The first CD I ever bought was by Magazine and it was a highly considered purchase. In early 1988 my parents acquired a new hi-fi (never been quite sure why, neither of them ever played music for pleasure) which came fitted with a CD player and thus we found ourselves uncharacteristically slightly ahead of the game technology-wise. I needed to get something to try it out and I reasoned that buying something I already owned on vinyl would be hopelessly bourgeois, and that it was also a waste of money to get anything lo-fi, or thrashy, or punky, because that seemed to defeat the point of this excitingly pin-sharp audio experience. Eventually I settled on Rays And Hail, a then fairly recent Magazine compilation, on the grounds that their music was sufficiently slick and sophisticated and well-produced (to the point that the painfully hip music papers like NME actively distrusted them), and that I wasn’t particularly likely to be buying their LPs (I had them all on tape, three pretty good albums let down by too many filler tracks, followed by one definitely ropey one which stank of contractual obligation). I remember the CD cost £11.99, which seems a lot of money now, but represented the best part of a month’s disposable income then. It was a good investment though: fourteen well-chosen tracks that included all but one or two of the band’s good songs and no real dogs.
Magazine were the brain-child of singer and lyricist Howard Devoto, who had been the front man of Buzzcocks up until their first single, the none-more-seminal Spiral Scratch EP, after which he turned his back on punk in favour of something a bit more cerebral and ambitious. His new band were viewed with suspicion due to their unashamed technical competence, their penchant for portentous and melodramatic musical settings and dynamics and Devoto’s mockingly pretentious lyrics and vocals, which seemed to draw inspiration from highbrow literary sources rather than the perceived breakdown in society that was informing the songs of most of his contemporaries. When they were good however they were great, and the combination of Devoto’s deliberately enunciated proclamations of alienation with John McGeoch’s pioneering guitar work (he has as good a claim as anyone on inventing the classic delay/flange Goth sound), Barry Adamson’s sinister and supple basslines and Dave Formula’s florid and sometimes downright proggy keyboards was a heady mix indeed.
Now. In common with a number of bands of their era Magazine have reformed and recorded a new album. No Thyself, it’s called, and it’s come out a mere thirty years after their last one. McGeoch passed away in 2004, and Adamson declined to be involved, but Devoto and Formula are still there, as is drummer John Doyle, with Devoto’s longtime collaborator Noko taking on the guitar duties and Stan White on bass. They’re also touring, and this week I got to see them at The Junction in Cambridge.
This band is all about Devoto. He walks onto the stage late, after the players are already well into the introduction of the first song, and fixes the crowd with an enigmatic stare he probably practises in the bathroom mirror, before making his vocal entrance. He’s short, stocky and bald-headed and comes over a bit like an oddball English teacher trying to weird his class out. Between songs he throws out enigmatic comments like challenges – you can almost see the ironic quotation marks hanging in the air around him, if he was any more arch he’d be holding up a cathedral. Fortunately he’s also a good showman and his vocals haven’t lost any of their power or menace, and his band are tight, well-drilled and disciplined. The set-list is pretty impeccable: there are the few inevitable selections from the new record, a couple of which, Happening In English and Holy Dotage, even sound like they could hold their own with the old material, but the rest is pure Greatest Hits: the menacing Motorcade, the lush Parade, a bit of singalongaDostoyevsky with A Song From Under The Floorboards, perversion in the tundra with Permafrost, a climactic The Light Pours Out Of Me to end the main set and in the encore Beefheart’s I Love You, You Big Dummy and the no-one’s-getting-out-alive-if-you-don’t-play-this-one Shot By Both Sides. The sound suffered a bit from The Junction’s usual irritating mix-it-all-up-like-porridge acoustics, but you couldn’t fault the group, who displayed an energy level which would be impressive for men a third their age. Strange how music intended to be so disquieting functions just as well as comfort food.