My real gateway into punk was a set of BBC documentaries aired in 2013 (I think) called Punk Britannia, with a compilation of old television performances called Punk Britannia at the BBC. This was how I discovered Gang of Four’s ‘To Hell With Poverty’ performance, my first musical epiphany article.
There are still many moments of this compilation which I hold closely. PiL playing ‘Death Disco’ on Top of the Pops, The Clash on Something Else and Dr Feelgood on OGWT were highlights of a stellar array of artistry.
However, I was strangely intrigued by a performance of ‘Shot By Both Sides’ by a band called Magazine on Top of the Pops. It was something I couldn’t really explain – I didn’t particularly love the song (and still don’t) though something about the singer’s aura, his manner (even his hairline) absolutely fascinated me. He looked so bored, so lethargic, as if this performance on national television was a habitual chore. Each vocal was delivered with this kind of dragging, a laboured mumble that for some reason utterly captivated me. He stood still for nearly all the performance, his eyes staring through the screen. I was totally perplexed.
I had to listen to more. I raced to Spotify and went straight to Real Life, their debut album from 1978. Even the album artwork was so fantastically odd, what would the music be like?
I’d heard punk throughout my childhood, Mum and Dad’s music in the back of the car kind of thing, and I had a fairly eclectic taste for a fourteen-year old, but this was like nothing I’d ever heard before.
I was taken into a mythical realm of fascinating punk experimentation; from the very first second of ‘Definitive Gaze’ I knew I’d discovered something totally out of this world, the whirring synth of Dave Formula in beautiful combat with the soaring guitar of John McGeoch, with Barry Adamson’s bass orchestrating the unfolding of what was, and will remain to be, one of my favourite songs of all time. I loved the instrumental moments, the flourishing of the guitar after the keyboard interlude is simply divine, a beautiful burst of life and vitality. It’s a truly excellent theme tune for an album that reeks with sinister creepiness but lavishes with artistic richness – simply stunning.
What I felt was also brilliant about this album was its total rejection of the original punk aesthetic in a time when punk was still only just holding its own in the musical arena. It offered a retreat from the three-chord thrash of its predecessors, Devoto’s goodbye to a movement that he shaped so meticulously with the Spiral Scratch EP, yet left decaying in its own repetition and depleting innovation.
More superb tracks follow – Motorcade broods with dormant intensity before erupting with a clinical punch, The Light Pours Out of Me is just stunning in its simplicity yet layered so expertly, while Recoil is an absolute frenzy, Devoto straining every vocal cord by the end with sheer power and commitment.
What gives me even greater pride for this album is that in October 2014 I was on the ‘Good Day Bad Day’ segment for Steve Lamacq’s show on BBC Radio 6, where I chose a song for a good day and a song for a bad day. On the bad day was Pink Flag by Wire (which I’m sure I will write about soon – it’s an all-time favourite of mine), while on the good day was, of course, Definitive Gaze. I’m pretty sure it was the first time Magazine had been played on BBC radio for at least six months, which gave me even greater pride.
I think the story of Magazine is an extremely frustrating one, showered with critical acclaim yet sheltered from commercial appreciation. They are easily one of the most underappreciated bands from the punk era – I still listen to Real Life in total awe, taken by its textural and structural complexity.
Real Life took me on an incredible path and helped me discover more avenues in post-punk and beyond. What has and always will stand out is Devoto’s shameless lyricism and voice – it’s a total departure from musical convention and a reinvention of what ‘good’ singing really is, at times a strained nasal bark, at others a collected and intellectual poetic commentary that still maintained the roughest of edges.
All in all, with the backing of some of post-punk’s most cultured and accomplished musicians, Real Life was a true masterpiece of its time, though seemingly forgotten by many. It was my first complete moment of musical euphoria, and will always remain a special album for me, and hopefully for the whole of the music world too.