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 www.wire-sound.com. A best-of compilation, 'Touch & Go', is released tomorrow on Virgin. 'Live and Intermittent', a collection of unreleased live recordings, is available from www.wire-sound.com

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine