(Omnibus Press April 28th 2022
In this very enjoyable and detailed biography, author Rory Sullivan-Burke tells a fascinating tale that really evokes the times, and makes a very impressive case for the huge influence of John McGeoch’s playing on music since then. He developed a style that had nothing to with trad blues-based rock guitar a la Eric Clapton, rejecting extended soloing in favour of exploring textures and effects.
The closing years of the 70’s played host to an extraordinary period of music making, as the initial punk energy either dissipated into a formula or diversified into new forms. The “Post Punk” label hardly did justice to the diversity of ideas and characters that made up the scene. I was one of many whose attention was seized by the storming ascending guitar lines of Magazine’s astonishing debut single, Shot By Both Sides. This was our first exposure to the extraordinary playing and arranging abilities of John McGeoch.
It’s even more impressive given that it’s the author’s first book, with a fascinating back story. Rory Sullivan-Burke is a community and care worker and has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Magazine were his favourite group. Surprised that there wasn’t an in-depth account of the group’s story, he decided to write it himself. Having secured publishing support, he started researching – only to collide with the first impact of Lockdown two years ago. Not to be put off he refused to give up, doing most of the interviews that inform the book by phone. It’s really the diversity and depth of the interviews that make this book special. I was surprised to find they were based on talking on the phone, as they read like real face to face talks between people well known to each other – such as the many insights provided by Johnny Marr, or finding that for all her Ice Maiden public persona, Siouxsie Sioux was a constant source of support and encouragement.
Probably the most impressive feature of the book is the engagement & cooperation with McGeoch’s family, especially his daughter Emily. This really takes the narrative to a different place from most music books, taking us further than the familiar narratives of the studio, album, tour, repeat – Instead we get a real feeling for what he was like away from the music scene and how important family life was for him. He was a complex character, a highly intelligent man who could probably have been a huge artistic success as a painter even if he’d never picked up a guitar. His friends describe him as a powerful character with a great sense of humour, serious loyalty to his mates, a weakness for alcohol and also a great cook. His career tended to follow a restless pattern of joining groups, making some great music but then becoming restless, often down to issues with lead singers.
In Magazine he became increasingly frustrated with Howard Devoto’s ambivalence about being sucked into the pop star game, first over the singer’s half hearted and aloof performance when Magazine got what was then the Holy Grail of a Top of the Pops slot. Except, as the author points out, this was probably the only time a record actually went down in the charts after being on the show. When the singer announced that he didn’t intend to do any interviews to promote a new album, it was too much for McGeoch. There were also the usual disagreements over composing credits & royalties, and a feeling that the keyboards were becoming too dominant in the Magazine sound. A fairly casual meeting led to his involvement with the Blitz Club crew who ended up recording as Visage, resulting in a surprise megahit with Fade To Grey, and a corresponding boost to John’s finances, which was to give him a buffer and a degree of freedom in his next ventures.
The next move to Siouxsie & the Banshees seemed a logical step, but proved to be a minefield of complex relationships. Still, he was involved in a classic run of albums – Kaleidoscope, Juju, and A Kiss in the Dreamhouse – which saw them move from their scratchy punk origins to the ornate psychedelia of Dreamhouse, along with an impressive run of Top 20 singles. However alternative the group hoped to be, they were still subject to the relentless grind of endless tours, which led to his liking for a drink or two turning into something more serious, along with heavier drug use (mainly coke by the sound of it).
The next phase, the Armoury Show, with former Skids’ frontman and all-around polymath Richard Jobson, was meant to be a kind of post-punk Blind Faith/supergroup, with McGeoch joined by former Magazine drummer John Doyle, and another ex Skid (and close friend) Russell Webb. I’ll revisit their solitary album having read more about it here, but for me, it embodied all the worst aspects of ’80s overproduction, with the guitar barely audible behind walls of keyboards, synths and pumped up drums, topped off with Jobson’s stentorian bellow. In addition, the group were bedevilled my managerial problems – musicians in Europe, managers in the US, but no record deal there. Two strong characters like Jobson & McGeoch were never likely to gel long term – but there’s a fascinating subplot (typical of the book) where McGeoch takes on Jobson’s wayward younger brother Michael as a kind of protégé cum guitar tech. Michael Jobson’s comments are among the most telling in trying to understand a complex character like McGeoch.
Again, joining PIL would seem a natural next move for him. Fellow guitarists Keith Levene & Lu Edmonds are effusive in their praise, but of course, the “elephant in the room” was John Lydon. By then McGeoch had been round the block a few times in terms of having hits, making money and musical knowledge, so wasn’t inclined to defer meekly to Lydon as supremo. In fact, Lydon is about the only person who doesn’t come out well from the book – didn’t want to be involved or contribute at all, but maybe not so surprising when you read of his casual reaction to McGeoch’s death. Again life with PIL was complicated by management – McGeoch felt that Lydon’s US managers were more interested in getting him on TV or in films than developing PIL musically. All this culminated in Lydon signing a solo deal in the US without consulting the others, effectively ending the group and not surprisingly being seen as a serious betrayal by McGeoch. In addition, there was the infamous Madrid Incident, where he was seriously injured after being hit in the face by a bottle hurled from the crowd, after which playing live was always an ordeal.
The concluding phase of his life and career provide a poignant coda to the story. By the time he bailed out of PIL, musical fashions had changed drastically. By the early ’90s, dance and trance were dominating the charts, with hip hop becoming more powerful by the year as well and guitars becoming a rarity in the charts. Previously John had always been able to get by on session work between groups, now he was no longer in demand. At the same time, he’d had enough of the slog of life on the road, knowing too that was the source of his alcohol addiction (as it was by then). He retrained as a nurse and care assistant and devoted himself to raising his family with immense love and generosity, and was also adored by his elderly patients. The contributions from daughter Emily and ex-wife Denise are really moving. I’d single out the late Nicky Tesco’s comments as especially perceptive on John’s later years. Alas, a semi-retirement to the countryside and reduction in alcohol intake came too late, and he died from an epileptic seizure in his sleep in 2004.
This really is an amazingly detailed book. There’s so much more I could say to do it justice, whether it’s a snippet like Tom Verlaine being one of John’s major influences, or from the sheer breadth of interviewees – I haven’t had a chance to mention Peter Hook, John Frusciante, Billy Idol, Johnny Greenwood, who all have plenty to offer. There’s also a refreshing directness to the writing, at times a kind of naivete, which separates it from the arch know-it-all tone of many music books. There are also lots of photos throughout, mostly provided by the family and previously unseen, along with artwork from John McGeoch’s lifelong friend Malcolm Garrett.
I admit that when I started reading the family-approved book I worried that it might be a bit of a Fan Job, but Rory Sullivan-Burke makes a convincing job of arguing for John’s massive influence in rock music since the late 70s. He doesn’t airbrush his subject’s faults, instead showing the essential generosity of John’s creativity, with his playing always being at the service of the song and the group, far from the guitar hero clichés he scorned.
You can find the book at all good bookstores – Omnibus here:
Words by Den Browne, you can read more book reviews on his author profile here: