JOHN McGEOCH – ” The Guitarist “

Posted: July 30, 2021 in MUSIC

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. 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.

John 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. They were a band whose vision was instantly forward looking and expansive and whose lyrics were thoughtful and literate.

Left us on (March. 4th) in 2004: John McGeoch (in his sleep, aged 48), best remembered as the Scottish guitarist with a long list of notable UK post-punk bands, including Magazine (1977-80, performing on the group’s first three albums), Visage (1979-81, including 1980 international #1 hit single, “Fade to Grey”), Siouxsie & The Banshees (1980-82, including UK hit singles “Happy House”, “Christine”, “Israel”, “Spellbound” & “Arabian Knights”), The Armoury Show (1983-85), & Public Image Ltd. (PiL) (1986-92, including the albums ‘Happy?’, ‘9’ & ‘That What Is Not’).

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. 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 side lined 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.

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 MagazineMcGeoch 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.

Meanwhile, Siouxsie and the Banshees were having personnel troubles . 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 of the Cure standing in on guitar and playing two sets per night, the first as support act then 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 JonesMcGeoch 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 line-up. 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, the rest of the album is just as memorable. “Night Shift” features some of his 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 SiouxsieNils 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. 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.

Jobson’s attention seemed elsewhere, finding work as a model and TV presenter. As a result, McGeoch left, along with DoyleThe 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 LtdLydon 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. 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.

Following his stint with PiLMcGeoch turned his hands to a few things, including playing with SugarcubesGlenn 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.

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.

John was considered one of the most influential guitarists of his generation, dubbed at one point ‘the new wave Jimmy Page’; John Frusciante of The Red Hot Chili Peppers said that he taught himself to play “learning all John McGeoch’s stuff in Magazine & Siouxsie & The Banshees”; he was listed by respected UK music magazine ‘Mojo’ in their ‘100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time’; in 2008, the BBC aired an hour-long radio documentary on his life & work, titled ‘Spellbound: The John McGeoch Story’John McGeoch was a pioneer, an influencer before such a word existed and a creative whirlwind.

thanks to sun13 for the words

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