Singer/writer Howard Devoto left the Buzzcocks in an effort to move beyond punk and power pop and take rock music to new levels of complexity and sophistication without losing the recently regained energy of the form. To this end, he formed Magazine with then-unknowns John McGeoch (guitar/sax), Barry Adamson (bass), Dave Formula (keyboards) and drummer Martin Jackson (replaced after just one LP). They advanced a music of many styles and moods with lyrics full of obfuscation and a lush, many-faceted sound, still maintaining the rudimentary passion au courant in the music of 1978. Devoto disbanded Magazine in 1981 to pursue a solo career.
Produced by John Leckie, Real Life sports an eerie Grand Guignol sound throughout its nine punchy pop tunes, including the Devoto/Shelley-composed hit, “Shot by Both Sides.” Adamson’s driving bass and Formula’s electronics dominate the presentation, while Devoto paints a deranged world of betrayal and suspicion, mixing urban alienation with such material as Tibetan mysticism and the Kennedy assassination. But beneath the dark veneer is humor and top-notch music.
Secondhand Daylight, produced by Colin Thurston, benefits from the change in drummers — John Doyle’s style is more fluid and less chunky than his predecessor. Devoto’s simplified lyrics focus on insurmountable emotional distances between people, aurally realized with dislocated, keyboard-heavy music.
The Correct Use of Soap is more upbeat, returning to Real Life‘s popness (without the manic depression), and shows Magazine to be a mature and cohesive band. The mix adds an element of funk, and Devoto reveals a Costello-like flair for playful lyrics. The album includes some of Magazine’s best songs, including “Sweetheart Contract,” “Philadelphia” and “A Song from Under the Floorboards.” Highly recommended. (The subsequent 12-inch appends three 1980 live performances from Manchester — including “Shot by Both Sides” and “Twenty Years Ago” — to the title track.)
Play. records a 1980 Australian concert, but a great performance is marred by production that distances Devoto’s vocals from the music. Although guitarist Robin Simon, John McGeoch’s replacement, fails to integrate fully, the band is relaxed and in control, and the album continues in Soap‘s joyously sardonic vein. “Give Me Everything” and “Twenty Years Ago,” both otherwise non-LP, are included.
Magic, Murder and the Weather is controlled by Dave Formula’s keyboards, with Devoto taking a turn for the grotesque, as on the casual ditty called “The Honeymoon Killers.” The prevalent moods are sarcasm and resignation, making Devoto’s decision to break up the band almost simultaneously with the record’s release no great surprise.
The posthumous After the Fact. collection was released in two drastically different forms, with only five tracks in common. The British edition (green cover) contains an obvious trio of singles and seven album tracks — a nice retrospective, but nothing extraordinary. The American version (red cover) contains B-sides (“My Mind Ain’t So Open,” a 1978 item incorrectly noted as having been released in 1977, “Goldfinger,” “I Love You, You Big Dummy,” “TV Baby” and “The Book”) as well as some of the same album extractions. Rays & Hail, a CD-only retrospective which almost completely absorbs the prior UK compilation, draws on all of the band’s albums, adding the original single version of “Shot by Both Sides.” The final stroke making every last bit of Magazine’s catalogue widely available was Scree, a carefully annotated collection of B-sides (and non-LP A-sides) that repeats ten songs from the American After the Fact. and complements Rays & Hail.
Following Magazine, Devoto continued his quest for independence as a solo artist. Using Dave Formula and Barry Adamson as well as other players, Jerky Versions of the Dream offers his idiosyncratic worldview and original musical outlook on ten tunes that range from funky (“Topless,” “Way Out of Shape”) to ethereal (“Rainy Season”) to playful (“I Admire You”) and beyond. Full appreciation of the album requires a bit of forbearance and effort, but few artists make music this careful and intelligent.
Five years on, Devoto’s next project — Luxuria, a duo with a Liverpudlian musician known as Noko — leads him deep into the waters of overbearing pretension. On Unanswerable Lust, his lyrics quote Proust, spout français, mention Rimbaud and announce such silliness as “I am the street where you live.” Even when the music — an unfocused mix of acoustic delicacy and walloping techno-dance crud — takes hold, it’s swamped by Devoto’s melodramatic quaver.
Beast Box has a higher proportion of quality tracks (credit better songwriting) but the music occasionally slips into a dull void, despite some excellent guitar work by Noko. Worse, Luxuria’s dalliance with dance beats (as on “The Beast Box Is Dreaming” and the old “Jezebel”) falls flat. But Devoto’s specialty — spare, turgid tundras — still pervades tracks like “Stupid Blood,” “Ticket” and “We Keep on Getting There,” and numerous quietly dramatic touches lurk in the album’s shadows.