[23 August 2007]
Howard Devoto always seemed to be a step or three ahead of his contemporaries. He formed Manchester’s first punk band, Buzzcocks (with Pete Shelley), before quickly moving beyond the narrow blueprint of punk with Magazine, a group that defies easy categorization to this day.
The story goes something along these lines: In February 1976, Devoto and Pete Shelley attended two Sex Pistols concerts in the London area. Later that year they organized two punk gigs at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. The first was June 4, when Rotten & Co debuted “Anarchy in the UK”, and Devoto and Shelley met future-Buzzcock Steve Diggle. Although sparsely attended by a crowd that stayed in their seats, the audience included several people who have left a considerable mark on popular music: Tony Wilson of the nascent Factory records; Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner & Peter Hook, who would later (with Stephen Morris) become Joy Division; and idiosyncratic geniuses Morrissey and Mark E. Smith. When the Pistols returned to Manchester for a second show, on July 20, the place was packed, Buzzcocks were also on the bill, and the rest is history. In an interview with Jack Rabid for The Big Takeover, Devoto tells it slightly differently. He was enamored of Alice Cooper, Eno, Bowie, Can, the Stooges, and Yes, but he and Shelley were struggling, mainly doing covers of “Diamond Dogs” and early Kinks and Troggs records. Seeing the Sex Pistols gave Devoto a notion of how to both focus his own writing and project his erudite concerns.
A restless creativity propelled Devoto out of punk confines before most people even knew that such things existed. In Magazine, he found willing and able participants in Barry Adamson, Dave Formula and the late John McGeoch (an outstanding and innovative guitarist). The group enjoyed critical acclaim and cult worship for their efforts to create a strange hybrid of almost funky spaciousness, lean aggression, and a literate sensibility. Magazine did not enjoy massive acceptance or financial reward, however, and gave up in 1981.
Devoto returned two years later with a solo record, Jerky Versions of the Dream, the title of which he hoped would suggest “awkwardness, variety, sex, cinema and stupidity” in reference to his uncertainty about personal relationships. The process of writing the album was apparently a freer creative experience for Devoto; he envisaged that the lyrics would be sung by a woman, not by him. His voice has always transmitted a tragic persona. He sounds scrupulously, painfully honest while conveying the ironic and playful distance of an unreliable narrator. Devoto can sound absolutely convincing and totally unbelievable in the same breath. That paradox is part of his allure. His fluid voice draws the listener close, but keeps its distance. Likewise, his best songs balance the buildup of different kinds of tension and the gorgeous languid melodic aftermath of its release.
The first track is “Cold Imagination”, a piece that would not have been out of place on the classic Magazine album The Correct Use of Soap from 1980. A frosty sheen of keyboard and guitar compliment lyrics that convey an emotional numbness. Neither several restless changes of pace nor Devoto’s sprightly and urgent vocal delivery can unthaw these feelings. Lyrically, I can’t decide if “Topless” depicts love on the rebound (“The past is rotten to the core/ The time is ripe like never before”) or a confused declaration of love in the face of mistreatment (“You call me topless/ You call me incomplete/ And I love you like no one else”).
An almost perfect single, “Rainy Season”, should have been a huge hit. The piece is euphoric despite being a painful evocation of hopeless desire. Devoto’s playfully colloquial imagery and slippery instrumentation apply a masterfully light touch to a weighty topic. “I Admire You” is even more extreme. Heavenly backing vocals and bouncy synths provide an oddly perfect backdrop to the madness of loving someone to distraction. Next up is a very jerky version of “Way Out of Shape” (a less frantic one appears later on the album as “Out of Shape With Me”), a blurred polaroid negative of stuttering whiplash funk that Fire Engines and Josef K would be proud of. One highlight, “Some Will Pay (For What Others Pay to Avoid)” balances the album’s frenzy with a track that may be the most gentle and solemn vocal performance of Devoto’s life. His tongue has never sounded less in his cheek: “According to these memories/ I’m just mad about you/ I’m just mad about you/ Our jerky versions of the dream/ Made it all seems so true”.
Howard Devoto - Rainy Season
“Out of Shape With Me” was apparently written one day when Devoto was drunk at 7am, and that‘s exactly what the song is about. He did a lazy throwaway vocal runthrough, but ended up liking it. The tone of the piece reminds me of the fabulous “Satd’y Barfly” by Family, a hugely underrated and near-forgotten early 1970s English group. The climactic “Seeing Is Believing” is rubbery and ethereal in equal measure. Devoto sounds positively glowing, either with good health or radioactivity, I can’t tell. The original album is supplemented by six bonus tracks, including the single version of “Rainy Season” and an instrumental version of “Rainforest”, as well as three (even leaner) versions of the tracks “Cold Imagination”, “Topless” and “Some Will Pay,” from a session for John Peel at the BBC.
Jerky Versions of the Dream is not Devoto’s best recording by any means, but it shows his continual willingness to consult new maps in the search for non-formulaic ground, and the disc is both admirable and accessible. When it was released in 1983, public reaction was a massive shrug. I have not heard his Beast Box release from 2000 as Luxuria, but the recent Magazine reissues (and now this one) make me want to seek it out. Howard Devoto has made several classics that any serious music fan should be sure to hear: the sneering punk of the Buzzcocks’ Spiral ScratchEP; the taut paranoid brilliance of Magazine’s “Shot By Both Sides” (a contender for best single of the 1970s, if not of all time); and Magazine’s absolute peak of sustained mastery, The Correct Use of Soap. Another highlight is Devoto’s vocal on This Mortal Coil’s version of Alex Chilton’s “Holocaust” from their 1984 release,It’ll End in Tears.
Devoto’s influence on popular culture is discernable, not least in Radiohead. His appearance and lyrical concerns have an otherworldly sense, though they are often wrapped in earthly familiarity. Anyone interested in perceptions of identity, alienation, and love should explore Devoto’s work. His striking appearance—appealing, yet ambiguous and alien—gives the album artwork a similar feel to Bowie’s portrayal of Thomas Jerome Newton, aka The Man Who Fell to Earth. Cult author Jeff Noon has mentioned Devoto’s influence on his works Vurt and Pollen. Morrissey has covered “A Song From Under the Floorboards” from The Correct Use of Soap, and has also stated that he had Devoto in mind when he wrote “Last of the Famous International Playboys” (though the song references the Kray Twins). Momus has recorded a Devoto tribute song, “The Most Important Man Alive”, for the 1988 Bungalow Records compilation Suite 98.
Howard Devoto has essentially quit the music business, saying that he doesn’t want to rely on his creativity for a living anymore: “if you take my lack of confidence, and you take my pride—well, there you really are shot by both sides.” A book of his lyrics, It Only Looks As If It Hurts, was released by Black Spring Press in 1990 (on April 1st to be exact), and he is rumored to be working on an autobiography (with sections of audio) to be released after his death. To these ends Devoto has been working in a photograph archive in central London. I am reminded of Shooting the Past, a movie about a group of dedicated workers at a photo archive facing closure of the building, job loss, and breakup of the collection. One of the archivists, played by Timothy Spall, believes that the clue to saving the place is contained somewhere in the archive, and that continuing to work will unearth its (and their) salvation. Maybe Devoto will find more inspiration, some answers, or a little peace in images of the past. I’d be saddened to think that we really have heard the last of his music.