Magazine: A Band from Under the Floorboards

Real Life

With all of today’s waxing nostalgia for the music of the late ’70s and early ’80s, our memory lane is pockmarked by potholes. Many bands of the 2000s owe an obvious debt to post-punk. And yet, to read the lists of influences generated by the majority of both publicists and reviewers, you might think that the only two acts from the post-punk era were Joy Division and Gang of Four. This presents an unrealistically limited view of the breadth of creativity occurring at that time, as if the scene was limited to either gray-toned gloom or spiky funk-punk. While this makes for a conveniently tidy definition of the genre, it’s one that’s also inaccurate and inadequate. Did you know that post-punk could also display catchy melodies and, more amazingly, a sense of humor? In a world where bands tended to take themselves quite seriously, a maverick quintet of Mancunians stood apart from the pack: Magazine. Perhaps because they were difficult to pigeonhole, their contributions and influence has been largely forgotten. Thankfully, EMI have just issued remastered CDs of the band’s four albums.

Magazine – Shot By Both Sides

The members of Magazine boast impressive pedigrees. Singer Howard Devoto was a founding member and lead vocalist for Buzzcocks, one of the great original punk bands. Devoto left before they made it big, appearing only on Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch EP and the quasi-official Time’s Up compilation. In April 1977, he hooked up with Scottish guitarist John McGeoch. Although McGeoch hadn’t come from a famous band, he would go on to become one of the most well-respected guitarists around, recording with Siouxsie and the Banshees, P.I.L., and Peter Murphy. The duo then recruited bassist Barry Adamson, who would later become a member of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds, as well as a composer of film soundtracks. Original drummer Martin Jackson went on to join a latter day Chameleons (cool), to play with Frank Zappa (wow), and to program drums for Swing Out Sister (hmm, well, okay). Only Magazine’s keyboardists didn’t go on to future greatness. The first man to fill that slot, Bob Dickinson didn’t last long enough to make it to the recording studio. He was replaced in 1978 by Dave Formula. A former cabaret musician, he added a great deal to the Magazine sound, although his only other claim to infamy was tagging along with Adamson and McGeoch to join Visage, a synth-heavy, new romantic one hit wonder (“Fade to Grey”). Regardless, Magazine in their heyday were comprised of terrific musicians, all bursting with creativity.

These qualities shone through immediately on the band’s 1978 debut, the classic Real Life LP. Coming back to it now and listening with fresh ears (and to a freshly remastered mix), the album’s tracklist seems almost impossibly good. How could one record contain so many killer songs? There isn’t a weak spot to be found. Track eight, “The Light Pours Out of Me”, with its dryly funky verses and lushly melodramatic chorus, is just as good as track one, “Definitive Gaze”, which moves from a creepy, fun-house organ intro to an anthemic, wordless chorus. It also contains the lyric that birthed the album’s title: “Clarity has reared / Its ugly head again / So this is real life / You’re telling me”. Pathos and bathos, all delivered with a wink and a smile; this is the Devoto way. “The Great Beautician in the Sky” is another carnival ride, as waltz time slides into straight 4/4, then a loping oompah, and back again. In lesser hands, this stylistic slalom would go crashing off course. Magazine, though, were a dexterous bunch of songwriters. They also had great chops and could also lock into a dirty jam and rock it out, as on the double-time second half of “Motorcade”. Best of all is “Shot by Both Sides”, with its glorious guitar theme and theatrically gothic chorus. An earlier version, recorded between keyboardists, was the group’s first single and their only ever to chart (peaking at #41 in the UK). It’s included as a bonus track on the updated CD, along with another pre-album single, the more straightforward punk-pop cut “Touch and Go”. Both b-sides were added, as well. These make for fine additions, although an album as magnificent as Real Life could scarcely use improving.

Magazine – The Light Pours Out of Me

After Magazine’s first tour, Jackson left and was replaced by John Doyle. Despite this change in the drummer slot, Magazine took little time getting to their follow-up LP, 1979’s Secondhand Daylight. A less kooky album, it trades out the haunted fairground motifs that accented Real Life for the occasional gray mood more befitting of a typical post-punk band. Then again, Magazine weren’t typical of any particular style, so these overcast moments don’t dominate. They do, however, usher in the record. The first song, “Feed the Enemy”, doesn’t reach and grab you so much as it lulls you in. Showing the band’s indebtedness to their immediate forebears, the beginning of the track could have come from side two of either of Bowie’s 1977 Berlin albums, while the rest of the track is a Roxy Music-like slow boiler. The Bowie factor looms even larger in “The Thin Air”, a druggy instrumental track featuring chilly synth washes and sorrowful sax. Still, this spaceyness is balanced out by quicker paced songs like the glam-punk of “Rhythm of Cruelty” and “Talk to the Body”, where Devoto gives us a Johnny Rotten sneer and then insists repeatedly that we all “Clam up / Calm down”.

As the decade changed from the ’70s to the ’80s, Magazine returned to the winning blueprint of Real Life, reinvigorating their sound with pop hooks and livelier tempos. Produced by the legendary Martin Hannett (Buzzcocks, Joy Division, Psychedelic Furs, New Order), the album showcased the tightest songwriting of the band’s career. This yielded a great album that’s just a fraction less vital and gripping than Real Life. Perky leadoff track “Because You’re Frightened” showed why the group is sometimes categorized as new wave, although McGeoch’s guitar riff sounds just like another beyond-punk song from that same year, the Clash’s recording of “Police on My Back”. Like “the only band that mattered”, Magazine, too, were largely uncategorizable. No song in their catalog proved this more than their darkly groovy cover of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)”. This experiment shouldn’t have worked, but Magazine pulled it off brilliantly. As with much of their best material, the division between seriousness and humor is a thin and permeable membrane through which their music ebbed and flowed. The album ends with one of their all-time killer tracks, “A Song from Under the Floorboards”. The delicious verses burble along on a Durany bass line, while the chorus features subtle yet irresistible “la, la”‘s.

Magazine – Cut-Out Shapes

Magazine decided to call it a day in 1981, but not before recording their fourth and final studio album, Magic, Murder and the Weather. Maybe their heart wasn’t in it, because the record is a lackluster affair. Not that the writing and performances are entirely to blame. Hannett returned as producer, but he left his golden ears behind. For every good and tidy track like the catchy “About the Weather” or the return-to-cabaret feel of “The Honeymoon Killers”, we’re burdened with at least as many murky cuts like “So Lucky”, “Vigilance”, and “Naked Eye”, all of which sound like they were recorded on a Walkman from the back of a nightclub (minus the excitement of applause, that is). Although Formula’s synth sounds are laid on a little thick, closing number “The Garden” somewhat redeems the album’s worth. In a strange way, the remastering crew should be rewarded for maintaining the integrity of Hannett’s original mix of the album, even if that mix was often detrimental to the songs. The two bonus tracks here, b-sides to “About the Weather”, were produced by the band and are the clearest tracks on the CD. I suppose that, for completion’s sake, EMI had to reissue this mediocre album along with the great ones that preceded it, but most of us would be happy to simply excise this disc from Magazine’s discography. It’s one for the hardcore fans only.

Their final release aside, Magazine left behind a great legacy. They were one of the most inventive bands of their time. Like two other excellent groups of their nonconformist contemporaries, the Stranglers and the Damned, Magazine had no compunction about poking fun at the shadowy realms in which their music dwelled, even as they reveled in the gooey darkness. They took their craft quite seriously, but not themselves. Any given passage from their best material could be both cool and funny at the same time; at once brimming with sentiment and mocking sentimentality. This was true of both the band’s music and Devoto’s lyrics. These elements reinforced one another, sometimes through juxtaposition and sometimes by fusing together to get the point across. Not that the experience of listening to Magazine needs to be intellectualized to be enjoyed. For a band that played outside the rules of a scene that supposedly had no rules, Magazine were often quite accessible and fun. If you’ve been missing out all these years, now is the perfect time to join the weird little party. Their four remastered studio albums all sound great, offer a choice selection of quality bonus tracks, and feature good liner notes. So why not “subscribe” (ugh) to Magazine today!