Book Review: Magazine | The Biography – Helen Chase

Northumbria Univ. Press | 2010 | 288 pp.

Helen Chase’s biography of Magazine was a book that I was eager to buy. That says reams, since over the last decade, I’ve thinned many books out of my “library.” This is because I have come to realize that music is my best entertainment value, and I have virtually ceased to buy movie DVDs and books. That money is just better used to buy more music! But when a favorite band of mine has a book written about them, my interest peaks considerably. I still have room in my Record Cell for the occasional book on music, Especially of it’s all about Magazine, the first, and best group to fly the Post-Punk flag.

I had placed the book on my Amazon wish list in order to remember that I wanted it and when my wife checked it out for birthday present research, she ordered me a copy of the limited edition hardcover; designed, numbered, and signed by the great Malcolm Garrett, Magazine’s primary graphic designer. The makes the handsome tome all the more welcome in my home. I must say that the reading of it has only served to sadden me as the overall thrust of the book seemed to be “well, Howard was difficult, so not many records were sold.”

The foresight of Howard Devoto in leaving The Buzzcocks after their first, indie 7″ single, was impeccable. That act made him the man least likely to flog a dead horse in rock. Ever. This volume begins with the aftermath of the Sex Pistols gig that Pete Shelley and Devoto booked in to the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976 which was one of the most influential concerts ever in generating not only a sea change in local rock music heard ’round the world, but becoming the impetus for the formation of many seminal acts in its wake. It follows Devoto as he sees Punk becoming calcified into a stance by the start of 1977, so he decamped to originate Post-Punk.

The backstories of the rest of Magazine are told here, for the first time I’ve ever seen them aired. Most surprisingly, bassist Barry Adamson was completely inexperienced on bass guitar, or indeed, any other instruments, making his excellent playing within the group all the more notable in retrospect. Keyboard player Dave Formula is revealed to be substantially older than the rest of the band and it was he who had credentials a mile long, as if any ears who heard his playing would think otherwise. The band quickly developed a buzz once they began gigging and soon the golden ears of Simon Draper, A+R for Virgin Records [when they crucially mattered] made the offer they couldn’t refuse.

Their first single was the brilliant “Shot By Both Sides” and when Devoto reluctantly agreed to promote the single on Top of the Pops the second time they were asked, his steadfast refusal to play the miming game as required by BBC edict, is credited with killing any forward momentum the band may have been building up to then. After their appearance, the record dropped in the charts. And by that time, it seems it was open season on Magazine. The music press had decided that this gnomish intellectual would bear the brunt of their scorn; largely, it seems, for daring to evidence any intelligence at all. The press were certainly more used to dealing with tractable “rock stars” of limited intelligence. Devoto’s hijinx included memorably, sending a check for ten Pounds to the scribe of a particularly lumpen hostile review and proclaiming in the accompanying letter “sorry it couldn’t be more.” A photostat of the check and letter is included in the book. That is a lot easier than punching journalist Jon “Savage” Sage in the chops following a perceived wronging, but ultimately, just as bad for the career as anything The Stranglers ever did.

It’s particularly devastating to hear Simon Draper of Virgin ponder in its pages on why should he “sign Simple Minds – they’re not as good as Magazine, and we can’t even sell them?” only to come to the conclusion that the balding Devoto could never put himself across as a sex symbol, and this Kerr kid could. Ouch! With executives like that… who needs enemies? When their second album “Secondhand Daylight” came in a gatefold sleeve and featured more keyboards than guitars, it was perceived as a retreat to Prog Rock! Imagine a time when a gatefold sleeve held such political import! The writing was on the wall by the time of their impossibly accomplished third album, “The Correct Use Of Soap.” This was my entrée to magazine and it quite frankly plays like a greatest hits album. That Magazine had accomplished so much and yet wrapped it all in a dazzling cocoon of appealing immediacy, and still didn’t sell very many copies, dealt a deathblow to the struggling band.

Afterward, their amazingly talented guitarist, John McGeoch, left to join Siouxsie and the Banshees, leaving Magazine to pick up the then defunct Ultravox’s equally amazing Robin Simon for an Australian tour that was immortalized on the live album “Play.” Simon was apparently in a bad space after Ultravox came crashing down around him, and didn’t move to put his stamp on the material. Disenchanted, the band brought in Ben Mandelson, a friend of Devoto to play on what Devoto had already decided would be their last album, 1981’s “Magic, Murder, and the Weather.” The recording was fraught with the sacking of the producer with mainstay Martin Hannett brought in midway to pick up the pieces, and the group had split up even before the disc had been released.

Had the band not decided to reform against all odds in 2009 for a series of concerts with all of the living members participating [longtime collaborator Noko filled McGeoch’s spot in the lineup], then this book would have been an all but unreadable exercise in bitter regret. This came about following all previous members participation in Dave Formula’s first solo album, “Satellite Sweetheart” in 2008. Fortunately, the band have provided a more hopeful final chapter for the 2009 biography that sees the band playing a series of gigs that managed to build on their formidable legacy of work, which had aged not a whit in the intervening 28 years. The 2009 shows were the sort of gigs one would attend with 50 year old men weeping like babes in the front row.

Bassist Barry Adamson had the most to give up in returning to the Magazine stage. His subsequent career both with Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds and his own substantial and influential body of almost cinematic solo work had placed him in a far more successful level of achievement than Magazine had ever known. As Adamson cannily put it, to re-join Magazine for a tour would be like a game of Snakes & Ladders and rolling a score that took him back to when he was 18 again and just starting out. But ultimately, his acknowledgement of the effect it would have on the fans who had never managed to ever see the band tipped his hand, so he cast his lot with the band for the tour.

The book takes a declamatory and not analytical stance on the work of the group. All members were interviewed for this volume and it is primarily the story of the band and its members journey; not an in depth examination of their art. As such, it maintains a somewhat perfunctory air. Fortunately, the appendix where Malcolm Garrett is interviewed and the Magazine sleeves are examined in detail adds some welcome artistic analysis to the proceedings.  A large complement of photographs, then and now, also compensates for the somewhat clinical text.

The book concludes on the series of concerts that saw the band feted ex post facto by a new generation of fans that had sprung up in their long absence. But much has occurred in the time since the shows of 2009 and the subsequent printing of this book. Not surprisingly, Barry Adamson, who had the most to lose in rejoining Magazine, has done the tour and moved back to his solo spotlight. He recently directed his first short film, “The Therapist” and released the soundtrack to it, which is his new album. As for Magazine, their first album in 30 years will be released in two weeks and will commence the next chapter in this Magazine.

– 30 –

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7 Responses to Book Review: Magazine | The Biography – Helen Chase

  1. Echorich says:

    Magazine certainly did usher in Post Punk, but maybe timing wasn’t Devoto’s strong suit. When Real Life came out labels were spending all their time scrambling to get lightweight punk bands in the charts and dealing with the fact that none of their 70’s supergroups were selling albums anymore.
    I too was introduced to Magazine sideways, Soap, Real Life, Secondhand Daylight, Play, MM&TW. Love them all but Soap stands out at their masterpiece and one of the 10 best albums of the 80’s and possibly all time for me. I am much more a fan of MM&TW than most I know. There is certainly a finality in much of it but some wonderful work in About The Weather, Suburban Rhonda, Vigilance, The Great Man’s Secret and The Garden.
    I’m curious to read this, if more for the interviews than anything else. Devoto worked with a photo agency as an archivist in the 90’s and I had a few dealings with him – none on the phone unfortunately (or maybe fortunately-saving me from gushing), agency to agency, at the time. He is most certainly at the top of my ‘who would I love to sit down with and talk about just about anything list.’
    Barry Adamson not playing on the upcoming dates has made my mind up that I will hold off on using my airmiles to fly to London for the show. The magical time would have been 2009 and that chance came and went.
    I look forward to the new album and our discussing it.

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  2. ronkanefiles says:

    I saw Magazine live in California several times in 1979 and 1980. Easily the best band of the era to play live in L.A. The book was interesting, but I agree with “perfunctory” – the interviews were good, but we all know how the story ‘ended’. Can’t wait for the new Magazine album. Those still alive shall discuss it.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      ronkanefiles – You won’t have to wait long (cryptic laughter).

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      • Echorich says:

        I can’t wait for your review Monk. I’ve purchased it and am anxiously awaiting it’s arrival. I will admit I have had opportunity to hear 4 track from it, but will wait till we at parity before I espouse my opinions.
        I wish I had discovered them early enough to have seen them at Hurrah’s in NYC in 79. By all accounts it was a memorable evening. I know a few of the tracks on last year’s Live & Intermittent are from that show, so thankfully there is a document.

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          Echorich – I have preordered the album and await its arrival as well. I still need “Live + Intermittent.” Reader ronkanefiles was in attendance at the LA portion of that disc. What I want to know is this: did Julian Cope buy Devoto’s mike stand at a post-Magazine boot sale?

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  3. ronkanefiles says:

    Cope had it for the L.A. shows of Teardrop Explodes (@ Whisky A Go Go), not long after Magazine had been thru town (same venue) – maybe less than 1.5 years after the “Urgh” show?

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