No.8 Secondhand Daylight
After leaving the Buzzcocks in 1977, Howard Devoto met guitarist John McGeoch in April of that year. Barry Adamson (bass) and two other musicians joined Howard’s new group, which he called Magazine. Virgin Records signed them on the strength of some demos and Devoto's reputation. The very first single, Shot By Both Sides, was one of the best ever released and a new wave classic.
The debut album Real Life (1978) wasn’t far behind. With the addition of Dave Formula (keyboards) and John Doyle (drums) the line-up was now complete. Released in March 1979, the much anticipated follow-up album, Secondhand Daylight, surprised many and resulted in some mixed reviews in the music press at the time. Producer for the sessions was Colin Thurston, who had played guitar in various bands before taking up jingle-writing. In the mid-seventies, he bluffed his way into an engineering job in a small studio in London and learnt on his feet, joining producer Tony Visconti and engineering two of 1977's defining albums, Iggy Pop's Lust for Life and David Bowie's Heroes.
Magazine had originally wanted Visconti to produce Secondhand Daylight, but were happy to settle for Thurston, his engineer., A big Bowie and Iggy fan, Devoto loved the strange drum sound Visconti and Thurston had created for those records. "I didn't tell them it was my first production," Thurston admitted later. Recorded throughout the cold winter of 1978-79, Thurston gave Secondhand Daylight an atmosphere of alienation, perfect for the neurotic surrealism of Howard Devoto’s lyrics.
There had been a nine month lapse between Real Life and the new album and the opening track, Feed The Enemy, immediately reveals a more mature sound as spider-like synthesiser crawls between a vamping organ and some understated saxophone, before John McGeogh’s bold guitar and Devoto’s vocal enter, stage centre. Employing the kind of morbid curiosity people have for stopping to gaze at automobile fatalities, Devoto nags at our collective shame with lyrics such as these:
In the wheatfields
they're picking up the pieces
we could go and look and stare
Ostensibly an account of a plane crash, set against the background of an Iron Curtain uprising, the concept of using up crucial supplies by caring for prisoners of the state is illustrated by the grandiose arrangement, including a beautiful instrumental break before the drums build the tension to the snarled finale.
I brought your face down on my head
it was something I rehearsed in a dream
With these extraordinary lines, Rhythm Of Cruelty begins. Colin Thurston’s drum sound is remarkable, making each impact on the tom-toms resemble electronic splashes of heavy water. On the middle eight, against McGeoch’s spaghetti western guitars, Howard Devoto sagely intones surrealist wordplay:
Because in my drunken stupor
I've got to admire your ingenuity
and nod my head oh so wisely
to the rhythm of your cruelty
Murmuring bass, sinuous guitar and morse code keyboards usher in Cut-Out Shapes, an ominous song which only lets up its threatening ambience once, when the pace slackens to a slow military roll on John Doyle’s snare drum, before exploding in a frenzied cacophony.
Around the time of the albums’ release Devoto’s increasingly paranoiac press interviews revealed a gifted but troubled man, and the casual inference here of an affinity with the mentally disturbed is both startling and unsettling:
We met at a psychiatric unit
she was in for having habits
no one else would try
Barry Adamson plays some superb bass on this track, responding to the brief he had been given: hypnotic but accessible. At the end, something strange happens, a lonely piano tinkles, there are slight industrial sounds and Devoto mumbles mysteriously:
Find out, you'll find out
Talk To The Body enters with a single slam of the snare before the band delivers a beguiling performance, with impressive musicianship. I always felt that their old wave equivalent was the early seventies incarnations of Roxy Music. Power, elegance and articulacy at the fore. The way Howard sings:
very transparent, very selfish
beautiful powerful careless women
is disconcerting, the mischievous parvenu judging vixens of the night. He adds two simple words in a vile threat, watch it.
Provocative bass lines carry the track to a snarling, malevolent end:
clam up, calm down
reprimands Howard in a voice which brooks no argument.
You want unrequited love? Post-punk was full of it (see Joe Jackson review) and, in his own intractable way, Howard Devoto put in his ten-penneth for good measure. I Wanted Your Heart is the title, answered with his own tart rejoinder, you didn't want mine. Heavily compressed and chorused guitar is followed by Adamson’s pensive bass, after which our hero harangues us with his title phrase in a lacerating sneer. Grandiloquent piano chimes over the mix as Devoto distorts his words with audacious theatricality, whooping, snarling and bellowing. In an awesome couplet he outlines the graveyard shift for those phoney inamoratas of unpalatable locations:
Old ladies on the pavement in the dense and empty hours
all as hard as nails and brittle as pressed flowers.
Synthesizer and drums herald the final verse after which a sort of jazzy disco atmosphere prevails, gradually slowing down to walking pace. The piano tinkles, Howard fulminates against his unseen adversary in a drugged slur and the song finishes with a dancing drumbeat, off into the distance.
The reviews for this album were mostly negative. How dare Magazine go all prog-rock on us, why did they present us with a collection of pretentious pomposity, like Pink Floyd? Oh how the punks wept, the music journalists sniffed their callous disapproval.
All very unfortunate.
The Thin Air, the magisterial instrumental which kicked off the original vinyl album’s second side, is probably a fine example of their wrath. Synthesizer, organ and glockenspiel sounds played in the high register, escort elegant, powerful drums and a bluesy saxophone that soars through a succession of major and minor chord shifts. The keyboards splinter subtly as the track moves along until they sound, quite simply, like nothing on earth.
Two simultaneous piano parts, one vamping, the other playing leading notes, begin the next track, Back To Nature. This sets up an almost cinematic atmosphere, you literally tingle with anticipation. Lyrically it can be rather lazily summed up with one pertinent line:
I want to walk where the power is.
Huge, rolling chords from Dave Formula’s synthesizer lead to a burning intensity as Howard spits out his soul baring rhetoric. The pace slows, the rock solid bass pulses its economic riff, and we really get to the meat as the protagonist suddenly embarks on a bizarre and disturbing scenario:
Here are your friends again
inching in the bedroom door
ah they want to touch me
and you show me their hands
how warm and soft and foreign they are
Cubans in surgical gloves...
What the hell is that all about? I haven’t the foggiest, but it paints an amazing picture in the mind. There are abrupt detonations of jarring guitar, scaring the shit out of the listener. A nightmare become real.
Believe That I Understand is more like the material on the first Magazine album. A catchy keyboard riff, crunching guitar, regal piano. Howard tells us about another sick monkey with a saintly face, and John McGeoch belts out some blistering, twangy guitar.
Which brings us to the final track and what a track! The jaw-dropping Permafrost. A marauding beast of monumental drums and grinding guitars, it begins with this beautifully realised line:
Thunder shook loose hail on the outhouse again.
Colin Thurston employs his Bowie/Low drum sound and mics it up so intimately that whenever John Doyle, thumping merry fuck out of the skins, rolls across the entire kit we get it all right in our face as it thunders from one speaker to the other. And it gets better and better. Like a soundtrack that John Barry never used, this enigmatic classic oozes mystery and excitement in equal measures, anchored to a memorable melody, provided by vast slabs of icy analogue synthesizer. John McGeoch’s amazing non-guitar solo, double tracked for increased depth, resembles some petulant group of whales crooning to each other. It brings forth Howard Devoto’s final, evil verse:
As the day stops dead
at the place where we’re lost
I will drug you and fuck you
on the permafrost.
It all collapses in three descending, melancholic keyboard notes.
Wow. Secondhand Daylight is one of my personal top ten albums of all time. Enough said.
Coming next month:
Part 9 • Monochrome Set • Love Zombies