Saturday, March 19, 2011

March 19: Magazine, "Definitive Gaze"

Artist: Magazine
Song: "Definitive Gaze"
Album: Real Life
Year: 1978

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There are a number of instances throughout the course of music history that make little sense in their time, but after a few years pass, they prove to be nothing short of prophetic genius.  This has perhaps been no more clear than in a handful of situations that surrounded the "punk explosion" of 1977.  While few could have predicted it would have taken off as it did, there was one performer who managed to have massive success on both sides of the year, but was largely invisible during the "actual moment."  Having parted ways with The Buzzcocks, Howard Devoto slowly pieced together a group for fitting to his musical needs, and this second band would become equally as legendary as his first band.  Though they were only around for a few short years, only a small handful of groups are worthy of being mention in the same breath as post-punk pioneers, Magazine.  Standing in stark contrast to the mindless, copycat sounds that were already beginning to dominate the punk scene, Magazine fused together a number of different influences, and their 1978 debut, Real Life, remains one of the most mind-blowing albums ever recorded.  Often taking a darker, more musically complex approach, the band was able to retain the nervous energy that served as the base of punk, yet expand the sonic possibilities into previously untouched territory.  Though their entire debut is absolutely brilliant, there are few songs more important to the development of music, or more defining of Magazine as a band than one finds in their 1978 song, "Definitive Gaze."

While most would point to the bands' first single, "Shot By Both Sides," as their definitive work, the truth of the matter is, looking at their entire body of work, that song stands as a bit of an anomaly, while "Definitive Gaze" is far more representative of their overall musical approach.  As the song opens, the uneasy, rather dark sound created by bassist Barry Adamson and keyboard player Dave Formula completely captivates the listener, and considering it in the time in which it was released, one can easily argue that there was simply nothing similar being created anywhere.  It is in fact the work of Formula that drives a majority of the song, as it gives "Definitive Gaze" a completely unique tone that largely defines the group.  Whether it is the almost haunting chords or the soaring progressions, one cannot fully understand just how brilliant Formula's playing is without experiencing it firsthand.  The sound with which his performance smashes into the guitar of John McGeoch is absolutely amazing, and the two manage to highlight both sides of the punk sound, whilst simultaneously blazing a completely new musical path.  However, perhaps moreso than any of his peers, drummer Martin Jackson proves the overall importance of the rhythm section, and the way in which he heightens the overall mood through his various fills and the steady, nervous cadence is the key to "Definitive Gaze" rising so far above every other band recording at the time.

However, while the music is certainly the focal point of the mastery behind "Definitive Gaze," the song would not be complete without the fantastic vocal performance from Howard Devoto.  As soon as he begins singing, the close ties with the sound of his former band are instantly clear, and yet they are slightly darker, perhaps more angry, and manage to become an entity onto themselves.  Throughout the entire song, Devoto sounds as "on edge" as one can find anywhere, and it often sounds as if he may unravel into madness at any point.  This unique tension is one of the most mesmerizing aspects of the entire song, and one can quickly appreciate how much more this lends to the song than the usual sneering, detached vocals that were already dominating the punk scene.  Along with his fantastic vocal approach, one of the most overlooked elements of almost all of Devoto's song is the fact that he is without question one of the finest lyricists of his generation.  Completely ignoring all of the norms and trends within the punk scene, one cannot deny the poetic quality found on "Definitive Gaze," and this enables the song to be far deeper and groundbreaking than nearly anything else at the time.  Even in the opening lines of, "...I've got this bird's eye view, and it's in my brain, clarity has reared, its ugly head again...," one can feel the somber, almost hopeless feeling, and the way in which Devoto conveys these moods proves to be the ideal finishing touch on "Definitive Gaze."

While many bands may have been bridges between the original, pure sound of punk rock, and the post-punk movement that quickly followed, one can easily argue that no band was more important than Magazine.  The way in which the group was able to incorporate the "art rock" sounds of bands like Roxy Music and even pulling elements from the likes of Pink Floyd is absolutely unprecedented, and without their pioneering efforts, music may never have expanded in the manner that it did over the following years.  Led by the sonic vision of Howard Devoto, it is almost impossible to fathom that he was able to craft as flawless and truly brilliant a record as one finds in Real Life, in less than a single year of work.  Even putting together such a perfect band could have taken this time, and yet there is no question that the five band members share an absolutely uncanny chemistry within the recording studio.  Quite literally every song on Real Life is true musical perfection, and after hearing the record, one can easily point out its influence on a countless number of later groups.  Yet in modern times, Magazine rarely receives the credit they deserve for being such an integral part of music history, being largely overshadowed by the more commercially successful punk bands of their era.  However, after hearing Real Life, one simply cannot deny their groundbreaking sound, and there are few songs in the history of music that are as truly stunning in every sense as one finds in Magazine's monumental 1978 recording, "Definitive Gaze."

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