Buzzcocks turn it up


June 20, 2003


While they may not have the capital of veterans such as the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney, a handful of the most innovative punk bands of the '70s have remained vibrant and ongoing forces into the new millennium. Among them: Wire, Pere Ubu and the Buzzcocks.

Formed in Manchester in 1975, the Buzzcocks were always the most melodic of the first-wave English punk bands. After the departure of co-founder Howard Devoto, guitarists-vocalists Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle, bassist Steve Garvey and drummer John Maher released three strong albums in 1978 and 1979.

"Another Music in a Different Kitchen," "Love Bites" and "A Different Kind of Tension" were all driven by Diggle and Shelley's trademark guitar hooks and spot-on vocal harmonies, as well as by the band's frantic rhythms. Even better was the classic singles collection, "Singles Going Steady." But frustrated by a lack of industry support and its inability to conquer America, the band broke up in 1981.


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The Buzzcocks came together again in 1989, at first with the original rhythm section and later with newcomers Tony Barber and Phil Barker. Since then, they've recorded another series of propulsive pop-punk discs, including 1993's "Trade Test Transmissions" and a new self-titled release for the American indie label Merge.

I spoke with the good-humored Diggle in the midst of the current tour supporting the new album. He also is gearing up for the publication of his memoir about life in the band, Harmony in My Head, due imminently from Helter Skelter Publishing.

Q. The Buzzcocks have made another great album. Do fans respond as enthusiastically to the new stuff as they do to the classic tunes?

A. I think so. Some people who've come to the shows have the new record and others are just figuring it out. We do about six new songs off the new album, but they fit in well with the old songs because we've kind of gone back to the roots a bit with this record. But it's a "now" record as well. You can see them bouncing along to it or whatever [laughs], and some people don't know the difference between new and old!

Q. There's timelessness to the Buzzcocks' songs from the '70s. The music transcends the era, and we couldn't say the same for, say, Sticky Little Fingers.

A. [Laughs] I'll say. The first incarnation, the music was a bit timeless; the Buzzcocks were a world of their own, really. You put the record on and it could be any time.

Q. Tell me about making the new album.

A. The last record we made, "Modern," had a few electronic things on it. It was about two or three years ago, and it seemed right to do at the time. So we'd done that, and for the next one we thought, "Let's go right back to the roots and just make a full-on, relentless live thing that doesn't give up"--like the live set, but with the polish on it. That was the thinking. We turned the guitars even louder, but it's got all the hallmarks: the riffs and the harmonies and the melodies. It's a simple, direct record.

Q. Is it still a kick for you to turn and see Pete onstage after all these years?

A. Two days ago, it was 27 years since we met. I was thinking, "I can't believe it's that long!" It's kind of weird, because we never sat down and practiced together, but there's a natural, organic thing about it. If we both have two guitars in our hands, that sound just happens. Same with the singing. I don't have his vocal in my monitor and he doesn't have mine in his live. I can hardly hear him, but the harmonies are always spot-on. It's by osmosis! I think it's because when we started we could never hear each other. It's more the chemistry, the alchemy of it.

The thing about me and Pete is we're really good mates, but at the same time, we've argued about everything to the point where we're all fought out and there's nothing left to fight about anymore! So we're still together and we're still inspired by the music.

Q. Tell me about the difference working with this rhythm section vs. the bassist and drummer for most of the '70s, Steve Garvey and John Maher.

A. We've been lucky, really, because the original rhythm section was fantastic--John Maher on the drums, he was phenomenal, he was really fast and he could hit those drums so hard. Now, with the two so-called new guys--they've been with us for about 10 years now!--Tony Barber and Phil Barker, they're fantastic as well. They were fans of the band before they joined, so they knew what they were getting into and they knew the music. And, of course, all the years of touring really season you; it's amazing how much you can learn by being on the road and having no sleep and being hungry and all that! I think it really toughens you up as players and brings you together. It sort of enriches you and enables you to make the music more meaningful, in a sense.

Q. "Lester Sands" on the new record is actually a song that goes way back. It's a rollicking punk tune with some fairly acerbic lyrics: "Lester Sands big mouth extraordinaire/He's pulled a muscle in his head/Lester Sands strings words together/'Cause his senses have fled." I understand that it was written about the late rock critic Lester Bangs.

A. [Laughs] Yeah, it was about him, we just called him Lester Sands instead of Lester Bangs. That was a Howard Devoto song--he had a bit more of an ax to grind. I think it was just retaliation for the fact that he was an established rock writer, though he'd actually written some good stuff about us. It was a song we did right at the beginning, before we even released [the] "Spiral Scratch" [EP]. I think we were just questioning the establishment, or the established reviewers, as much as anything else. We sort of play it tongue in cheek now. He's not going to be forgotten, is he? It's probably more of a tribute to him now, since he's a legend in his own right.

Q. Is there anything special planned for the shows on this tour?

A. I think it's a bit more full-on, a bit more rocky than the last time. As soon as one song finishes, another starts. You hardly get time to drink a beer or anything. In some places, I think we've exhausted the audience.

Q. I've seen shows where 1,000 people leave singing, "There is no love in this world anymore."

A. [Laughs] I'm glad we've brought that song ["I Believe"] back again! That always works well.

Q. And it's rather timely again, isn't it?

A. Oh, yeah. Yes, indeed. It's probably the right message for the times.