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Manchester music reviews

No Thyself by Magazine

No Thyself, Wire-Sound CD

by Denis Joe November 2011

 

Stop! When you cease to amaze me. (“Stuck”)

Punk began in 1976 - its initial location was London but with the release of The Buzzcocks EP, Spiral Scratch the focus moved to Manchester. A movement quickly sprung up that featured the likes of The Fall, The Drones, Warsaw (aka Joy Division), Ed Banger and the Nosebleeds, Slaughter and the Dogs and pop-poet, John Cooper Clarke.

 

The Manchester scene of the late 70s produced some of the greatest pop of that (or any) decade, and thankfully for me, many of these groups played in Birmingham or Wolverhampton. For pure magical, unashamed pop music there was the Buzzcocks. Howard Devoto left the band in 1977 and Pete Shelley took over as singer/lyricist, producing such gems as Orgasm Addict, What Do I Get?, I Don’t Mind and Ever Fallen In Love With Someone You Shouldn’t Have Fallen In Love With? For chin-strokers and other pseuds there were The Fall and Joy Division.

 

Devoto formed Magazine with art student John McGeoch. Eventually a band was formed consisting of Devoto – Vocals, McGeoch – Guitar, Barry Adamson – Bass and Martin Jackson – Drums. As long as early 1978 though, Punk was becoming a caricature of itself, and as youngsters we wanted to believe that there was still some life left in it. In February 1978 Virgin Records, who had signed up Magazine, released the group’s first single.

 

Fridays were the days when new releases reached the shops and it was also the end of a week of night shifts at Automotive Products for me and the routine was to get home, have a bath, change into clean clothes have breakfast and then take myself over to Virgin Records store in Coventry. Usually I would buy an LP and a few singles. When I got home that particular Friday I put the 7inch vinyl disc onto the turntable, switched the speed to 45 rpm, guided the stylus arm to the start of the record and within ten seconds of McGeoch’s guitar intro I knew that Punk was officially dead. Nobody was going to create anything as brilliant as Shot By Both Sides.

 

MagazineThe following Thursday the band played the single on Top Of The Pops and it is a piece of television history that has stayed with me ever since. Having helped give birth to the punk scene in Manchester, Devoto blew it apart with a four minute blast. A few months later the band released their highly acclaimed debut Real Life. Considered to be the first “post-punk” album it highlighted an eclectic set of influences, most notably the composer of Bond themes, John Barry.

 

The next four years saw three more studio albums: Secondhand Daylight, The Correct Use Of Soap and the grossly underrated Magic, Murder And The Weather as well as 8, era defining, singles. It also saw major changes in the line-up of the band, including John McGeoch who left to join Siouxsie and the Banshees, being disappointed with Magazine’s record sales. Whilst there is nothing in the story of the band to suggest anything like the acrimony that was a constant feature of The Fall; like Mark E. Smith, it could be said that Howard Devoto was Magazine. And so when he left the band after the completion of Magic, Murder And The Weather there was little point in carrying on under that name. Barry Adamson went on to build an impressive a solo career whilst the other members got themselves involved with other bands.

 

Devoto went on to record a solo album, Jerky Versions Of A Dream, and formed the band Luxuria in 1988, with Liverpool multi-instrumentalist Noko. They released two impressive albums and a music video for the single "Redneck". Devoto proved himself to be a one-off in the pop music world. Like Mark E. Smith, Devoto had a distinguishable sound to his voice. Unlike Mark E. Smith, who could become tiresome - like a comedian cracking the same punch line for every second joke - Devoto is a talented and versatile songsmith. Who else could have written such a fantastic anti-Green song as Back To Nature (“I couldn’t act naturally if I wanted to”) when environmentalism was still seen as the prerogative of old hippies. Or the haunting Song From Under The Floorboard (“Used to make phantoms I could later chase./Images of all that could be desired./Then I got tired of hanging around this place./And then I just got tired”) or the beautiful Some Will Pay (“According to these memories/I’m just mad about you.”) from his solo album.

 

So it is great to hear this new album from a new line up of Magazine. Although the group reformed in 2008, in July 2008 and for five dates in February 2009 the line-up included Devoto, Formula, Adamson and Doyle. Noko was brought in to replace John McGeoch, who died in 2004. Barry Adamson left in November 2010 and Jon White was brought in as bass player on the new recording and debuted live earlier this year at Wolverhampton Slade Rooms where Magazine were playing a warm up show for their Hop Farm festival appearance two days later.

 

The opening track, Do The Meaning, has a sort of anthem guitar opening, but this just seems to be one of Magazine’s jokes, as Devoto seems to be questioning the integrity of pop musicians (singers?) by warbling “One last time with too much meaning”. Of course the joke isn’t that straight forward because Devoto also seems to be taking the piss out of himself. But we are in familiar territory here; if only that territory is filled with Magazine/Devoto fanatics, because Devoto was never what Punk referred to as a poseur. There was none of the cheap sneering, made so popular by the likes of Jonny Rotten/Lydon, or plastic politics of the likes of Joe Strummer. With Devoto what you saw and heard was what you got. And that still seems to apply as Do The Meaning moves along and wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Real Life. That is not to suggest that the song sounds like something from 33 years ago, it is meant as a reflection of how far ahead of their time Magazine were.

 

Other Thematic Material manages to make the Farfisa organ sound fresh. At first I didn’t like this track. It seemed a bit juvenile, with its sexual references, but then a lot has happened in the World since the last Magazine album, including a US President, whose popularity rose (no pun intended) when it was discovered that his intern had fellatioed him. Since then sexual fantasies have become the staple of shop queue chit-chat. You just cannot shock people . . . well after The Worst Of Progress  –  notable for the line “I get absolutely no pleasure from singing this song” – comes a rather controversial song called Hello Mr Curtis (With Apologies) which is the single from the album. It’s worth quoting the lyrics in full because the hoo-hah that followed the suicides of Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain was really a little OTT for a couple of mediocre frontmen:

Hello Mr Curtis, hello Mr Cobain
Tell me where the hurt is
Tell me exactly, now where is the pain?

Your agony, your agony, your agony
Remove me from this agony.
You’re agony, you’re agony, you’re agony
Remove me from this agony.

Hello Mr Curtis, hello Mr Cobain
You are so much braver than me
So do it again, so do it again, please do it again

Your agony, your agony, your agony
Remove me from this agony.
You’re agony, you’re agony, you’re agony
Remove me from this agony.

Hello Mr Curtis
And may we never forget
But I’ve made my decision
To die like a king
Like Elvis
On some godforsaken toilet

I hope I die before I get really old
I hope I die before I get really old.

For me this is Magazine at their very best. It is not simply just the sentiment of the lyrics – the celebration of life and the rejection of ‘Dianification’ - that I sympathise with, but also the fact that the accompany music is just so brilliant. So Magazine!

 

The next track, Physics, is new territory for Magazine, but is one that has the same tempo as Some Will Pay from Jerky Versions Of A Dream. It sounds like an atheist song, comparing religion to a sticky plaster, but Devoto manages to avoid the crude hatred and snidey attitude towards religion (particularly Catholicism), that is meat to the New Atheists, and presents a rather melancholic song.

 

Happening In English is a great tune, the sort that would have been played at ‘alternative’ discos in my younger days and would have had me up on the floor, making a prat of myself. Holy Dotage has a great rock feel to it and some great lyrics (“In my holy dotage/more mortal than ever”), yet it also has that crispness to it that I find lacking in many of today’s ‘serious’ groups, that I’ve heard (“They say history never really repeats itself /But it nearly always rhymes./Fresh from the narrative of the universe/Here they come - crisp new designs”).

 

Of Course Howard (1979) is a semi-spoken song (I guess a more tonal version of Sprechgesang). The opening line, “I demand special consideration as being the most human”, might strike some as arrogant, but I like to think that Devoto is just having a laugh at his own expense. The ‘1979’ in the title gives the game away as the one thing that struck me about Devoto in those days was how frail he looked. By comparison, today he looks like the most friendliest bloke in the World.

 

The last person’s songs I could compare to Devoto, are those of Patti Smith, but Final Analysis Waltz sound like something from ‘Horses’ or ‘Radio Ethiopia’ even down to the use of that guitar riff that many guitarists lifted from the Beatles song ‘I Want You’, on ‘Abbey Road’. Does that matter? I don’t think so! If you are going to lift something you might as well make it something good and ‘I Want You’ was one of The Beatles better tracks from the boring second half of the Sixties. Besides The Beatles, or Patti Smith, never sounded this good.

 

The Burden Of A Song is another great, typical, Magazine song; ‘Burden’ being a play on words as the term evolved from middle English when it was also used as a repetition in a song, much like a chorus. The final track, Blisterpack Blues has a real lounge feel to it and you could almost imagine it being played in some sleazy jazz club. It is a brilliant way to close such an outstanding album. It left me wonting for more.

 

It may seem that this review has offered me the chance to engage in a bit of nostalgia; and I hold my hands up to that. Magazine, like all good pop was the soundtrack to my youth. At the time that Magazine came into being, at the tail end of, what is commonly seen as, a youth explosion, we youngsters had neither the life experience nor the wisdom that brings, to recognise Punk as just another form of pop music hanging onto the shirttails of social change, just as every stage of pop music has done. But also there is the narcissism of ‘look at me’ that is the essence of all youth movements. The idealism of the sixties gave way to Glam rock and the artier types such as Roxy Music and the great changeling himself, David Bowie. Punk gave way to the New Romantics (perhaps the main reason why the 80s are seen as such an embarrassment).

 

Unlike Classical music there is no distinguishing progression in popular music. Pop music has no theory that it can develop. It relies heavily on the moment and that means whatever ideas are around amongst young people in particular. So the Punk movement rode a wave of anger against the political establishment and, as is always the case, the authority of the older generation. But when The Clash sang “No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones” (1977) it sounded like a rallying cry at the time, but had it not been for Elvis and the rest, Strummer would probably have been dressed in a knitted Argyll jumper and playing a mandolin.

 

What essentially makes pop songs today sound different from the 1970s is the development of technology and the wider availability of musical instruments and, of course, the development of creative computer programmes. Essentially today’s pop music is no different from the 1950s, with the exception that today’s youth movements cannot even ride the shirttails of any idealism. So I find it sad when I see some pimply-faced youngster with a brand new Ramones t-shirt on. Sad, because nostalgia is something that the older generation should engage in.

 

And what is special about No Thyself is that it is not pretending to be down there with the kids. Both musically and lyrically it is the product of a group of musicians who have reached middle age (actually Howard Devoto will be 60 next year) and are reflecting that. The lyrics are not concerned with issues that young people could appreciate; the whole album seems to be a contemplation on immortality and, refreshingly, is one of the most life-affirming works I’ve come across over the past 30 years. Devoto has said that Magazine are not necessarily a permanent fixture, and fair play to him for that. Listening to No Thyself is like meeting up with that girlfriend who you really loved and who is doing well for themselves. And you are, genuinely, happy for them, because the love never went away.

 
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