Magazine’s The Correct Use of Soap is such a wayward, iconoclastic record, so willfully out of kilter with its own time, that its sound-world and emotional landscape remain unique in pop.
At the centre of this peculiar masterpiece is Howard Devoto, surely one of the most influential yet undeservedly obscure figures in pop history. As the original frontman in the Buzzcocks, Devoto graced the grooves of the seminal punk EP Spiral Scratch, but left the band on the eve of its release in January 1977. On “Boredom” he was already signaling his disillusionment with punk’s one-size-fits-all rebellion: “You know the scene is very hum-drum”, he yawned. His next release, Magazine’s 1978 debut single “Shot by Both Sides”, reflects ruefully on his narrow escape: “I wormed my way into the heart of the crowd”, he recounts—“I was shocked to find what was allowed”.
So Devoto was the ultimate contrarian, the outsider’s outsider, and Magazine the group that, as one critic put it, “Camus would have been in if Camus had been in a band.” Yet for all their literate, art-school trappings, more than any of their contemporaries Magazine were capable of a brutal emotional honesty. The early singles “Give Me Everything” and “Rythmn of Cruelty” are ferocious assaults—punctuated by guitarist John McGeogh’s blistering guitar projectiles—in which Devoto describes a wounded, megalomaniac male ego imploding under its own contradictions.
Given such bare-nerved intensity, it’s little wonder that by 1980, Magazine’s music had become tinged with a palpable sense of burn-out: “And then I just got tired”, Devoto sings on “Song from Under the Floorboards”. Indeed, at times, The Correct Use of Soap‘s frayed and forlorn slower numbers put one in mind of late Big Star (a solo Devoto later covered two Alex Chilton songs on the 1987 4AD compilation It’ll End in Tears).
For their third album, Magazine drafted in producer Martin Hannett, who had earlier mixed Spiral Scratch under the moniker Martin Zero. Hannett came direct from his work on Joy Division’s Closer, another record that combines wired, claustrophobic energy with a sense of enervation. For The Correct Use of Soap, McGeoch’s rampant signature guitar riffs were reigned in, becoming a more disciplined component of the whole. This meant a new pop sensibility could percolate around the Magazine sound, allowing Devoto’s bitter-sweet lyrics room to breathe.
Thus liberated, Soap proceeds to deal death-blows to every taboo in the punk rule book, employing female backing vocals, funk basslines (courtesy of future Bad Seeds stalwart Barry Adamson), vertiginous keyboard swirls, and saxophone solos. Drawing on Roxy Music, Iggy and Bowie’s Berlin records, and John Barry’s film soundtracks, the band had by this time developed their own fiercely original musical vocabulary, here enhanced by Hannett’s dub-like sense of space. Though less dominant, McGeoch’s glorious, keening guitar sound remains definitive, and when he lets rip, as in the speed-fuelled scree of noise at the close of “Philadelphia”, all the more effective.
That Magazine were one of the tightest and most versatile groups of their era is established beyond doubt in their triumphant cover of Sly Stone’s “Thank You”, which turns the track into a skewed orgy of glacial synth bleeds and abrasive, drilling funk. Meanwhile, on “I’m a Party”, with its louche piano and sax, they manage to sound like some decadent cabaret house band jamming in the small hours.
Against this canvas, Devoto was busy taking rock lyrics to unprecedented places. In the upbeat, nervy pop of “Model Worker”, he characterizes a love affair in terms of the contract between worker and state. The song casts Devoto as love’s faithful servant, toiling away on the bottom rung of an imminent Soviet-style utopia, longing for the great leap forward: “I’m sick of working on the land”, he sings, “I wanna work with machines and look handsome”.
This blurring of the personal and political is a running theme. The songs orbit around irreconcilable tensions, not just between the individual and society, but also between self and lover. In Devoto’s world, love is a power struggle, and the ensnaring embrace of another threatens a crisis-inducing loss of identity. Yet repulsed as he is by love, Devoto has an addictive compulsion to return to it because, as he tells us on “Because You’re Frightened”, “I want to hurt and crave again”.
With its delicious feel for drama and its lyrical word-painting, The Correct Use of Soap is both literary and vividly filmic. Devoto’s outsider complex ensures the songs are full of echoes from the European existential tradition, from Dostoyevsky to Satre via Kafka, and he delights in claiming his place in a lineage of shabby miscreants: “I’d have been Raskalnikov”, he says, “but mother nature ripped me off”. Elsewhere, Devoto glories in his role as a stowaway grub reporting from inside the rotten apple, his very survival an act of subversion: “I am an insect”, he confides in “Song from Under the Floorboards”, “I’m proud as hell of that fact”.
These narratives often resemble scenes from a hardboiled Dashiell Hammett thriller or labyrinthine film noir: ‘I’m ditching an empty suitcase”, Devoto sings in “I Want to Burn Again”, “I’ve been in Storytown…”. And as the speed-fueled opening riff of “Philadelphia” kicks in, we find him trapped in a surreal, paranoid nightmare, pursued by “Your clean-living, clear-eyed / Clever, level-headed brother”. It doesn’t look good for our anti-hero, who muses: “Maybe it’s right to be nervous now…”.
In its poetry, its emotional richness and rare intelligence, The Correct Use of Soap represents the zenith of Magazine’s art. Almost 30 years on, in a music industry seemingly stuck in a retro feedback loop, Soap stands as a monument to a band that, even amidst the convulsions of punk and its aftermath, dared to be different.
// Notes from the Road
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