Never mind the Buzzcocks: The re-emergence of Howard Devoto

He abandoned one of the great punk outfits to start the best band you've never heard of. And then he got an office job. Howard Devoto tells Simmy Richman why the time is finally right to reform Magazine

Looking back, it all seems awfully po-faced. It was not inapprop-riate in some ways, but these days I try not to look desperately earnest and solemn in photos." Howard Devoto, punk pioneer, post-punk progenitor and obscure figure of hero worship, is in a photographic studio in east London waiting for another round of close-ups in which he will do his best to look not the least bit intense.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let's recap exactly why Devoto means so much to a select few. It is 1976 and Devoto (then Howard Trafford) and his student friend Pete McNeish see an article that will change their lives. The headline reads: "Don't look over your shoulder, the Sex Pistols are coming." Galvanised before hearing a note of music, Trafford borrows a friend's car and drives from Manchester to London to see the Pistols in action. Afterwards, he introduces himself to the band's manager Malcolm McLaren and books the group to play in Manchester. The show, on 4 June at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, is to have a profound effect on the handful of curious locals who see it. In the audience that night are Morrissey, Mick Hucknall, Ian Curtis, Tony Wilson (Factory Records) and Mark E Smith (the Fall).

In order to play on the same bill as the Pistols when they will return to Manchester six weeks later, Devoto and McNeish (now Pete Shelley) form the Buzzcocks. Within six months and with £500 borrowed from friends, they release "Spiral Scratch", the world's first independent (that is to say, without the support of a label) record. This short burst of activity in Devoto's life would leave its mark on popular culture for decades to come (see sidebar). So what was it in that Sex Pistols review that so captured his imagination? "It seemed an interesting bunch of elements: aggression, sexuality, the name of the group, that line 'We're not into music, we're into chaos' and the fact that they namechecked the Stooges.

"If you're thinking of forming a band, as me and Pete were, you're not going to pick the biggest thing going as your reference points. You'll rarely say, 'Yeah, the Beatles and David Bowie are really inspiring.' If you are a serious music fan, you want to discover the group with only five people going to see them. You like to have your little pet projects."

"Spiral Scratch" reached number 31 in the charts but, on the eve of its release, Devoto was off, bored with punk and seeking fresh challenges. Today, he can look back on such pivotal moments with the pride and detachment of an old soldier who has served his country well. "I have never regretted for a second leaving the Buzzcocks," he says. "It hoiked things up a few levels having a record that people liked and saw as pioneering, but I was concerned about my college course. I'd already fucked up a psychology degree and in my final year of humanities I didn't want to bottle out again. That, and the fact that I didn't really like punk any more; it had got aesthetically ugly."

Degree in the bag, Devoto would soon return to music with his new band, Magazine. Punk's three-minute bursts of anger and energy were replaced by something far more considered, complex and even cold. Adding a keyboard player to the guitar/bass/drums formula may not seem that radical in 2009, but back in 1978 it was tantamount to saying you wanted to be Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Yet the first three Magazine records (Real Life, Secondhand Daylight and The Correct Use of Soap) have not so much stood the test of time as improved with every passing year.

This week, for the first time in 28 years, Magazine will play together live for five shows. The reunion came about when Magazine's keyboard player, Dave Formula, wrote an email to Devoto under the heading: "Howard, it's your last chance to be venerable." Tickets for the London shows sold out within hours of the dates being announced.

Is Devoto daunted by the prospect? He considers the question by throwing his head back, furrowing his brow and emitting a loud "Errrrr" sound that he will employ whenever a question requires more than a cursory response: "The songs should sound fine and I'm enjoying stepping back into them more than I imagined. We haven't rehearsed as a full band yet and, inevitably, things will all change once everyone gets their own endocrine system going."

Can Devoto – whose lyrics specialise in a certain detached disdain (sample: "Got this bird's eye/ And it's in my brain/Clarity has reared/ Its ugly head again") – still connect with the words he wrote all that time ago? "Outside of the songs I'm a very different person, but inside them I'm a sort of mixture. I get a little bit of that 'Was that really me?' feeling and quite often it's a pleasant surprise. Having said that, at this stage one feels that the material has proved itself, so there are no worries on that front."

When Magazine split in 1981 (its musicians had been poached by Siouxsie and the Banshees and, weirdly, Visage, whose "Fade to Grey" would be a bigger chart hit than Magazine would ever experience), Devoto was in a dark place. Not only had his band – who created the template for post-punk music for the foreseeable future – fallen apart, but his father had died while Magazine were trying to crack America in 1980.

Devoto beat a slow retreat from the music industry, eventually getting a job at the Network photographic agency in London, where he would stay for 16 years. "It was a

completely different environment," he says. "It was a world of photographers who were like, 'So you're a musician. Big deal.' My role was quite administrative and it learnt me computers, for which I'm very grateful. It was a great relief just to have a regular buck, although the buck was not that big."

Did the death of his father affect him so profoundly because they were particularly close? "Errrrr, I was a rebellious teenager, but by 1979 I was trying to get closer to him. It's funny, for some reason I often end up talking about him, and I wouldn't want anybody to think I'm still hung up about him 30 years on. But it did have a big effect on me and it changed me quite a lot, which played its part in [guitarist] John McGeoch leaving the band."

When the Network agency closed down four years ago, Devoto – who is fond of describing himself as "fairly liquid" – returned to Yorkshire, where he had grown up. Now 56, and recently single ("Life's turned that way again; I suppose I am what you might call a serial monogamist"), he has gone back, he says, because "that's where I spent my teenage years and I still have family and friends there. My mother is still with us and she's making noises about wanting to come along to these shows. I told her that they are filming one of them and that she could watch that, bless her."

To add to the whole "poet in exile" mystique that has built up around Devoto, he has, for the past decade or more, been working on a spoken-word autobiography to be left to the National Sound Archive after his death. Ten chapters in, Devoto had barely reached the mid-1970s. When his "remembrance of things past" eventually reaches the Magazine reunion shows this week, there is one thing you can be sure Devoto will put on the record: that's the fact that he is doing this now because it is the right time and because he feels his band are owed more than they have ever been granted. "Look," he says, "I'm not doing this for the money. I live very modestly and I've never really chased the buck."

But, surely, after 16 years of clocking in and out it will be useful to pick up the kind of paycheck that comes only with the business of show? "Well, that's part of it, I suppose," he sighs. "Errrrr, it's enough that I shall say hello to the audiences very warmly."

Hopelessly Devoto: The enduring influence of Magazine

Colin Greenwood, Radiohead

"We all got excited at the end of recording Hail to the Thief because Nigel [Godrich, producer] was trying to get Jonny to play like [Magazine guitarist] John McGeoch. All the old farts in the band were in seventh heaven"

Paul Morley on Magazine's debut single 'Shot By Both Sides' ( NME, 1978)

"Hero, you come at last"

Morley on the Magazine reunion ( The Observer, 2008)

"I thought hell would freeze over before Magazine materialised again"

Momus from the song 'The Most Important Man Alive' (1998)

"Mr Devoto... it was you who taught me how to hammer out a manly turn of phrase/ You are, quite simply, the most important man alive/ I'd like to thank you for simply being in my life'

Morrissey on Magazine's split in the early 1980s

"Presently in mourning over the death of Magazine. So tragic. My life will change"

Morrissey in 1997

"In assessments of Manchester, they never mention Magazine. I don't know why. An excellent group, very strong..."

The Magazine reunion concerts begin this week in London, see A best-of compilation, 'Touch & Go', is released tomorrow on Virgin. 'Live and Intermittent', a collection of unreleased live recordings, is available from

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there