Eulogy for a Guitarist, a Guitar and One of the Greatest Pop Groups of All Time
MAGAZINE, Sheffield Plug, 15th July 2009
Once upon an adolescent me’s wet dream, I got to play John McGeoch’s guitar. Coping Saw were treading some minor boards with a short-lived band that ex-House of Love guitarist Terry Bickers put together in the late 1990s, and Bickers – a man who on my brief acquaintance with him seemed to support the theory that anybody who jobbing music journalists think is an arsehole will in fact turn out to be perfectly straightforward and affable – had said that if I broke a string during our set I could use his guitar to save messing around. We were both Yamaha SG users, see. It’s a bit like Freemasonry.
The Yamaha SG. Aaah. The first mass-produced solid-bodied electric guitar to be both designed and manufactured outside the US and taken seriously as a musical instrument. Weighs a ton: usually a sign of quality in an electric. Doesn’t sound like anything else. Fat as a Les Paul, clanky as a Telecaster, fizzy as a Starway with the top sawn off. As modelled by… Bill Nelson, Carlos Santana, Stuart Adamson out of The Skids and Big Country. John/Sean O’Neill. Bloke out of Stiff Little Fingers. Oh, and me and Terry Bickers of course. All the greats. Not to be confused with the much less handsome Gibson SG favoured by the likes of Fugazi and Angus Young.
But my Yamaha SG didn’t previously belong to John McGeoch, and Terry’s did. I used everything short of a hacksaw in my efforts to break a string on that tour. Well, that’s not strictly true. Actually, it’s not true at all. But if I hadn’t already been a person to whom string-breaking comes naturally I would have done. As it was, I just had to keep flailing away and wait for the blessed sceptre to fall into my hands. It did. I could no more make it sound like John McGeoch than I could have done a wheelbarrow.
After Magazine, McGeoch joined a series of post-punk supergroups – Banshees, Armoury Show, PiL – that weren’t to my taste, inventing a bunch of largely uninteresting tropes that have since become the stuff of GCSE Goth Guitar. But that’s entirely forgivable because he’d already pre-empted much of the next thirty years’ worth of guitar innovation on the first three Magazine albums (Alan Rankine was taking care of the rest, of course). When the Devil sounds his Last Trump, or whatever he does, and the autists assemble to come up with that definitive Ten Guitarists You Have To Read About In A Colour Supplement Before You Die, those spectrummy snorkel fuckers will be forced to admit that one McGeoch equates to roughly five Jimmy Pages, which is equivalent to a hundred Jeff Becks or a lifetime’s supply of Eric Clapton.
John McGeoch died, aged only 48, in 2004, and it was this sad fact more than anything that made me sceptical about attending the Magazine reunion, despite the universally glowing reports the group has been receiving. I needn’t have worried. Stand-in Noko has the McGeoch impersonation down to the last semiquaver and flanger-on-a-stick. And the Yamaha SG, obviously. Everything is replicated with the kind of faith only true love can inspire. In this case, that’s the right thing to do. If McGeoch were still alive, of course we’d want to hear him ragging those old parts around with the wisdom of hindsight and experience, and maybe a wee dram or two. But he’s gone, and with all due – very much due – respect to Noko, we don’t want to hear Noko’s re-interpretations of McGeoch’s parts. It’s no surprise that the former is very much aware of this, but still, given his obvious technical ability, the forbearance he demonstrates in resisting the slightest urge to embellish, extemporise or otherwise succumb to an “and this is me!” moment is nothing short of saintly.
Truly, the whole group is astonishing. John Doyle’s clipped, telegraphic fills and distinctive crisp snare sound are present and correct, and he’s still no fey tapper, he’s properly thumping those things. Dave Formula bobs hatted and gleeful between electric piano, Hammond and a couple of analogue synths: the archetypal mad polytechnic lecturer, dripping splashes and trailing streamers of sound-colour into the pot like a chef improvising with his spice rack (an unmixed metaphor would be incapable of doing justice to Formula. The clue’s in the surname.) And Barry Adamson… let’s just say that every other post-punk bass player may as well retire now. Most of them have, of course. The rhythmic, harmonic and melodic perfection of Adamson’s parts, when you’re listening to those old records, masks the fact that they are as insane and as complicated as the very finest of conspiracy theories. But watching him play them live brings home every detail. Like his equally stellar contemporary Bernard Edwards, it’s all about the notes between the notes, the ones half-heard but without which the part would be merely good.
Their undiminished prowess as players aside, what makes 2009’s Magazine so special is the fact that they look as if they are both working together closely as a group and having the time of their lives. There is not the slightest hint of a bunch of ageing men grudgingly burying hatchets in order to supplement the pension. None. The sheer delight with which they attack this ancient material would shame almost any current gang of twenty year-olds hungry for the prize. Howard Devoto, who with characteristic foresight gazumped the whole reunion schtick by being bald first time around, is all over the stage, wry as ever (“So… we are the venerable Magazine”) but clearly and unashamedly enjoying his new lease of onstage life.
As well he might, because there’s a real love for Devoto and Magazine in this 1000ish capacity barn tonight. Which is the correct use of emotions: there are very few songs in the Magazine canon that aren’t about love. Once you get past the undeniable wrongness of a thousand bald men in their forties and fifties declaring as one their intention to drug and fuck you on the permafrost, it’s – and I swore I wouldn’t use this word, but it is – it’s heartwarming. It’s lovely. And it’s lovely not in some pipe’n’slippers cosy nostalgia way but because this music still sounds as modern as the year 2035, or maybe the year 2135, and because they fucking rock, they absolutely do. Sheffield’s emergency osteopaths will be raking it in tomorrow. Imagine the Dads’ Race on Sports Day recast as a gentle moshpit. I am categorically not knocking it. And in any case, if it matters, there are young people down the front too, as blown away as the rest of us, if perhaps a little more agile.
They open with a The Light Pours Out Of Me – Rhythm Of Cruelty one-two and jab away more or less relentlessly for the following hour and a half. Any band that can casually toss Motorcade and Philadelphia into its first twenty minutes (or as casually omit a Feed The Enemy or a Back To Nature) clearly does not lack confidence in its back catalogue. Give Me Everything – never a favourite on record – is ridiculously good. The entire set, in fact, is ridiculously good, although I must admit that the passing of thirty years hasn’t enabled me to understand any better the appeal of I Want To Burn Again. They end on Shot By Both Sides, of course – in 1980 this would have been seen as crass, and possibly would actually have been crass – then come back for firstly a Because You’re Frightened – Model Worker double whammy (I have no idea what one of these is) and secondly a triumphant I Love You You Big Dummy, another one I’d never fully appreciated the virtues of but which makes a perfect closer and enables band and audience to say that thing they’d been dying but too scared to say to one another.
A mission statement of the resurrected Magazine was “no new material”, inveterate and venerable perverts that they are. I’d kind of like to see them give it a go. Their dressing room conversation in 2009 would probably be better than Magic, Murder and the Weather if you set it to a Doyle backbeat. But they are clearly men of principle, so maybe it’s a case of see them now or never. Gentle reader, you must see them now. They will reveal pretty much every pop group you’ve ever loved as hopeless chaff, which will initially be confusing, but you will end up glad of the advice.
(For Noel Kilbride, who deliberately and very kindly sold me his Yamaha SG for pennies just when I needed it.)