’s voice.
I stopped and looked at the sky.
And then I was raised up!
I was raised up to the sky!
What a feeling it was. The roar, the majesty of God’s presence and then the incredible moment when I was raised up. It was a moment of peace and perfection, joy and happiness.
I lay down again.
OK, so it was only a dream. But the feeling, that was real. I had really felt it. What a shame I had been asleep when I felt it, but now I knew it existed anyway, I thought, closed my eyes and dived into sleep, hoping something even more fantastic was in store for me.
No way, repeats the friend tersely, with a near-angry repudiation.
Don’t mess, girl. That’s my faith.
I know it’s you faith. I’m not messing. I’m just telling you what I dreamed.
But you. You’re not religious, why did this happen? Why are you dreaming my stuff?
I don’t choose my dreams. We don’t, do we?
This is too strange.
It’s only sleep stuff.
But the friend is right. This is too strange. In an interview at the time of the release of Real Life, Howard Devoto described Magazine’s songs as being ‘as complete a picture of confusion as I can put together’ for ‘people who might sit in the corner of a café very quietly going out of their minds’.
Hold on a moment. I think of my position – somewhere between the window and the corner of the cafe – and quickly get up and leave. I must get back to the office. Some work to still my head.
I walk past the derelict phone box. All this dialogue with the younger self – why do we do it so much? I must figure this out. (Maybe next time.)
For now though, it has to hurt going to church your whole life, only for a non-believer to get the vision of rapture. That’s my dream, but you had it instead. Thanks a million.
Knausgaard didn’t have a religious upbringing, but has written stories about angels, and also consulted on a new translation of The Bible. My parents resumed with God when I was a teen, following many years away from the fold during a prolonged tryst with communism. But they didn’t talk about religion exactly, just the people at their church. It felt social, not spiritual.
Late one night towards the end of my life at home, I was in my bedroom listening to music. By now, all of my siblings had taken off and quit the nest. It was just me and my parents. I was mainly running my own life. Just like the Annoying Son now schedules his days. My parents were asleep in bed. I had the music on incredibly loud, listening through the headphones. It was Permafrost – the cranky song with the repeated drugging and fucking in the tundra.
The headphones came unplugged, but I didn’t realise. And soon my dad stormed into the room wearing his pyjamas. But this time he didn’t get angry; or make a huge deal about something going wrong. He just asked me did I realise about the noise? But then recognised that obviously I didn’t realise. I turned the record off and apologised.
I think that in this moment, the way in which the comic scene played out between us, something larger was going on, a transference, and a letting go – I was free at last. My dad was almost mild, I sensed the ending of something powerful, something that had dominated my life since pre-memory.
In Boyhood Island, a teenage Knausgaard celebrates being liberated from the oppressive presence of his father by playing Magazine full blast on the family stereo. He listens to Play. ‘The bass was making the walls vibrate.’
His older brother comes home unexpectedly and says the house is shaking and turn it down!
|oblong, oval, chevrons, spears|
Magazine first toured the USA through the late summer of 1979. The road trip was extensive, featuring thirty three shows. As they arrived on the West Coast, after a long drive from Texas, Devoto leaned of his father’s death, back home in the UK. His family urged him to complete the tour.
Three days later, Devoto met a woman in California and fell in love. His new lover was called Laura Teresa. She bought him a book by the psychoanalyst Theodor Reik. The volume included a piece called Of Love and Lust, in which Reik suggests that people often tumble head over heels in moments of emotional crisis – ‘of suffering being caused by craving,’ as Devoto describes it.
On his return to the UK, Devoto wrote You Never Knew Me, a plangent, confused love song with painful lyrics. Once again he identifies intimacy as a site of conflict and wreckage: You’re what keeps me alive, You’re what’s destroying me. But also ill communication: You think you’ve understood, you’re ignorant that way.
The new lover Laura Teresa came to the UK and contributed support vocals on the song, which is the pivotal track of side one of The Correct Use of Soap. ‘That was quite a lot about my relationship with Laura,’ admits Devoto concerning his acerbic lyrics, the lyrics she sang alongside him in the studio. ‘She had her own angle on it,’ he suggests. ‘She could make sense of it in her own way.’
Devoto’s relationship with Laura Teresa didn’t last – but she would also contribute backing vocals on the last Magazine LP, as well as Howard’s first solo recording.
During the years with Vela (Ex No2), in periods of discontent, I often found a triplet of lines from You Never Knew Me rising up inside. I’m not saying it’s all fair, or kind, but the words were insistent: You were hell/ And everything else was just a mess/ I found I’d stepped into the deepest unhappiness. The sentiment offered a bitter brand of consolation – you’re not alone.
|reader, he bought the T shirt|
I don’t often read books on music. There’s not that many who can write well on such a slippery subject. (Music criticism’s not an easy gig, as this piece no doubt demonstrates. You’re better off just listening to the record.) But I’ve read a couple of texts covering the post punk era and have often discussed with others the music of those fertile years. And although Magazine always get a nod of recognition, it’s usually just that, a nod, and little more. This has always struck me as an omission. As with Devoto’s lyrics, the band remain elusive. It feels that no one has ever done them the critical service they deserve.
I arrive back at the office and put my new Magazine book away in my rucksack for home. I clear some email, perform some other feats of paid labour, and then take out my headphones and watch a Magazine video on YouTube – Stuck: I’m stupid/I only know enough to get out of the rain.
From Stuck I click to another video, and then another – click, click, click. At the end of one of the songs, I scroll down the user comments as they load. A contributor weighs Devoto’s cultural value by speculating on his literary equivalent ‘Devoto was the Philip Roth of the New Wave.’ Well, not true really. But it’s a start….
|I knew he had a light!|
* It is possible Tony Wilson only made it to the second Sex Pistols show in Manchester. There are conflicting accounts from informed sources on this matter.
** Magazine released a sixth LP of original material in 2011. The return to the studio came towards the end of their reunion period, and was arguably, sadly, a misguided act.
Magazine: The Biography of the Band by Helen Chase (2009)
Simon Reynolds: Rip It Up and Start Again: Post Punk 1978-1984 (2005)
Rebecca Solnit: A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2006)
Karl-Ove Knausgaard: Some Rain Must Fall (2016)