John McGeoch – the guitarist who invented the sound of the 1980s and ended his days as a nurse in Cornwall

For many music fans John McGeoch’s much-aped but never bettered guitar playing invented the sound of the 1980s. Most musicians are lucky to play in one great band band – John played in five: Magazine, Visage, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Armoury Show and Public Image Ltd.

After battling alcoholism and receiving rehab at The Priory, John left the music industry, concentrated on family life and moved to Cornwall where he retrained as a nurse. Sadly, he died aged just 48 at his home in Launceston.

John’s life story is now told in a new biography The Light Pours Out of Me by Rory Sullivan-Burke. It’s been a long time coming – while most of the key players of the punk and post-punk movements have been celebrated ad infinitum in books and on film, there has been precious little said about John, despite his crystalline and inventive guitar sound basically foreseeing 1980s indie, 1990s grunge and bands like The Smiths, Manic Street Preachers and Radiohead, whose guitarist Jonny Greenwood was obsessed by Magazine’s brilliant 1980 album The Correct Use of Soap as a 10-year-old.

Read more: Punk pioneer relaunches groundbreaking band in Cornwall

Celebrated for his use of arpeggios, string harmonics and flanger, his guitar added elegant atmospherics and understated grandeur to classic songs, including Magazine’s Shot By Both Sides, Visage’s Fade To Grey and the Banshees’ Spellbound, as well as myriad timeless albums. It’s true what James Dean Bradfield of Manic Street Preachers once said: “You realise you were listening to a new version of rock and roll.”

The new book about John’s life features interviews with Bradfield as well as other renowned musicians and fans such as Johnny Marr, who has previously said “really my generation was all about a guy called John McGeoch, from Siouxsie and the Banshees”, John Frusciante of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Peter Hook of Joy Division / New Order and Nirvana engineer and Big Black guitarist Steve Albini. U2’s The Edge has always cited John as an influence too.

Guitarist John McGeoch, right, with bassist Steve Severin and Siouxsie Sioux at a Siouxsie & The Banshees concert at Hammersmith Palais in 1981
Guitarist John McGeoch, right, with bassist Steve Severin and Siouxsie Sioux at a Siouxsie & The Banshees concert at Hammersmith Palais in 1981
(Image: Getty Images)

John was born in Greenock, Scotland in 1955 and 20 years later moved to Manchester to study fine art but discovered the nascent punk scene instead. His flatmate Malcolm Garrett (who would design era-defining artwork for Buzzcocks, Duran Duran and Simple Minds among others) told singer Howard Devoto, who’d recently left original punks Buzzcocks, about this young guitarist who could play all the parts on Television’s Marquee Moon. It didn’t get any better than that in 1977.

Magazine went on to release three brilliant albums – Real Life, Secondhand Daylight (possibly the most underrated record in rock history) and The Correct Use of Soap. Frustrated at the lack of hits and commercial success, John and fellow Magazine members Barry Adamson and Dave Formula formed Visage with Ultravox’s Midge Ure and Blitz Club DJ Rusty Egan. Hits followed, including one of the greatest pop songs of the 1980s, Fade to Grey.

On the outside looking in were Siouxsie and the Banshees, who having lost original guitarist John McKay and stand-in Robert Smith of The Cure, were desperate for a new guitarist and they had their eyes on just one man. His spooky guitar line on Happy House, while still a member of Magazine, soon meant John was drafted into the band as they entered their imperious stage and released the classic post-punk / goth albums Kaleidoscope, Juju and A Kiss In The Dreamhouse. John’s inventive, neo-psychedelic playing was the sound that bound it all together.

Siouxsie later said: “John McGeoch was my favourite guitarist of all time. He was into sound in an almost abstract way. I loved the fact 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 ever had.”

John McGeoch on stage with Public Image Ltd at First Avenue nightclub in Minneapolis in 1986
John McGeoch on stage with Public Image Ltd at First Avenue nightclub in Minneapolis in 1986
(Image: Getty Images)

Sadly, John’s dependence on alcohol, exacerbated by cocaine, caused a breakdown. At one Banshees gig in Madrid he ended up playing the wrong songs. He was fired by the band when they visited him at The Priory and found that he’d gone to the pub. He soon formed the excellent but largely forgotten The Armoury Show (their album Waiting For The Floods is a long-lost gem from 1985).

But another iconic band came calling – John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd. As a teenager, I was mesmerised by his guitar playing at a PiL concert at the Cornwall Coliseum in 1986. He lasted six years with the band but at an early gig he was hit in the face by a wine bottle and needed 44 stitches and laser surgery. Many believe the incident affected his outlook on being in a band. He later attempted to form bands with Heaven 17’s Glenn Gregory and John Keeble from Spandau Ballet, but they came to nothing and he retreated from music, eventually became sober and concentrated on family life, doting on his daughter Emily.

He retrained as a carer and nurse and moved to Cornwall, working in local hospitals but primarily to look after his partner Sophie’s father. Tragically, John died in his sleep at his home in Launceston in March 2004, aged just 48 from Sudep (sudden unexpected death in epilepsy). Sadly, Sophie couldn’t live without him and passed away four months after John’s funeral. In his memory read the new book, which is published by Omnibus Press, and immerse yourself in all that glorious music.

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