Monday, November 16, 2009

November 16: Magazine, "Real Life"

Artist: Magazine
Album: Real Life
Year: 1978
Label: Virgin

It is almost unfathomable to think that any musician who played in the punk rock style would willingly step away from the music scene in 1977. As this is the year that many consider the highpoint for the genre, leaving an established band of the genre during the apex sounds like nothing short of career suicide. However, in the case of Howard Devoto, if one looks at the overall realities, as well as the group which he returned to music with, one does not see a mistake; one sees nothing short of a visionary giant. When Devoto left The Buzzcocks in early 1977, it was mostly because he felt (and perhaps rightfully so) that a majority of the punk scene was becoming cliché and creativity was quickly becoming a thing of the past. With countless bands attempting the same fast paced, low musical creativity approach, many of the more artistic "punkers" no longer wished to be associated with the scene. As Devoto was clearly a disciple of artists like Iggy Pop, Roxy Music, and David Bowie, the musical content and diversity was of central importance. The band which Devoto returned with less then a year later stands as proof that he had made the right decision, and the band remains today as one of the most highly respected bands in history. With their pioneering efforts to re-inject the musical structure into the punk ethos, the importance of Magazine cannot be overstated. Each of their four studio releases are absolutely brilliant, but it is their 1978 debut, Real Life, that stands as not only their finest work, but unquestionably one of the greatest albums ever recorded.

The fact of the matter is, the terms "punk rock" and "experimental" are rarely used in the same sentence, as the overall spirit behind the punk movement brings with it a rather substantial amount of musical constraint. It is largely due to the work of groups like Magazine (and, of course, The Fall and Suicide) that the punk genre began to expand stylistically, and the songs found on Real Life are absolute turning points in the history of music. The overall impact of Magazine can be found throughout the decades that followed, as everyone from Ministry to Radiohead have covered their songs, and the way in which the band displayed the "middle ground" between so many genres served as the starting point for countless bands. The fact that the musical approach of Magazine was so different from a majority of their peers is also why the band can be seen as one of the earliest "post punk" groups. While other bands who carry this title took far darker approaches (Joy Division), and some went for a much more wild and almost chaotic approach (The Birthday Party), few could compare to Magazine's overall musicianship, as Real Life presents a heavy concentration on song structure, and the results are truly like nothing else that had previously been heard. While Magazine had already had a few lineup changes, and would go through many more following the release of Real Life, there was never a lineup of the band that made music quite like that which is found on their first record.

In many ways, when one looks deeper into the lineup that is found on Real Life, the fact that the music is so superb is perhaps a bit less surprising. The quintet of musicians who play on the album prove to be some of the most accomplished of their generation, and it is also clear that they are all moving as a single unit with a clear overall vision for each song. Aside from Devoto, perhaps the most recognizable name within the lineup of the band is that of guitar legend John McGeoch. A man who spent time with bands like Public Image Ltd, Siouxie And The Banshees, and Visage among others, McGeoch has been cited by everyone from Radiohead to Dave Navarro as a massive influence on their musical style. His playing on Real Life is nothing short of stunning, as the musical freedom the band creates enables him to play riffs and progressions that forever changed the way in which guitarists approach their instrument. On Real Life, it is McGeoch who also adds the saxophone parts on a handful of songs. Equally important to the overall sound found on Real Life is the fantastic textures created by keyboard player Dave Formula. This is very much where the music diverges from the traditional punk sound, and the influence that this simple addition has had on the genre is truly immeasurable. Though he would later be one of the original Bad Seeds, bassist Barry Adamson has rarely sounded better then he does on Real Life. Giving many of the songs a slightly darker, perhaps more melancholy mood, his playing on each track is nothing short of perfect and he is one of the key elements that was lacking in the bands' later years. Handling all of the drumming, as well as being one of the central figures in the beginning of the "new wave" movement, Martin Jackson is unquestionably one of the most talented players of his era. Giving the songs an almost jazzy, somewhat spacey feel, the textures Jackson creates truly make the songs sound like nothing else in the genre. With this group of core musicians, it should come as no surprise that the songs found on Real Life stand today as some of the most original and influential ever recorded.

Standing as one of the most instantly recognizable and massively influential vocalists of all time, band founder and lead writer, Howard Devoto is unquestionably the soul and spirit behind all of the music of Magazine. Finding an extraordinary sound balance that is somewhere between the musicality of Bryan Ferry and the snarl-less spoken delivery of D. Boon, Devoto often sounds like a distant version of David Byrne or even Mick Jones. Regardless of the sound, every vocal is simply perfect, and Devoto's words blend seamlessly with the music on every song. Throughout Real Life, Devoto creates personas that have become the basis for countless artists who followed his style. Whether it is Thom Yorke using Devoto's image of the "reflective outsider," or even Nick Cave's take on the blunt, unrelenting, intellectual, these are all models that can be found in the writing of Devoto. One of the brightest points on Real Life is the presence of the iconic single, "Shot By Both Sides." The song was a massive success and remains iconic to this day, with many bands covering it in different genres. Musically, the song bears a striking resemblance to The Buzzcocks song, "Lipstick," and this is due to the core riff having been created by Devoto and Pete Shelley before the formers' departure from The Buzzcocks. The song also helps to show just how much Magazine was progressing the genre as a whole, as one can hear the remnants of the "old" style of punk, as well as the new ground that they were exploring. From his brilliant voice to the fantastic lyrics throughout, Howard Devoto perfectly engineers his band on every song, and it is his work and vision that makes Real Life an album that is nothing short of extraordinary.

When it comes to fully presenting a completely new take on an established genre, few bands did so as masterfully as one finds in the early post-punk work of Magazine. Tired of the over-done, and unimaginative copy-cat work of a majority of punk bands of the time, the group took the underlying ethos of the punk sound and fused to together with the musical freedom of the previous generation. The resulting music is truly like nothing else that had been heard before, and their pioneering efforts opening the doors found countless bands as well as entirely new genres that formed in their wake. Bringing together a group of some of the most talented and musically ambitious players around, Howard Devoto manages to make all five members move as a single, stunning unit throughout their debut album, Real Life. Whether it is the iconic guitar work of McGeoch or the sensational rhythm team of Adamson and Jackson, the sound structures that the group created permeated every genre, and one can even find traces of the bands' sound as "far away" as the music of Phish (see the middle section of "Burst"). Capping off the groups' sound with the fantastic keyboard punctuations of Dave Formula, the sounds progress beyond classification, and more than thirty years after its initial release, there are few records that can even remotely compare to Real Life. Devoto's vocals and lyrics are equally brilliant, and the overall impact of the record is so wide-ranging and long- lasting that it truly defies description. While later lineups of Magazine would find slightly greater musical success, it is the bands' first recorded lineup that yielded their finest record, 1978's Real Life; which stands today as one of the most important and truly stunning albums ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "Shot By Both Sides," "Burst," and "The Light Pours Out Of Me."

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