October 2006. Vast multi-coloured skywriting is going off through the expanses of my mind – ‘HOW HAD I NEVER HEARD THIS BEFORE????’ I’m listening to the first track on David Devant & His Spirit Wife’s second album, Shiney On The Inside. The song is “Radar” and I’m mightily impressed by not only the stomping intro octaves but the cleverness of the Bowie reference in the line ‘Meet the man who failed to err’ is killing me. The cracked actor from The Man Who Fell To Earth’s influence is all over this. And I’m wondering for the millionth time since being introduced to them this August ‘HOW HAD I NEVER HEARD THIS BEFORE????’
Living in Boston, Massachusetts in the latter half of the 90s, we loved all things British, with an intensity bordering on megaloAnglophilia. Had we caught wind of Devant, we all would’ve gone crazy over them. But back when we had to rely on not-quite-forever delayed shipments of UK magazines and what albums looked cool in the import section of Newbury Comics, there was only so much we were privy to. Americans would LOVE this band, if only they got to hear them, heck, even just see their photos. And if experienced live, converts would be booking excursions to the UK to catch The Vessel, guitarist Foz?, The Colonel (bass), and The Professor on drums at, these days, their all-too-rare gigs. I certainly have. And no doubt about it, each one is an event. Devant have always viewed themselves as more an art project than a band, and in their early days their Spectral Roadies would grate carrots into the audiences’ hair for single ‘Ginger’, shoot The Vessel out of a cannon, and instigate a load of other hijinx.
Pop Music is a world of Magic. When those soundwaves enter your ears and you get that feeling, you’re connecting, committing, to a much greater universe of Wonder. David Devant themselves are named after the English stage magician, adopting his motto “all done by kindness”, and taking the name of his autobiography My Magic Life for a killer profile in song.
The best description of the band comes from The Vessel himself in a 1996 NME interview, “Somewhere around 1973, pop could have gone somewhere else…And I think that we are at the end of one of those corridors that has been neglected.”
What’s the best place to start? Let’s just go with “Cookie”. Besides being infectiously catchy, the tune, quite simply, ROCKS. Be sure to watch the video and let it guide you into this strange wonderful world.
And then there’s call-and-response crowd favourite “I’m Not Even Going To Try” Lyrics like “‘Ain’t got a plan on paper, of a daring little caper, you know I wouldn’t want to wet your eyes, now you might say I’m sluggish, but that’s a load of rubbish, who says you’ve got to work until you die” – and later “and when a friend of mine says ‘David, have you got the time?’ I won’t even roll my shirt sleeve up” – show the great fun of the first record. And although Work, Lovelife, Miscellaneous contained some hints like the brilliant ethereal-shadows-in-a-jolting-hall-of-mirrors ‘Light On The Surface’, nothing could prepare you for the darkness of Shiney On The Inside. Shiney is a confrontation with the ego, a plummet through the Abyss, and if you think those things don’t belong in Pop music well then you’ve never heard these gorgeous songs. Which you need to, pronto. Shiney contains my all-time favourite Devant song, “One Thing After Another”. One thing I love about The Vessel’s lyrics is how he takes everyday phrases such as the title and makes them vibrant, anything but mundane (see also “This Is For Real”). “One Thing After Another” starts with a lovely melodic phrase, a fluctuation between major and minor that reflects the internal struggle of the song. Later we will get the line “going from A to B”, as the song changes between those two tonal centers, prefaced by moving off a C chord after the line “all at sea”. The lyrics wrestle with darkness in a way that’s never conclusive while the music holds this tension. Which shifts into the transcendent major key outro while the vocals still continue the fight. “There’s a fire out on the wing, and I was hoping you might ring” gets me every time.
Shiney On The Inside just doesn’t stop and favourites shift all the time. The fierce onslaught of “Here Come The Imposters” and the rock n roll excess of “Space Daddy”, the wild fun of “Dangerous Dilettante” followed by the ascendant “21”. Groover’s absolute musical brilliance always strikes me, subtly chromatic, conveying a wealth of feeling. Never resolving, Shiney is a force to be reckoned with through its final moment of a flight attendant warning “your nearest exit…may be behind you”.
Despite later wishes that it could have been earlier, my admission into the realm of Devant was to take place in 2006. And like the best occult initiations, it involved strange journeys and fantastical figures. Three days after my 30th birthday, back in London now, I took a bus down to Brentwood to pick up a suitcase I had left with my friend Simon a long time ago when I was departing for America. Upon arriving at the pub, Simon introduces me to Rat Scabies. The Damned have long been my favourite punk band and Mikey Georgeson (Devant’s The Vessel) would later wax on the glory of ‘Smash It Up’ when I interviewed him for Cheap & Plastique magazine. If you like fun, and I stress fun, esoteric conspiracy theories, definitely read Christopher Dawes’ Rat Scabies And The Holy Grail relating the punk drummer’s obsession with the Rennes-le-Château mystery. It’s incredibly entertaining. The suitcase, I find upon opening, contains the forgotten manuscript of the first draft of my Off-License To Kill , which I will soon set to revising in earnest. Well, as much earnestness as a novel about James Vagabond, star agent of the British Drunken Secret Service going back in time to stop American Prohibition from ever happening can muster. I jump on another bus heading to Chalk Farm to catch my favourite new band, Lucky Soul, play at the Barfly. I’m just in time. En route I get a text from my friend JDC telling me to ‘come to the 100 Club’. So after their set I do.
I arrive too late to see any of the bands. The gig was The Jazz Butcher supported by Mr. Solo, who my friends are there to see. I know nothing about him and the answer ‘from David Devant & His Spirit Wife’ means nothing to me. My friends are fanatical about them, but that name…why are my friends so into what sounds like a goth band?! As we’re exiting, a man in a sparkly silver catsuit, face paint, and giant black quiff wig standing by the door shakes my hand and thanks me for coming. Our party hightails it to one of the small bars on Hanway Street to keep drinking. There I meet a couple who I will later be best man at their wedding. As I’m standing off to the side a Lancashire lass comes and takes me by the hand and with the words “C’mon, Aug! Come waggle!” leads me to the dancefloor. There, just months before the smoking ban and all its concomitant grumbles set in, she – literally – burns a hole over my heart with her cigarette. I never saw her again. Such is life.
End of July now, I’m heading down to The Windmill in Brixton to catch my beloved Luxembourg. I go early as Mr. Solo is opening the show and I want to hear what all the fuss is about. The Indelicates are scheduled to play too, but alas, a last minute cancellation means the greatest line-up ever was not to be. A man – the man – in sparkly silver catsuit, face paint, and giant black quiff takes the stage and the opening synthesizer puts me in mind of Gary Numan. I move forward. “Home Sick Home” – so catchy, with lyrics that make me pay attention – could be the song I’ve been waiting for all my life. The accompanying film flashes ‘STONE’ at its end and I feel a strong connection. I buy the album immediately upon returning to my flat. One of the best of that year.
I am now primed for Devant. Of whom Mr. Solo is their frontman. But now, how to hear them? Mid-August, my band H Bird, the reason I’m in the UK this time around, is supporting, yes, Lucky Soul at The Good Ship in Kilburn. An internet friend of mine who I’ve never met, originally from Cambridge now living in Copenhagen, shows up to see us play, much to my surprise. We’re chatting at the bar beforehand and I mention Mr. Solo.
“Ah, yes, David Devant.”
“I’ve still not heard them.”
“I’ve got them all on my server. I’ll give you the password.”
So I grabbed everything. The three albums – Work, Lovelife, Miscellaneous, Shiney On The Inside, Power Words For Better Living – plus all the early singles. And entered Pop Heaven. The first two albums are masterpieces, each in its own self-contained way. And the third has damn fine moments as well. Try to not be overcome by excitement when “Whatever Turns You On” kicks in. C’mon, I dare you.
But before I could even register these works as collected wholes, I’d obsess for weeks at a time over individual songs. “Pimlico” being the first of these. I can’t think of anything else that sounds like it. A demented circus you can’t help but stare at, and yet Pop as hell. This song introduced me to The Vessel’s much-used what I call ‘thwarting the rhyme’. Its opening line “Sometimes London don’t seem that appealing, maybe your lover is living in Deptford” made all the more delicious by your ear expecting and end on ‘Ealing’. The wildly presumptive chorus of ‘we’ve all been to Pimlico’ gave my first excursion to that part of the city three years later an air of importance most trips to the pub are sorely lacking in.
‘Pimlico’ was released on Humbug. Label boss Kevin Crace would later be the man responsible for getting the ball rolling on my and David Shah’s Soft Close-Ups album, City Air. Crace had an awesome roster of eccentric artists, including Martin Newell who I have written about many times over the years – see the first ‘Aug Stone Champions…’. Enter the world of Pop music and let the wonders unfold before you. And just weeks after I finally hear this magical music, The Lost World Of David Devant & His Spirit Wife is released, a double disc containing unreleased material including songs recorded for Humbug. And this means I can finally pay for an album, very much wanting to give them money, after cadging so much excellence for free. Of the Humbug material, …Lost World… features the harrowing self-examination that is “Mr. Talent”, as well as early grittier versions of “Light On The Surface” and “Parallel Universe”. The latter is astounding, its chorus of ‘Is there really only one Big Bang? Is there only one Kool & The Gang?’ still has me in stitches.
I can’t believe I’ve gone this far without mentioning the song “Miscellaneous”, a song that to me sums up Life itself. “When you finally find out, what this mess is all about, won’t you come round and let me know?” And there’s so many more to flag up – “Life On A Crescent”, “Ginger”, “About It”, “Incurable’” the list, as “Whatever Turns You On” croons, goes ‘on and on and on and on’. And there’s more to come. A new album is due very soon. With “This Ruff Magick” being of the highest quality, those falsetto oo’s glorious Pop beacons, the song itself capturing what Devant is all about – Magic, Fun, and deliriously good Pop.
HURRY – LISTEN – AUG STONE’S COUNTERFORCE PODCAST