The overwhelming love shown for John McGeoch in the comments left at the most recent ICA have jolted me into action and to make good a promise on how I ended this September 2019 posting that reflected on his life and achievements.
My introduction was through his work with Magazine, so it makes sense to open things up with that band’s debut single, memorably described in one of many obituaries in March 2004 as having a riff that sounded like an elastic band building to snap.
The guitar playing on this 45 proved to be something of a template for so many great riffs, instrumental breaks, and contributions over many years. John’s technical abilities would develop further in future years, as too his confidence, and there would be ‘better’ and more substantial/powerful contributions to songs, as I hope to highlight in this ICA, but Shot By Both Sides still an amazing way to introduce yourself to a world of listeners.
John McGeoch was recruited by John Lydon in 1986 to be part of the band put together to tour Album (or CD or Cassette depending on which version you had purchased). My first sighting of this exciting move came courtesy of BBC Television in March 1986 when the band appeared on Whistle Test and played two songs, Home and Round, across two segments. I captured the performances on VHS cassette and never got bored listening to them. To this day, they are up there with my all-time favourite/memorable telly performances of all time – the clip will be posted at the foot of this piece. There’s an effortless power, energy and vibrancy to Home that just took, what was already one of PiL’s best new songs, to a new level.
I could have picked any of the songs from Juju but there really was no finer few moments, guitar-wise, than album opener and hit single, Spellbound. So good that it’s the 12″ version that’s included. There’s just so much going on throughout this song that it only those without soul or taste would ever get bored listening to it. The hypnotic introduction that leads to the frantic and frenetic acoustic strumming is perfection as far as I’m concerned.
The ex-Bauhaus lead singer released Should the World Fail to Fall Apart, his debut solo album in 1986. There were eight original compositions and two covers, one of which was a song by Magazine that had been co-written by John McGeoch back in 1978 for Real Life, the debut album by Magazine.
Peter Murphy engaged five different guitarists in the recording of his album, not giving any credits on individual tracks, so I’m assuming he brought John in to play on his take on The Light Pours Out Of Me. The guitar work isn’t too different from the original in that the riff and then the solo in the middle of the songs are instantly recognisable, but I’ve always liked the wee bit of harmonica that accompanies the solo. I should, for the record, make the point that I prefer the original but this fits in well at this point of the ICA.
Side 1 of The Correct Use of Soap is one of my real go-to continuous pieces of music, and Side 2 isn’t that far behind. Side 1 closes with this and so it makes sense for the ICA to do likewise. It’s John McGeoch at his post-punk finest, with all sorts of short jarring work through the first couple of minutes as Howard Devoto spews forth one of his finest free-form style lyrics before all it comes together with an astonishing and ear-piercing solo over the final 80 seconds. Play loud.
John McGeoch was quite happy to accept offers to make one-off guest appearances which he does to great effect on this remix of one of the many outstanding tracks on the debut album by Propaganda. The original version was just under four minutes of pure electronica with a repeating solo break on synth that drove the song forward to its orchestral style climax.
This 8-minute remix was one of a number that ZTT issued when it was released as the third single from the album. And for the first five minutes or so, it goes along merrily as you’d expect but then, as your ears prepare themselves for that familiar break, there’s an amazing guitar burst courtesy of a guest in the shape of Mr. McGeogh that is instantly recognisable in terms of style. Later and further closer listens of the track reveal that the guitar work had been building up in an understated way in the background throughout the track before the solo. Overall, it’s a minor contribution in terms of the time his work features on the song, but it takes it to a new level.
The two year-year period of 1979/80 was incredibly productive. There were two albums by Magazine, one by Visage and one by The Banshees and there were occasions when the work overlapped. John didn’t officially leave Magazine until ‘Soap’ was released in May 1980 but by then we had been treated to his incredible contribution to Happy House, released as a single in March 1980 and which showcased a whole new sound for The Banshees, helped also by Budgie coming on board as the new drummer.
It’s a sound that would greatly influence Robert Smith and the direction The Cure was heading, and in due course help lead to him being asked to again join The Banshees to fill a void, this time as guitarist after John’s breakdown meant he had to leave in late 1982.
Happy House is a ridiculously good piece of music. It wasn’t one that I took to immediately as it felt a bit out of step with previous Banshee songs. But it quickly grew on me, mainly from appreciating the intricate guitar work that showed a different and less obviously rockist side to John.
The recovery process from the breakdown took a couple of years and the comeback came from a new collaboration with Richard Jobson, who was looking to create a new group following the break-up of The Skids; he may well deny it, but there’s no doubt his ego had been bruised by the worldwide success of Big Country that had made a bigger star of Stuart Adamson than he had ever been.
Persuading John McGeoch to come on board was a masterstroke in that it helped rebuild the guitarist’s confidence as a performer and writer. It’s worth noting that while the original intention was to simply have The Armoury Show as a collective of who would make music in the studio, it was John who persuaded everyone that they should behave as any other band by signing record contracts and using advances to go out on tour. Castles In Spain was the debut single, in 1984 and it preceded the lone album, Waiting For The Flood which came out in 1985.
The Armoury Show suffered from a bit of over expectation, which was not unsurprising given that its four members comprised two who had been in The Skids and two who had been in Magazine. It’s an album, however, that I have grown to appreciate a bit more in later years and there’s some real good guitar work going on throughout this particular 45.
A wee bit of fun and a curveball. It’s great to admire the fantastic and technical guitar efforts, but it should never be forgotten that John McGeoch was more than happy to contribute to an out and out pop song. It’s an entirely disposable number in comparison to everything else on the ICA but there’s a few words from the great man, given in an interview in 1991, to illustrate how seriously he took his art and how much he loved his guitars:-
“Lydon loved ‘Don’t Ask Me’. Allan Dias (bassist) wrote the music, but when we put the guitars on it, he thought it sounded almost like a Pistols song or something. The producer had a lovely collection of guitars so I just let him dictate which ones I used. We ended up doing straightforward rhythm on a Les Paul, double-tracking that on the Carvin and then putting some Prince-type dry rhythm guitar over the top on an early ’50s Telecaster with about a three-figure serial number.”
Yup, it is very much a band effort that reflects the glorious such of its many parts. The keyboards, the bass, the drumming and the singing are every bit as important as the guitar work…..but it all stems from those opening moments and notes in which John McGeogh reminds us, as if we needed it, that he can come up with a riff that’s as memorable as any in the history of late 20th-century music.