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Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley make a visceral return after twenty-three years. Ian Greaves was there to pick up the pieces.
by Ian Greaves


Mute Irregular Club Night #8
ICA, London
2 September 2000 (22.00-22.15)

SONGS: Stupid Kunst, System Blues, ‘Til The Stars In His Eyes Are Dead, Going Off.

Next year is 2001 -- not just the start of a new millennium, but the twenty-fifth anniversary of British punk. The media will of course latch onto this, peppering the TV schedules with retrospective documentaries and terrible biopics on anyone from The Damned to John The Postman. Cash-in compilations will flood your local record store and there may even be a set of commemorative stamps with a figurehead of Jamie Reid’s Queen.

One person who will be watching his back is Howard Devoto. His punk credentials have rather outweighed his contributions to alternative rock. In fact, rather like that fellow Mancunian whippersnapper Mark E. Smith, Howard would hate to have ‘alternative’ pinned to him, just as much as he would refute ‘punk’. He was the poet, artist and dome-headed wunderkind of British New Wave. Actually he’d hate that even more.

The major characteristic of Howard Devoto’s work has been integrity and an avoidance of formula. His aims as the original singer with Buzzcocks were exhausted after one record -- their Spiral Scratch EP is replete with wit and wisdom about the dynamics of the then burgeoning punk trend, and indeed the first to acknowledge it as a gimmick. What else was there to say? Punk’s chief aim was to spark a new beginning, fresh sounds and boundless opportunities. It had nothing to do with a career.

Howard knew this and jumped ship, leaving cohorts Pete Shelley, Steve Diggle and John Maher to become perhaps the most joyous pop group of the late-Seventies. Listen to “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays”, “Promises”, “Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” and you’ll hear a singles band with no equal. More particularly “Love You More” is the asexual love song which opened up so many possibilities. Their bisexual songwriter, Pete Shelley, clearly understood that period’s desire for a new means of expression.

Where Shelley was obtainable, Devoto was obscure. He had quickly formed Magazine, who went on to produce four albums of bombastic introspection between 1978 and 1981. Their early work dealt with weighty and perpetual imbalance -- political unrest (“Shot By Both Sides”), the powerless American president who dies at the hands of an assassin (“Motorcade”) and prostitution (“Touch and Go”). To the casual listener they were just brilliant rock songs, with lyrical whimsy that held up to close scrutiny. Later work became more ambiguous and on The Correct Use Of Soap(1980) the group made their most complete work. There you can find “A Song From Under The Floorboards” and “Sweetheart Contract”, which exist amongst a string of great singles.

By that time, the group had reached an internal impasse. John McGeoch, their guitarist, left because of a frustration with Magazine’s lack of commercial success. One more album followed, the patchy Magic, Murder and the Weather. Devoto continued solo with his Jerky Versions Of The Dream album which he has since disowned and, honourably, retired from music after a clear sense that he had produced a poor record. Only Noko (now of Apollo Four Forty) persuaded him to record subsequent to this, with their commercially unsuccessful but nonetheless valuable Luxuria group. Other than a few guest appearances with Mansun and Apollo Four Forty, Howard’s last record was released in 1990.

Which makes the event on September 2nd all the more strange. Most aficionados of Devoto’s work had ruled out the possibility of Devoto’s re-emergence, even less so in collaboration with Pete Shelley. After all he has returned to his real name, Howard Trafford, and continues to work in a photo library somewhere in London. I myself have been researching his life with a clear sense that his public image has become a thing of the past. It had even reached the point that nobody of subsequent generations knows who he is, not least those in Green Day tee-shirts who have probably never heard of The Clash either.

This situation has slowly changed in 2000. Mute Records have reissued Spiral Scratch and its demos counterpart, Time’s Up. Virgin have just begun to acknowledge Magazine’s presence on their label ten years after the last release (the Scree compilation) with a box set and best of CD, Where The Power Is. There are even murmurings from Beggars Banquet that the Luxuria back-catalogue will soon see a reappraisal. Devoto has also been more visible with a large number of interviews. As he said to me in April, “if you don’t work at it a little bit, them buggers, they forget you!”. Listen up Green Day fans.

In truth the last thing on Howard’s mind is gaining the interest of modern punk fans. The work of Limp Bizkit, Green Day and even Nirvana is a cultural dead end -- a dull insistence on ploughing the same field. The express intent of Devoto/Shelley’s reunion was that it has nothing to do with the past, which makes the last 850 words pretty obsolete. All it serves to illustrate is Devoto’s need to dump formula and baggage when beginning each new project. What could be worse than Howard and Pete running through “Boredom” again like their lives depended on it?

No, Buzzkunst were an unknown commodity. The name -- clearly an opposite -- should have silenced the pockets of the audience who chanted for Spiral Scratch songs and Magazine’s cover of Captain Beefheart’s “I Love You, You Big Dummy”. Others were either baffled or silenced by the overwhelming noise the pair were emitting. It was a lot to digest, with a wall of samples which neatly draped Shelley’s adventurous fret work and Devoto’s confrontational lyrics.

Two important differences there. Shelley has previously experimented on his solo records, but they generally land squarely between pop and the avant garde (Homosapien, Heaven and the Sea). Devoto, on the other hand, made that his central gambit. His lyrics have taken a new turn, throwing a new-found provocation into the mix.

Howard’s love of guitar has always been rampant but he never quite recovered from the loss of McGeoch twenty years ago. Shelley does a sterling job, evoking Krautrock (Amon Duul, Can) and making us wonder why this never happened sooner. Add to this some incredibly frightening samples and beat box percussion and you’re left with a clear sense that Buzzkunst is far from being a stilted formula. It could easily be a new beginning.

The opener was “Stupid Kunst”, which began minutes before they took to the stage. I was still busy messing around with my baggage when they emerged. And boy did they look confident. Devoto threw himself into the action of the song -- still obscure, but gyrating and postulating to a drum’n’bass number with dignity intact. He may be pushing 50 but it doesn’t show.

”System Blues” featured a thinner array of samples and more restrained guitar from Shelley -- dressed in the black clothing he’s never seen out of these days. Bless him.

The show-stealer was “Til The Stars In His Eyes Are Dead” with a cyclical guitar line which matched the lyrical anger. All talk of a character “who’s having a world wide wank”, this is certainly uncharacteristic Devoto. He has more than anything become better at his craft, creating the same vivid images with a more ambitious vocal range. This particular song retained the anger of “My Mind Ain’t So Open” (the flip of Magazine’s first single) and sounded just as fresh.

After the excellent “Going Off”, Devoto and Shelley ended this brief but illuminating spectacle. The Buzzcocks faithful were still present and uncomposed, at a loss to articulate what they had just seen. The event had only been announced days before, on and the Magazine site Little information had been made available, nor had demos circulated. No one knew what to expect and it silenced many who expected more of the same.

There had been talk that this was part of the recording process. The samples had been amassed, but the guitar and vocal tracks would be better if created live. This is still up in the air and a month later, we are no closer to knowing the future of Buzzkunst. Devoto has expressed his pleasure over the project and perhaps we will see a future Mute release with the long dreamt of ‘Lyrics-Devoto/Music-Shelley’ credit.


Related websites: (devoted to Devoto) (Mute Records)

Ian Greaves is currently writing a history of the Manchester new wave scene. He regularly contributes to the Magazine website and is developing an exhaustive guide to 'The Goodies' for a currently off-line comedy criticism site. Ian lives in South London, UK.


Photographs by Jo Warner using Steve Warner’s camera.

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