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Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to Howard Devoto

Howard Trafford, otherwise known as Howard ‘Devoto’, came to prominence with the sad loverboys of punk, Buzzcocks. Devoto has a special way with words. It is not uncommon for British songwriters to take every day humdrum as inspiration for catchy indictments on modern life, and while Devoto may not have been one of the first, he is certainly the best.

“That’s the essence of a song in a way. I can make the most banal language the most fantastic thing you’ve heard,” stated Devoto in an interview. He had an impeccable way of transforming the mundane into the pretty while incorporating sink dramas and philosophical musings. Buzzcocks were the po-faced punk rockers of the movement in Britain. While other punk bands were preoccupied with political affairs, the Buzzcocks took a more daring approach; they looked at romance and everyday life and made it interesting. No other punk group took this approach at the time, as there was a lot of risks involved in that kind of thing. Punk fans usually wouldn’t take groups seriously if they weren’t shouting anti-capitalist diatribes, however, Howard Devoto doesn’t dare talk about things he doesn’t have any direct experience in; he had a vision for unifying hordes of listeners who wanted the energy of punk but yet a message with more personal depth and nuance than simply “fuck off!”.

Devoto was more than a songwriter and musician; he was also somewhat of a visionary. After seeing the Sex Pistols in London, like so many other people who saw the Pistols, Devoto decided to set the course of his life’s trajectory in the line of self-expression and a forward-thinking punk attitude. He contacted the Pistols’ manager, Malcolm McClaren and was able to effectively introduce his home city of Manchester to punk. The Pistols show in Machester would end up being the most important show in rock history. In 1977, Buzzcocks would introduce the world to a new fiery brand of punk, bearing similarities to Nevermind The Bollocks; Devoto would lead Buzzcocks into a DIY mentality. 

Despite his intrinsic position in the scene, Devoto would only stay with Buzzcocks for one EP, Spiral Scratch but it was still a poignant moment. In a very real way, Buzzcocks’ debut EP was more historical than the Sex Pistols’ 1976 single, ‘Anarchy In The UK’. Despite their seemingly apolitical nature, Buzzcocks made a very powerful statement with their debut — a statement of independence.

Spiral Scratch was independently released by the band’s own record label, New Hormones. The initial 1000 copies that were made of the EP sold out instantly, with the help of funds from friends and family. One of the bigger hypocrisies of Britain’s leading punk bands, the Sex Pistols and The Clash, was that they quickly signed on to major labels. However, this kind of financial-savvy move wouldn’t elude the Buzzcocks either, although Devoto would be long gone by then.

Devoto was once described as “the most important man alive”; he always sought artistic development and pushed against the grain. After only one EP, Devoto left Buzzcocks and formed Magazine. Started in 1977, they were only around until 1981. Devoto decided he wanted to create more of a progressive band of the less traditional rock variety.

Magazine were one of the most innovative bands of the post-punk movement. Devoto’s ability to inspire and to break new ground would also prove to be somewhat of a curse for Howard. Just as quickly as he witnessed the explosive birth of punk, he abandoned it faster than you can say ‘nevermind the bollocks’, stating, “I don’t like movements. What was once unhealthily fresh is now clean old hat.” 

What Devoto once saw as new and exciting, he eventually grew to despise. Punk rock was hijacked by corporate executives who sold it right back to those on the front lines of the movement. Magazine would go on to release five records and become the most original band of the post-punk and new wave movement. Below we delve into the six most definitive songs from Howard Devoto.

Six definitive songs of Howard Devoto:

‘Boredom’ – Spiral Scratch (1977)

Considered the best song from Buzzcocks’ debut EP, the song is a sort of self-actualisation of Devoto’s uneasiness with the punk movement, claiming: “now there’s nothing behind me/and I’m already a has-been/my future ain’t what it was/I think I know the words that I mean.” Buzzcocks guitarist, Pete Shelley, who would take over vocal duties and become the face of the band when Devoto left, said about the record: “We wanted to wake people up. It was like Dada.

“We wanted to make something that would provoke people – to shock them,” he continued, “almost like Zen Buddhism where they’d come and hit you with a stick (keisaku). You think, ‘No, no, this cannot be.’ Then all of a sudden you see all the possibilities.”

Pete Shelley’s guitar solo consisted of a grand total of two notes. I don’t think the band was very amused by the state of things at the time — quite bored indeed.

‘Shot By Both Sides’ – Real Life (1978)

The single off Magazine’s debut album, Real Life, the song was actually written by both Howard Devoto and his former bandmate, Pete Shelley. Real Life is a vital record and is considered one of the pioneering albums of the post-punk and new wave movement. 

As Shelley and Devoto were writing together for new material for Buzzcocks, the two split up but remained amicable with one another. Devoto was very impressed with the chord progression, and so Shelley gave the Magazine man the song. The lyrics were inspired by a political argument Devoto had with his girlfriend at the time and refers to both sides of the political spectrum with a welcomed vehemence. 

Fun fact: When Magazine reunited in 2009, Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead was asked to fill in, as they needed a new guitar player. Greenwood rejected; while it is not exactly clear as to why he did not want to play with them, Greenwood was an avid fan of Magazine, some speculated that he was just too shy. According to Adam Buxton, an associate of Radiohead, who said, “I think Jonny was just overwhelmed, cause he’s the biggest Magazine fan in the world. He was just too shy, I think. I’m sure he’s got all those licks in his locker.”

‘The Light Pours Out Of Me’ – Real Life (1978)

Another track off their debut record that was co-written earlier on with ex-bandmate Pete Shelley from the Buzzcocks. It’s clear that the two had a magic songwriting partnership, and it’s a shame it couldn’t last. When Devoto formed Magazine, he had hoped to free himself from what he thought were limiting punk rock boundaries. 

He recruited Dave Formula on keyboards; John McGeoch on guitar, who would later go on to a more successful career with Siouxsie and the Banshees and John Lydon’s Public Image LTD, as well as Barry Adamson on bass who would later join Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds.

While Magazine never achieved widespread commercial success, Real Life garnered some modest degree of success as it climbed to the 20th position on the UK Album charts.

‘Song From Under The Floorboards’ – The Correct Use Of Soap (1980)

From Magazine’s third album, The Correct Use of Soap, ‘Song From Under The Floorboards’ reveals Devoto as the brilliant lyricist he is. The song was inspired by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From The Underground; the first line of the lyric, “I am angry, I am ill, and I’m as ugly as sin,” is taken directly from the beginning of the book. 

The premise of Dostoevsky’s self-deprecating text challenges the notion that self-interest is a virtue. What happens when you hate yourself and find yourself ugly, but seem to find some twisted degree of arrogance within that? 

Fellow Mancunian, Morrissey, covered it, paying homage to the mighty influence that Howard Devoto was within Greater Manchester. 

‘Sweetheart Contract’ – The Correct Use of Soap (1980)

The record was released in 1980 via Virgin records and bizarrely featured a post-punk version of Sly and The Family Stone’s song, ‘Thank You.’ This would be the last record with guitarist John McGeoch. 

‘Sweetheart Contract’ was one of three singles released for the album, which saw the band return to better form with the kind of energy that their first record, Real Life, contained. Unlike the band’s second album, Secondhand Daylight, the album performed relatively well, peaking at number 28 on the album charts.

‘Rainy Season’ – Jerky Versions of The Dream (1983)

Jerky Versions of The Dream, Devoto’s first and only solo record, was created from two separate endeavours to continue with some semblance of a musical career leftover from one more failed attempt at reviving Magazine. When McGeoch left Magazine, it left a massive void, one that proved impossible to fill.

In 1982, Devoto began writing songs for another Magazine record and tracked demos with guitarist Alan St Clair for a different project. Devoto would end up combining both projects to create his first solo record. ‘Rainy Season’ was the first single off the album. The album is a gem for true Devoto fans, although it may take a few listens for it to grow on you truly.  

As the review suggests, while the music may seem slightly middle of the road, Howard Devoto is really mostly a lyricist at heart — his words will always be the focus of his vision.

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