Never mind the Buzzcocks, I've still got a day job

Punk hero Howard Devoto reinvents himself but says there isn't 'a lot at stake'
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Officially, it was an unannounced gig, slid unobtrusively into a Mute Records bill at the ICA, but news such as this -- that Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley were sharing a stage under the whipped-up name of Buzzkunst, for the first time since 1978 - does not stay quiet. For anyone who remembers the early days of punk rock,when the Manchester-based Devoto and Shelley were, as founders of the Buzzcocks, arguably as significant as London's Sex Pistols, Buzzkunst's five-song set had all the relevance of the second coming.

Officially, it was an unannounced gig, slid unobtrusively into a Mute Records bill at the ICA, but news such as this -- that Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley were sharing a stage under the whipped-up name of Buzzkunst, for the first time since 1978 - does not stay quiet. For anyone who remembers the early days of punk rock,when the Manchester-based Devoto and Shelley were, as founders of the Buzzcocks, arguably as significant as London's Sex Pistols, Buzzkunst's five-song set had all the relevance of the second coming.

Even more so for those who remember Magazine, the band Devoto founded in 1977, soon after leaving the Buzzcocks. Shelley never really went away. Devoto did. Disbanding Magazine in 1981, a 1983 solo album, Jerky Versions of the Dream, and a subsequent band, Luxuria, failed to take off. Devoto seemed to disappear. It was an extraordinary absence, given the presence he had had in late Seventies punk and new wave.

Now, with the release of ... Magazine (Maybe It's Right to be Nervous Now), a three-CD boxed set that includes some unreleased BBC John Peel sessions, audiences will get the opportunity to reappraise what Devoto achieved with the band. "I have," he confesses, "no idea where to put the band in rock's rich tapestry. I don't look back on it as a particularly happy time in my life, for instance. I've never been very good at enjoying success, even with a small 's'."

Twenty years on, Devoto is still recognisable. His icy stage demeanour is absent -- he turns up with a shopping bag full of proofs for the CD booklet -- but his deliberate phrasing echoes the precision so apparent in his recordings.

A five-piece "powerhouse" that combined his edgy vocals with the subtle funk of Barry Adamson's bass, the cool, synthetic hues of Dave Formula's keyboards and the driven pulsion of John McGeogh's guitar (drummer Martin Jackson was replaced after the first album by John Doyle), Magazine immediately stood out. "It was the melodrama," says Devoto. "We did actually arrange the music quite well. That was something I found I had a talent for."

Their first 1978 single "Shot by Both Sides" reinforced their charge. Revelling in the band's wilfully ambiguous name, Devoto's songs had all the impact of a balled fist, and they had an articulacy and depth uncharacteristic of the period. References to Huysmans, Camus and Dostoevsky flashed through their songs; they would cover not only the Stooges, Iggy Pop's proto-punk band that lasted the distance in those exacting times, but also Sly Stone and Captain Beefheart. The sleeve of their 1978 debut album, Real Life, was a Linder Ludus monoprint of floating heads, an homage to Odilon Redon's alienated vision reiterated on the boxed set.

In the best tradition of artists unwilling to be hemmed in, Magazine was a band that invited listeners to make connections - and was a reason for Devoto's sudden decision to leave. "A lot of the driving anger which had been where I was coming from was evaporating under pressure", he says. Yet, outside Magazine, it was difficult to capitalise on their cult success. A solo career didn't suit, and Luxuria's didn't set the critics aflame. Even now, Devoto's bleak delivery conveys more than a residual memory of the rejection.

"Despair? No. The only difference was I knew how to deal with it this time. My real point of despair had been in the mid-1980s after the solo album and I was dropped for the first time. I was on the fast slope down and not knowing how to deal with it. This time I knew what was coming. I got a job [in the photographic archive where he still works] virtually as soon as I was dropped, and for the first time actually started to feel some peace of mind."

Devoto is currently preparing his autobiography: "The chronology of things is of fundamental importance to the truth of things. You tell a story in a different order and it's a different story, a different life."

Buzzkunst -- "That's what we're calling ourselves this month" -- has been, he says, an unexpected pleasure. "But then I haven't got a lot at stake. It doesn't threaten me at a fundamental level if nobody likes it. I certainly ain't giving up the day job."

Magazine's '... Magazine (Maybe It's Right to be Nervous Now)' boxed set is released by Virgin on 2 October.

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