Howard Devoto

Howard Devoto

For the latest news on Howard Devoto, please see our ShelleyDevoto page and the Shot By Both Sides website.

Pete and Howard have recorded a new album together called buzzkunst (2002), out now!

Howard's "character" is featured in the film 24 Hour Party People.

Howard Devoto interviews

Howard Devoto interview excerpt
Taken from an interview published in the winter 2000/01 issue of The Big Takeover magazine, arguably the best music mag in America! Interview conducted by editor/publisher Jack Rabid (JR) in London, England, May 12, 2000.

JR: I noticed that in this CD [indicates Time's Up] that all the photographs are supplied by you, out of your personal collection.

H: Yes.

JR: Where have you been sitting on this gold mine all of these years?

H: Just in a few filing cabinets I have. Yes, the line is that PETER's [SHELLEY] the one with the great memory – he can just remember it. I can't, so I keep things as an aid memoir, as it were. Yeah, I've always kind of had a habit of trying to keep stuff, even when I was quite young, so it kind of came naturally. To try and put things aside, also because in whatever ensemble I was in I tended to be the guy that sort of looked after affairs. Perhaps more than the others I often needed to be the one with pictures and information.

JR: I was absolutely stunned by some of these photographs. I mean obviously we didn't see the group in America with you in them. By the time we saw you it was about three years later, with MAGAZINE.

H: Yeah…

JR: And them [BUZZCOCKS] as well.

H: Well, that is actually the best of the collection, pretty much. I mean, there was not a huge amount taken with me in anyway, because it was such a short period. And you know, we were new to the trade. It's not like there's, you know, hundreds of photographers buzzing around Manchester [laughter]. It's not like you're really even hyped up to get that together, you know? So what there is, is what there is.

JR: Well that's what I was going to say – I was amazed you even had this much. What were you in the band for, 11 gigs? Or was is 12?

H: Not sure [laughter]. 11 or 12.

JR: I asked Pete that once and he said something about how it depends whether you include the Youth Club gig. [laughter]

H: And whether you include the one that only Peter and I were – well, no, and GARTH [later to be the bass player briefly] was in… the preview one at the Textile Students.

JR: The Textile Students?

H: Ah-huh, it's in there. Oh, no, it's in Spiral Scratch.

JR: Should have brought that as well.

H: That was three months before the Free Trade Hall, but it was only Peter and I. It must have been all of about all of six weeks before we saw the SEX PISTOLS for the first time.

JR: So March, or early April [1976]?

H: We saw them late February. And then April the first, we actually had a pathetic attempt at playing at college, at the Textile Students social evening.

JR: Was that the Bolton Institute of Technology?

H: That's right, yes.

JR: You were playing your own college, then?

H: We were playing our own college [laughter]. I just got my drainpipes fitted by then. I think I has some pink thigh-length leather boots. It was mostly a set of cover versions that started with "Diamond Dogs," and we hadn't played with the drummer or the bass player at all, so Peter and I had kind of, you know, rehearsed 12 cover songs or something, and Garth turned up. You know -

JR: Yeah -

H: Buzzcocks bass player, who Peter knew, and Garth turned up in a tuxedo! [laughter] And, the drummer was somebody from Bolton we'd never played with, and he counted "Diamond Dogs" and in as about half-speed [laughter] so we played this incredibly slow version of "Diamond Dogs!" [more laughter]

JR: The heavy metal version!

H: [laughter] And, anyway, literally the plug was pulled on us after three numbers, but we got our five pounds!

JR: It was a moral victory. I noticed in the liner notes of the box set that the name of the drummer wasn't mentioned, it just said "a drummer."

H: Oh, for this one. You know the story. Yeah, I think it might have been a guy called Dennis, for some reason [laughter]. I don't know why I remember Dennis. Peter remembers, was it Black Cat Bone or something he thinks was the name of his group.

JR: Black Cat Bone?

H: Or something like that.

JR: Well after he performed so wonderfully on "Diamond Dogs" I guess he had no future in the group

H: Well, no, at the end of it he actually said "I think you guys are on this level, and I'm on this level."

JR: Indicates much higher [laughter].

H: Anyway, so…

JR: What were the other two songs that you actually managed to play? VELVET UNDERGROUND? Do you actually ever do your version of "Sister Ray"?

H: No.

JR: Never?

H: No, I don't think there was a Velvet Underground song in the set. There was one or two by ENO, there would have been one or two STOOGES, but there would have been some… we were actually attempting early KINKS and things like that, having seen the Pistols doing their SMALL FACES, and "The Substitute." So we kind of latched onto…

JR: The Mod era…

H: We tried the KINKS and then THE TROGGS – that was the one that stuck.

JR: My notes indicate one of the Eno songs you that might have attempted was "The True Wheel."

H: Yeah.

JR: And what would the other one have been?

H: I think "Babies On Fire."

JR: Ahhhh, that's a good one!

H: Which is a good one… very long guitar solo in the middle.

JR: I saw a post-MISSION OF BURMA band cover a song off that record once. It wasn't "Faraway Beach," it was…

H: "Blank Frank"?

JR: No, it wasn't that one either. It's that one that goes [starts to hum the tune].

H: Oh, the first track? [mimics the guitar line] It has the great guitar in the middle.

JR: I just can't remember the title. It's been so long since I played that damn album.

H: I actually just got it on CD the other week. No, I can't remember…

JR: You must have been like about 16, 17 when you bought that record?

H: No, I'm a little bit older than most people think, and I even was back then.

JR: I just figured since you were in college when the band started…

H: Yes, I was actually on leg one and a half of my college career at that time. In 1975 I was 23.

JR: Oh, you were older, then. Never mind then. Here I always had this idea of the all group being, say, somewhere between JOHN [MAHER] at 16 and Pete at 20, but you were actually quite his senior.

H: Am I four years older than Peter?

JR: Sounds like it.

H: Possibly.

JR: Interesting… I also have in my notes that you wanted to do the STOOGES' "Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell," but you probably never got around to that?

H: I think we tried it. I mean, it was just because of the title really [laughter]. It's not particularly – musically - one of the more catching ones really on Raw Power, is it?

JR: Most of Raw Power isn't really a melody-based album I'm thinking of "Penetration" or something [laughter]. I love the same sort of IGGY POP snarls.

H: I can't remember which ones we actually were trying at that time. I don't know.

JR: You don't know what other covers were originally in the set?

H: Well, I mean there was some appalling stuff [JR laughs] early on when we were just trying some earlier 60s stuff. As I say, like early Kinks, even early ROLLING STONES.

JR: I'm trying to imagine what songs of theirs [the Kinks] you would attempt?

H: "All Day And All Of The Night" I think.

JR: I think sometimes that might be the first punk rock song ever recorded. The cheapest amp you could ever find, and he put knitting needles into the speakers to distort them. That's kind of 1964 punk rock technology. One of the reasons I ask is because after the two covers found on here, which have just been issued in America for the first time, Buzzcocks never do another cover. So it's almost like to get a group together quickly, you rely on other people's songs, then that sort of provides a minor blueprint, then you go from there.

H: Yes, to pad your set out in the early days. I think you partly do it to try and give people a bit of a window on yourself by giving themselves a reference point to something they might already know a little bit. You know what I mean? So they can make an association or two. Even if you really change it, that tells people something about you – you took this, and you changed it that way. So there can be good reasons for it and you to purloin a message or two from it. Certainly doing the CAPTAIN BEEFHEART one, that really did seem a little bit different to play around with his kind of music and turn it into that stripped down form. It's only much later that you learn things like JOHN LYDON was a Captain Beefheart fan too.

JR: A kindred spirit, really.

H: Well, somewhat. And he liked CAN as well, didn't he?

JR: Loved them. Seemed like the main influence on PUBLIC IMAGE.

H: [pause] He kind of kept quiet about that didn't he, a little bit. [JR laughs]. In fact we were greatly honored and surprised when Virgin took over the Can catalog and used our name to sort of promote the latest Can album at that time. I think it was Saw Delight and it was "influence on…" and our name was there in a full page advert on the back of Melody Maker [laughter].

JR: That is pretty funny. Actually I remember Pete mentioning that he was enormously excited when you guys played your first gig and you got named checked in the Melody Maker review. You never could have seen that coming. It was a guy named John Engan.

H: Yeah – Sounds.

JR: Oh, it was Sounds – sorry. Well, that figures. It was hipper to the underground than the other two papers were at the time.

H: What, that Peter was thrilled to see his own name in the review?

JR: Yeah. I mean things happened so fast for your group. You don't even have a group in February and you're on stage in July and you're being reviewed in a national music paper even though you're not in London. That's got to be a pretty big shock.

H: Well, yes, a bit surprised.

JR: Looking back now, it's a fait accompli, you know what I mean? The band's quite popular, went on to some success. But I'm trying to put myself back into the mindset of a couple of young guys who'd never been really doing much. See a group, start a band.

H: Yes, the whole roller coaster that was those few months. As I was trying to explain, it still really was the moment that we - for me, anyway - that we saw the Pistols that was as big a moment as playing our own first gig. Because I got in involved – we got involved – and suddenly we were involved in something in trying to set up these gigs for them in Manchester. That was a really life-changing, transforming thing. Just in itself really, and getting bound up in that. And just, it never stopped really, you just keep seeing the Pistols' name in the press, and the snowball of it was quite astonishing. Then the difference between those two Manchester gigs where 100 people turn up at the first one, and as far as I remember stayed in their seats throughout the whole thing.

JR: Some would later claim, like you, that it was a life-changing experience.

H: Well, that's the one we didn't play at.

JR: Right, the one you didn't play at.

H: Yeah, then seven weeks later, the second one, and that is packed out. And suddenly it's a punk gig because there's two groups playing. Suddenly it's – oh, there really is something happening here, there's two bands.

JR: I guess three if you include SLAUGHTER AND THE DOGS.

H: Well, we didn't, so we won't, even now [laughter]. And yes, [MALCOLM] McLAREN had brought up the music press.

JR: I would have thought, though, having bought Raw Power out of the blue like you did, that would have been maybe not as life-changing as you'd say experiencing a group like the Sex Pistols live –

H: Come on now, is a record really life-changing?

JR: Can't it be?

H: No, I think it might be the things it makes you do and what those lead on to.

JR: You never heard someone say something like, "I was listening to this horrible rubbish then one day somebody put on a RAMONES record and I went, 'what the hell is this?' and I've never been the same since." You've never heard a story like that?

H: Yeah, I suppose I just want to argue it's actually because of what they then went out and did. I know what you're saying, but I actually wasn't that taken with Raw Power.

JR: No? Interesting.

H: I'd seen photos of the Stooges. I've actually still got my press clipping from Zig Zag magazine – I don't know if you remember that?

JR: I remember that, yes.

H: They did an article on the Stooges and they had the picture of him standing on the people's hands, and I kept that article just because I was so taken with that. I was an ALICE COOPER fan by then, so I was a bit interested there. I was tagging him for later investigation. And then of course [DAVID] BOWIE came along and was touting his name around. I was a big Bowie fan. That all added to it.

JR: That's how I got into the Stooges as well.

H: So the first thing I ever got was Raw Power. I've got a feeling at that time, probably the first two albums were deleted.

JR: Yeah, which is something I want to bring up in a second, but go on and finish.

H: So I bought that and actually I wasn't that taken with it. You know, it is a really messy production.

JR: True.

H: The newer mix that Iggy Pop did a few years ago [1996] I think probably does improve it. But then I did manage to get hold of a second-hand copy of the first album, and again I listened to it and… "I Wanna Be Your Dog" – yeah, that's OK [laughter], but the rest of this, it sounded really mundane [more laughter]. But I kept them. It wasn't really until I got Funhouse that I clicked with it, and then I clicked in a big way. I loved Funhouse. But before then I'd been a bit –

JR: Sitting on the fence?

H: Yeah, I can't really get quite as excited about it as I expected to.

JR: One of the angles I haven't seen covered much is that both you and Pete – separately as it turns out – had absolutely stunning taste for two people who hadn't met each other and went to college in Bolton [H laughs]. I mean, these records were almost constantly out of print – these Velvet Underground records you both obviously had, these Stooges records.

H: I was a very recent convert actually to the Velvet Underground as well. Although I think Pete knew them.

JR: Was that also a Bowie connection for you? It was for me.

H: Yes, mostly.

JR: Because he was doing "Transformer" around then.

H: Yes, and he played "White Light, White Heat" in his set as well, didn't he? But, I went to see LOU REED and I was not impressed with Lou Reed on his tour [laughter]. Who's the guy who did the biography? He did the WARHOL one as well… He talks about Lou Reed playing to stunned British audiences [laughter]. Really, Lou Reed did not stun the audience at the Hard Rock, Manchester, I can tell you [more laughter].

JR: He stunned them with his mediocrity [laughter]. I'm stunned this is so bad! I paid £10 for this [more laughter]!

H: Not in those days. Anyway, we bitched about the band [laughter].

JR: Nice Bowie reference [laughter]. Captain Beefheart as well – not exactly a giant phenomenon in the England in the mid-seventies!

H: No, but there was many a hippie that was Captain Beefheart inclined. Yeah, I had some good taste; I had some bad taste as well.

JR: Lay some of that on us as well [pause]. Is it worth it?

H: Well, everybody has –

JR: Nothing comes to mind?

H: Plenty comes to mind! [laughter].

JR: Give us just one then.

H: One? I had a certain fondness for some of YES back then.

JR: When was the last time you listened to Tales From Topographic Oceans?

H: No, not that one! [much laughter] Not that one. Probably mostly only about three-minute bits.

JR: None of the one song albums, in other words?

H: Well, not that one. [laughter]

JR: I'm sure it wasn't Tormato either!

H: I tried, I tried with that one.

JR: Everyone always just says, you and Pete saw the Sex Pistols, and boom, you started a band. But it always seems to me, listening to your material –

H: We were struggling before.

JR: That's what I mean – they make that connection too much. It's obviously enormously important, and that's why it's given such play, but it's really become enormously clear to me that even if you hadn't seen the Sex Pistols, if you did get your group together it would have been an enormously unique one by British pop music standards of 1976.

H: I don't know. It would be very nice for me to sit here and go, "Of course, Jack, yes, that's right." [laughter]. But we had been trying for about three months or so, and although in that first set we tried at the Textile Students, there were a couple of Pete's songs like "Get On Our Own" and "No Reply."

JR: Wonderful – I didn't realize either one of those went back that far. And you sang them?

H: Well, as I say, we didn't get that far on that set probably. But I'm sure at least one or two of those were there. So, in some ways I wouldn't even be surprised if Peter didn't have those songs already. His previous band, the JETS OF AIR I think, had finished quite a while –

JR: What were they called?

H: Jets Of Air.

JR: That was his sub-heavy metal band that he'd been in? That's what he referred to them as once.

H: He once played me a tape of them. They just sounded to me very Bowie and ROXY [MUSIC].

JR: Yeah, I could never understand the heavy metal reference either, judging from his tastes. Unless he was just kidding –

S: Probably!

JR: Making a wry comment. [laughter]

H: So, he wrote songs on his own. He had at least those couple.

JR: He also had "Telephone Operator" and "Raison d'être" right?

H: Yes, those went back to that time. "I Don't Know What It Is?"

JR: That was his solo song, yeah. '73…

H: That went back to those times, maybe even that early. But he and I hadn't actually written something together. So we were trying these cover versions, we were trying a couple of his songs. We didn't have a look. We didn't really have enough to define a style.

JR: You were still using your real names.

H: Funhouse on its own wasn't enough. I'm not even sure ultimately really even how taken Peter was – that was my enthusiasm. Certainly he was an Eno fan, he was into doing those.

JR: He was a Velvets fan for sure too.

H: Yeah. But I don't know about the Stooges, I think that was mostly my enthusiasm at that time. It really wasn't enough to define what you were going to be. I just had this feeling for Funhouse, you know, it's got to be aggressive and confrontational. We needed - we really did need - to see the Sex Pistols.

© 2000 Jack Rabid and The Big Takeover
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Never mind the Buzzcocks
...or Magazine, or Luxuria - Howard Devoto has left the rotting corpse of punk and found peace archiving photographs

Michael Bracewell
Friday, February 25, 2000
Courtesy The Guardian

Of all the icons assembled in the pantheon of punk, Howard Devoto could most probably lay claim to being the most enigmatic and the most revered. He was described by Pete Frame (the creator of Rock Family Trees) as "the Orson Welles of punk", and pronounced in a tribute song by Momus to be the Most Important Man Alive. Morrissey stated that it was Devoto whom he had in mind when he wrote The Last of the Famous International Playboys, while Paul Morley claimed that Devoto introduced a "new literacy not just into punk, but into rock as a whole". He has also been cited as an influence by novelists as different in style as DJ Taylor and Jeff Noon.

And yet Devoto himself remains mysterious. His guru-like status is all the more respected for the dignified manner in which he has allowed his body of recorded work and published lyrics to represent him. Having co-founded, respectively, two of the most influential groups of the punk period, the Buzzcocks and Magazine, he then went on to record a solo album, Jerky Versions of the Dream, before forming his third and final group, Luxuria, in 1986.

He ceased recording professionally in 1990, preferring the anonymity of a day job to some kind of honorary position in the music business as an elder statesman of cultural revolution. With regard to his current employment, Devoto has little to say. "I am the manager of the archive at a leading photographic agency in central London. I also receive royalties from my recordings." He is neither open nor defensive about his working life beyond music, except to say that Luxuria did not deliver the support he required to proceed. "There was something very limiting about punk," he states, in a tone which is both assertive and measured - Alan Bennett without the soft edges - "and in the early days that was punk's strength. You knew your themes, you knew how to look and you knew your musical style. And there you were, for a while. But I'd loved all kinds of other music up to that point. There was some big elemental thing that happened with the Sex Pistols, but in terms of music there was a whole gamut of other stuff which I had liked, and which, in the realm of ideas, was not a totally different tin of biscuits - Leonard Cohen, Dylan, David Bowie. With the Pistols and Iggy Pop, it was the anger and poetry which hooked me in, really." In the spring of 1976, in Manchester, Devoto co-founded the Buzzcocks with guitarist Pete Shelley. They recorded the massively influential Spiral Scratch EP and a highly collectable official bootleg, Time's Up, both of which are being re-released on Mute Records.

Heard now, these recordings have lost none of their fizzed-up, self-aware energy, driven by Shelley's sublime reinvention of jagged, high-speed pop guitar playing. On machine-gun tempo songs such as Friends of Mine, Boredom and Orgasm Addict, Devoto delivers his smart lyrics with an edgy petulance which disguises their wit and biting acuity as a kind of pantomime of dumbness. "You're making out with school kids, winos and heads of state," he lashes out on Orgasm Addict, "You're making out with the lady who puts the little plastic robins on the Christmas cake."

Artistically, the young Devoto was responding to influences from Alice Cooper to Camus. Having studied philosophy as a student, and having been interested in meditation, his lyrics on Spiral Scratch and Time's Up were fully intended to be carefully posed, self-questioning philosophical statements about the problems of existence.

Interviewing himself, when Spiral Scratch was originally released in 1977, Devoto wrote of the song Breakdown, "[Its] hero is in the position of Camus' Sisyphus - 'To will is to stir up paradoxes.' " In this respect, punk rock had been a personal and creative catalyst for Devoto, offering him a means to conduct nothing less than a biopsy on his own soul.

"I think that punk rock was a new version of troubleshooting modern forms of unhappiness," he says. "And I think that a lot of our cultural activity is concerned with that process, particularly in our more privileged world, with time on our hands - in a world, most probably, after religion. My life changed at the point I saw the Sex Pistols and became involved in trying to set up those concerts for them. Suddenly I was drawn into something that really engaged me. Punk was nihilistic anger, not overtly political anger. Political anger could have been the radical 60s.

"But going back to what I was going through personally, and all of the stuff that you go through as a student, I remember - before punk even - pursuing Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty; I had pictures of the Baader-Meinhof on my wall, and all of that hunger strike stuff was going on. It was that struggle for commitment which you have as a young person. And where do you put all that when you're a young person like me, who wanted to play a 'Yes, but...' game with everything?"

Since 1990, Devoto has given the whole punk unions circuit an extremely wide berth, as well as being highly reluctant to offer up his recollections to what has become the major academic industry of "punk studies". An example of this reticence could be seen in his contribution to the 1996 commemorative documentary about the two Sex Pistols concerts which were held at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall in the summer of 1976. Despite being the man who actually arranged these concerts - with his own first group, the Buzzcocks, supporting at the second - Devoto chose to be represented on the programme by a reel-to-reel tape-recorder, playing a recording of his few comments about the occasion. Person to person, he can give a meticulous account of his involvement in punk, often using factual information and
chronology as a means of avoiding generalised statements about punk's "attitude".

"Can I just say," he states, "that what I don't buy are things like a piece I read by Caroline Coon about punk a few years ago, which said how desolate the mid-70s were, culturally and politically. And I don't buy John Lydon's line, either, in this new film The Filth and the Fury, where he's going on about the 'system being really oppressive in Britain, and that's why punk rock happened'. In myself, I can't say that I was feeling particularly great at that time - but what's new?"

Having left the Buzzcocks almost as soon as they released their first record, Devoto formed Magazine as a way of expanding the possibilities that had been opened by punk. In a leaving statement issued on February 21, 1977, he wrote: "I don't like most of this new wave music. I don't like music. I don't like movements. Despite all that, things still have to be said. But I am not confident of the Buzzcocks' intention to get out of the dry land of new waveness to a place from which these things could be said. What was once unhealthily fresh is now a clean old hat."

As ever, Devoto's stance was one of disaffection and dissatisfaction - rejecting the early complacency into which punk rock so readily dropped, prior to becoming little more than a picture postcard parody of itself. With Magazine, he explored the causes of this stance through lyrics and performance which were at once disturbing and playfully self-aware and endlessly self-questioning.

Musically, Magazine comprised the formidable team of Dave Formula, John McGeoch and Barry Adamson, whose own solo work would pursue the idea of attempting to solve the case of oneself. In hindsight, Magazine would have found their place in the history of music on the strength of just one of their early recordings, Shot By Both Sides.

"Magazine was its own particular blend of trying to contain a certain sort of intelligence in that sort of music. One of my partners of those years, asking about a Magazine lyric, said, 'Is that about you and me?' And I said, 'You'll never know because I swap them around.' But also in Magazine there was the idea of me addressing the audience and making ambiguous pronouncements about our respective roles - your idea of me, and my idea of you. And I was really playing with that during the period of the first two Magazine LPs, when I was in the prime of my ambition. I'm still proud of Magazine. Half a lifetime of feeling went into it.

"And I'm sure that I tried to rant on about the importance, to me, of paradox and contradiction. That there is some state of grace or point of ultimate knowledge in trying to come to an aesthetic understanding of these things. I'm trying to explain the song Shot By Both Sides, I suppose, and this is the area that I've explored in everything I've done since the Buzzcocks."

In many ways, Devoto's life since adolescence, when he first started to write, has been an epic of self-portraiture. Even now, he is writing his autobiography and recording it as a spoken-word document, to be left to the National Sound Archive after his death. He has barely reached the middle 70s and the work is already 20 chapters/10 hours long, and includes 150 samples of music. Not surprisingly, one of his favourite authors is Marcel Proust. His own writing, as a lyricist, has articulated his personal position with an eloquence and originality that rivals much of the best contemporary fiction and drama.

But at the heart of his constant enquiry - as revealed with brooding poignancy on his final LP with Luxuria, Beast Box - seems to lie a fear of what he might discover if he could actually answer his own questions. "They've opened the Beast Box, haven't they?" he concludes on the title track of that LP, and even on the haunting crescendo of Railings, which he recorded in 1998 for the rock group Mansun, his distinctive voice appeared to croon from its own grave, "Don't burn your hand on the window, if you just want to take in the view."

"Life is hell," says Devoto during this interview, neither joking nor seeking to shock. "I don't think I've ever strayed very far from that idea since I was about 20. Now, in the last 10 years, since I've essentially quit music, I've come to some kind of accommodation with that. But that's really how I feel, and it's one big reason why so far I don't have kids.

"From where I was, in 1990, I suppose that most people in my position would try to find another niche for themselves in the music business. But I have too much damaging, damaging pride. And if you take my lack of confidence, and you take my pride - well, there you really are shot by both sides."

© Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 2000

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