Seminal Post-Punk Guitarist John McGeoch Dead at 49

posted 2004-03-15 15:28:09 by stevemay

Last week, Siouxsie & the Banshees' founding bassist Steve Severin relayed the March 4th passing of John McGeoch in a post on his website, considering him "without doubt the most inventive guitarist of [my] generation and my favourite Banshee."

Siouxsie Sioux had similar thoughts in a 2003 biography, echoing, "He was easily, without a shadow of a doubt, the most creative guitarist we ever had." Later in the week, the band's drummer Budgie, who joined the Banshees at the same time as McGeoch and has been married to Sioux for thirteen years, offered his own lament: "Without any disrespect to all the other guitarists we have worked with, none had the relaxed mastery and such a depth of expression as John McGeoch."

McGeoch first appeared on the punk scene in Magazine, widely considered the first "post-punk" band. Formed by Howard Devoto after the premature breakup of the original Buzzcocks, Magazine's first and biggest hit, "Shot by Both Sides", is misrepresentative of their sound, still bound to the power-pop of Devoto's more famous first act (which makes sense, since Pete Shelley wrote it; see the Buzzcocks' "Lipstick"). Devoto's sneering delivery and Magazine's unabashed use of border-prog synth sounds left a mixed legacy of obsessive fans and disinterested observers; though a handful of revered post-punk classics like "Permafrost" and "The Light Pours Out of Me" mandate remembering Magazine, the band's three studio albums between 1978 and 1980 were increasingly spotty, and McGeoch's dramatic leads far outshone the hesitant songs they supported.

When Siouxsie & The Banshees looked to replace exiting guitarist John McKay in 1980, McGeoch, already a celebrated virtuoso among his punk peers, was an obvious choice. His 1980-1983 tenure with The Banshees (Kaleidoscope, Juju, A Kiss in the Dreamhouse) is considered by many the defining era of Britain's biggest goth heroes, thanks in no small part to McGeoch's work on "Spellbound", "Happy House", "Slowdive" and "Israel".

Inspired by T.Rex and Thin Lizzy but tempered by a darker, more hollow tone, McGeoch increasingly explored chorus and delay pedals, developing a signature psychedelic sound that would come to dominate alternative UK pop in the early and mid-1980s. Sadly, he wouldn't be around to enjoy it. Beset by massive depression and increasing drug use during the Banshees popular crest, McGeoch collapsed on stage in 1982 and was dismissed by the group, who famously replaced him with The Cure's Robert Smith, creating an endlessly hyped supergroup that never delivered on its promise. With the loss of McGeoch's singular creativity, The Banshees floundered in the mid-80s, retreating into cover versions and overbearing, theatrical arrangements.

After an unsucessful attempt to start his own band Armoury Show in 1985, John Lydon called on McGeoch to join Public Image, Ltd. in late 1986. Many felt the move owed something to pity given McGeoch's then-losing battle with the needle, but it's telling that Lydon brought together other post-punk icons from The Pop Group and The Damned on the heels of his largest post-Pistols exposure ("Rise"). Whatever the reason, 1987's Happy? was nevertheless a mediocre and disjointed affair, though McGeoch remained with PIL through 1990, writing the excellent guitar lead on the band's last hit, 1989's gospel-pop crossover "Disappointed".

Subsequent to PIL's success in the early 90s, opening for then-massive acts like New Order and INXS in arenas of 30,000, McGeoch left music behind, and pursued a latter-day career as a registered nurse in the UK, becoming officially licensed in 1995. After a few behind-the-scenes appearances and a semi-revealing interview for a documentary on Siouxsie & The Banshees, McGeoch died in sleep at 49. By all accounts, he had been drug-free for years, and leaves behind a loving wife and child.