BY Mark Fisher in Culture Digest | 01 NOV 08
Featured in
Issue 119

The John Peel Sessions

Magazine (Virgin/EMI, 2008)

BY Mark Fisher in Culture Digest | 01 NOV 08

‘I am an insect/I have to confess I’m proud as hell of that fact’, spat Howard Devoto on Magazine’s ‘A Song from under the Floorboards’ (1980). Devoto’s anti-anthem brilliantly transposed Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground (1864) into bejewelled art pop, replacing rock’s libidinal frustrations with the Underground Man’s spite, irritability and perverse delight in self-destruction. Eyes lined kohl-black, face panstick-white, egghead forehead looming, the Devoto who formed Magazine in 1977 looked like he’d walked out of a German Expressionist film – or was trapped in one.

After all, ‘Boredom’ (1977), one of the songs that he wrote for Buzzcocks, the group he had just left, had famously included the line, ‘I’m living in this movie/but it doesn’t move me’. That sense of being imprisoned in spectacle was a distillation of punk disaffection, but Buzzcocks’ stripped-down thrash proved too cramped a canvas for Devoto. Magazine would be a more expansive proposition, a return of Roxy Music-style ambition, literariness and luxury. Devoto was like Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno in one body, both oddball pop nerd and lovelorn Lacanian. No singer has masochistically revelled in the way that romance lured the lover out beyond the pleasure principle more than Devoto, who would confess that he had ‘a need for agony that he had to subdue’. His voice was a dispassionate jeer devoid of spontaneous expressiveness, the ideal instrument with which to deliver words that mercilessly dissected love’s knots and impasses.

Magazine broke with punk’s pinched austerity, smuggling in glamour, intelligence and shiny synthetics. This contraband did not go unremarked, and it was Dave Formula’s occasionally ornate keyboards that drew the frequent accu-sations that the group constituted the return of prog rock. But John McGeoch’s guitar, in a perpetual state of reinvention – throwing out funk shards or generating atmospheric shimmer – wasn’t shy of flouting punk’s party line either. Barry Adamson’s approach to the bass, meanwhile, evolved from pugilistic into disco-sinuous sensuality. Rather than regarding Magazine as late-arriving prog, it would be better to see them as anticipating early 1980s’ synth-pop. (And, in fact, McGeoch, Formula and Adamson would play with Visage as Magazine began to disintegrate.)

Ahead of the inevitable reunion gigs early next year, this release of the four sessions Magazine recorded for John Peel between 1978 and 1980 includes a version of Buzzcocks’ ‘Boredom’, plus alternative takes of singles and tracks from the group’s three LPs: Real Life (1978), Second Daylight (1979) and The Correct Use of Soap (1980). (The subsequent Magic, Murder and the Weather LP, and the live set Play, are rightly considered outside the canon, since they were recorded without McGeoch.) The Peel sessions give a somewhat oblique angle on Magazine’s career, if only because some of their best tracks – including the signature ‘Shot by Both Sides’ (1978) – are absent. Nevertheless, there’s more than enough here to get a sense of the group’s trajectory. Early tracks ‘The Light Pours Out of Me’ and ‘My Mind Ain’t So Open’ (both 1978) were exercises in angular expressionism, rock reduced to harsh monochromatic lines, while the Formula-led ‘Real Life’ (aka ‘Definitive Gaze’, 1978) was Bowie’s Low (1977) on a Dr Caligari cakewalk. By the time of the lugubrious ‘Permafrost’ (1979), the hard lines have been smoothed into something marbled and magisterial. ‘Look What Fear’s Done to My Body’ goes the title of one of the last tracks here (a version of their 1980 track ‘Because You’re Frightened’), concisely evoking the territory that Devoto had made his own: a place where geopolitical unease and sexual anxiety feed one another. Maybe it’s time to be nervous again.

Main image: Magazine performing on BBC Television's Top of the Pops, 1978

Mark Fisher was a lecturer at Goldsmiths College, London and the author of Capitalist Realism: Is There an Alternative? (Zero Books).