Buzzcocks

TrackAlbum / EP / Single
Why Can't I Touch It?United Artists UP 36499 B-side
Are EverythingUnited Artists BP 365 A-side
Harmony In My HeadUnited Artists UP 36541 A-side
Walking DistanceLove Bites
AutonomyAnother Music In A Different Kitchen
Ever Fallen In Love ...United Artists UP 36455 A-side
PromisesUnited Artists UP 36471 A-side
BreakdownSpiral Scratch EP
IsolationTrade Test Transmissions
Playing For TimeAll Set

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Contributor: Neil Waite

I’ve always wondered if a punk band has a greater legendary status if they are no longer with us. I’d like to think that bands such as the Sex Pistols and The Clash would have the same mythical stature if they were still on the music circuit. I’m confident this would be so. A testament to this theory could be to cite the Buzzcocks, for they still possess the illustrious position in the penthouse suite of punk history as well as still enjoying prolific global touring.

As well as giving us precious musical gems, not many bands can claim such significant influence on the birth of groups like Joy Division, The Smiths and The Fall or even boast of having a long running TV quiz named after them.

Buzzcocks became synonymous with short, catchy punk anthems in the late 70s. But from their eight studio albums (with a ninth on its way) only three were released during their first ‘period’ (’76-’81). One of the aspects that really endeared me to the Buzzcocks during this phase was Pete Shelley’s half ‘Starway’ guitar. Although Malcom McLaren aptly referred to the instrument as Shelley’s ‘Sawn off’ guitar it actually split one day when thrown to the floor during rehearsals. However, the name stuck and I thought it the coolest looking guitar. I find it amusing now that Buzzcocks fans can buy a Pete Shelley signature guitar that is manufactured with the top half missing.

Pete_Shelley_GuitarCropped

Shelley with his ‘Sawn off’ Starway Guitar

The story of the Buzzocks begins with an incredible event, one which has been described as ‘The gig that changed the world’. It became the subject of a TV documentary and a book of the same name by David Nolan. Sex Pistols played Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall on 4th June 1976 (or Friday 4th June 1076 as the misprinted tickets stated). After travelling to London to see them, Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley (real names Howard Trafford and Peter McNeith) invited the Sex Pistols to travel up to Manchester and play. Despite Devoto and Shelley being the organisers their new band ‘Buzzcocks’ weren’t yet ready to perform as support. Instead, a local rock band called Solstice were asked. This gig remains a significant part of punk history however; for the Buzzcocks, the second gig was the one that counted. An identical event was held on 20th July 1976 but this time the Buzzcocks were ready. Although the performance only lasted twenty minutes it was the start of an eminent career.

Pete Shelley with poster

Pete Shelley holds up a poster advertising the second Sex Pistols gig in Manchester with Buzzcocks supporting.

The first release was an EP on their New Harmonies called Spiral Scratch. The record contained four rough tracks, the best of which were Boredom and Breakdown. I wasn’t taken with Spiral Scratch, finding Devoto’s vocals a little too whiney, as if he was trying to mimic Johnny Rotten, but unsuccessfully. I much preferred his more refined vocal register with his next group, Magazine. By the time I heard this EP, Devoto had left the band, Pete Shelley had taken on lead vocals and Steve Diggle had moved from bass to lead guitar. I have to admit, although I’m not over keen on the songs, the first effort has a refreshing rawness about it and so I am going to include Breakdown in my Topperten. There’s also a part of me that feels the need to include a Spiral Scratch song in order to tip my hat to Howard Devoto.

There have been many personnel changes over the years but the Steve Diggle (guitar), Pete Shelley (guitar, vocals), Steve Garvey (bass) and John Mayer (drums) line up will always be the classic quartet that remained strong for the first three albums.

I bought the debut album, Another Music In A Different Kitchen, based on hearing the single, I Don’t Mind, which was the catchiest, poppiest punk song I had heard. It wasn’t until I played this great debut album that I decided to explore any possible back catalogue releases. As well as Spiral Scratch I discovered the 7″ singles Orgasm Addict and What Do I Get. Strangely, these weren’t included on the album but both were excellent. I soon fell in love with the Buzzcocks sound with their strong rhythm section overlaid with Shelley and Diggle’s duelling guitars. The album starts with the intro to Spiral Scratch‘s Boredom. The basic two note solo plays before the bass of Fast Cars patters in followed by an intermittent chord while the drums build up to a rocking tune. This is an impressive start to a fine album.

The highlight of the record was Autonomy which also appeared on the flip side of I Don’t Mind, although better in my opinion. I love the way the rhythm guitar gallops down the fret board with Shelley’s great expressive vocals. Four years later, Iron Maiden would release Run To The Hills, a great song although I immediately thought it a rip off of the opening drum sequence of Autonomy, albeit slower. Unfortunately, I now experience the problem of expecting Adrian Smith’s wailing guitar to hijack the song every time I hear it.

If Another Music was a great album then the next release, Love Bites, was an amazing one. This classic Buzzcocks album has never been bettered. It shared the same energy as the debut but was far more refined, with any Devoto influence clearly shaken off. It was far more diverse with the inclusion of Diggle’s semi acoustic track Love Is Lies. The second side was topped and tailed with two great instrumentals, Late For The Train and the brilliant Walking Distance. The album contained their most successful hit; Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve’) reaching No.12 in the charts. The song is superb but I can remember feeling angry when Fine Young Cannibals had greater chart success with their version. This was heightened when I found my classmates not realising it was a cover. The key to this great composition is that opening Bm chord which evokes an instant melancholy feel complimenting Shelley’s vocal style. This trick was played again with great effect on their best single, Harmony In My Head – this time a Dm opens play. Harmony In My Head kicks off with a great rhythm which is joined by Shelley’s police siren solo. The contrast between Diggle almost shouting the words in the verse compared to the softer harmonies in the chorus is delightful.

Sandwiched between Harmony In My Head and Ever Fallen In Love were two more brilliant stand-alone Buzzcocks classics; Promises and Everybody’s Happy Nowadays both broke the Top 30. Promises was the finer of the two with Shelley vocally at his very best as he repeats the phrase “How could you ever let me down” with real conviction. Everybody’s Happy Nowadays is backed with my all-time favourite Buzzcocks song. Why Cant I Touch It? is a six and a half minute masterpiece signifying the group at their peak. The slow rhythmic drum beat supports a dynamic bass line which dominates the front end of the song. Shelley displays his multifaceted range as he sings “So why…y…y…y…y…y can’t I touch it” – as the song progresses I love the way the two rhythm guitars spar off each other as if in conversation.

At that time it felt as if the Buzzcocks were concentrating more on single releases. This made the twelve month wait for their third album more bearable. A Different Kind Of Tension hit the shops in September ’79. I was disappointed on first hearing. The two singles from the album, You Say You Don’t Love Me and I Believe, were good but mediocre in comparison to the last clutch of releases. The album felt heavier than the first two but the songs didn’t quite have the same catchy appeal as the previous two LPs. But it was, as they say, a grower. Further plays instilled a greater familiarity and it developed into another favourite, although no tracks appear in my Toppermost.

The last three singles before their break up in 1981 were labelled Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. Part 2 gave us the great Strange Thing which had an interesting stereo ‘speaker to speaker’ arrangement. It was Part 1, however, which stole the show. Are Everything saw the Buzzcocks using a full string orchestration. This was a first and although signifying a move away from their punk roots, worked perfectly and deservedly sits in my toppermost number two slot.

After the split in ’81 the band members perused other projects. I continued to follow Shelley’s career with interest and even surprised myself by enjoying the new synth/drum machine sound on the solo LP Homosapien.The single of the same name was a brilliant release. I found it hilarious and pathetic that the BBC banned it for containing the lyric “Homo superior, in my interior” – but that’s all for another toppermost.

Buzzcocks reformed several times from 1989. Diggle and Shelley remained at the core while other musicians came and went. But it wasn’t until 1993 that things seemed to get serious. After thirteen years the Buzzcocks released their fourth album Trade Test Transmissions. It felt as if the music world was finally taking them seriously, with the band supporting Nirvana and a few years later, Pearl Jam.

Trade Test Transmissions was an interesting comeback but not one I was expecting. Everything about the sound felt good. Diggle and Shelley’s vocals were on form and the band sounded as tight and compact as ever. The problem was that the songs just didn’t live up to the ones in their previous period. There was one standout track that’s worthy of a toppermost entry. Steve Diggle’s composition Isolation brandishing one of his best vocal performances. The song is quite ‘rocky’ and starts off with a power riff before thundering off into a great tune. Although, along with its counterparts, it didn’t carry the trademark Buzzcocks sound, it remains an excellent track nonetheless.

I wasn’t holding my breath for the next release, All Set. Maybe this helped because I thought it was a great, imposing album. There are two or three tracks that could have made it into my topperten but I’m settling with another Diggle composition, Playing For Time. It starts off with a brilliant Ruts style perpetual power chord. Diggle’s vocal is nicely echoed with an engaging tune and a heavy beat which follows.

The next three releases, Modern, Buzzcocks and Flat-Pack Philosophy, all sounded very ordinary. The best of the trio was Flat-Pack Philosophy which was darker and heavier than its predecessors. At the time of writing this, I feel positive about the forthcoming release, The Way, which is being funded through the PledgeMusic site. The previews sound like a welcome return to the original Buzzcocks and I await the release with great anticipation.

The second round of Buzzcocks never quite managed to excite on vinyl as they did in the late 70s. Their live performances however are just as thrilling (see above for the video that I filmed last year). If you get the opportunity to see them I recommend that you do because they remain as powerful and exciting as they were back in the day.

 

Pete Shelley (1955-2018)

 

Buzzcocks – the official site

Buzzcocks biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #336

2 Comments

  1. Keith Shackleton
    Aug 13, 2014

    Congratulations on being able to commit to ten. I tried but got totally stuck and it mangled my brain. I wanted Boredom from Spiral Scratch. I wanted Fiction Romance and Pulsebeat, and then I wasn’t sure. Real World is terrific. Hollow Inside and I Believe from …Tension are great songs, indicators of Shelley’s moods at the time. And then there’s the Live at the Roxy WC2 tracks, and Time’s Up from Short Circuit Live at the Electric Circus, both of which are iconic releases from those days, and every single, pretty much, was under consideration… aargh!
    I last saw them in 2006 over here in NZ, and it was great fun, but I have seen them described recently and rather snarkily as sounding like they’re covering Green Day covering Buzzcocks… if they could recapture a little bit of that early weirdness, it would suit them better. We live in hope.

  2. Alan Leadbeater
    Aug 16, 2014

    Another great list Neil, but one where my favs are somewhat different. My choice is irrationally influenced by the day I fell out of love with the Buzzcocks – Thames Poly, late ’78, Ever fallen…. comes on the jukebox, ‘oh I love the Buzzcocks’ scream a bunch of non-punks – arghhh, they were supposed to be my band, now everyone likes them! That experience coloured my lack of enthusiasm for Love Bites and subsequent LPs, plus very few of the tracks excited me like the early ones. My top ten is almost in the order in which I first heard them:-
    What do I get & Pulsebeat from the Sept ’77 Peel session – even when heard on my tinny mono radio cassette these tracks blew me away.
    Breakdown from the Live at the Roxy LP – my first punk LP and one that must have encouraged thousands of teenagers to form a band.
    Times up from the Short Circuit (live at Electric Circus) LP
    Boredom from Spiral Scratch – the joy I felt when I finally managed to get hold of a copy.
    I Don’t Mind & Autonomy – a fantastic two for the price of one single.
    Noise Annoys ( I remember playing this as loud as possible to annoy my parents and also that the sudden ending caught out John Peel) & Walking Distance from the Apr ’78 JP session.
    And a slight nod to Love Bites, my final selection would be Love you More.
    Managed to see the Buzzcocks ‘Back to Front’ Brixton gig in May 2012 where there were 3 sets: the first with the current line-up, the second with the classic 77/78 line-up and the 3rd with the wonderfully bonkers Howard Devoto who treated us to the full rendition of Spiral Scratch.
    Being older and wiser, Neil’s list has encouraged me to revisit my missing Buzzcocks years, thank you.

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