Potent act II: Buzzcocks still pack plenty of punk power


July 14, 2006


In rock 'n' roll, one key factor separates the truly timeless bands from the merely trendy ones: great songwriting. So it's no surprise that 31 years after they formed in Manchester at the height of the punk era, and 17 years after they reunited to begin the second act of their career, the Buzzcocks are as powerful today as ever.

With their recent album "Flat-Pack Philosophy," guitarists, vocalists and songwriters Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle have produced another set of songs every bit as energizing and indelible as earlier classics such as "Autonomy," "Harmony in My Head" and "Ever Fallen in Love?" And with a lineup that's been together twice as long as the original band -- with bassist and producer Tony Barber and drummer Phil Barker replacing veterans Steve Garvey and John Maher -- the quartet remains one of the most powerful punk bands to ever take the stage.

I spoke with Shelley in the midst of the band's current tour, the day after the group played its last show as part of Warped, before starting a club jaunt that brings it to Chicago this weekend.

Q. It's odd to think of you guys on Warped, Pete, given that you and Steve are old enough to be many of the other bands' grandfathers. Was it fun?

A. Yes, and it was completely different than what I imagined it would be like. I thought the venues were these giant amphitheatres, and I wondered, "Oh, how are they going to manage that?" But they dispensed of the amphitheatres and held it in the car parks.

Q. It was ironic to see you on that bill, given that several songs on "Flat-Pack Philosophy" -- the title track and "Credit" -- are vehemently anti-consumerist. At Warped, it's hard to find a single surface that hasn't been sponsored by some corporation.

A. Well, I suppose that's our age of mass entertainment! [Laughs] It's the same thing in Britain now as well, where the Reading festival is known as the Carling [Lager] Reading Festival. But you know, when we started out, the very idea that there would someday be a big punk festival like that at all was unthinkable.

Q. Few bands in rock have come back and given us a second act as great as the first.

A. Thank you! A lot of people seem to agree with that, which comes as a bit of a shock! [Laughs]

Q. Were there younger fans at Warped who were hearing songs such as "Ever Fallen in Love?" for the first time?

A. Yes! I met someone who had a copy of the new album, and he didn't really know we'd been around before! He had the "Tony Hawk's American Wasteland" soundtrack, which featured the band Thursday doing a cover of "Ever Fallen in Love?," and he liked that song and decided to see what we were about..

Q. What was the goal when you entered the studio to record the new disc?

A. We went in about two years ago, which was about a year after the last album [2003's self-titled "Buzzcocks'] had been released. We laid down a bunch of tracks -- Steve [Diggle] had finished his songs, but there were six or seven of mine that didn't have lyrics yet. So it was about February of last year when we went back into the studio to finish up. We mixed it and listened to it for about three weeks and thought, "Well, we could do a better job." So we went to a different studio and about a week after that we got a brand new album that was originally released in the U.K. in May of last year.

Q. How is recording now different from making an album like 1978's "Another Music in a Different Kitchen"?

A. Well, in those days, we had all the songs already written, and we would just go into the studio and record them. There were a few discoveries along the way, but mainly, there was a good idea of what we were going to get. Now, we create a lot more in the studio.

Q. It's rare for a band to have two extraordinary songwriters. Do you and Steve compete with each other for space on the album?

A. Yes, sometimes, I suppose so. But we always leave the final choices to our producer, who happens to be our bassist. He can mediate. [Laughs]

Q. How would you compare this lineup to the one that started out with Howard Devoto, or the group most early fans remember with Steve Garvey and John Maher?

A. I do think there is something more second-nature about it now, because after 30 years, if you don't get it right, you must be doing the wrong thing! I actually think Steve and I enjoy it more now, because we know what it is that we're supposed to do and how we're supposed to do it. The manner we play is not so much to convince people that we are good; it's almost like joining in and agreeing with them. The audience is actually enjoying it, hearing the new songs and the old songs, and so are we.


Time once again to dive into the always-overflowing bin of D.I.Y. releases by local artists.

  • Inspired by my recent column about a pop hype of the moment -- "As someone else who can't sing, I realized I have the potential to be the Paris Hilton of the Baby Boomer generation," he wrote -- adman by day, lounge crooner by night Bruce Bendinger (above) sent along his new album "Can't Sing, Don't Care: Songs from the Hip" on the local Southport Records. The twisted take on vintage spaceage bachelor pad exotica isn't nearly as unlistenable as the self-deprecating Bendinger claims: Its gonzo charms can be heard in the first track, "Just Trippin' With You," which offers a string of love-as-transportation metaphors, including, "Your love is my transportation/And it's always first class." Bendinger is planning an August record release show; visit www.adbuzz.com.


  • Public Four is a local group with a much more conventional take on romance: "My heart is a radio /And it plays for me every day," the group declares on "Mockingbird," one of four strong tracks on its debut EP, "Animal Grammar." The quartet owes a clear debt to Britpop and shoegazer bands such as Blur, Supergrass and My Bloody Valentine, but it's never overly derivative, and its smart and hook-laden songwriting marks it as a band to watch. Public Four will play a record release party at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, on a bill with Central Standard that starts at 9:30 p.m. on July 20. Visit the group on the Web at www.myspace.com/publicfour.