Entrepreneurial heroes: John McGeoch

Music is the sound of the soul, the direct voice of the outer and inner worlds we inhabit. It triggers a mental reaction, our moods vibrate in response to what we’re listening too. We can set free profound emotions with the intensity with which music affects the nerves and impacts our consciousness, and at the same time uncovering the hidden sound by bringing silence to life.

The music I like is for me, the isolation of being in one’s own head is often the easiest way of losing yourself in the moment or to memories of past, feeling, life, motion and emotion, good and bad. Music that we feel in our marrow, that invites us into some other dimension of time, magnetises us to the present yet contains within itself all that ever was and ever will be.

When I first dropped a needle on the LP Real Life by Magazine back in 1978, I was hooked for life. Whenever I subsequently put it on the turntable, then the CD and now the digital file, I recall the advice given on the back cover of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: To be played at maximum volume – and then I do.

Magazine are one of my favourite bands, not least because of their brilliant guitarist, John McGeoch. Yesterday was the fourteenth anniversary of his death, aged 48. He died in his sleep. His CV encompasses some of the most innovative, influential and respected music with a number of bands of the post-punk era, notably Magazine, Visage, Siouxsie and The Banshees and Public Image Limited.

Testimonies from leading guitarists today go some way to illustrate the extent of his contribution – Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood cite him as a ‘big influence’, John Frusciante of Red Hot Chili Peppers said that he taught himself to play ‘learning all John McGeoch’s stuff in Magazine and Siouxsie and The Banshees’, whilst Jonny Marr cites him as a favourite.

The late 1970s were a time of re-invention in British popular music, and McGeoch demonstrated a talent for expressive, textured chords and brooding rhythms. Born in Greenock, in 1955, John McGeoch moved to the Manchester area in his teens. In 1975 he attended Manchester Polytechnic, where he completed a degree in fine art.

In April 1977, he answered a small ad placed in a record shop by Howard Devoto who had just left the Buzzcocks after the Spiral Scratch EP and was looking for musicians ‘to play slow music again which would transcend the limitations of three-chord punk’.

Devoto found what he was looking for in McGeoch and the pair formed Magazine, along with Barry Adamson, Bob Dickinson and Martin Jackson. They made their live début at the Electric Circus in Manchester and their eerie appearance and moody sound caught the attention of Virgin Records.

In January 1978, the urgent, menacing debut single Shot By Both Sides made the lower reaches of the Top Forty while Real Life, Magazine’s seminal album début, made the charts. A great foil to Devoto and Formula, McGeoch shone in that setting and Magazine released a string of classic tunes, all co-written by the guitarist.

Howard Devoto created darkly literate songs of icy alienation, violence and psychological nonconformity. McGeoch, using flangers, a chorus effect and a percussive arpeggio technique to achieve his influential new sounds, complimented him perfectly. Nothing, and I do mean nothing else sounded like Magazine did when their remarkable album, Real Life, was released.

For such a young man, the prematurely-balding Devoto’s deeply cynical lyrics betrayed an intense and often-self loathing inner life. As a poet he was particularly adept at portraying insanity, social alienation and toxic anxiety. The music from McGeoch was simultaneously jagged and angular.

McGeoch played on Magazine’s first three albums, Real Life (1978), Secondhand Daylight (1979) and The Correct Use of Soap (1980). Truly, Magazine were one of the most instrumentally formidable bands of their day. McGeoch quit the band in 1980, shortly after the release of the third album, frustrated about their lack of commercial success despite being popular with music critics. Devoto subsequently disbanded Magazine, finding no suitable guitarist to replace McGeoch.

McGeoch moonlighted as a session musician with Bauhaus and Generation X before joining Siouxsie and The Banshees. It was with the arrival of McGeoch in early 1980 that Siouxsie’s imagination appeared to take flight on a series of rich and innovative records that confirmed the band as the progenitors of a genre of mournful, introspective music. It was arguably Siouxsie’s most creative and successful spell. He was easily, without a shadow of a doubt, the most creative guitarist the Banshees ever had.

McGeoch produced dense textures using a combination of signal processing, such as chorus and phasing, and a distinctive combination of picking and using open-stringed drones. When The Cure’s Robert Smith was drafted into The Banshees to fill in for an ill McGeoch, he struggled to play the guitarist’s complex parts.

However, McGeoch suffered a nervous breakdown due to the stresses of touring, and collapsed on stage at a Madrid concert. This marked the end of his time with the band. McGeoch then joined Public Image Ltd in 1986. McGeoch had been an admirer of PiL, particularly John Lydon’s lyrics. McGeoch remained with PiL until they disbanded in 1992, making him the longest-serving member apart from Lydon.

In 1992, McGeoch was invited by Björk’s Icelandic band, the Sugarcubes, to play guitar on their Stick Around for Joy album. After this, he gave up performing and trained as a nurse in 1995, and then lived in America for a decade, returning just before his death.

He was a distinctive player, greatly admired for his use of textures rather than his solos, but able to dream up dramatic riffs and chord changes and blistering fills. The Magazine track Because I’m Frightened and Spellbound by Siouxsie would have to be considered the ultimate performances for McGeoch, as he plays solos through both entire songs. A technical aspect of his style was creating the illusion that no part of his hands were ever moving, including his fingers.

John McGeoch was without doubt one of the greatest post-punk guitar players. The simple and subtle, yet tinkering on the edge type of playing was the perfect foil for Devoto’s lyrics, he inspired Siouxsie to new levels of creativity, and gave shape to Lydon’s angst and anger in his lyrics. I can’t think of another guitarist from that era who was as innovative as John McGeoch, the Mozart of his generation. So I keep listening to him

As an artist, how do you keep innovating and pushing the ambition? What can we learn from John McGeoch in terms of his thinking and attitude from an entrepreneurial perspective? Here are some of the best values of entrepreneurship and disruptive innovation that I see from him that should spark a startup.

Passion – do it because you love it John McGeoch wasn’t thinking of anything else other than personal fulfilment when he started playing guitar. He did it simply because he loved it, he had talent and gave it a go. Musicians often say they play for themselves first and that it is a choice by which they can earn a living. This is a basic principle that is common to successful entrepreneurs everywhere.

Open mindedness McGeoch’s work is drawn from a diverse range of influences. Their uniqueness is the product of constant change and combining existing elements in new ways, producing something entirely their own, with a prowess for throwing stuff together randomly to discover new combinations and possibilities. This ability to create genuine uniqueness is a key trait of an entrepreneur.

Restlessness & reinvention McGeoch never succumbed to the stick-to-a-formula mantra, each period in a new band he emerged with something completely new and unexpected. Not all of his experiments worked, but this willingness to try out new ideas, knowing that not all will triumph, is a trait every entrepreneur needs.

A clear dividing line between important work and busywork McGeoch wasn’t really productive, although his time with the Banshees saw him at his most creative. That to me says everything about busy work, and important work. McGeoch always sounded like someone in constant motion, each new release an agitation from the previous release, never resting on his laurels.

Stand for something, and be true to your purpose McGeoch was strong minded and did whatever he wanted but had a clear sense of purpose. He was shaped by deeply held personal and passionate values and remained true to them, quickly finding out that there are millions of people who shared those same values. Like a musician, put a tone of voice into your startup and stamp it with your personality.

Being different matters more than being better McGeoch became successful because he was different. He grabbed our attention. Rock stars have proven for years that being different – and getting noticed because of it – is more important than quality of music. Be different, stand out from the crowd. When opportunities don’t present themselves in a timely manner take calculated risks.

Don’t copy other people’s work Even if it’s just a chord sequence or a riff, take it and make something else. Just copying something is no good, unless you want to just be in a tribute band. It’s vital to keep playing around and pushing yourself in business, create your own product. Don’t be afraid to build a business or revenue model that plays to your strengths, even if it’s non-conventional.

Be your own image If you plan on getting noticed, establishing a brand promise, and creating an image is vital. John Pasche designed the ‘tongue and lips’ logo for The Rolling Stones in 1971, originally reproduced on the Sticky Fingers album. It is one of the first and most successful cases of rock brand marketing. McGeoch had his own style and image too – what’s yours?

Playing it safe gets you nowhere If you don’t take risks you’ll never excel. Playing it safe all the time becomes the most dangerous move of all. Deviate from routines. Rote activity doesn’t lead to the path of innovation or disruptive technology. McGeoch never played it safe.

His enduring appeal comes from the combination of swagger and delightful tunes, and memories of an on-stage presence. His tunes are always fine soundtracks to my life’s more dramatic moments locking together and producing some wonderful noise.

McGeoch teaches us that you have to be authentically yourself, to find what’s right for you, leading from your own place of uniqueness. Trying to be what others want you to be will lead ultimately to failure. You have to find what you do best, and find what is best about you.

The formula for his endurance is like a restless entrepreneur, never resting on their laurels, they retain the mix of uplifting, anthemic melodies with craftily serious lyrics in a business context. McGeoch was a talented, spirited man, driven, passionate and more than willing to rebel against the norm. And that’s what every entrepreneur does too.

You start to feel old when your heroes begin to die, albeit there may be some contradiction involved in speaking of heroism. It’s a term freighted with overtones of nobility and authority. But for me, John McGeoch was an inspiration as any entrepreneur with his spirit of innovation and creativity.

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