A FLAT-PACK BUZZOGRAPHY
In 2006, as British punk rock reaches its official 30th birthday, few of its founding fathers will be around to celebrate. One band remains as resilient in 2006 as they were thirty years earlier. The band that:
(a) brought punk out of London and into the sticks by inviting the Pistols to play their native Manchester, twice, during the summer of ‘76.
(b) through organising (a) created an event attended by, and of vital inspiration to, the future members of Joy Division/New Order, Mark E Smith, Morrissey, Paul Morley and Factory Records’ founder Tony Wilson.
(c) released the first independent punk EP, thereby creating the entire ethos of DIY indie culture and inspiring every label henceforth from Rough Trade to Factory, Postcard, Creation and beyond.
(d) have had a direct influence on bands such as REM, Orange Juice and The Smiths which, weighed up in conjunction with (a), (b) and (c), make them a band whose cultural importance is too enormous to quantify properly.
(e) took their name from a 1976 Time Out review of TV show Rock Follies which ran “It’s a buzz, cock.”
It’s 2006 and here, still, are Buzzcocks.
Which is a feat in itself considering their chequered history of run-ins and walk-outs.
“Sometimes I feel as if we’ve been on borrowed time ever since our first gig,” laughs singer/guitarist and chief songwriter Pete Shelley, who formed the group with original frontman Howard Devoto at Bolton Institute Of Technology in the winter of ‘75. Just over a year later, in January 1977, the month Buzzcocks released that monumental debut EP Spiral Scratch (recently praised by Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos as “a punk landmark responsible for starting alternative music from the ‘80s to the present day”), Devoto famously quit Buzzcocks Mk I to form Magazine.
“Full respect to Howard.” says Steve Diggle, bass player on Spiral Scratch but soon to become Buzzcocks' second singer/songwriter/guitarist.
Over the next three years, Buzzcocks would sign with United Artists, becoming one of the most commercially successful punk groups of the era. Yet, after three albums (1978’s Another Music In A Different Kitchen and Love Bites, 1979’s A Different Kind Of Tension) and twelve of the most immaculate and inventive ’45s in the history of pop (the first eight of which would later be collected as the flawless Singles Going Steady, since hailed by Uncut magazine as “possibly the greatest A- and B-side compilation of any band, ever”), in 1981 Buzzcocks disintegrated when Shelley and Diggle went solo.
There followed an eight year hiatus before the classic Buzzcocks Mk II line-up of Shelley, Diggle, bassist Steve Garvey and drummer John Maher reunited for a 1989 tour of America. Though Garvey and Maher bowed out in the early ‘90s, Shelley and Diggle would valiantly soldier on with steadfast rhythm section Tony Barber (bass) and Philip Barker (drums). Over a decade later, following Trade Test Transmissions (1993), All Set (1996), Modern (1999) and Buzzcocks (2003), flat-pack philosophy - also produced by Barber - is Buzzcocks Mk III’s fifth album. It’s also their best to date, reasons being:
(a) in true punk fashion it packs 14 songs into 36 minutes.
(b) in places it sounds like the best bits of every classic Buzzcocks single carefully welded together.
(c) with specific regard to (b), try singing along to the backing vocals in “Wish I’d Never Loved You” without accidentally slipping into those of 1978’s “Love You More”.
(d) following on from (c), try humming along to the ascending guitar scale in “Reconciliation” without accidentally slipping into Shelley’s riff used on both 1978’s “Lipstick” and Magazine’s “Shot By Both Sides”. Says Diggle, “We might as well rip ourselves off and take credit for what we did instead of trying to get away from it. Nobody can do Buzzcocks better than Buzzcocks.”
(e) returning to (c), try listening to “Wish I’d Never Loved You” without thinking it‘s as marvellous as anything on Singles Going Steady, which is as good a compliment you can ever pay a pop song. Says Shelley matter-of-factly, “Well, that’s just us doing our thing, isn’t it?”
(f) it continues the great Buzzcocks tradition of romantic metaphors (“Love Battery”, “Operator’s Manual”) by likening love to “Credit” and flat-pack furniture. Shelley was inspired to write the former song after watching Working Lunch. “They were talking about the rise in consumer debt”, he says. “But what is it people are buying on credit? Nice shiny things. Rubbish they don’t really need.”
(g) it continues the great Buzzcocks tradition of Diggle’s implicit literary references (just as “Harmony In My Head” and “Why She’s A Girl From The Chainstore” took their cues from James Joyce and Henry Miller respectively). Specifically, “Between Heaven And Hell” finds Diggle “having a bit of a Dostoevsky Crime And Punishment moment, that religious side of things”, while “Big Brother Wheels” quotes George Orwell‘s dystopic vision of the future: “a boot stamping on a man’s face, for ever”. (And you thought they were just a rude punk band?)
(h) with regard to (g), “Big Brother Wheels” evokes The Clash’s “Clampdown”, although Diggle admits its verses were actually based on “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head”. Which means the song occupies a unique space somewhere between Joe Strummer and Burt Bacharach. Surely reason enough to buy any record?
(i) in true punk fashion it takes an urban guerilla stance against the evils of modern consumer culture, from Tesco self service tills to the cult of Ikea. “I bought one of these self-assembly bits of furniture once,” grins Diggle. “Took it home, watched it for hours and it still never assembled itself. Sorry. Old northern joke.”
So if the Buzzcocks of 2006 remain as exciting as the Buzzcocks of 1976, it begs the question: how do Shelley and Diggle manage to keep it up without breaking up?
“We’ve just never thought of stopping,” ponders Shelley. “We’ve never thought ’this is going to be the last album’. That’s not how we work. I mean, it might be. There’s always that double decker bus.”
“Me and Pete are very similar, really,” confesses Diggle. “It's a chemical thing between us, kind of weird. Most groups sit down and work stuff out but with me and Pete this magic appears. I mean we both do our own solo stuff but working with other people there's not that ease of chemistry or alchemy that we have. Even though we love each other and hate each other at the same time, to be together for thirty years is something not many people make. So it has been like a good marriage in a way. We argue but the arguments are productive. I like all the fencing ‘cos we can get into heavy logic. He's very logical and I'm not.”
Whatever the secret of their success, with the release of flat-pack philosophy Buzzcocks can officially declare themselves punk’s strongest survivors, if not necessarily its sole survivor (not to be confused with Diggle’s “Soul Survivor” which refers to a near fatal car crash when he was 17 and furthermore highlights just how invincible the man is: “I’ve lived healthily on beer, drugs and cigarettes,” he quips). In 2006, the band that started a thousand others are still making music in a different kitchen to anybody else. Not an Ikea kitchen, of course.
“I’m pleased with it,” Shelley concludes pragmatically. “People who like us will like it. People who’ve never heard us before, well I think this album shows them exactly what it is we do. It’s what a Buzzcocks album should be.”
“There’s a lot of bands today citing Buzzcocks as an influence,” says Diggle, in summing up why he and Shelley are still active, “which is always nice, but a lot of music today is sexless. Buzzcocks, to me, has always been about putting sex in music, and I don’t mean in a lap-dancing way. Music is based on sex, it's an animalistic thing like a Jackson Pollock painting, it's a vicious 21st century thing. There has to be sex in music. I'm sure if Freud was here he'd say the same thing. You've got to stir the loins like DH Lawrence, and that's what a lot of bands today lack. But it’s there in this album and it’s why we’re still here.”
From 1976 to 2006. Thirty years of sex, punk and some of the greatest pop music ever made.
They’re still a buzz, cock.
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