Let There By Secondhand Daylight
by Domenic Maltempi
One isn't always so lucky to hear about a band they would grow to love ever so more, because of a request made to another man to ‘not pee so close.' The band in question hails from England, and is known as Magazine. I'll get to the peeing man in just a bit if you don't mind.
Though I have not come remotely close to exhausting the topic, The Buzzcocks, and Howard Devoto in particular, represents one of the earliest, or more interesting and inspiring examples, of a band/artist that abandoned an easier trajectory to more popular acclaim through the route and sound they started with.
In the case of the short-lived first version of Buzzcocks, the trajectory was the road of Punk Rock, which they truly can lay claim to helping define. So it's not like they walked away from a particular celebrated ‘sound' they imitated well, and inflected a little bit of ‘style,' into, like so much crap from all eras, particularly in the age of easy proliferation. There is certainly disagreement about why this break from a course that was accruing a wider fan base was made, and if the music made after it was good or not. It seems to me, the break with that path was first and foremost about keeping what generated this music autonomous, and its content challenging (but not as an end in itself).
Some have claimed that Devoto's quick change in direction is merely the stunt-jerking petulance of a braggart. Such people understand this abandoning of an interesting, appreciated, personal sound, that had hardly begun with EP's such as Spiral Scratch, as ego writhing dressed up as a ‘stand', or contrarian-on-steroids theatrics that sing with desultory cheer fuck-you, and come closer, as I move further away, because I know you will.
I can understand that claim. It's not without any merit, but I won't go picking through all that. Instead I'd like to understand it differently. Devoto, as many before him, harvested rancor as a force, as that force which spurs the will and leads to action that a less malignant, but not as generative a force (mere ambition for example) never could. I'm talking about rancor in the way the Rumanian born philosopher E. M. Cioran understood it, a force that may lead to: innovation, change, positive aspiration, that feeds off of insult, hubris, or hubris-lite. Oh to curl up with the fuel of those sleepless nights hunting for the honey of rancor that draws out that spirit that wants to walk over its own corpse whenever it gets the chance, activated by a myriad of real or imagined agents. That's right; I've dragged a Rumanian philosopher into this story. You don't have to hold hands.
Magazine, and particularly the album Secondhand Daylight (their second album, released in early 1979) has this robust chameleon like quality, in the uncomfortable layers of ambiguity, or a darkness festooned with comically sharpened rotating ribbons, to name two elements that are hunting within the spaces of these songs. You can hear the heart of the weirder side of New Wave richly crash into the baby-glass of new sound Magazine was creating, that was not afraid to place its head even through such places as the land of prog-rock, to absorb within its pores some of the tricks, and features, that gave a few of the bands parked under that idea-movement, a sound worth noting, even if one didn't care for it that much.
And so let there be secondhand daylight, over and over again. It may not be sunshine disinfecting the wounds stemming from our many lacerating brushes with the world, but it is not disinfection which is desired, it is the festering of something else, corroding it, weakening its grip on us, allowing us to reach new places, breaking away with the corrosive, or that which has turned. Secondhand Daylight serves as an example of the key moment in Magazine's fairly short history, where a total break was made with all things ‘punk,' pop-punk, or what have you. It is an album that cannot be pinned so easily to a coordinate of sound. Here is an album that displays Magazine acting as an antenna for the future, a galvanizer of daring, and groundbreaking music to come. This album has abandoned much of the soil that had sustained it's output, opting to walk on a thin, crunchy layer of permafrost, not caring a blue fuck, or a dark piss, for all those looking on, mouth agape, squeaking, but what about...
So yes, I was trying to take a leak at a NYC suburban train bathroom, when a larger, gnomic looking man, with greasy long black hair, rubbed slightly against me accidently. He apologized, and that led to an uncomfortable conversation as we walked out of the horrible piss-trapped stench tunnel, and up the stairs to exit the station. This is going back around 16 years, and I have forgotten the man's name, but I do recall he was home schooled, from Tennessee, looked a little like Peter Buck on acid (if one was on it, or him, not sure) and he noticed I was carrying a few records in a tote bag.
This led to a conversation about music that has been placed under the umbrella ‘Post Punk,' and ultimately to Magazine. I was so excited by his description of the music, and where he thought Howard Devoto was coming from lyrically, or artistically, that I followed him to his apartment to listen to the record.
I recall he didn't wash his hands back in the station lavatory, and he periodically motioned to shake hands with me, as it seemed we were becoming friends, but I was particularly sensitive to that sort of thing, and could not. He then picked up the first Magazine album The Correct Use of Soap, and just stared at me with friendly, but quizzically reptilian stillness. I was instantly into the sound of that record, and remembered its name from the get-go because of the pee-hand wash-thing, but practically begged him to put on the Magazine platter he was talking-up the most from this band Secondhand Daylight.
I lit up a Camel Wide cigarette in his scabby place, which freaked him out, but he allowed as the needle made contact, not wanting to fuck-up the 1st second of my cognizance of this gem, as any deep lover of a particular experience would understand, cherishing their own 1st dip into what would go on to move them to the point of occasional prostylizing.
Through Devoto's lyrical efforts alone (some of my favorite in all of rock lyricdom) you could hear the truth in what he meant when he said in an interview after the burying of the Buzzies, that he wasn't going to pretend to be dumb. Without the inspiration provided by Secondhand, and to a less degree, the first release Real Life, and third release The Correct Use of Soap, vast and laudable realms of modern off-the-drag experimental or more thoughtful pop, would never have been activated. For bands including The Smiths, Pulp, My Bloody Valentine, The Cure, and many others who've recognized intelligence as a flauntable virtue, Magazine dug the channels to swim through.
The 1st Magazine album Real Life, still dealt out a hand that included a few cards from the very listenable Buzzcock vein, and critics of the time were psyched that the buzz was still sawing away, albeit with a departure from the shorter, snappish, wound-up-tight-let-go-quick Brit-ennui march. 2ndHand discarded the shine of all that, opting for a gray miasmatic field of music that vaults itself here and there into frenzied points of soulless soul-building peaks, and convergences of controlled, intelligent, but cartoonish flights into interesting crashes.
Maybe it's too simple to say that in a song such as "Cut Out Shapes," one of the stand out tracks on the record, they weren't concerned that the fragmentary lyrical passages, with their strange impalpability mixing with a visceral hot-coldness, was being understood by some as a horrible retreat back to the obscurantist bad ole days of prog rock (that proggish streak certainly had something to do with young engineer Colin Thurston, just off from working on Bowie's Heroes, working his first production job on Secondhand.) Nor were they concerned that keyboardist Dave Formula's (really the lead instrument on the record) take-offs into tiered, sometimes orotund moments in a solo, would also be considered a journey backwards into something bloated that punk had reacted to. Formula's keyboard playing on this record has bad-ass derring-do, and synched up so perfectly with the way Devoto could let go, and grab again an urgency that drives one into tight corners of stretching intensity.
I dare say Magazine was concerned about, or very conscious of, not becoming cut-out-shapes of themselves, anemically illuminated reflections of their apex-moments.
"I just get numb, when you're hard to find."
The lyric above, from "Cut out Shapes," is emblematic of one of the main strains of the album: a general insensitivity to following too close, even that which might be desired. It is delivered without cheer, dropping the scything energy that is often found in other songs. This animating force allows for a cold wandering, and Barry Adamson's wintry bass lines lay down the rubbery tracks with that lidocaine injection allowing a sink into deep space.
Decades removed from this album being filliped as a flat-knee-jerk turn that didn't measure up to Real Life, or the Buzzcocks, it's evident that it is not dated, unlike many bands of that time. There is elasticity, consistency, and quite enough variation in Secondhand's DNA to continue to be looked back on as a source of inspiration for many years to come. Mr. Pee Station Magazine booster home-schooler, I sincerely thank you.
Domenic Maltempi is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. He's also a member of the Whispering Olympian Band, whose new album ‘Your Problems Don't Want You,' may be found here: http://whisperingolympians.bandcamp.com
Also see our 2011 interview with Magazine's Howard Devoto
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