Legend has it that in punk times, being a good musician was kind of frowned upon. This is despite ample evidence to the contrary – we only have to look at the likes of The Damned, Sex Pistols or The Clash to see that some of music’s best musicians sprang from these times.
Nevertheless, tales of musicians ‘unlearning’ their craft or pretending they couldn’t really play are plentiful.
The reality of the situation is that the punk and post-punk scenes gave us some of the best and most innovative players of recent times. We only have to listen to the likes of Stuart Adamson, Budgie or Dave Greenfield to instantly see proof of the real level of proficiency on display. But more than this, there was a sense of musicians searching for something new, of rejecting the standard way things were done and pushing the boundaries of what music could be.
Perhaps the best example of both of these is to be found in John McGeoch.
McGeoch came to fame as a founder member of Magazine, one of the great punk/post-punk bands. After founding Buzzcocks, lead singer Howard Devoto was quickly able to see the limitations that were being defined by punk music and left to create a band that would know no such boundaries.
Incidentally, a short while ago on Facebook, I was involved in a discussion about how the ‘year zero’ approach of punk, where pretty much everything before 1976 was considered out of date and to be scrapped, was not something that was actually adopted by the punks. Confessions followed about secretly listening to Wishbone Ash, Rory Gallagher and the like. One of the group said that he would like to have seen a prog punk band.
Maybe that band was Magazine.
Before I am pilloried by Magazine fans the length and breath of the world, this is in no way a slight. They were a band whose vision was instantly forward looking and expansive and whose lyrics were thoughtful and literate.
Anyway, I digress.
Moving back on topic, Devoto struck lucky when he met McGeoch, who had moved to Manchester from his native Greenock to study art at university. Prior to this, McGeoch had played with a local band, but Devoto’s great fortune was that this undiscovered guitar player turned out to be one of the finest of his generation. Sometimes things just work out like that.
Magazine’s debut single, the wonderful Shot By Both Sides, was deceptively straightforward and borrowed a guitar line from Buzzcock’s Pete Shelley and so was perhaps not immediate notice of McGeoch’s talents. But the band’s debut album would soon put that right.
Real Life was a glimpse of the future. Blending synthesisers with McGeoch’s guitar lines and Barry Adamson’s loose funky basslines, it was epic and instantly influential.
Listening back to it now it is easy to see Real Life as a signpost of what was to come, a direction for post-punk and laying the foundations for what came to be known as New Romantics. One thing that is hugely impressive about McGeoch and his playing is that he is quite happy to be in the background, adding texture, if that is what the song requires. A lot of players with his ability would perhaps feel sidelined or their ego would make them want to be higher in the mix or to be the main attraction, but his playing is subtle and restrained and the songs are the better for it.
A lot of the playing on Real Life is fairly chord based. There are obvious exceptions to this, such as the magnificent The Light Pours Out Of Me, but what we are getting here is the first step in the evolution of John McGeoch’s playing style and the direction he was able to take guitar music in.
Their move away from rock’s conventions was further cemented by 2nd album Secondhand Daylight. By now, Magazine had become further driven by bass and keyboards. McGeoch responded to this by developing a more delicate guitar style; chords are used for emphasis, but for the most part he adds picked guitar lines, subtle and effective.
Opening track, Feed The Enemy, shows this to great effect. The bass and keyboards drive the song, but take away the guitar and the song would sound empty and incomplete. Part of McGeoch’s genius is to be able to do exactly what is needed to make a song more effective.
On an interesting side note, his guitar on I Wanted Your Heart is very reminiscent of Robin Simon’s work with Ultravox. Simon would later go on to replace McGeoch in Magazine.
Magazine’s third album, The Correct Use Of Soap, was to be McGeoch’s last with the band as he became frustrated at the lack of commercial success the band got, despite huge critical acclaim. There are plenty of Magazine fans who would disagree with me on this, but their glory days were already behind them and to me this album sounds thin, rushed and somehow unsatisfactory. If you ask me (which I know you weren’t), McGeoch was wise to sense which way things were going and leave a sinking ship.
During his time in Magazine, McGeoch also played the field a bit. With band mates Barry Adamson and Dave Formula, he joined Steve Strange’s Visage, playing on their first album and their hit single, Fade To Grey. He also found the time to play some tracks with Gen X and temporarily joined The Skids for a Peel session when Stuart Adamson became ill.
This is a real treat to listen to, as one of post punk’s brightest guitar hopes steps into the shoes of another. Listen to the session below.
Meanwhile, Siouxsie and the Banshees were having personnel troubles of their own. Guitarist John McKay and drummer Kenny Morris had left the band on the first date of a tour to promote their second album, Join Hands. The tour was quickly rearranged with Robert Smith standing in on guitar and playing two sets per night, the first as support act with The Cure before joining the headliners for the second. Budgie was recruited as drummer, a position he quickly made his own.
Never a band to let a disaster derail them, The Banshees quickly moved on to album three with a cast of guitarists, including old friend, Steve Jones. McGeoch played on five tracks, adding guitar, sax and keyboards and toured America with The Banshees.
It was soon announced that McGeoch had joined the band full time and The Banshees entered what is widely regarded as their golden age with their classic lineup. The first release with McGeoch as a full member of the band was the classic single Israel, featuring an unforgettable picked guitar line.
The album Juju came next and is, for me at least, both Siouxsie and the Banshees and John McGeoch’s high water-mark. The singles Spellbound and Arabian Knights are still regarded as classic alternative ’80s tracks, cropping up in many compilations of the era, but the rest of the album is just as memorable.
Night Shift features some of the best guitar work McGeoch ever recorded; heavily phased, expertly played and also showing highly effective work with feedback. Voodoo Dolly is a genuinely menacing track that builds over seven minutes, starting with a simple bass line and McGeoch getting some most un-guitar like sounds out of his instrument and effects. As the song goes on, it builds in both intensity and speed, with some of the most out there guitar work The Banshees ever saw, at times little more than an expertly controlled squall of noise.
Next album, A Kiss in the Dreamhouse, was to be McGeoch’s last with the band. It was recorded during a turbulent time for the Banshees; long time manager and ex-boyfriend of Siouxsie, Nils Stevenson, was fired shortly before recording began, but after he had to see the developing relationship between her and Budgie, who married in in 1991. There is a quote on the albums sleeve that says “Nellie the Elephant packed his trunk and said goodbye to the circus”, Nellie being the band’s nickname for Nils.
McGeoch was drinking heavily, which became a problem when the band promoted their new album. He was hospitalised after a visit to Madrid and was fired from The Banshees shortly afterwards.
He said of this time, “I had a bit of a burn-out, that’s the easiest way to sum it up. I ended up in hospital and I didn’t get a second chance. By the time I’d got myself sorted out, it was a done deal.”
His swansong with the band is another superb album. A Kiss in the Dreamhouse saw the band broaden their sonic palette, using strings, chimes and experimenting with more vocal overdubs than previous records.
Despite the sudden and controversial sacking, Siouxsie herself described John McGeoch as “my favourite guitarist of all time.”
In 1983, McGeoch returned to making music with The Armoury Show, a supergroup comprised of members of Magazine (McGeoch and John Doyle) and The Skids (Richard Jobson and Russell Webb),who played some storming live shows and released an excellent, if over produced album, Waiting for the Floods.
Russell Webb was an old friend of John‘s and so invited him to play guitar in this new supergroup. The pair were to be reunited later in Public Image Limited. The pair were so close that Russell describes them as “co-adventurers” for over 30 years and was to deliver John‘s eulogy.
My own introduction to The Armoury Show was when they played Preston Clouds in October ’84. As I tended to do back then, I recorded the show. This can be listened to using the link below, where I have made it publicly available for the first time.
McGeoch was obviously still using some of the same effects he had in The Banshees, as a listen to the first track from the Preston gig will testify. His style and his sound are instantly identifiable and are as impressive as they are unique.
The Armoury Show’s first single, Castles in Spain, is an often overlooked gem of a record. McGeoch’s playing is superb and, to these ears, Jobson has never sounded better. Those of you who have not heard The Armoury Show are urged to do so at your earliest convenience.
Jobson’s attention seemed elsewhere, finding work as a model and TV presenter. As a result, McGeoch left, along with Doyle. The Armoury Show struggled on for a while, releasing the excellent Love in Anger and New York City singles before calling it a day, with what would have been their second album morphing into a Richard Jobson project.
Around this time, McGeoch was effectively head-hunted by John Lydon to join Public Image Ltd. Lydon had first made this offer in ’84, but eventually managed to snag him thanks again to Russell Webb, who had joined the band on bass. McGeoch went on to become the longest serving member of PiL apart from Lydon himself.
This does not always seemed to have been a happy arrangement. Lydon, frequently accused of being difficult to work with, found working with McGeoch challenging saying, “John was a difficult character.” He went on to say, “But he was a great friend. A great friend. It’s just that the drinking kind of got in the way with him, very seriously, and it became very painful.”
As superb a guitarist as he was, one does have to wonder how difficult someone has to be to earn these kind of comments from John Lydon.
Nevertheless, McGeoch’s guitar work with PiL was again extraordinary, even if it did create perhaps the most conventional music of their career. In many respects, Lydon and McGeoch was not a dream pairing and their albums sold poorly. This was due in no small part to a lack of promotional budget from Virgin Records, but we must also wonder at the lack of chemistry between two of punk/post-punk’s guiding lights creating something that was somehow less than the sum of its parts.
Part of the problem here must surely be that both artists had set the bar extraordinarily high with their previous work. Having created such influential and respected bodies of work, perhaps their was no way to continue such an upward creative trajectory. Were we to judge these records on their own merits with no prior exposure to what had gone before, we may come to a different understanding on their creative worth.
But these albums seem quite ordinary, and that is something we cannot say about McGeoch and Lydon’s previous work.
There may well be people reading this who disagree with these comments, but that is how music works I suppose. These thoughts are nothing but my own meagre opinions, for what they’re worth.
Following his stint with PiL, McGeoch turned his hands to a few things, including playing with Sugarcubes, Glenn Gregory and forming another group, called Pacific, along with Spandau Ballet’s John Keeble. Unfortunately, nothing came of this and McGeoch retired from music in the mid ’90s and retrained as a nurse/carer.
It is an unsettling and unsatisfactory way for John McGeoch’s career to come to an end. He did seems to be dogged by an unfair amount of bad luck, despite the roll call of bands he played with being one of the most enviable in modern music. It is easy to think that if he was still with us, his career could well have taken off again.
Magazine reformed in 2008, with tours and a new album. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood was offered the job of guitarist but turned it down, according to Adam Buxton, “I think Jonny was just overwhelmed, cause he’s the biggest Magazine fan in the world”. It is well documented that Radiohead are huge fans of John McGeoch, so this may well be the case.
Richard Jobson reformed The Skids and The Armoury Show and it is tempting to think that McGeoch would have been involved with both of these ventures.
There is money and a career to be made on the nostalgia circuits, at least when COVID isn’t cancelling live music, but one does wonder if this would have been enough for McGeoch. Would he have been happy reliving old glories or would his creative spirit baulk at such things?
Sadly we will never know the answer to these questions and suppositions. John McGeoch passed away in his sleep at the ridiculously early age of just 48. Many column inches were given over to his talent and his influence.
As is often the case with early deaths, and temporarily leaving aside the emotions and the deep sadness felt by his fans, there is a profound sense of loss and unfulfilled potential. John may well have returned to music and it is intriguing to think what he would have done if he did. How would he have changed with or adapted to the times? He had reportedly been working on some soundtrack material, something which would have suited the atmospherics he could create when writing and playing.
I think there would very much still be a place for John McGeoch in today’s world, were he able to come forward and claim it. Just writing these words and listening to the music mentioned above fills me with a deep sense of loss. He and his music are much missed. He leaves a great legacy behind him and, without his work and his influence, many players and many fans’ lives may well be very different to how there are now.
John McGeoch was a pioneer, an influencer before such a word existed and a creative whirlwind. We will not see his like again.