fri 22/09/2017

Magazine: The Biography | reviews, news & interviews

Magazine: The Biography

Magazine: The Biography

Our most bookish band finally get their own book

Helen Chase’s biography of post-punk band Magazine is in some ways a textbook example of how to do the job correctly. In fact, with its classically austere cover (designed by Malcolm Garrett, who did many record sleeves for the band) this handsome paperback even looks like a textbook. Back in the late 1970s Magazine never quite made the same impact as the grim and intense Joy Division or the emptily anthemic Simple Minds, who went on to huge cult status and stadium glory, respectively. As for why things turned out this way, to a large degree Helen Chase just lets Devoto and co tell their own story, and fortunately they are now ready to reflect back on a sometimes difficult career, with a yawning chasm of more than a quarter of a century right at its centre: Magazine split up in 1981 and reformed earlier this year.

But even though this is Magazine we are talking about, it’s not all doom and Secondhand Daylight gloom - far from it. For example, as a connoisseur of the fortuitous confluence of events, I was delighted by bassist Barry Adamson’s story of the day he was given a bass guitar with only two strings on it by a friend. Adamson had tried to learn violin at school but his chin was apparently too square. Then he'd given guitar a go but it had proved too fiddly. So thanks to this chance gift, the next day he found himself heading for Virgin Records in Manchester to buy the extra strings he needed and that was where he saw Howard Devoto’s advertisement seeking musicians to “Perform and record music fast and slow”. Adamson bought the strings, phoned Devoto to arrange a meeting the following day, and began practising on an instrument he’d never played before. “It was like seeing your own destiny in a single moment. I knew I had to make that call – there was no question."

I also enjoyed Devoto’s confession that he’d been tempted to keep the patch of carpet he’d stood on while recording the vocals for the John Barry-esque “Shot By Both Sides” (from their first album Real Life), so engorged with prescient significance had the moment felt. But that wasn’t real life. Real life decreed that after a stylised non-performance by Devoto on Top of the Pops, “Shot by Both Sides” became the only record in the history of the show to actually go down in the charts following an act’s appearance.

And so the anecdotes from the band keep coming, interspersed with unreserved praise from the music press one week, then vicious attacks the next. Chase mainly just interjects with “He then went on to say…” or “Nick Misery-guts of the NME wrote…” in order to provide connective tissue. This left me constantly wondering what she felt about this or that album, or this or that decision the band made along the way. And was she even a fan? I missed that authorial voice providing a thought-generating overview. But let’s not be too harsh. The book does do what it says on the cover, it’s a smooth enough read, and it is thoroughly comprehensive in reporting of the facts. And Chase may not have felt it was her role to offer opinions or judgements. But I still suspect that the target reader would want to know whether the author is a passionate fan of the band she’s writing about, or just a gun-for-hire hack (I hasten to add that the publisher has subsequently informed me that Chase was, and is still, a big fan).

These quibbles aside, I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in the minutiae of perhaps the only band to mix big funky basslines with navel-gazing misery and get away with it. There’s even a chapter devoted to the design of the LP sleeves and posters. We get to learn how the previously mentioned Garrett “longed for a serif typeface” or took a fancy to another typeface because it was “quite rounded and human”.

Then finally there’s the pleasant surprise of finding out that all of Devoto’s lyrics for Magazine are tucked away at the back. On reading them for the first time without icy musical accompaniment, I find myself wondering if J.G. Ballard had been an influence. But any subjective analysis of Devoto’s slippery words isn’t attempted by the author either. So that’s another reason to hope that Paul Morley, or some other earnest pop culture romantic, will eventually give us a brick-thick manifesto entitled, perhaps, The Importance of Surrealism and Self-loathing in 20th-Century Popular Music, with Magazine as its burnished hub. After all, they produced one of the most sublime yet least known singles of all time with “A Song from Under the Floorboards” (from The Correct Use of Soap) so they deserve that much.

  • Magazine, The Biography by Helen Chase (Northumbria Press). Buy it here

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