Uncut (May '04)
Key works: Real Life (with Magazine), A Kiss In The Dreamhouse (with Siouxsie And The Banshees), That What Is Not (Public Image Ltd.)
John McGeoch, one of the most influential and respected Britrock guitarists of the last 30 years, died in his sleep in London on March 4. The Greenock-born McGeoch, a veteran of several post-punk groups and highly regarded collaborations, pioneered a rich spectrum of guitar sounds with a minimal, metallic, modernist edge. His envelope-pushing arsenal of textures, treatments and techniques inspired acknowledged acolytes from U2's The Edge to John Frusciante of Red Hot Chili Peppers, and from James Dean Bradfield of The Manic Street Preachers to Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood. Despite passing away at the tragically young age of 48, McGeoch leaves behind a huge legacy of recorded work and imitators.
I met McGeoch in 1992. He had just played with John Lydon's PiL on one of their final TV appearances, on Channel Four's The Word, and we got chatting in a Wembley hotel bar. As he was planning to travel home to Sheffield the next morning, the same journey that my friends and I were making, we offered him a lift. Driving north, McGeoch was funny, sardonic, and utterly lacking in rock-star attitude. To quote former Smith's and PiL drummer Mike Joyce, he was "one of the true good guys."
Moving from Scotland to Manchester in his late teens, McGeoch was asked to join Magazine in 1977, the art-rock outfit formed by Howard Devoto after quitting punk-pop legends Buzzcocks. The space-guitar treatments and jagged energy he brought to tunes like "Shot By Both Sides" laid down the blueprint for new wave's aesthetic-sharp, fast, angsty, arty, bursting with modernist zeal.
Frustrated with Magazine's lack of commercial success, the in-demand guitarist began moonlighting on high-profile sessions including the hyper-adrenalised Generation X single "Kiss Me Deadly", probably the best song Billy Idol ever recorded, and Steve Strange's high-camp (but highly successful) new romantic vehicle Visage. In 1980, inevitably, McGeoch was poached from his flagging Devoto commitments by Siouxsie And The Banshees.
In the BBC TV show Rock Family Trees, Siouxsie described McGeoch as "my favourite guitarist of all time," and "the most creative guitarist the Banshees ever had." Between 1980 and 1982, he certainly redefined the band's scratchy sound on three of their most dynamic and full-blooded albums: Kaleidoscope, Juju and A Kiss In The Dreamhouse. His sonorous, supple, angular guitar work blasted the band into the new decade. But his heavy drinking eventually led to a fall-out with Siouxsie and a breakdown in late 1982.
"I really ruined a gig in Madrid in October and that was it." McGeoch admitted later. "I was definitely out of control. I ended up in hospital and I didn't get a second chance."
But McGeoch was soon recovered, and his high standing among the avant-rock community ensured that he was never without work for long. First came piecemeal collaborations with former Skids frontman Richard Jobson, Peter Murphy and Matthew Sweet. These were followed by an invitation from Lydon to join PiL in 1986. Co-writing the band's final three albums Happy?, 9 and That What Is Not, McGeoch brought a rocky new muscularity to PiL, becoming one of the ex-Pistols longest-serving and most important collaborators.
After PiL disbanded in 1992, McGeoch spent the last decade of his life exploring musical avenues that never quite went anywhere fruitful. Projected collaborations with Heaven 17 frontman Glenn Gregory and Spandau Ballet's John Keeble both came to nothing. Ironically, while his pioneering guitar sounds were being namechecked and copied across the left-field of the rock spectrum, McGeoch took a break from the music scene to qualify as a nurse in 1995.
But nursing was never a realistic career option, and McGeoch was still writing music for television shows up until his death. It was not exactly a glorious end for one of rock's great modernists, but McGeoch had little left to prove as a guitarist at the time of his untimely demise. His influence is all around us, his imitators legion.
He is survived by his partner Sophie and daughter Emily.
Contributed by Bonnie Bryant.