Howard Trafford, better known by his stage name Howard Devoto, rose to prominence with Manchester punk masters the Buzzcocks, exhibiting a special and unique way with words. His style often mixes the imagery and emotions of the every day, melding them in a poetic thread of catchy indictments on modern-day living. Frequently displaying naked anxiety or a state of mental distress through his lyrics, a theme that makes for an intriguing and immersive listen, Devoto once said of his style, “That’s the essence of a song in a way. I can make the most banal language the most fantastic thing you’ve heard”.
Devoto began his music career in 1976 after hearing the punk blueprint artists, the Sex Pistols. Devoto and guitarist/vocalist Pete Shelley formed the Buzzcocks and set out to bring their own brand of the blossoming punk scene to Manchester. This early incarnation of the group released their first EP, Spiral Scratch, at the end of January 1977. Devoto, however, left Buzzcocks just a couple of weeks after the release of their debut EP, having only played a handful of live gigs.
Devoto had departed because he wanted to head in a different creative direction from the more traditional punk of the Buzzcocks. Instead, he formed Magazine in early 1977, intending to bring a more artful sound to punk that would include more avant-garde instrumentals and complex guitar patterns. Fortunately, in April 1977, Devoto met virtuoso guitarist John McGeoch, and they began writing songs together, some of which would appear on the first Magazine album, Real Life.
Real Life, released in June 1978, has gone down in history as one of the earliest and most influential albums of the post-punk movement. The album is awash with gems, but the most commercially successful track was ‘Shot By Both Sides’. The breakthrough single was credited to both Devoto and his ex-bandmate, Pete Shelley, who allowed Magazine to use the catchy guitar progression which he had created and used in the less successful Buzzcocks song ‘Lipstick’.
Over the subsequent years, Magazine continued to develop their avant-garde punk sound with the release of their second album, Secondhand Daylight, in 1979, followed by The Correct Use Of Soap in 1980. While the albums contained some groundbreaking music that inspired countless acts in the 1980s and beyond, the group failed to make a commercial success of themselves. In 1980, shortly after the release of the third album, McGeoch left Magazine to join Siouxsie and the Banshees. He had been disheartened by the lack of guitar-driven music in the later Magazine work and hoped for a more commercially successful career with the Banshees.
McGeoch’s departure marked the beginning of the end for Magazine and the group would struggle to replace McGeoch. Initially, they welcomed ex-Ultravox guitarist Robin Simon, but he left after a short spell with the group to focus on another music project with John Foxx. Devoto finally asked his former college friend Ben Mandelson to play guitar for Magazine while they recorded the group’s fourth and final album, Magic, Murder and the Weather. Shortly after its release, Devoto left to pursue his solo career and Magazine disbanded.
Today, March 15th, Howard Devoto celebrates his 70th birthday. In recognition, we remember ten of his greatest lyrics.
Magazine’s Howard Devoto through his 10 best lyrics:
10. ‘Back To Nature’ – Magazine
“Back to nature / I can’t go on like this / I want to walk where the power is / Back to nature”.
Magazine’s second album, Secondhand Daylight, didn’t perform so well on the charts as the preceding and proceeding albums, but this doesn’t reflect a significant decline in quality. The album lacks some of the more punchy and catchy aspects that the others might have had, but it offers some of the group’s most intriguing music and some of Devoto’s greatest lyrics.
In ‘Back To Nature’, Devoto seems disillusioned with modern life and agitated by the deviation from nature mankind has embarked upon over the past few thousand years of civilisation and, later, industrialisation. He admits, though, that as much as he wants to go back to nature, he can’t: “I couldn’t act naturally if I wanted to / Back to nature / a trip that I can’t take / people are thinking / that they’ve dreamed of this place”.
9. ‘Model Worker’ – Magazine
“I have been indulging in ostentatious display / Doing little more than eat three square meals a day / But because I love you and because you love me / A model worker, I’ll willingly be”.
The second track from Magazine’s third album, The Correct Use of Soap, mixes a traditional love song of sorts with a backdrop of industrialisation: “I’m sick of working on the land, I wanna work with machines and look handsome”.
The song is set in the increasingly desolate industrial environment of the Soviet Union of the late 1970s and gives a perfect example of Devoto’s dark sense of humour.
8. ‘Rainy Season’ – Howard Devoto
“I am on fire / And it’s the rainy season / In this desert / You made me create / I am on fire / And it’s the rainy season / And you’re like a mirage / I could learn to hate”.
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 after yet another failed attempt at reviving Magazine.
The highlight of the solo record was ‘Rainy Season’, a song that tells the story of a failing relationship. The subject of the song is in pain, they are “on fire” despite it being “rainy season”. The recipient of the lyrics is ostensibly responsible for the pain endured.
7. ‘Parade’ – Magazine
“Now that I’m out of touch with anger / Now I have nothing to live up to / I don’t know when to stop joking / When I stop I hope I am with you”.
As with ‘Rainy Season’ some three years later, Devoto showed in ‘Parade’ his unique method of writing about a doomed relationship. In this track, appearing on Real Life, Devoto seems to be struggling with an inner conflict and blames himself as well as external factors for the failing relationship.
The lyrics in the chorus: “Sometimes I forget that we’re supposed to be in love / Sometimes I forget my position” seem to take the blame, but the lyrics: “It’s so hot in here / What are they trying to hatch? / We must not be frail, we must watch” seem to point towards something ominous that is occurring in their midst.
6. ‘Motorcade’ – Magazine
“In the back of his car / Into the null and void he shoots / The man at the centre of the motorcade / Has learnt to tie his boots”.
‘Motorcade’ appears on Magazine’s debut album Real Life. The haunting music frames an elusive narrative that I have always depicted as a portrayal of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In 1963, JFK, the 35th president of the US, was shot in Dallas, Texas while sitting “in the back of his car” in “the centre of the motorcade”. The lyrics detail that the man “has learned to tie his boots,” perhaps making the dark joke that the body fell to appear as if he was tying his shoelaces.
However, despite the seemingly watertight interpretation of mine above, Devoto once revealed that “some of the ideas for the song came from reading an article about a South American dictator who threw money out of the window of his limousine. [John F.] Kennedy was never in my mind.”
5. ‘The Light Pours Out Of Me’ – Magazine
“Time flies / Time crawls / Like an insect / Up and down the walls”.
When Devoto formed Magazine, he had hoped to free himself from what he thought were limiting punk rock boundaries. In the early days of Magazine, he remained a close friend and creative collaborator with Shelley. Shelley famously helped Devoto with ‘Shot By Both Sides’ but he also co-wrote ‘The Light Pours Out Of Me’, another classic from the landmark debut album Real Life.
The lyrics communicate a senselessness as life itself appears to be draining Devoto of his inner light, or energy. Life is draining the life out of him as time whittles away. Eventually, darkness is taking over and the song finishes with the verse: “It jerks out of me / Like blood / In this still life / Heartbeats of love”.
4. ‘Sweetheart Contract’ – Magazine
“My tour-de-force is to forget all that’s gone on around and about me / My manners are forever and whatever sells the newspapers suits me / I got an education / I was dominant for hours”.
The highlight of The Correct Use Of Soap was undeniably ‘A Song From Under The Floorboards’, but the album also had so much to explore in its underbelly. In this third record, Magazine recaptured the energy of the first album after a slower and more experimental excursion in Secondhand Daylight.
‘Sweetheart Contract’ appears as a convoluted and poetic stab at capitalism and the status quo. The lyrics also seem to point at the finite fragility of success. In true Devoto style, the odd refrain of “I was dominant for hours” reeks of an unrevealing sarcasm.
3. ‘Boredom’ – Buzzcocks
“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”.
Devoto’s short time with the Buzzcocks only had the debut EP Spiral Scratch to show for it. The EP boasts some great punk tracks that laid out the groundwork for the group and showed the early potential of Devoto as an impactful lyricist. Of the four songs on the EP, ‘Boredom’ is the most memorable. Devoto’s lyrics above seem to reflect his self-actualisation and uneasiness with the punk movement.
As Shelley once said of the early Buzzcocks work on the EP, “We wanted to wake people up. 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.”
2. ‘Shot By Both Sides’ – Magazine
“‘Why are you so edgy, kid?’ / Asks the man with the voice / One thing follows another / You live and learn, you have no choice”.
Devoto wrote the lyrics for Magazine’s most recognisable and commercially successful hit shortly after forming Magazine. He asked if he could use Shelley’s progression that the Buzzcocks frontman was using for his track, ‘Lipstick’. Fortunately, the two were on good terms following Devoto’s split from Buzzcocks and Shelley allowed him to use the guitar piece provided that he received songwriting credit.
The lyrics in ‘Shot By Both Sides’ were inspired by a political argument Devoto had with his girlfriend at the time and refer to both sides of the political spectrum with a feeling of entrapment and anxiety.
1. ‘A Song From Under the Floorboards’ – Magazine
“I am angry, I am ill and I’m as ugly as sin / My irritability keeps me alive and kicking / I know the meaning of life, it doesn’t help me a bit / I know beauty and I know a good thing when I see it”.
From Magazine’s third album, The Correct Use of Soap, ‘A Song From Under The Floorboards’ sees Devoto at the height of his lyrical powers. The classic 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 publication challenges the notion that self-interest is a virtue. Devoto, like Dostoevsky, ostensibly felt aligned with the strange paradox of hating oneself and finding yourself ugly, yet somehow finding a twisted arrogance within the sentiment.