Ten years ago, August would have stretched. The dust of high summer would have clogged up the clockwork somehow, slowed the tick. But days are shorter now, now I’m in my thirties. September has already knocked at the door, and here I am again, contemplating the darkening of days, the sudden need for woollens, the transition from beers and barbecues to tea and toast. I-pod mixes on the terraces give way to vinyl in the lounge, reggae basslines to frosty string quartets and fireside folk-strumming.
I love the approach of autumn: it’s my favourite season. I’m conscious that ‘autumnal’ is one of those words music journalists rely on inordinately to describe burnished Americana or acoustic contemplation, but it always fits. It’s the melancholy passage of time, the ‘mellow fruitfulness’ of Keats’ ode; it’s that faded Instagram treatment people seem to love, yellowing and browning the cast of the image. In that direction tend most of those early seventies Island label stalwarts – the John Martyns, Nick Drakes and Fairports – as well as the moonshine-and-clapboard minstrels (the Crosbys, Stills, Nashes and Youngs, and their Fleet Foxy descendants). The slow drawing down of the blinds is accepted, welcomed, and harmonised, before being photographed, sepia-tinted and immortalised on the front of a cult album. Lovely.
But there are those who do not go gentle into that good night. Those who rage against the dying of the light. When I was an undergraduate student, chewing my nails obsessively and pinning song lyrics to my bare walls, autumn terms always had a tension about them. After the indolence of the long summer vacation, I would face the new university year with a vague dread, anxiously anticipating the highs and lows and the fallout costs (killer hangovers, snotty colds, nosedives in self-esteem, the usual crap). The trees were always very beautiful, but they were less a palliative than a slap in the face: how dare they revel in the season! For the first couple of years, Radiohead albums were my soundtrack of choice when indulging these bilious moods. On October 2nd, 2000, I went off to HMV (remember them?) to buy Kid A, the moment it was released. I shuffled back to my digs, lay on my bed, donned my headphones and drifted. That was an autumn and a half. I spent a lot of it contemplating ‘how to disappear completely’. But then, I began reading about this other band, one that Thom Yorke and others framed as a key precedent, one that had also been produced by John Leckie. A few months later, I went out and purchased Real Life, Magazine’s first album, and the whole world of late-seventies post-punk opened up for me. Or shall we say, it invited me in to lick its wounds; stripped off its shirt so I could count the bruises; then swiftly re-clothed and told me to quit gawping and fuck off.
Real Life was a bit of a Pistols moment for me, though woefully belated, twentysomething years after the event. But it was also a return, a comeback. In the nineties, my Dad would record UK Gold’s reruns of Top of the Pops onto VHS. My first encounter with Howard Devoto actually came from one of those videos – a performance of ‘Shot by both sides’ that I’ve since learned was rather infamous. The first time I saw it, I found it almost unwatchably awkward; this man looked seriously uncomfortable there on TV, anaemically pale and eye-linered. Apparently, the British public were unimpressed, and Devoto’s static, bloodless performance caused the single to plummet down the charts. Now, what I find unbearable is how quickly they cut off the song, as if in protest at Devoto’s refusal to gurn or pogo. Little did they know that pop history was being made; an amazing whoosh of punk energy, delivered without any of punk’s poses, ‘Shot by both sides’ proved that post-punk was the punkest of all. Some years later, Bernard Sumner would deliver an infamous live ‘Blue Monday’ with complete indifference. Later still, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe would redefine the meaning of the term ‘stock still’ while swathed in dry ice and faced with a load of tie-dyed teenagers. But in 1978, an oddball man turned up looking almost contemptuous of the brilliant, cop-chase racket around him. In an era of tribal affinities, it seemed impossible to pin Magazine anywhere; they were shot by both sides, because they belonged to no side.
Punk was frequently driven by a gang mentality. The Clash appealed so much because you wanted to hang out with them in the street, follow their rules, swim in their slipstream. Post-punk bands were the complete antithesis. Gang of Four were ironically named on many levels, not least because their play on the Cultural Revolution suggested a little pop uprising on the side: from now on, bands could come across as if designed in a political theory seminar, and what’s more, they could still bloody well rock into the bargain. Magazine didn’t take Gramsci into the studio with them. They clearly preferred Penguin Modern Classics – the ones you now find in charity shops with creased, pale green spines, and which in Magazine’s day would most probably have sat on public library shelves, unborrowed and unloved. This was a different kind of outsider’s music to that of The Clash or even The Buzzcocks, Devoto’s previous band. For all their outlaw swagger, The Clash were rather humanist; they believed in the power of culture to effect change. Howard Devoto, on the other hand, seemed unremittingly misanthropic. Everything is twitch and tic. ‘Why are you so itchy, kid?’, he asks in ‘Shot by both sides’; ‘Look what fear’s done to my body’, he exclaims in ‘Because you’re frightened’. This is no punk, folks: this is a man who would rather pick his scabs than pick a fight. And more than anything, he’d rather be reading Kafka.
It could all be so terribly undergraduate, but Magazine had the good fortune to be brilliantly versatile musicians, and Devoto was a viciously clever and funny lyricist to boot. ‘A song from under the floorboards’ turns Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground into an almost Pythonesque black comedy, brimming with killer lines, jaunty barrelhouse piano and thick smears of synthesizer. It’s still utterly unlike anything – chilling, daft and moving all at the same time. Existential music-hall synth-punk noir, anyone? When Morrissey covered it for a 2006 B-side, a little collective epiphany may well have erupted through the indie world. ‘I am angry, I am ill, and I’m as ugly as sin’ is a Smiths opening line if ever there was; same goes for ‘my irritability keeps me alive and kicking’. Another Mancunian misfit walked those streets before you, Stephen. He even wore cardigans.
He also stared death squarely in the chops. ‘The light pours out of me’ is Devoto’s Macbeth moment, the tragic death and catharsis of Real Life before the closer, ‘Parade’, serenades a descent into hell. In fact, ‘The light’ is post-punk’s most Shakespearean song, period. Just as Macbeth reflects on life’s ‘brief candle’ and ‘walking shadow’ before hurling himself headlong into battle, so does Magazine’s song contemplate a life in which time both ‘flies’ and ‘crawls’, ‘like an insect up and down the walls’ (yet another spidery analogy from the most entomological of songwriters). Then, just as the murderous thane cries ‘Blow, wind! Come, wrack! / At least we’ll die with harness on our back’, so do Magazine blow out the candle in their trench and jump over the top, heedless of wind and weather. The song oscillates between triumph and defeat, and as such could be an analogy for anything really; as ever, art that confronts its own death is all the more life-affirming.
But what is so special about ‘The light pours out of me’ is that the music both affirms and contradicts the lyrics. Devoto’s light ‘jerks’ out of him, ‘like blood’, but it is anything but enervating. From the first bar, an unrelenting pulse is established over which John McGeoch can assert his beautiful, mysterious guitar motifs; Devoto’s brain may prevail, but only because the band around him has established a pumping heart to feed it. Everywhere in the song, there are vital signs, indicators of its health and functionality, defying the death towards which it propels itself. The bass is deep, rich and charged with momentum. The drums sizzle crisply. Suspended guitar chords glow duskily in the background like those photos medical scientists take of the body, illuminated by infrared thermography. And then, after the second verse-chorus, at around 2:55, the song takes off into uncharted territory, guitars wailing and drums crashing in a titanic break. If the light is pouring away, then Magazine are stealing fire from Prometheus here. It’s just a thrilling gust of defiance, a fist shaken at the Maker, a sudden primal scream from the deathbed.
And the song has prepared us for it. The title refrain may not be an expression of fatalistic resignation at all. What if it is instead an assertion of courage and pride? Remember, the light is only ‘like’ blood. Instead of ebbing life, this may well be pure radiance. The light is simply pouring out of Howard Devoto; he can’t help but transmit it to the world. The exuberant blasts of thrash in the instrumental breaks are the life-force itself, a force that refuses to ebb. So by the time the final break ends with an abrupt chord, as if someone has pulled the switch, we don’t feel the presence of death, but rather a momentary power cut. It’s a punkish move, a daring act of self-sabotage; to invoke the (now almost clichéd) Neil Young line, better to burn out than fade away.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Ultimately it’s Dylan Thomas, not Devoto’s more favoured Camus or Dostoevsky, whose blood courses through this magnificent song. But there are also chuckles here if you can find them. Watch the 1978 video and marvel at Devoto’s disinterest. He wanders in and out of the frame like an extra drafted in as a last minute replacement. This pop music thing is just a brief distraction from ‘real life’, he seems to be saying. In interviews around the time of Magazine’s return to the studio in 2009, Devoto joked about how he’d had a ‘day job’ for the best part of fifteen years, as librarian at a picture archive. It’s so remarkably on the button. At his best in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Devoto was the Bruce Banner/Hulk of New Wave. Geek chic had yet to be invented, but Magazine sowed the seeds for so much of the indie to follow. The freedom to stand still, to be deliberately obtuse, to be European, to be cerebral, to dress like a lecturer at a polytechnic disco – it all leads back to five guys who were unafraid of keyboards and seemingly limitless in their cheek. They even had the nerve to cover Sly Stone’s ‘Thank you for letting me be myself again’, restyled as a funkless expression of Devoto obstinacy. Hurrah for that, and for them.
I tried to pay homage to ‘The light pours out of me’ when I started playing in my first band. I wrote a song called ‘Waste’ which kicked off with the line ‘Time doesn’t heal, it kills’. I’d definitely been listening to Real Life at the time, and the example of Devoto was at the front of my mind; he showed me that it was possible to be in a punky band and still look like a charity shop worker. If only my song had had less self-pity, if only it had had half the majesty and drive of ‘The light pours out of me’…ah well, it was an important developmental stage, and I don’t disown it. Later I worried, though, that I might outgrow Magazine; that their neurotic froideur would cease to produce the itches and pricks of excitement it did when I first played Real Life in that college bedroom. No such problem. I don’t listen to them nearly so much these days, but when I do, those first three albums still really get me in the gut. And as autumn approaches, it’s time for my annual fix. I’ll draw the blinds, put the kettle on, nurse my cold and welcome in the dwindling afternoons.