Manchester, 1976, in an apartment above a fishmonger’s that stank so badly even thieves wouldn’t go near it, John McGeoch was obsessively pounding his guitar. When the electricity meter ran out, it would play for hours without amplification in total darkness.
McGeoch was a Scottish fine arts student and when his roommate Malcolm Garrett (who would design artwork for Buzzcocks, Duran Duran and Simple Minds) told Howard Devoto, who had recently left the punk pioneers Buzzcocks, that McGeoch could play all the roles in Television’s Marquee Moon, Devoto was impressed. “It made me think he would be someone worth knowing,” he recalls in The Light Pours Out of Me, a new biography on McGeoch by Rory Sullivan-Burke.
The pair connected and it came to fruition in Magazine and their tell-all debut single Shot By Both Sides. Although the riff is a legacy of Buzzcocks, McGeoch’s playing – as urgent and tense as it is fluid and melodic – quickly drew people in. Siouxsie Sioux remembers: “everyone said, ‘who plays guitar in Magazine?'”
He captivated a teenager Johnny Marr. “Shot By Both Sides was so gripping,” he tells me. “The sound and attitude was very modern – it sounded like there was a program.” The track was a line in the sand for Marr. “Punk wasn’t the letter A in a new alphabet, it was Z in the old lexicon, then after that it was a clean slate.”
McGeoch was functioning at a high level for the time, according to Marr. “He took this artistic big bang [punk] into something much more than just barre chord thrash,” he says. “He wasn’t pretending to be in a shit-spitting punk band. He wasn’t joining the dumbing down squad. His intention was to be modern and it shows in the very deliberate choice to use the flanger on everything.
The flanger – normally a pedal, used to bend the notes of a guitar – was customized by McGeoch. He adapted it to be attached to a mic stand and controlled by hand, allowing greater control and resulting in a chilling, ringing sound that had both cinematic reach and ferocious crunch. “John’s acting was deliberate modernism,” says Marr. “The flanger modulates the signal so that it wobbles, and the effect is psychedelic. Not ‘oh so trippy 60s man’ or Hendrix, but psychedelic like you took bad acid or were psychotic after three days of speed.
Across three albums – Real Life, Secondhand Daylight and The Correct Use of Soap – McGeoch’s playing was an electric presence. “I was blessed to see him execute his talent in the most incredibly skillful way,” Barry Adamson of Magazine recalled. “He seemed able to take on whatever came into his head. I haven’t seen him struggle.
McGeoch was a versatile player, slipping between sparkling arpeggios, heart-rending riffs, or simply adding subtle color, balancing skill and power. “John’s playing helped shape the new wave musical landscape by finding a new place for the guitar,” says James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers. “His place has become less conceited, less heroic perhaps, but still strident, articulate and aggressive when needed.”
The correct use of soap was considered a masterpiece by many, including Marr. It obsessed 10-year-old Jonny Greenwood, who played it on repeat and took notes, but McGeoch was frustrated by the band’s lack of commercial success. McGeoch, Adamson and keyboardist Dave Formula magazine were poached to star in Visage, which quickly became a huge hit, providing McGeoch with financial stability as well as a taste for fine wine.
But there was another band that wanted it: Siouxsie and the Banshees. They had just lost their guitarist and drummer and while still with Magazine he was asked to play on Happy House which immediately made an impact with a shimmering guitar line that winds through the song. He was finally convinced to make the change permanent in 1980. “The Banshees were his mistress and eventually we got him off his wife,” said Steven Severin of the band. “It was like having George Best on guitar,” says Marr.
“There was a huge gaping hole [in Magazine] as soon as he’s gone,” Adamson says. “It changed the course of the band forever and helped it to its ultimate place of derailment.” Magazine were over a year later.
The albums Kaleidoscope, Juju and A Kiss in the Dreamhouse marked an extremely fertile period for the Banshees with McGeoch-propelled tracks such as Spellbound invoking “sheer invention, grace and bloodthirsty ballet” according to Bradfield. Marr adds, “The music he made with the Banshees…the word imperial was made for that music.”
However, despite the creative peaks, McGeoch’s craving for alcohol – which was already abundant – was increasing, and cocaine was thrown into the mix. Things imploded in 1982 Madrid when McGeoch was in such bad shape that he was playing the wrong songs on stage. “It became apparent that he didn’t know where he was,” Banshees drummer Budgie later said. “I thought he had gone too far that night, but much later he admitted that he had been given Valium to calm his nerves, because he was either shaking from withdrawal or from having too much drank. If we had noticed that, we might have said the show couldn’t go on. But we weren’t.
McGeoch ended up in the Priory’s drug clinic but was turned away by the group after their visit and instead of being in hospital he had gone to the pub with the day release patients. “It seems very unforgiving,” Sioux said of the move. “I wish that hadn’t happened. But alcoholism isn’t something that gets fixed overnight. Séverin reflects on the decision: “40 years ago, the term rehabilitation was not yet used; there were no support systems available, especially in the music industry. For all we knew, John was indeed committed to an asylum until further notice.
McGeoch then joined the Armory Show with former Magazine drummer John Doyle and former Skids members Richard Jobson and Russell Webb. However, another iconic post-punk band wanted it: Public Image Ltd.
It lasted six years, but it was not an auspicious start. At the start of his first tour of Austria, a rowdy crowd, still playing the cartoon version of punk, was spitting and throwing things. McGeoch confronted them and in return a 1.5 liter bottle of wine – stolen from PiL’s dressing room – was thrown in his face. This resulted in laser surgery and 44 stitches; his bandmates believe he lost about a pint of blood before he could even leave the stage.
It wasn’t the first time McGeoch had intervened in the public’s silly parrot about punk’s heyday, once climbing into the crowd at a Banshees show to rip off a Nazi armband. The wine bottle incident shook him, however, and people noticed a marked change in him.
PiL ended when Lydon accepted a solo contract. McGeoch was a martial arts expert and when the band’s manager told him there was no new album and that PiL was indeed finished, he later told a friend he was considering taking him on. to the pub car park and kill him. Instead, he walked away.
He tried to start a band with Glenn Gregory of Heaven 17, but that never happened and he retired from music, focused on family life and trained as a nurse. He returned to music later, writing theme tunes for Channel 5, but aged just 48 died of Sudep (Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy). Alcohol had remained a major problem, but he was sober in the last months of his life.
“John’s approach to playing helped define an entire genre of music that came after punk,” says his biographer Sullivan-Burke. The simplicity of his playing, combined with a technical ability that never veered into unnecessary virtuosity, inspired many, from grunge and 1990s American alternative rock to British pop. “He chose very simple lines over anything pompous,” Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera once said. “He was kind of a guitar anti-hero, the song came first and he tried to complete it.”
Steve Albini emulated some of his playing in his pulverizing noise rock band Big Black. “He was an innovator with the pure sound of his guitar,” he tells me. “I admire the economy of his game. He made very precise choices which were generally of a magnificent simplicity. He also shaped one of the Manic Street Preachers’ most beloved records. “John had a huge influence on the Holy Bible,” says Bradfield. “Being a fan of Magazine and the Banshees set me up so well for this album without really realizing it at the time.”
After his death, Sioux reflected on his talent and impact in the Banshees. “John McGeoch was my favorite guitarist of all time,” she said. “He was in the sound in an almost abstract way. I loved that I could say, “I want this to sound like a horse falling off a cliff,” and he would know exactly what I meant. He was easily, without a shadow of a doubt, the most creative guitarist the Banshees had ever had.