Magazine – Magic, Murder + The Weather | 1981 – 2.5
Ah yes, the red headed stepchild of the Magazine canon. Well… pink-headed at least. Magazine’s final album before disbanding for 28 years was recorded under difficult circumstances. Replacement guitarist Robin Simon stayed only long enough for a world tour before decamping to re-join John Foxx for his second album sessions. Magazine were once again left without a guitarist. In stepped Ben Mandleson, who knew Howard Devoto from college, but he stayed only long enough to record this album. The group disbanded after recording it and were defunct by the time it was released.
And it gets worse than that, actually. The album was “recorded and engineered” by John Brand, who had recently produced the preceding Magazine live album, “Play.” But he is not listed as “producer.” That’s because the group were unhappy with his efforts and called upon new recruit Ben Mandelson to deliver the bad news to Brand that his efforts were no longer needed. At loose ends, the band enlisted Martin Hannett again [he had produced their “Correct Use of Soap” album the year prior] to mix the thing before kicking it out of the door.
With Devoto knowing going into it that he would leave the group after recording it, one would have every right to expect a disastrous recording. As it stands, it’s largely better than that. While it is the runt of the Magazine litter, I need hardly point out that their contemporaries [Simple Minds, Ultravox, Human League] have all stumbled far harder and more disastrously than did Magazine on an album that no one must have been very strongly invested in. It’s a testament to their innate artistry that it’s as good as it is anyway.
It certainly starts out with a bang. The only single from the album, “About The Weather” sounds for all the world like a Motown recording, as performed by Manchester art rockers! The rhythm section is “right in the pocket” and Formula’s keyboards predominate. Devoto’s lyrics, as per usual, are as cliché-free as ever, but the lighter sound saw them actually charting as high as they ever did with this single. Hannett’s robust mix of the material clearly puts it in its best light. I can’t say that for the rest of the album. It sounds anemically thin and murky. I would imagine that this was the reason why Brand was sacked, as he oversaw the recording and engineering of the tracks. It sounds as if Virgin heard the results, brought Hannett in and told him “spend a week on ‘Weather,’ – it’s the single, but don’t trouble yourself more than a day on the rest.”
“So Lucky” evidences a lighter touch than the band ever had, up to this point. “Vigilance” has haunting music, courtesy of bassist Adamson. “Come Alive” is as loopy a number as they’ve ever done, with a chaotic mix that had the backing vocals, just as low in the mix as the lead vocals. The lyrics were inspired by an erroneous transliteration of the “Pepsi – Brings Good Things To Life” late 70s slogan into Chinese. The resulting billboards were notorious for saying “Pepsi Cola – Brings Your Ancestors Back From The Grave,” hence the chorus to this amazing little number.
Side two begins with the band’s first foray into reggae with “Great Man’s Secrets.” While John Doyle’s drums sound thin and listless on much of this recording, at least on this track he gets to employ percussion for the first time ever and that fattens up the sound somewhat. It’s reggae by way of horror movie soundtrack courtesy of Formula’s keyboards. The next cut, “This Poison,” take an even more traditional stab at reggae; complete with melodica. “Naked Eye” is a largely instrumental bit of beatnik jazz. It’s a shock when Devoto comes in with some lyrics half way through that sound ripped from his notebook with no great forethought. Every time I hear it I wonder “why didn’t they leave this as an instrumental?”
“Suburban Rhonda” is another song typified by melodic whimsey, as are most of the songs co-written with Formula. Listening to this playful number, it sounds diametrically opposed to the sort of noise the band were making two albums prior. It’s as if knowing they were going to give up they decided to see just how far the Magazine clay could be stretched without breaking. The same “go for broke” attitude, coupled with a “what the hell” sort of ennui makes this album the most fascinating of misfires. One that isn’t particularly bad on a track by track basis, but one that clearly does not gel together as a coherent album. Mandelson is all but inaudible as guitarist on these recordings. You can hear his rhythm doubled with Adamson’s bass on the single. “Great Man’s Secrets” has him skanking away on a prominent rhythm line. More than anything, this album was a chance for Dave Formula’s keyboards to grab the spotlight in the absence of any stronger egos caring at this point. Ultimately, the results were ultimately scuttled by the insubstantial recording and engineering of these tracks. It’s hard to believe that the juggernaut of a band evidenced on “Soap” could come to this end just 12 months later; not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Next – Time to tie up loose ends…