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
"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.
TALENT, SERIAL P.O.P.
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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
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
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
Q. Is there anything special planned for the shows on this
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
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