Tuesday, March 02, 2010

You Bought It, You Couldn't Wait, Could You?

As some of my older friends can probably attest through gritted teeth, I've always had a very large soft spot for Magazine. This is partly aesthetic (they were, after all, one of the most important and talented bands of the post-punk era), and partly sentimental (I saw them twice in my student days in Cambridge, and the second time was one of my early dates with Angela). But Magazine were a band who quit while they were ahead, when presiding genius Howard Devoto evidently decided that life as a rock star didn't suit him and ran away to join a photo library. (His subsequent musical projects, in Luxuria and ShelleyDevoto, never seem to have been more than hobbyist exercises.) Anyway, I presumably don't count as a proper Magazine fan; I didn't get to the reunion concerts last year...

Still, I did eventually get around to picking up the DVD of one of those shows (from Wire-Sound), so I guess that I get some latent fan points. I also get a pretty good down-the-line concert DVD, simply but slickly enough shot and presented given the slightly marginal nature of the exercise. It turns out that the members of the band have lasted pretty well, absent the sadly deceased John McGeoch, as has the band's music (but we knew that). In particular. when the event kicks off with "The Light Pours Out Of Me", we are forcibly reminded that Barry Adamson provided much of the heart and soul of the band, generating bass lines that are at once thunderous and melodious. (I'm not sure about his current apparent taste for top hats, but with that talent, he could get away with wearing a tutu.) Across the stage from him, McGeoch's replacement, Noko (who previously worked with Devoto in Luxuria) provided a remarkably effective emulation of one of the great rock guitarists of the last thirty years, only occasionally slipping into conventional axe hero antics that McGeoch would surely have avoided.

But it's the man between them who counts, and who's ... not changed, indeed who looks amazing unchanged (but he always looked a bit like an ageless alien reptile), but illuminated by time - and the main thing we can now admit is what a (deliberately) funny man Howard Devoto really is. Actually, Magazine in general and Devoto's lyrics and stage presence in particular were always loaded with irony and flippant surrealism, but jokes weren't what smart post-punk rock was supposed to be about back in 1980, and Devoto's threatening songs, laden with alienated lyrics, chilly electronic soundscapes, and razor-sharp Adamson and McGeoch riffs, could seem terribly serious if you let them. Now, though, when Devoto shows up in a pink jacket and plus fours, and announces that he's reformed the band to impress a woman, the joke becomes a bit more explicit. We've all had thirty years to relax (well, I have - I hope and would imagine that Magazine have fans these days whose parents hadn't even met when I saw them at the Cambridge Corn Exchange), and we can allow ourselves a more open awareness of the ridiculous.

Which reminds me - one fannish note. "Model Worker", a love song in the jargon of Chinese Communism (yes, some of us got that joke even back then) includes the line "I know the cadre will look after me". This was widely misheard when it was first played as "that Carter", and in 1981, Devoto played along by singing "I know that Reagan will look after me" instead. In 2009, he sang "I know Obama will look after me"... The only other odd lyrical tweak I noticed was in "Permafrost"; in the first chorus, "I will" became "you want me to", and there were even mumbles about political correctness from the sofa. But in subsequent iterations, that still-chilling-thank-you chorus reverted to its original form.

Oh, and I wonder - were these the first Magazine concerts with a backing chorus line (of two)? One of these ladies - Rosalie Cunningham, I believe - took duet parts on one or two songs, and had the Magazine cool down just right, with a perfect combination of a detached gaze, a razor-sharp black bob, and an LBD - plus a tendency to sit down on stage to read a magazine when her voice wasn't needed. She deserves credit.

The extras on the disc are pretty minimal - one song from a rehearsal room, one from a different concert - and there was very little new; just a re-enactment of greatness. But no matter. Sentiment assuaged.

When I ordered this DVD, I also picked up the CD which was apparently indirectly responsible for the reunion concerts happening - keyboard player Dave Formula's new Satellite Sweetheart, featuring every surviving member of the band (and indeed featuring a McGeoch credit on one track - presumably a sample from an old recording or something), which assembly inspired someone to think that they could also do some stage shows - along with Live and Intermittent, a collection of live tracks from Magazine's heyday which Formula has recently assembled. The latter may be moderately interesting as a historical document, but it's a very rough recording; completists-only stuff, really. The former is, well, despite all those appearances (on different tracks), not really how one imagines Magazine would have evolved, even over thirty years; Formula is evidently one of those (extremely talented) rock band members who'd really, really like to be showing what he can do by playing something slightly different - in this case, something like lounge jazz, a lot of the time. Adamson has gone the same way at times over the years, to be sure, but he at least has a taste for the sinister in his atmospherics. There were times on Satellite Sweetheart when I was irresistibly reminded of Derek Smalls's excursions into free jazz, but without the thundering bass (or the stunned audience). Still, it does feature Devoto singing on "Via Sacra"...

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