Never Mind the Who?
Mention the name 'Buzzcocks' to most people and their reply will likely be one of two things: either 'Oh, like in that (British) TV show with Mark Lamarr?' or they will sing the chorus of 'Ever Fallen in Love?' at you. Badly. If truth be told, however, Buzzcocks were one of England's premiere punk bands of the late 1970s who produced a run of nine chart singles and three Top 30 LPs.
Howard Trafford and Peter McNeish were both students at the Bolton Institute of Technology when the first NME1 review of the Sex Pistols appeared in February 1976. Immediately they travelled down to London's Sex2 shop and met a rather bemused Malcolm McLaren. They persuaded him to take the Pistols to Manchester and promised they would arrange a show for his group, fully intending to have a band of their own ready as a support act.
The Lesser Free Trade Hall
The pair booked the Lesser Free Trade Hall just outside Manchester's city centre and set about forming the group. First off were the names: Trafford became Devoto, McNeish became Shelley (the name he would have been called if he had been born female) and the band became Buzzcocks after a Time Out review of Rock Follies ended with the phrase 'get a buzz, cock.' No further progress was made, however, and the band remained a duo until the Pistols show. McLaren, engaged in some hustling outside the venue, told the innocent Steve Diggle that his friends had gone into the hall and had said they would meet him inside. Falling for the ruse Diggle went inside and by chance met Devoto and Shelley, becoming the group's bass player shortly afterwards. John Maher, who was studying for his 'O' levels3 at the time, was recruited as their drummer through an advertisement placed in Melody Maker, another weekly music-related newspaper.
Shelley had been writing songs for the past few years to which Devoto began putting lyrics. Inspired by the works of Camus, Sartre and Baudelaire, the over-riding themes of these lyrics were boredom and frustration - this obviously fitted well into the lyrical vogue of the time. Shelley on the other hand had developed his guitar playing through listening to The Velvet Underground, and wrote music that was relatively gentle (compared to other punk bands) yet still bristled with energy and hypnotic melodies.
When the Pistols returned in July, Buzzcocks were ready and played their first show on that night, placed third on the bill. A poster produced advertising the event rather enigmatically read:
Slaughter and the Dogs
In October 1976 Buzzcocks rented an attic studio in Stockport to record their first demo tracks. The session consisted largely of their live set and included early versions of 'Boredom', 'Breakdown', 'Orgasm Addict' and covers of 'I Can't Control Myself' by The Troggs and 'I Love You, You Big Dummy' by Captain Beefheart. These recordings were later released as the bootleg LP Time's Up!4 and are an excellent reflection of what was happening musically in England circa 1976. The LP is obviously the product of young men crying out their disaffection with society, and yet one cannot help but be caught by the evident enthusiasm for their music.
In today's age of the compact disc the title of the first Buzzcocks vinyl output is now lost on many people. Recorded over the Christmas period, Spiral Scratch was originally released on 29 January, 1977. The band had borrowed £500 from a number of friends to pay for the recording, pressing and distribution of the EP and have subsequently been recognised as one of the founders of UK 'Independent' music (ie, music produced without financial assistance from a major record label). It was records like this that provoked the Desperate Bicycles to write what was to be adopted as a punk motto:
It was easy, it was cheap. Go and do it.
- The Desperate Bicycles, 1977
The four tracks included on the EP are all deservedly regarded as classics. 'Boredom', 'Breakdown', 'Time's Up!' and 'Friends of Mine' revealed a new face for UK punk. Less 'cartoony' than the Sex Pistols, less 'rock' than The Damned and far less crudely constructed than The Clash, Buzzcocks created sparkling, fast, melodic songs - simple but effective, this was three-chord punk at its very best. Devoto's lyrics complemented Shelley's music perfectly, spitting out such gems as
I've been waiting for the phone to ring,
It goes ring-a-ring-a-ring-f**king-ding.
- Howard Devoto, 'Boredom', 1977
The following month, Devoto left the group. He had been warned by college tutors to spend more time at academic work and he felt that with the release of Spiral Scratch he had left his mark and could quit Buzzcocks with no regrets. Steve Diggle shifted to guitar (his original instrument), Shelley took over vocal duties (as well as retaining his guitar work) and the band were joined by bass player Garth Smith, an old friend of Shelley's. Devoto resurfaced later in the year with a new group, Magazine.
Another Music in a Different Kitchen
The success of Spiral Scratch attracted parasites in much the same way that a clean, white shirt attracts pasta sauce. A&R5 men from an assortment of record labels swarmed to the band, all wanting to find the successors to the Pistols' throne. With an eye on maintaining the maximum amount of artistic control, Buzzcocks signed to United Artists (UA) on 16 August 1977 - the same day that Elvis Presley (allegedly) died.
In September the band recorded four songs that were released as their first two singles for their new label. 'Orgasm Addict' was a Devoto/Shelley composition, the content of which was deemed just a little too risqué for daytime radio and consequently failed to chart. Their second UA single did chart however, despite having a song called 'Oh S**t' on the b-side6. 'What Do I Get?' remains one of Pete Shelley's greatest songs - short, spunky and sweet, all in one go. The difference between Shelley and Devoto's lyrical style was immediately obvious: whereas Devoto had been largely concerned with the state of society as he saw it, Shelley often went for that old pop standard - love.
I just want a lover like any other, what do I get?
I only want a friend who'll stay till the end, what do I get?
- Pete Shelley, 'What Do I Get?', 1977
Between the two singles there was another personnel change. Garth got so drunk one night in Coventry that he couldn't play his bass and walked off stage leaving the band to continue as a trio. His place was filled for the rest of that tour by Barry Adamson (bass player with Devoto's band Magazine and now a modestly successful solo artist) until Steve 'Paddy' Garvey joined the group. This line-up remained constant until the band split.
Buzzcocks' first LP, Another Music in a Different Kitchen, released in March 1978, comprised most of the band's unrecorded tracks at that time and is consequently a rather mixed bag. It begins and ends with the guitar solo from 'Boredom' (a fantastically hypnotic two-note affair) but elsewhere on the album the song is not to be found. Neither are the other three songs from Spiral Scratch nor any of the single a- or b-sides thus far released. Instead we get the jerk-punk of 'You Tear Me Up', the thundering rock of the almost instrumental 'Moving Away from the Pulsebeat' and evidence of Shelley's burgeoning musical maturity in 'Fictionromance'. Unlike the majority of punk bands active during the late 1970s, Buzzcocks were competent musicians. All four members were given opportunities to prove their worth without resorting to tedious guitar/bass/drum solos.
In '16' Shelley speaks for (most of) a nation when he yells:
And I hate modern music - disco, boogie, pop,
They go on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and I wish they would STOP!
- Pete Shelley, '16', 1978
Released in July 1978, the fifth UA Buzzcocks single was the one that everybody remembers: 'Ever fallen in Love (with someone you shouldn't've)?', since featured on many a retrospective compilation. Its pure pop-punk, catchy chorus approach to a love song was in stark relief to the other best-sellers of 19787.
By this time Shelley was becoming increasingly disillusioned by being in a successful band and felt that punk as a movement was beginning to disintegrate. During the Love Bites tour he was (thankfully) dissuaded from leaving the band by Richard Boon (friend, manager and band photographer). He did, though, make his feelings obvious through songs like 'Sixteen Again' and 'Nothing Left', while on 'Nostalgia' he sings of:
Surfing on a wave of nostalgia for an age yet to come.
- Pete Shelley, 'Nostalgia', 1978
Despite (or perhaps because of) Shelley's feelings about Buzzcocks, Love Bites is a far more complete album than its predecessor. It showed that Buzzcocks were moving even further away from their initial punk stylings, concentrating rather on creating musical works of art such as Diggle's beautifully painful 'Love is Lies' (Buzzcocks' first acoustic song) and the instrumentals 'Late for the Train' and 'Walking Distance' (Paddy Garvey's first composition).
A Different Kind of Tension
Between the second and third LPs the members of the band went their own ways for a short time, both playing and producing for other groups. Most notable was Shelley's acoustic session for Piccadilly Radio of 'non-Buzzcocks' songs. Presumably he was testing the water of the solo artist market before making his full debut.
A Different Kind of Tension proved to be Buzzcocks last LP before their demise in 1980. It was preceded in March and July of 1979 by two singles not featured on the LP: 'Everybody's Happy Nowadays' and 'Harmony in my Head'. The marked contrast in these two songs demonstrates the increased disparity within the band. Shelley's 'Everybody's Happy Nowadays' is for the most part punk-lite - a pleasant, 'bop' of a song, it was a far cry from the days of 'Boredom' or 'Orgasm Addict'. Despite the fact that the track was inspired by the depression felt by Shelley at this time most of the song's listeners took it as being the opposite, something that irked him for years to come. Diggle's 'Harmony in my Head', however, is full of gritted teeth and snarled lyrics - his aggression makes the song seem almost out of place next to the usual Buzzcocks singles.
When A Different Kind of Tension was released in September 1979 the two sides to the record had subtitles. Side one, featuring three Diggle compositions, was called The Rose on the Chocolate Box, while side two was called The Thorn Beneath the Rose. 'Sitting Round at Home', 'You Know You Can't Help It' and 'Mad Mad Judy' are all typical of Diggle's songs - fast and furious with only the barest nod towards melody in the shape of Shelley's lead guitar playing. The album includes some of Pete Shelley's greatest work: 'You Say You Don't Love Me' and 'I Believe' deserve to have been hit singles in their own right. 'I Believe' is an epic rhyming couplet list-song that culminates with the mantra-like chant of:
There is ... no ... love ... in ... this ... world ... a- ... -ny- ... -more!
- Pete Shelley, 'I Believe', 1979
Shelley wrote, played and sang his most philosophical work on this LP, demonstrating to the world for once and for all that he was more than just a jobbing three-chord-punk tunesmith. Tracks such as 'I Believe', 'I Don't Know What to do With my Life' and 'Hollow Inside' again reveal an unhappy songwriter struggling to cope with the demands of being successful. The band's increasing interest in acid and heroin merely added weight to the fractures forming within the group. The album's title track is another list song where Shelley indicates some of the conflicts that he was facing:
be ambitious - be modest,
plan ahead - be spontaneous,
decide for yourself - listen to others,
save money - spend money
- Pete Shelley, 'A Different Kind Of Tension', 1979
It was almost a year later that Buzzcocks resurfaced with three singles, all recorded at the same session, released in two month intervals from August 1980 onwards. The six songs show a band having (and knowing that they had) reached the end of the line. The inclusion of more diverse production elements such as cello, trumpet and saxophone made these songs alien to many diehard Buzzcocks fans; consequently none of them made any significant impact on a singles chart filled by the likes of Abba and the St Winifred's School Choir. Not even the band's first proper promo video for 'Why She's a Girl from the Chainstore'8 could hide the fact that the songs were obviously drug-fuelled and sounded as if they had been recorded underwater.
When EMI took over the United Artists roster the record industry giants refused to give Buzzcocks an advance, having witnessed the decline and eventual failure of the most recent singles. Buzzcocks released one final track 'I Look Alone', included on the NME compilation C81, before drifting apart in the spring of 1981. Shelley started to record some songs with producer Martin Rushent before deciding that he would go it alone. The rest of the band were informed by a letter to the effect that he wished to sever all commitments to the Buzzcocks. Pete Shelley's depression and frustration had finally taken its toll on the band and Buzzcocks were finished. For a while.
Over the following years EMI (and other labels) released a series of Buzzcocks products that added depth to the band's history. The first was a compilation of the 'classic eight' UA singles and their b-sides, Singles Going Steady - an essential purchase for all punk (nay, all music) fans. Of all the others there were two that stood out: The Peel Sessions Album collected together sparse, energetic performances of songs recorded for the John Peel radio show between 1977 and 1979. Product9, however, was for purists or the well-off only. It was a box-set that compiled the UA history of Buzzcocks from 'Orgasm Addict' right through to 'I Look Alone', and included an extensive 16 page booklet with text written by punk journalist Jon Savage.
Trade Test Transmissions
In 1989, helped by the success of the Fine Young Cannibals' version of 'Ever Fallen in Love?', Buzzcocks reformed and played an eight-date tour around the UK, including one at the Apollo in Manchester where the audience were ecstatic but rather restricted due to the venue being all-seater - surely a mistake for a punk band? John Maher left immediately to return to his Volkswagen business in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, a suburb of South Manchester, and was replaced by ex-Smiths drummer Mike Joyce. This line-up recorded and released Buzzcocks 'comeback' single, the Alive Tonight EP10 - a limp affair that served principally to demonstrate the woeful inadequacy of Mike Joyce when compared to John Maher.
1993's Trade Test Transmissions improved musically on Alive Tonight, coming complete with Buzzcocks' trademark vocal harmonies and simple yet effective lead guitar playing. Although slightly over-produced (even the vinyl sounded like a CD) the LP sounded clean, refreshed and drug-free compared to Parts 1-3. It contained some great songs, from the speedy pop of 'Last to Know' and '369' to the ode to masturbation 'Palm of Your Hand'. Lacking, though, from the LP were Shelley's usual lyrical charms:
'I can do it do it do it till the morning comes,
Like the river fills the sea.
I can do it do it do it like incessant drums,
I can do it like the birds and the bees.'
- Pete Shelley, 'Do It', 1993
Fast-forward to 16 December, 1999, and to the Cavern Club, Exeter in Devon, England - a dark, sweaty cellar filled with ageing punk-rockers and fresh-faced students. Shelley and Diggle, together with new band members Barker and Barber, took the stage and proved that Punk's Not Dead!. There was no chit-chat, no 'and this next song's called...', no pauses to allow a quick pull on a pint, just half an hour of two-and-a-half minute punk songs delivered with barely a breath in between. Old gems sat comfortably alongside new songs like 'Soul on a Rock' and 'Speed of Life' from the new LP Modern. Shelley looked how he should look - he had put on a bit of weight and was sans toupee. Diggle hadn't changed and was still the same loon he always used to be. Thus the group that had an inspirational hand in >Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays (and those are just the ones from Manchester) came back - on top form and ready to have another crack at the whip.
|5xLPs + booklet
|The complete UA recordings, from 1977 to 1981
|Singles Going Steady
|All eight of the 'classic' singles from 'Orgasm Addict' to 'Harmony in my Head'
|A true reflection of UK punk, circa 1976
|Lest We Forget
|Live recordings of all your favourite Buzzcocks songs
|The Peel Sessions Album
|Underproduced versions of Shelley's finest work
|A brand new LP with a bonus 'best of' CD/CD-ROM