On Second Thought
Magazine – Secondhand Daylight






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

For a stretch of the late 1970s, there was a lot of attention on Howard Devoto. For a man to be confident enough to leave Buzzcocks just as they’d burst onto the scene suggested he must have something fascinating up his sleeve. His relationship with this attention, however, was always pretty strained. His interviews from the period are ridiculously contrarian and obfuscatory, and give the impression of a man desperate for people to be fascinated by him just so he can spurn and confound them. Devoto’s whole career was typified by this perversity, even to the point of self-sabotage; in an early NME interview he talked of “negative drive,” a sort of contrary, antagonistic energy fuelled by anger and boredom. This is a man who later sang “my irritability keeps me alive and kicking” on “A Song From Under The Floorboards,” a which somehow twisted Dostoevsky’s vicious Notes From The Underground into a celebratory pop song.

For a while though, Devoto’s caprice couldn’t hinder the momentum surrounding Magazine. Their 1978 debut Real Life was well received, taking the manic energy of Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch and infusing it with electronic, krautrock and funk elements. But Devoto’s heart had never been fully in the “punk” part of the equation; even if the brilliantly tense lead single “Shot By Both Sides” vaguely resembled his former band (Pete Shelley wrote the singular guitar figure), the lyrics spoke of his mistrust of committing to ideologies and movements, of “losing himself in the crowd.” For the make-or-break performance of the song on Top Of The Pops, the normally intense Devoto stood still and listlessly mimed the song from behind a guitar and a shitload of eyeliner.

By 1979’s Secondhand Daylight, punk in a traditional sense was a distant memory for Magazine, and the critical reception was much more mixed; the more synth-heavy, Low-influenced sound seemed to some to connote a terrifying throwback to the Prog Dark Years, and there was increasing frustration at the obscurity of Devoto’s lyrics. Noted stupid fucking cunt bastion of critical insight Garry Bushell savaged it in Sounds, complaining about a return to “the old Progressive Lie” and claiming that Devoto “consistently fails to communicate anything save his own undoubted superiority over the rest of the human race.”

Devoto’s narratives are indeed fragmented, but all the more fascinating because they offer only glimpses of a story rather than spelling everything out; there’s an alternating series of pointed barbs and helpless pleas to some unknown target, and some things you’d hope aren’t quite so autobiographical (well, y’know, “I will drug you and fuck you on the permafrost,” in particular). There’s a recurring sense of perverse enjoyment of antagonistic relationships, which is often actually set to an incongruously light-headed, cheerful backing. Single “Rhythm of Cruelty” contains perhaps their last true vestige of Buzzcocks-like pop-punk, also featuring a joint synth-and-whistling solo and a comically high-pitched vocal harmony used to embellish the line “you’ve got me dying of thirst in the meantime, it even hurts when I scream.” This may even hint at that allegedly absent sense of humour. Regardless, for an album so heavy on chorus pedals, gloomy-sounding synths and lyrics about violence and madness, there’s a curious sense that at least one of the people involved may be enjoying it all.

Devoto’s divisive nature aside, most people seem able to agree that Magazine as a band were pretty spectacular musicians; John McGeoch doesn’t get quite so many guitar solos here as on Real Life, but two of his finest moments bookend the album, namely the subtle harmonics lurking behind Devoto’s description of a plane crash on the verses of “Feed The Enemy” and the nightmarish solo that strangles the end of “Permafrost.” Although Dave Formula’s multiple layers of keyboard do have a bit of an air of proggy ostentacity at points, a lot of the time the more out-there avenues are the highlights; “Back To Nature” spans seven minutes across several structures, while Devoto alternately declaims idealised concepts of nature and rants about “Cubans in surgical gloves” in a funny voice. It borders on being comically erratic at that point but by the time it reaches its full-pelt conclusion it’s incredibly exhilarating. The insane synth freak-out that grows out of “Cut-Out Shapes” sounds ahead of its time rather than an act of base prog counter-revolution; if Vitalic remixed this song the result would be so awesome the universe would almost certainly be destroyed.

Devoto would go on to show some of the warmth his critics demanded of him on the third Magazine album The Correct Use Of Soap; in particular, the aforementioned “Song From Under The Floorboards” manages to be amazingly endearing for what basically seems to be an account of how proud he was of himself. But even throughout the gamut of darker concepts on Secondhand Daylight, it often feels like there’s some kind of lurking, grim satisfaction that this whole mess of contradiction, confusion and mutual antagonism is a worthy trade-off against losing yourself in that crowd—as Devoto himself summarised on “The Garden,” the final Magazine song: "MY SICKNESS IS MY REWARD."


By: Fergal O’Reilly
Published on: 2006-05-23
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