A great and very unique post-punk band. They’ve become incredibly underrated, and all 4 of their records are worth hearing.
Real Life *
Secondhand Daylight *
The Correct Use Of Soap
Magic, Murder And The Weather *
REAL LIFE (1978)
I don’t know about this band’s reputation in their late-70s hay day (and from reading Christgau’s venomous reactionary take on their output, I assume they were quite well respected), but in 2011 these guys are INCREDIBLY underrated. They put out four distinct and creative albums in a short time span, complete with great singles, a unique sound, awesome playing, and a totally dynamic/oddball front-man (ex-Buzzcock Howard Devoto). They are almost an prototypical representation of that late-70s crosswords where non-prog art-rock and punk started to merge – perhaps that’s why this is debut is sometimes considered the first “post-punk” album. Their music is very influenced by Lou Reed/Roxy Music glam, and ESPECIALLY Berlin-era Bowie, but the most alike-sounding band I can think of is classic-era Wire (though they’re considerably more “pop” than Wire). They take a little bit of warming up to, especially Devoto’s unfriendly vocal style, but they are a band well worth getting to know (and unlike some of their post-punk contemporaries, they haven’t been ground into the dust with over-exposure). Their reliance on synths date them for some, and spark some “prog” accusations. Some of those accusations are warranted at times, but not in a BAD way mind you. These guys usually sound more “art-rock” than prog – but they do have some arguably proggy moments here and there. Usually those moments are akin to the bad-ass sections of Yes and Genesis records as opposed to the dorky sections of Rush ones. ANYWAY…most of this album is great – but there are also some utter classics. The opener “Definitive Gaze” switches from a herky-jerky carnival-esque bass groove to a totally bombastic-proggy section – it’s a fantastic recording (early John Leckie) and a killer song. Then there’s jaw-droppingly amazing punk single ‘Shot By Both Sides,” apparently a Buzzcocks holdover. Whatever it is, it’s got one of the best hooks ever to come out of the late-70s punk movement. A totally awesome song, and the band’s most beloved. Finally, we have the glorious “The Light Pours Out of Me,” which nearly steals Gary Glitter’s famous guitar riff, but uses it to powerful anthemic effect. The song has an ever-evolving arrangement, and it’s deceptively simple. But VERY effective. It’s just an incredible arrangement. The other most notable track for me is “The Great Beautician in the Sky,” which is sort of a punk-rock early-Genesis theater song. Very catchy set of eccentric hooks in a suite-like structure. The only problem spot on the record comes in the middle – “Burst” and “Motorcade” are two lengthy tunes that emphasize the atmosphere over the thrust and hooks, and they threaten to stop the record in it’s tracks. But even those grew on me, and I’m very comfortable calling this a near-classic album.
SECONDHAND DAYLIGHT (1979)
When I first heard Magazine’s second record, I was VERY disappointed. Where’s the energy? Where are the hooks? Why do these songs sound so messy? Why is there so much keyboard? But MAN did it grow on me. This album represents a fairly sharp shift in tone from the first – things are weirder and less immediate, the hooks hidden in off-putting arrangements, and some of the songs seem to self-destruct before they even have the chance to get going. But if you let this record sink in, you’ll find that it’s incredibly accomplished, and almost as good as the first. The 2nd side in particular just simply RULES. “Back To Nature” is a contender for best Magazine song ever – the band sounds incredible, the vocal melody is powerful, the tension is palpable. There’s a bass groove that kicks in toward the middle of the song that defines “prog-punk” – it sounds like Chris Squire coming of age in the punk era. Then there’s the lyrically INSANE “Permafrost,” with its great and nutty chorus hook (“I will drug you and FUCK you”). And we also get the album’s best angry pop song, the snarling “Believe That I Understand.” Side A is more troublesome, but there is some stellar material hidden there as well. The opener is the lengthy “Feed The Enemy,” which kicks off the record with a synth instrumental, then rides a minimalist post-punk groove to a romantic sounding “chorus.” I’m not a huge fan of the keyboard tones that chime in during that chorus, but the song is effectively menacing nonetheless. “Rhythm of Cruelty” is an ALMOST classic – it starts off great, has an awesome verse hook, and then seems to meander until it loses all sense of direction, before coming back to the hooks. It’s energetic and fun, but I wish they had come up with a slightly better structure. (And actually, there’s a single version as a bonus track that FIXES all those problems! It turns the “chorus” into a bridge, and suddenly the song works way better.) The best song on Side A is easily “Cut-Out Shapes” which has an INCREDIBLE funk-punk-middle-section. Barry Adamson really shines as an incredible bassist throughout this album (and the rest of this band’s career). “Talk To The Body” has a guitar riff that sounds a bit TOO similar to similar Berlin-era Bowie. “The Thin Air” is a very Floyd-esque instrumental. A lot of critics refer to this as an “icy” album – maybe they’re just getting influenced by the title “Perma-frost” – I really don’t understand exactly what they’re talking about. Isn’t most post-punk “icy?” This is definitely worth hearing, though start with REAL LIFE and be prepared for a “grower” sort of album with this one.
NOTE: The bonus tracks on my issue include great funky single “Give Me Everything,” a fun Captain Beefheart cover, that single version of “Rhythm of Cruelty” mentioned previously, and a fun horn-heavy garage rocker called “TV Baby.” If you swapped the album “Rhythm” for the single, and included the extra tracks, this would possibly be the best overall Magazine record!!!!
THE CORRECT USE OF SOAP (1980)
WHOA! I was not expecting this much of a shift in style and aesthetic from these guys. Suddenly we’ve moved from weirdo-prog-punk to upbeat new wave pop. It’s downright odd to hear Howard Devoto sounding this cheerful. Lyrically this is still dark and intellectual, but the music is funky and driving and utilizes major keys and pop vocal hooks. There’s also an unusually high energy level on this record. BUT — it also seems like the slightest album in the catalog, and the song-writing never quite rises above “enjoyable while playing but ultimately forgettable.” The band sounds incredible yet again, but the arrangements have clearly been dumbed down and the SOUND is a lot less interesting (Joy Division’s producer came onboard for this album – which is strange considering how much the band has lightened up…it also means that the drum sound has now entered the shit pile…can you tell how I feel about Joy Division?). This is my least favorite of all the band’s albums, but it’s still well worth hearing – some people have even called it their masterpiece, but I’m not buying that AT ALL. The synth usage has been dialed back a bit, but when it does appear it’s even more dated than on the previous record (and used in a more new wave fashion as opposed to an art-rocky one). Anyway, there is one TOTAL classic on here – closer “A Song From Under The Floorboard” is a genius song with a fantastic chorus. I’m also a big fan of the fractured grooving “Stuck,” which sounds remarkably like a more elaborate Minutemen track. A lot of the other tracks have great ideas but never quite gel as songs – “Sweetheart Contract” has a cool bass (synth bass?) groove and an interesting lyrical conceit but I can’t remember much else about it…”Philadelpha” has a neat Talking Heads-ish scratchy guitar part…”I Want To Burn Again” has a fun glammy call and response chorus….but none of these tunes really lift off. Everybody cites the openers “Because You’re Frightened” and “Model Worker” as highlights, but after my shock from the stylistic shift wore off, they seemed less strong than some of the later songs – though they both have great arrangements. There’s also a post-punk version of Sly’s “Thank You (Falettine Be Mice Elf Agin.” It’s a solid grooving cover, and Barry Adamson’s bass tone rules. Raise this album up another half-grade if you really love it – it’s a good and interesting record, but I just don’t think it goes too far beyond that except for the closing track and some fleeting moments here and there.
This is the band’s sole live album, and guitarist John McGeoch was already out of the band at this point (he joined Siouxsie And The Banshees). But the guy they replaced him with sounds PERFECT, and I wouldn’t have even known the difference had I not looked at the credits. The band plays fantastically throughout this record – it’s a really excellent live album. I’m a big fan of their studio albums, but these guys really let it rip onstage – the energy level is through the roof throughout this record. Most of the songs are rendered fairly similarly to the recorded versions (with added energy), but there’s enough variation in the details to make them sound fresh. Plus, Devoto is a real ham. The song selection on the original LP is a bit odd – no “Shot By Both Sides!” – but the “Play +” remastered edition added a bunch of excellent additional cuts, and plugged in most of the holes. There’s a GREAT uptempo version of “Feed The Enemy” which I like more than the album version. “My Tulpa” is all ragged and nasty sounding, which works wonderfully. This is definitely not the place to START with the band, but it’s a pretty impressive document of their talent (and since the production is rawer, with less synths, it might appeal to a casual listener even more than the studio records).
MAGIC MURDER AND THE WEATHER (1981)
Call the underrated police!!! For some reason, everybody completely writes off Magazine’s final record. I’m guessing that’s mainly because it must have across as a “last gasp” effort to their fans at the time – John McGeoch wasn’t in the the band anymore, and I believe Devoto left before they could even tour on this one. Well, I think is a actually a minor step UP from the previous album – it’s a continuation of that lighter experimental pop sound, but the ideas on this kick a bit more, and it’s almost completely consistent in its creative energy. Granted, there isn’t a show-stopper like “A Song From Under The Floorboards,” but this is an incredibly enjoyable listen and a very worthy part of the Magazine canon – it shouldn’t be passed off as some sort of mutant coda. There’s a little bit of a Motown-soul vibe running through some of this material, albeit in a very warped sense of those terms. Highlights for me include the groovy opener “About The Weather,” the intricate and tightly arranged “Honeymoon Killers,” the AWESOME moody post-punk-reggae “Great Man’s Secrets,” the super fun and catchy “This Poison,” and the quirky little pop tune “Suburban Rhonda.” This album leads me to believe the band had even more juice in them – and of course, some of the players would go onto to bigger groups. So thank you Magazine for your excellent final record, and for being a friend. A friend that deserves some new retrospective appreciation.