I’ve just finished reading Helen Chase’s biography of my favourite band, Magazine. My experience as a fan began in the mid-1980s, when my younger brother introduced me to their music. It was, to say the least, an acquired taste, after my diet of early 1980s pop. Yet soon it had a hold of me: lead singer Howard Devoto’s towering lyrics and cold cerebral voice seemed scary, surreal, knowing, too private and personal, out of time – intellectually triumphant but emotionally struggling. Like sexuality, music has a power to transform early trauma and unhappiness into something pleasurable.
Devoto used his music to show us who he was and what art could be. It connected with me and I soon found myself on a mission to collect all the band’s vinyl. There were times when I would walk into a record shop and not want to listen to anything else. (I still put Magazine and Devoto in their own genre on my ipod, as there’s nothing else like it; they made it their own way.) I can remember pouring over Record Collector and going what seemed like half way across the country to find Adrian’s Record Shop in Wickford, Essex and procure some rare Magazine 12 inch singles, like I was on the trail of something fascinating.
My encounter with Magazine was therefore as alienated as they sounded, and a bit fetistishic too. In 1988, after Devoto had re-entered the music industry and formed Luxuria, we – my two brothers and I – went to see them play in Colchester. Although his music never lost its grip and I remained a fan for years, Devoto went AWOL again until he reunited with the band last year for some dates. Needless to say I was at the front in the Forum to greet them on their return. As a side note here, I was a bit shocked by the audience of boozed-up fifty-something skinheads who made up the bulk of the crowd, aside from a few intellectuals of various ages. Nevertheless, they were still great, and I even met Howard and keyboardist Dave Formula momentarily backstage at their Aftershow party in Manchester.
I mention all this because Chase’s biography presents a portrait of a band that I only ever really knew through their music, so it filled in some blanks for me. What is clear is that while Devoto was great for music, he was often bad for business, trying to prove his ego and refusing to play the game. One is never sure whether Devoto missed his mark or never really wanted the big time, but either way he made a few mistake that I want to explore, in hope that budding musicians out there might not make them too:
1) Insisting on doing everything differently, meant that Devoto screwed things up with his record company. The band had bad timing, purposely missing its first invitation to Top of The Pops. Devoto also made everyone pay to get in one showcase gig, a move hardly likely to endear him to the press or record company. To add to that, Magazine released one single without any promotion at all, and others within a very short space of time of each other, competing against themselves in effect. The only advice I can offer here is: by all means do it differently once you are very famous and selling heaps of records. In the meantime, like the art stay in the music and let the business operate around it as per usual.
2) Devoto’s intellectual games with the press eventually backfired on him. Reporters started referring to him as “Howie” (urgh) and describing him and his music as pretentious. I give Magazine props for never maximizing their market like the more anthemic Simple Minds did, even though it cost them commercially. Nevertheless, Devoto used his Buzzcocks ticket to the spotlight to begin biting the writing hand that fed him, and when it bit back he shrunk from publicity altogether.
3) Ignoring the trend and being too clever never really worked in Magazine’s favour. While their second album, ‘Secondhand Daylight,’ might just be my favourite record ever, it must have landed like an alien object in its day, as it completely ignored the plot. Of course, I don’t believe in plots either, but doing so made no commercial sense. Critics panned the album as “prog rock” and attempted to bury the group. It was way too bleak, up-close and intense to be prog, but that was an easy label to hand. The moral is that you have to check which way the wind is blowing if you don’t want it to blow you over.
4) Magazine’s gift was that they had a range of players, styles and personalities to temper and bring the best out of Devoto. They made edgy music for an edgy lead singer – compare some of the more mellow material on Luxuria’s second LP Beastbox, which killed Devoto’s art in my opinion (though not in his). There was a penduluos dynamic in the band between keyboards and guitar on each album, which meant that their genius guitarist John McGeogh – the man who put the avant-jazz into post-punk – felt creatively suppressed, so he left for the more popular Soiuxie and the Banshees, ripping the heart out of Magazine’s sound.
It’s interesting to compare the careers of Devoto and the German musician Blixa Bargeld, as I think Bargeld had the career that Devoto should have had, straddingly rock and the avant-garde with surprizing ease. With his interest in border crossings and feeding the enemy, maybe Howard was just born in the wrong country.