Living in the Past: Magazine – a look back at the influential post-punk rockers

Magazine are one of the most influential bands of the post-punk era, yet seldom receive the credit which their music so obviously deserves. James Llewellyn takes a look back at the band’s history.

Formed by ex-Buzzcocks lead singer Howard Devoto in early 1977, the band merged a more progressive yet hard-hitting sound rather than the ‘traditional’ punk and post-punk bands of the era.

The group’s ‘classic’ line-up saw Devoto joined by influential guitarist John McGeoch (later of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Visage and PiL), Barry Adamson on Bass, Dave Formula on Keyboards, and John Doyle on drums.

They released four albums between 1977-1981, all of which have a distinctive sound yet take on a different character from the others.

Real Life – 1978

Magazine’s debut is predictably the most ‘punk’ sounding of their catalogue, released only a matter of months after Howard Devoto had left The Buzzcocks.

Despite this, the album is one of the first to usher in the ‘post-punk’ sound, and has flashes of new wave and art rock.

The album’s most famous (and most punk-driven) track is ‘Shot by Both Sides’, and was the band’s first single. The distinctive riff in the chorus was actually written by Devoto’s ex-Buzzcocks bandmate Pete Shelley, who gifted it to Devoto for the song (Shelley used the riff again in the Buzzcocks’ track ‘Lipstick, to nowhere near the same success).

The track can now be seen as one of the last punk-era classics, and was a huge statement of intent on its release, featuring Devoto’s trademark sneer and pointed lyrics, along with a soaring McGeoch solo.

Perhaps the album’s standout track though is ‘The Light Pours Out Of Me’.

Built on a marching drum beat and pounding bass, it builds relentlessly in intensity and features some of McGeoch’s best guitar work of his career (James Dean Bradfield of the Manics has since admitted that he used McGeoch’s riff as the basis for the riff in ‘Of Walking Abortion’).

Other standouts include ‘Burst’, and the dream-like last track ‘Parade’.

At times the album fluctuates too much, with tracks such as ‘Motorcade’ and ‘Recoil’ not really adding much. But its highpoints render the album a classic of the post-punk era.

Secondhand Daylight – 1979

Magazine’s second album is the most art-rock sounding of their catalogue, and has elements of prog scattered throughout.

The band’s keyboardist Dave Formula had a much more prominent role on the record’s playing and songwriting, having arrived just before recording started on Real Life, and his keyboards dominate much of the album’s soundscape.

Because of this, the production on this record is very warm, which is at odds with their first album (or any other album that the band made). Indeed, the one word that could be used to sum up the mix is ‘dense’… there isn’t a lot of room for the individual players to soar on here, with the mix dominated by keyboard textures throughout.

Despite this, the sound doesn’t detract from album at all, which features some of Magazine’s most enduring work. From eerie opener ‘Feed the Enemy’ to throbbing closer ‘Permafrost’, there isn’t a weak track on the album.

The band have by now lyrically and musically grown into a cohesive identity, and Devoto’s voice and lyrics are at their most sneery and disturbing best; most notably on the chorus of ‘Permafrost’ where he matter-of- factly sings “As the day stops dead, at the place where we’re lost, I will drug you and fuck you, on the Permafrost”.

The album’s lead single ‘Rhythm of Cruelty’ is a forgotten classic, which is puzzling, and songs such as ‘Cut Out Shapes’ and ‘Back to Nature’ show just how far the band had come since their debut.

Secondhand Daylight has always been my favourite Magazine album, and for some reason has remained criminally underrated since its release.

The Correct Use Of Soap – 1980

Magazine’s third album marks a return to the stripped back post-punk sound of their debut, but this time fully developed with a slick hard-edge.

The band sound as cohesive as they ever would, and at times is the closest they ever came to becoming a great pop band – albeit with songs coloured by Devoto’s biting lyrics.

The band enlisted Joy Division producer Martin Hannett – hence the stripped back sound compared to the previous album. Surprisingly though, the album is full of energetic intricate songs, and features the bands best arrangements.

Formula’s dense keyboard textures dominate less frequently here, allowing the other members to shine. McGeoch, on what would be his last album with Magazine, is at his majestic best throughout. The record is also full of rhythmic complexity, with drummer John Doyle, and particularly bassist Barry Adamson, forming a formidable rhythm section throughout.

This album could easily be remembered as Adamson’s album, his melodic chorus-treated basslines being pushed high into the mix.

The album is frequently cited as Magazine’s best, and whilst it is not my favourite, it does contain what is probably the band’s best and most enduring song, the surprisingly understated gem ‘A Song From Under the Floorboards’.

Magic, Murder And The Weather – 1981

The band’s last album in its original guise, and a troubled one. Guitarist John McGeoch had left to join Siouxsie and the Banshees just after the release of The Correct Use of Soap, and the band had drafted in Howard Devoto’s friend Ben Mandelson on guitar.

The writing was mainly dominated by Dave Formula, with Devoto contributing all lyrics. Because of this, the keyboards again dominate the mix, but with Martin Hannett again responsible for production, the sound is a jarring blend of the previous two albums, with sometimes not pretty results.

The guitar has very little room to shine through, and the parts Mandelson does play aren’t particularly inspiring.

The album badly misses McGeoch’s playing and songwriting abilities, and most of the tracks sound tired and of a band going through the motions at this point.

The standout track by far is the album’s only single ‘About the Weather’, which is nearly up there with other Magazine anthems.

Upon the album’s release, Devoto left the band; frustrated by their inability to achieve real commercial success, and the fact they had been unable to adequately replace McGeoch.

The rest of the band couldn’t see a future post-Devoto, his identity and voice having provided such a focal point, and they split shortly after.

As bow outs go, this was unfortunately not a particularly gracious one from this once great band.

BONUS – Play (Live) – 1980

Released after the departure of John McGeoch but before Ben Mandelson joined the group, the album features a recording from their gig at Melbourne Festival Hall on The Correct Use of Soap tour in 1980.

Filling in for McGeoch on was ex-Ultravox guitarist Robin Simon, who was more than capable of playing McGeoch’s melodic and rhythmically intricate parts. Indeed, the band sound as tight as ever on this album, and it is a massive shame that Simon chose to jump ship at the end of the tour.

For some reason, the original release left out ‘Shot By Both Sides’, but this was corrected when its re-release in 2009 saw a second disc added featuring a gig from 1978.

Play gives a great insight into how good a live band Magazine were and is a great gateway for new fans, containing nearly all of their best known tracks.