Magazine – Second Hand Daylight

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Magazine’s second album looks like a reasonably ambitious release on the part of their label Virgin. A luxurious gatefold sleeve finds the band members pictured skipping across the road in the rain in casual wear – smart jackets, trim jeans and barely a hint of their previous wilder selves, with John McGeogh’s leather jacket the only evidence of what came before.

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The sounds had moved on too. The original target to produce their second album, somewhat curiously, was John Barry, but this would have meant the band relocating to the States which the budget simply wouldn’t stand. Next choice was David Bowie sidekick Tony Visconti, but this too proved financially difficult. So the role was given to young recording engineer Colin Thurston who’d previously worked in the studio with Iggy Pop and Bowie. It was his first production job and he captured the band in sharp creative focus and used their new sound to the max. You can hear what Thurston had brought with him from his time working on Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ LP so krautrock and even a decent spot of prog find a fine home here – something that infuriated a few members of the press once their reviews appeared. Elements of the band’s former selves appear only occasionally but the urgency and frantic pace of songs like ‘Shot By Both Sides’ and ‘My Mind Ain’t So Open’ are gone, replaced by an ambitious yet cold mood that is present on all nine tracks, and much of the album sounds as if it was recorded in some winter wasteland. The band’s maturity is obvious and over 30 years later the album has survived very well indeed unlike many of its contemporaries. Rather than the bright pace of new wave one gets a frosty and somewhat desolate landscape – there’s tension, monochrome sounds and more than a hint of claustrophobia on some songs. It shouldn’t work – in fact the whole project should be one that’s slipped from memory – yet somehow Second Hand Daylight’s cool nature is in part its triumph. Not everything here is so chilly – the atmosphere thaws with the likes of upbeat songs such as ‘Believe I Understand’, ‘Rhythm of Cruelty’, ‘I Wanted Your Heart’ and ‘Talk To The Body’, but essentially this album is grey rather than dayglo…

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In John McGeoch Magazine possessed a guitarist or truly remarkable talent and a musician that is often thought of as one of the very best to come out of punk. With that in mind it could be expected that Magazine would craft their music around his sound. He is indeed absolutely crucial – in fact Second Hand Daylight rates among his very greatest achievements, but rather than lead guitar being pushed to the front of proceedings McGeoch’s sound is mixed surprisingly down so he is more of a rhythm player a lot of the time. Initially he struggled with the new synth guitars used on the album and one instrument was smashed by the frustrated guitarist as he tried to get to grips with it. The effects used on his guitar go from standard electric to some thoroughly psychedelic treatment not dissimilar to Keith Levene’s mangled sound on PiL’s ‘Theme’ and he sounds very comfortable with his role. No surprise that John Lydon chose McGeoch to work with PiL in 1986 where he remained for six years. Despite the man’s talent, rather than being a guitar-based record it is largely Dave Formula’s extraordinary keyboards that are the alpha instrument on the majority of the songs. Although this was nothing new – Formula’s work on Real Life is central to what was happening – his exploration into further areas of weird sounds on Secondhand Daylight is key to the content. He simply grabs everything and drags it in his direction when opportunity beckons, and the variety of effects at his disposal at times make him a sonic magician in the way Del Dettmar or Dik Mik were for Hawkwind at their peak. But his role is more than squeaky noises as he embraces everything from classical piano sounds to squelching synthesisers. It’s no surprise that it was Formula who was the catalyst for the 2009 Magazine reunion – he’s certainly brimming with inspiration and ideas here.

When examining a genuinely great album it’s important to look at the parts that make it up – in this case four excellent musicians backing a vocalist at his creative peak. Howard Devoto could never be described as the world’s greatest singer – many of his lyrics are almost spoken in the way a poet might – but what he contributes to the mix is vision, mood and, of course, powerful lyrics. You can feel his desperation at times such is the effect he has on the music. He is key to every track here and his vocal style is perfect against the band’s backdrop. Barry Adamson’s rubber bass sound – what is it? Phase? Flange? – is absolutely sensational and never has he sounded so good. The frequency is so low at times it’s sometimes a rumble you can feel in your stomach as he stretches notes that wobble like a water-filled balloon. Drummer John Doyle – far more a motor than his predecessor on ‘Real Life’, Martin Jackson – is also essential as his beats not only keep the pace going when required but often bring proceedings back when a song starts to break down. His sound is snare and floor tom led – almost drum machine sounding at times – with hi-hat being almost muffled to a discreet fizz so the drums add more than just percussion and give the overall sound of Second Hand Daylight a steady buzz. The rhythm section of Adamson and Doyle are so in sync they occasionally find themselves holding things together in the mix as Devoto, Formula and McGeoch go off on a wander.

The scene is set from the word go with opening track ‘Feed The Enemy’ steadily emerging from the silence like dawn breaking in the Arctic Circle, with a slow keyboard tick-tock and McGeoch’s down-played saxophone adding atmosphere. Adamson’s astonishing bass soon booms into view and the pieces slowly fall into place as McGeoch switches to guitar and Howard Devoto’s fragile vocal picks things up. There’s a big sense of space throughout, beautifully absorbed by McGeoch’s wonderfully expressive sax solo.

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Things then switch gear and ‘Rhythm of Cruelty’, the obvious single, increases pace and eases the anxiety set up by ‘Feed The Enemy’. It borders on pop, with a pulsating rhythm and defined riff. McGeogh’s guitar is centre here – a neat growling sound that keeps hold of the central riff with Formula adding the peaks and thrills.

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We move through ‘Cut-Out Shapes’, an innocent enough sounding track but one which suddenly veers into somewhat psychedelic territory as guitar and keys collide, into two fantastic upbeat songs, ‘Talk To The Body’ and ‘I Wanted Your Heart’. Irresistible guitar motifs float above drum patterns that have had the shine deliberately taken off them and Adamson bounces around in delightful fashion. Formula’s grand piano sounds are particularly effective on ‘I Wanted Your Heart’ as he adds crisp corners to McGeoch’s treated guitar sounds. It’s a part of the album where you’ll find more smiles than elsewhere – these songs are brighter and more positive. We’re given a somewhat false sense of well-being despite Devoto’s lyrics becoming ever more warped – ‘you were laughing like the goon squad in my heart’ – and he’s mumbling nonsensically at times.

Side 2 returns us to the dimmer overcast skies with instrumental Pink Floyd-esque ‘The Thin Air’. Massively atmospheric with echoing Rick Wright style keyboards glinting across the sound. McGeogh’s back on his sax and what a fine performance he puts in as the various pieces of synthesiser drip through the hazy soundscape. We really are into progressive areas now – you won’t find music from the band’s prior catalogue that sounds anything like this. Surprisingly this piece was actually McGeoch’s creation – an interesting fact considering the general lack of guitars on the track.

 Album showstopper ‘Back To Nature’ is simply astonishing. Devoto is back to spoken lyrics – echoed piano opens to massive synth chords which then push everything tumbling over the edge of a cliff and McGeoch’s pronounced guitar bursts away amid throbbing bass rhythms. This is Adamson at his very best and he sits in the centre, bumping bass notes around so that the rest of the band can use him as a springboard. It constantly sounds like it could burst at the seams, Devoto’s lyrics tormenting McGeoch into screechy responses (‘Back to nature/A trip that I can’t take’), and inevitably it does, with the pace hurtling away as before.

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There’s a hint of sunshine in the magic of peunultimate track ‘Believe I Understand’, possibly the finest of the poppier tracks on offer. Devoto, after an uncharacterisc ‘whoop!’, announces ‘here is the love of your life’ and ‘here is the lie of the land’ with such authority he’s simply stating facts. How producer Thurston achieves McGeoch’s guitar fuzz is hard to say – it’s like a thousand bedsprings playing in tune and has a nature that buzzes and fizzes in fine fashion. Light but with huge presence. But it’s a team effort as the whole band sound fantastic. Formula is back to adding clean notes to guitar phrases, Adamson nails every note required and the climax of the final verse – ‘so tell me your troubles again’ – is spine-tingling, as everyone builds into a huge rippling crescendo before things close.

The final song on Second Hand Daylight rates as one of McGeoch’s finest moments. His intense guitar fuzz is thick and bristling with attitude from the start – blatantly psychedelic – yet he keeps it superbly controlled when the temptation to run wild must have been strong, although he does take full control by the end. Here he is allowed the space to push himself to the centre and his guitar motif is both menacing and powerful. Formula’s dazzling keyboards are a willing accomplice and together they trip the sound out completely so by the time McGeoch’s anguish-filled guitar wail takes over you’re thinking stuff like the Butthole Surfers Paul Leary in 1988. McGeogh’s notes are angry and harsh, full of paranoia, and he deliberately drags the emotion down so he’s almost strangling his sound. At the time Adamson and Doyle were astonished as their band mate delivered his incredible solo. Doyle commented that he and Adamson were ‘instantly blown away… all we could do was gawp.’ He remembers that the solo was ‘possibly one take; I may be wrong about that but it was so unusual, so ethereal. There was utter silence after it, everyone was speechless.’ The entire song in fact produces a deep sense of foreboding and sounds particularly sinister. Devoto’s lyrics are more worrying then ever – ‘I will drug you and fuck you on the permafrost’ –  and his diction is heavily pronounced.  As the last few notes of feedback are flattened by Doyle’s final cymbal crashes the song fades out with Formula squeezing shrill wobbly squalls out of his equipment. There’s no way to top that and Permafrost is an immense and fitting way to end the record.

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Not everyone was impressed. In fact most journalists were the opposite. If truth be told Magazine’s relationship with the music press was admittedly strained. Devoto’s patience with some journalists had already reached a difficult stage. A famous incident took place after a highly insulting Sounds review of the ‘Give Me Everything’ single by Dave McCullough appeared. McCullough described Magazine as ‘The Muppets in disguise’ and the single itself as ‘dreadful – the lyrics proving more cringeworthy even than usual’. In response Devoto sent him a cheque for £10 with a note to say ‘your review of Give Me Everything was so unbelievably sympathetic, was so to the point that this £10 of my enthusiastic and shrieking money must go to you’.  Celebrated oaf Garry Bushell, also writing for Sounds, in his review described much of the album as ‘regurgitated fifth-rate ‘Low’ period pieces’ and ‘secondhand—and second rate secondhand at that…’. One must remember that Sounds was totally immersed in oi and punk at that time so the very nature of Second Hand Daylight was unlikely to have made any sort of mark in their offices. Completely missing the point of the music Bushell dismissed the record in brutal fashion, saying Magazine had turned their backs on punk, somehow managing to forget that the very reason Devoto left The Buzzcocks was because of his dislike of being labelled as part of the punk scene. Bushell had scathing words for Devoto himself, describing the singer as a man who ‘consistently fails to communicate anything save his own undoubted superiority over the rest of the human race.’ The irony of this statement is rather wonderful of course. James Truman of Melody Maker stuck to his view that the album was ‘pompous’ and was also critical of Devoto’s vocal technique, suggesting ‘a course of singing lessons would still seem to be the best solution’ and accused the band of being ‘self-conscious art-rock/future-shock poseurs’. The NME was more favourable with Nick Kent’s oft-quoted line ‘where previously there was half-realised potential, there is now an austere sense of authority to the music. Magazine are a force to be reckoned with’. At least someone came close to the truth, but the fact remains that it has taken many years for the album’s true worth to be realised. The poor reviews were very disappointing to the band as they knew they’d made a very fine record, and it made them doubt producer Thurston’s role, something Melody Maker’s Truman highlighted, describing the sound as ‘overbearing and needlessly extravagant’. He accused the producer of ‘effectively burying the songs in layer upon layer of icily dramatic textures’. Virgin consigned the young Thurston to the list of unfavoured producers, yet ironically he found fame as producer of the first two (highly successful) Duran Duran albums.  In fact Virgin was largely hesitant in their overall opinion of the album. Even the running order caused consternation to the point where one of the label’s founders, Simon Draper, expressed concern at the very idea of Feed The Enemy being the first track, describing the song as ‘like a downbeat thing’. But Devoto stuck to his view that the song was ‘serious’ and insisted it stay as the album’s opener. Adamson was baffled by the reaction of the music press and dismissed the journalists quite simply: ‘They’re idiots. They don’t get it’. He says that Second Hand Daylight is his favourite Magazine album, describing it as ‘quintessential Magazine’, and tipped his hat to Devoto who he says was ‘really on top of his game’, but also says that the singer was devastated by the reviews in the press. It was the work that followed, ‘The Correct Use Of Soap’, which is often referred to as Magazine’s greatest album as fans and critics fell all over it yet major commercial success still eluded them. It’s a fine record but has dated more than Second Hand Daylight, and it’s also a light-hearted album in comparison with some bright pop songs and a far less intense feel. Good – but not in the same league as its predecessor.

McGeoch soon departed for Siouxsie and the Banshees – who never released anything that could even compare to what Magazine had to offer – and later joined PiL. He tragically died in 2004 but is still widely respected by musicians such as Johnny Marr, Radiohead, Jane’s Addiction and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Magazine recruited ex-Ultravox guitarist Robin Simon and toured the US and Australia releasing the much underrated live album ‘Play’ in 1980. A final studio album, ‘Magic Murder and the Weather’ appeared in 1981, partly with Simon on guitar on some tracks and Ben Mandelson on others. But the magic had gone and Devoto left the band before its release. Roll on almost three decades and a reformed Magazine, with Luxuria guitarist Noko in place of McGeoch, toured to wide acclaim before Adamson left the band. Despite this a further studio album, ‘No Thyself’, was released in 2011 with Jon ‘Stan’ White on bass, and are active to this day. For this author the band will always hold a special place, and with Second Hand Daylight they produced a record of exceptional quality and an album which continues to force its way onto my playlist regularly.That situation seems unlikely to change.

Mark, June 2013

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