Devoto interview excerpt
Taken from an interview published in the winter 2000/01 issue
Big Takeover magazine, arguably the best music mag in
America! Interview conducted by editor/publisher Jack Rabid
(JR) in London, England, May 12, 2000.
I noticed that in this CD [indicates Time's Up] that all the
photographs are supplied by you, out of your personal collection.
Where have you been sitting on this gold mine all of these
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.
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
And them [BUZZCOCKS] as well.
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.
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?
Not sure [laughter]. 11 or 12.
I asked Pete that once and he said something about how it
depends whether you include the Youth Club gig. [laughter]
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.
The Textile Students?
Ah-huh, it's in there. Oh, no, it's in Spiral Scratch.
Should have brought that as well.
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.
So March, or early April ?
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.
Was that the Bolton Institute of Technology?
That's right, yes.
You were playing your own college, then?
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 -
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!"
The heavy metal version!
[laughter] And, anyway, literally the plug was pulled on us
after three numbers, but we got our five pounds!
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."
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
Black Cat Bone?
Or something like that.
Well after he performed so wonderfully on "Diamond Dogs"
I guess he had no future in the group
Well, no, at the end of it he actually said "I think
you guys are on this level, and I'm on this level."
Indicates much higher [laughter].
What were the other two songs that you actually managed to
play? VELVET UNDERGROUND? Do you actually ever do your version
of "Sister Ray"?
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…
The Mod era…
We tried the KINKS and then THE TROGGS – that was the
one that stuck.
My notes indicate one of the Eno songs you that might have
attempted was "The True Wheel."
And what would the other one have been?
I think "Babies On Fire."
Ahhhh, that's a good one!
Which is a good one… very long guitar solo in the middle.
I saw a post-MISSION OF BURMA band cover a song off that record
once. It wasn't "Faraway Beach," it was…
No, it wasn't that one either. It's that one that goes [starts
to hum the tune].
Oh, the first track? [mimics the guitar line] It has the great
guitar in the middle.
I just can't remember the title. It's been so long since I
played that damn album.
I actually just got it on CD the other week. No, I can't remember…
You must have been like about 16, 17 when you bought that
No, I'm a little bit older than most people think, and I even
was back then.
I just figured since you were in college when the band started…
Yes, I was actually on leg one and a half of my college career
at that time. In 1975 I was 23.
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
Am I four years older than Peter?
Sounds like it.
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?
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?
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.
I can't remember which ones we actually were trying at that
time. I don't know.
You don't know what other covers were originally in the set?
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.
I'm trying to imagine what songs of theirs [the Kinks] you
"All Day And All Of The Night" I think.
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.
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
A kindred spirit, really.
Well, somewhat. And he liked CAN as well, didn't he?
Loved them. Seemed like the main influence on PUBLIC IMAGE.
[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].
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
Yeah – Sounds.
Oh, it was Sounds – sorry. Well, that figures. It was
hipper to the underground than the other two papers were at
What, that Peter was thrilled to see his own name in the review?
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.
Well, yes, a bit surprised.
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.
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.
Some would later claim, like you, that it was a life-changing
Well, that's the one we didn't play at.
Right, the one you didn't play at.
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.
I guess three if you include SLAUGHTER AND THE DOGS.
Well, we didn't, so we won't, even now [laughter]. And yes,
[MALCOLM] McLAREN had brought up the music press.
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 –
Come on now, is a record really life-changing?
Can't it be?
No, I think it might be the things it makes you do and what
those lead on to.
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
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.
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?
I remember that, yes.
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.
That's how I got into the Stooges as well.
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.
Yeah, which is something I want to bring up in a second, but
go on and finish.
So I bought that and actually I wasn't that taken with it.
You know, it is a really messy production.
The newer mix that Iggy Pop did a few years ago  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
Sitting on the fence?
Yeah, I can't really get quite as excited about it as I expected
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
I was a very recent convert actually to the Velvet Underground
as well. Although I think Pete knew them.
Was that also a Bowie connection for you? It was for me.
Because he was doing "Transformer" around then.
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
He stunned them with his mediocrity [laughter]. I'm stunned
this is so bad! I paid £10 for this [more laughter]!
Not in those days. Anyway, we bitched about the band [laughter].
Nice Bowie reference [laughter]. Captain Beefheart as well
– not exactly a giant phenomenon in the England in the
No, but there was many a hippie that was Captain Beefheart
inclined. Yeah, I had some good taste; I had some bad taste
Lay some of that on us as well [pause]. Is it worth it?
Well, everybody has –
Nothing comes to mind?
Plenty comes to mind! [laughter].
Give us just one then.
One? I had a certain fondness for some of YES back then.
When was the last time you listened to Tales From Topographic
No, not that one! [much laughter] Not that one. Probably mostly
only about three-minute bits.
None of the one song albums, in other words?
Well, not that one. [laughter]
I'm sure it wasn't Tormato either!
I tried, I tried with that one.
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 –
We were struggling before.
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.
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."
Wonderful – I didn't realize either one of those went
back that far. And you sang them?
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 –
What were they called?
Jets Of Air.
That was his sub-heavy metal band that he'd been in? That's
what he referred to them as once.
He once played me a tape of them. They just sounded to me
very Bowie and ROXY [MUSIC].
Yeah, I could never understand the heavy metal reference either,
judging from his tastes. Unless he was just kidding –
Making a wry comment. [laughter]
So, he wrote songs on his own. He had at least those couple.
He also had "Telephone Operator" and "Raison
Yes, those went back to that time. "I Don't Know What
That was his solo song, yeah. '73…
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.
You were still using your real names.
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.
He was a Velvets fan for sure too.
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
more where this came from - Subscribe now!
mind the Buzzcocks
...or Magazine, or Luxuria - Howard Devoto has left the rotting
corpse of punk and found peace archiving photographs
Friday, February 25, 2000
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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
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