It’s the late 1970s in the UK. Your band has just finished a tour opening for the Sex Pistols, the group that inspired you to start making music, and you’re the newest, hottest thing on the punk scene. What do you do? If you’re Howard Devoto, you quit the band you founded with your best friend (the Buzzcocks) and do something almost completely different.
Along with bassist Barry Adamson, guitarist John McGeoch, and keyboardist Bob Dickinson (replaced early on by Dave Formula), Devoto founded Magazine in 1977. One of the first post-punk bands, Magazine brought a detached, artistic sensibility to their work, replacing the sneer of punk with nervousness and depression. Where punk was about outsized personalities, Magazine chose to disappear into their music—they’re barely visible even in their press photos. Most importantly, where the music of punk was almost an afterthought to a social movement, post-punk bands like Magazine (and the Stranglers and Joy Division and many more) crafted spare masterpieces of alienation that have stood the test of time amazingly well—just think how many more times you’ve heard “Love Will Tear Us Apart” than “God Save the Queen” in the last 10 years.
Magazine: The Complete John Peel Sessions is a collection of 15 tracks the band recorded for John Peel’s legendary BBC Radio One show, stretching from 1980 back to 1978 (just a few months after the band played their first concert). And it captures the band at the absolute top of their game.
A little over half of the album is from the first two sessions, in 1978, and they are by far the most interesting. For the fan, there’s the thrill of hearing alternate versions of the band’s most famous tracks, like “The Light Pours Out of Me”, “Touch and Go”, and “Definitive Gaze”, appearing here as “Real Life (AKA Definitive Gaze)”. Most of the difference is in the keyboards of Dave Formula, who is allowed to go on furious knob-twiddling flights here that were severely toned down for their proper albums. There are also blazing covers of Captain Beefheart’s “I Love You, You Big Dummy” and “Boredom”, which Devoto originally sang on the Buzzcock’s debut, Spiral Scratch EP. For the uninitiated, there’s really no better way to be introduced to Magazine than the tracks collected here. From the opening strains of “Touch and Go”, the album’s opener, this record grabs the listener and doesn’t let go. The synths cascade, the the cymbals crash, and Devoto’s voice reaches out across the decades with a youthful urgency that is impossible to turn away from. Pioneering artistic merits aside, it’s simply impossible to stop listening to.
Sadly, the same can’t be said of the rest of the album. Granted, there is not a lot of curatorial leeway in something called “The Complete Peel Sessions”—it’s complete, full stop. You’re as obliged to include the stirring “The Light Pours Out of Me” as you are the strained white-funk homage-cover of Sly Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)”. Admittedly, the last sessions have a few gems: a great rendition of one of the band’s most famous tracks, like “A Song from Under the Floorboards”, the overstuffed !!!-esque dance-funk precursor “Twenty Years Ago”, and “Look What You’ve Done to My Body (Because You’re Frightened)”.
Despite a few minor shortcomings inherent to its comprehensive collection, Magazine: The Complete John Peel Sessions is a compelling document of one of post-punk’s most fascinating acts in its prime. It’s well worth a listen.