Maybe it's right to be nervous (again)

Aloof, nihilistic, uncompromising: Howard Devoto's Magazine are the darlings of musical cognoscenti. But were they ever actually any good?
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The Independent Culture

Ten years ago I moved from London to Norwich to do a degree. Apart from the occasional pentagram-daubed bus shelter in the witchier outposts, the location seemed lacking on the excitement front. One night, desperate for distraction, I collared someone who looked vaguely cool. "You'll want the Bricklayers' Arms," he said. It was quite a hike, but it rocked, had a lock-in and - the coup de grâce - "They've got 'Shot By Both Sides' on the jukebox." This was 15 years after the song came out. The place was a sea of bikers and, though I didn't touch the dial, the jukebox played that Magazine number twice before I left. It sounded good.

Ten years ago I moved from London to Norwich to do a degree. Apart from the occasional pentagram-daubed bus shelter in the witchier outposts, the location seemed lacking on the excitement front. One night, desperate for distraction, I collared someone who looked vaguely cool. "You'll want the Bricklayers' Arms," he said. It was quite a hike, but it rocked, had a lock-in and - the coup de grâce - "They've got 'Shot By Both Sides' on the jukebox." This was 15 years after the song came out. The place was a sea of bikers and, though I didn't touch the dial, the jukebox played that Magazine number twice before I left. It sounded good.

I wonder how Howard Devoto - a man who's been called the "most enigmatic and the most revered" of punk icons - would feel about that? In at the start of punk, he embraced its nihilism but rejected its everyman approach in favour of an almost arrogant intellectualism. Though Magazine's lifespan was short - from 1977 to 1981 - their cult status has them cited as an influence by Radiohead, Elastica and Blur.

Nihilistic intellect is just the sort of thing that'll have them annotated by the more reverential music mags, which will fall genuflecting upon two retrospective releases - a best of called Magazine (Where The Power Is) and an assortment of antiquities, Magazine (Maybe It's Right To Be Nervous Now).

In the current dreary climate, we've taken to praising any old git who had a couple of albums out, as long as it was more than 20 years ago. Are Magazine worth the column inches? What's always worth something is thought and attitude, in fulsome supply when, back in 1975, philosophy student Devoto, obsessed with the Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop's Stooges, advertised for euphonium players to do covers of "Sister Ray". Pete Shelley responded and the Buzzcocks were conceived. They played a couple of shows with the Sex Pistols, put out the "Spiral Scratch" EP, recorded in an afternoon - and then Devoto bailed out. "I don't like most of this New Wave music," ran his leaving statement. "I don't like music. I don't like movements. Despite all that, things still have to be said."

Maybe he had a point: punk got complacent fast and could be just as limiting as rock had ever been. He formed Magazine with Barry Adamson on bass and John McGeogh (later of Siouxsie and the Banshees) on lead guitar. The debut single "Shot..." was breathtaking, a speedball of serrated guitar and Devoto's snarling whine. Their debut album Real Life held more splendour, its high points the schizoid harpsichord of "Motorcade" and the suspiciously messianic "The Light Pours Out of Me".

As people scrutinised the words, Devoto came to be seen as a literary punk guru. At the best of times, his lyrics were a paranoid blend of Kafka and Cohen. At the best of times. But the follow-up, Secondhand Daylight, lurched like a knackered shopping trolley toward the sliproad of pretension, its abstruse lyrics backed by bludgeoning prog-rock where an art-rock stiletto was intended.

Subsequent albums were variable, and their reception mixed. Maybe aloofness isn't the best qualification for a career in popular culture - but it was that misanthropy, channelled into frenzy, that produced such rip-roaringly sneering singles as "Song from Under the Floorboards".

As Magazine crumbled, Devoto began and ended the lesser-known Luxuria; these days, he manages the archive of a London photographic agency. Still trying to solve the hoary puzzle of existence, he's recording a spoken-word autobiography for the National Sound Archive. "I suppose most people in my position would try to find another niche in the music business," he told Michael Bracewell in February this year, "but I have too much damaging, damaging pride. And if you take my lack of confidence, and you take my pride - well, there you really are shot by both sides."

Will he feel any better if, after all these years, we're ready now for Magazine?

'Magazine (Where The Power Is)' and 'Magazine (Maybe It's Right To Be Nervous Now)' are released on 25 September

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