July 25, 2021

Samuel Beckett’s denial that revolutionized punk

“He earned the nickname of anti-punk poet despite the fact that, in a way, he was perhaps the most punk of them all”

The coordinates of a record work are better understood by knowing the influence of its author. This is the case of Howard Devoto, leader of Buzzcocks, who drank and recognized the influence that Beckett’s work had on him. By Sara Morales.

Text: SARA MORALES.

Always walking on the sidelines, skipping the line, obstinate with dismantling what is ingrained to question it, to contradict it. Howard Devoto’s thing was to experiment, not settle, build new dialectics and deconstruct slogans that were worth everyone, but not him. This was also the case in 1976, when he decided to raise the Buzzcocks dinosaur with Pete Shelley. Devoto knew that this would not last long, he did not fit in with the monstrosity that he himself had created in the middle of a Manchester that was crying out for its own punk scene to compete against the London commando led by the Sex Pistols.

It was precisely these who diverted, according to Devoto, the road; because while he kept betting on German experimentalism influenced by bands like Can or Neu! for the foundations of the Buzzcocks sound, his partner Shelley allowed himself to be corrupted and fell at the feet of Johnny Rotten and the eager punk verbiage, in that seminal concert that the Sex Pistols gave in London to change the world.

Against the wind and conventionalism

Howard Devoto, a literature and humanities student, was then fed by an obsession to polish trends to cross-dress them and, at that time, fashion (and its victim) was punk. He considered that the so-called genre of insurrection, far from emerging from the lower classes as it proclaimed itself at birth, came from a stream of students from wealthy families who were boredn; and he was not willing to join that great sect. This attitude, together with the preponderance of philosophical approaches in his songs, to the detriment of the social criticism that prevailed the canons of the genre of the crests, led him to earn the nickname of antipunk poet despite the fact that, in a certain way, he might the most punk of them all.

He began to pour into his lyrics the ideas and reflections extracted from the readings he was passing through and, while his fellow Buzzcocks were hooked on the street virulence, Devoto rose in gnosis destroying any approach to that thunderous youthful hurricane that, in his eyes, the true sense of movement was beginning to pervert. This was what led him to leave the band shortly after founding it to give birth to Magazine, the group where – yes – he would unleash his creative universe full of cynicism, pessimism and an honesty that, as he would share with his conceptual “mentor” Samuel Beckett, he annoyed people.

Still, despite the congenital differences the Buzzcocks were born with, they had time to launch an epé together before Devoto left ship. This was Spiral scratch (1977) and in it the nihilistic precepts that he drank from the texts of the playwright are already glimpsed. Akin to the desperate school of Beckett, father of 20th century literary experimentalism that he also professed although in the musical field, he overwhelms us with “Boredom”. A song in which he realizes that his path is on the side of evolution and does so by recreating that anguished but paradoxically hopeful pattern that sets the sublime Esperando to Godot, one of the banners in the literary work about existential boredom. «You see that there is nothing behind me / I already am, I have already been / my future is not what it was» writes and sings Devoto; pure tragicomedy of the human condition, pure Beckett to the rhythm of punk.

Minimalist freedom

The Buzzcocks would end up succeeding without him, but he felt freer without them. Already at the helm of Magazine, Devoto built a paradise of sound sequences where it seems that nothing happens, because they never swept sales, but at the same time everything happens: they were one of the first bands, along with The Stranglers, to sophisticate the sound with the use of keyboards. And they did it based on an instrumental avant-garde where the midpoint of that bridge between punk and post-punk fades, fades on the horizon; perhaps because of that indeterminacy they will never succeed at all.

Minimalism, another of Beckett’s organic bases, becomes the skeleton of his compositions and they are “Definitive gaze”, “The light pours out of me” and “Parade”, from the debut album Real life (1978), the high point in Magazine’s work. Barry Adamson’s bass and John McGeoch’s sublime guitar arpeggios end up supporting an album that, although it has some embers of Devoto’s more recent past in the Buzzcocks (“Shot by both side”), rides through denial and destruction amidst glimpses of electronics. A sound pessimism that would end up becoming the perfect prelude to the sinister wave that would come later and that was conceived between the pages of More pricks than kicks, the stories that Samuel Beckett published in 1934 and that left such an impression on the musician.

Devoto, who by then was already painting his face white, continued writing and composing between flashes of mime and vaudeville, as when the Irish poet and novelist attended his second literary stage, one that was characterized by subjectivizing his art and extracting it towards the others in images because words were beginning to fall short.

«Devoto continued writing and composing between flashes of mime and vaudeville, as when Beckett was attending his second literary stage»

And so came Magazine’s second album, Seconhand daylight (1979), also without much success due to Devoto’s clear and, presumably, far-fetched commitment to symphonic music. Something that did not happen with the third attempt, the album The correct use of soap (1980), the most famous in the band’s career thanks to songs like “A song from under the floor boards”, “Sweetheart contract” or the cover of “Thank you” by Sly & The Family Stone and, curiously, the last of the group united and in harmony. The fourth and last work of the group (Magic, murder and the weather, 1981) would be composed and recorded without McGeoch, and by the time it was released, Devoto had also given up taking the reins to start a solo career.

They gave up experimenting more, the creative pirouettes and innovation enacted by their leader, so individualistic and eccentric, ended with a gang that was blindly heading towards the indecipherable (such as the complex Without of Beckett), with a content so cryptic that instead of embellishing the weirdness it ended up being swallowed by it.