Buzzcocks - Biography
By Michael Keefe
British punk band Buzzcocks were among the first on the scene, following hot on the heels of The Sex Pistols and helping to forge the new UK sound. Buzzcocks brought more of a pop sensibility to punk rock, writing catchy tunes and then playing them in blazing tempos. During the late 1970s punk heyday, the band released an EP and three LPs before calling it quits. Buzzcocks reformed in the early '90s and have issued five new studio full-lengths during that time. Though never hugely successful on the sales charts, Buzzcocks are punk pioneers and have inspired countless bands in their wake.
Manchester punk band Buzzcocks officially formed in 1975, when guitarist and vocalist Pete Shelley (born Peter McNeish) and singer Howard Devoto met at university and bonded over their mutual love for The Stooges. During the first months of their existence, Shelley and Devoto had a difficult time recruiting a steady rhythm section. Due to the sudden departure of half their band, Buzzcocks missed the chance to open for The Sex Pistols at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in June 1976. By July, however, the group had solidified their original lineup, bringing in bassist Steve Diggle and drummer John Maher. That month, the Pistols returned to Manchester, and Buzzcocks joined them on the bill. In September, both bands, along with other early punk luminaries such as The Clash and Siouxsie and the Banshees, played the Malcolm McLaren-organized 100 Club Punk Festival in London. Having established themselves as one of the key acts of the new genre, Buzzcocks set about recording their debut release.
On January 29, 1977, Buzzcocks issued one of the first official documents of UK punk, the <i>Spiral Scratch</i> EP (1977-New Hormones). Four tracks lasting a mere ten minutes, the songs nonetheless firmly establish the band's aesthetic. Like The Ramones, Buzzcocks present simple songs with big, bubblegum pop hooks performed at a breakneck pace, with sneering vocals and (apropos of their name) buzzing guitars. What's immediately impressive about the EP is how tight the band are, the rhythm section locked in on their precisely bouncing beats. While other lesser acts of the era sound sludgy, Buzzcocks' music is always crisp. Even when singing about "Boredom," the group are clearly excited to be unleashing their torrent of pogo-perfect tunes.
Soon after their debut release, Howard Devoto left Buzzcocks to return to school. A year later, he would emerge as the leader of another influential band, arty post-punk outfit Magazine. Undeterred, Pete Shelley took over lead vocal duties, Diggle switched to guitar, and Buzzcocks recruited bassist Garth Smith. After a September 1977 Peel Session gig, Smith's alcoholism proved too much for the band, and he was let go. Steve Garvey immediately took over bass duties, Buzzcocks signed to United Artists, and the band headed into the recording studio with Martin Rushnet, who would produce the band's first trio of classic albums. In October, they released their first 7" single, "Orgasm Addict," a propulsive litany of masturbation references and sexcapades. Though it missed the charts, it's become one of Buzzcocks' all-time classic cuts.
In February of the following year, the band found their first chart success with the non-LP single "What Do I Get?" (1978-United Artists). The jaunty punk ditty about missing out on the status quo reached #37 on the UK singles chart. A month later, Buzzcocks' debut full-length, <i>Another Music in a Different Kitchen</i> (1978-United Artists), emerged. Though Shelley had taken over the bulk of the songwriting, the album features a few leftover Devoto co-writes, including the slashing and burning "Fast Cars," which turns the typical rock 'n' roll glorification of the automobile on its head by declaring, "They're so depressing going around and around." It was the poppy, Shelley-penned "I Don't Mind," though, that became a #55 single in England. <i>Another Music in a Different Kitchen</i> is populated primarily by short, energetic songs, but Buzzcocks show an early interest in stretching themselves, with the blues strut of the four-and-a-half-minute "Fiction Romance" and the seven-plus-minute closer, "Moving Away from the Pulsebeat." With guitar solos, an extended drum break, and a sound collage at the end, the track rebels against the already established credos of punk rock and displays the band's artier leanings. The LP reached #15 on the UK charts.
In June, Buzzcocks released another non-album single, "Love You More," (1978-United Artists), which peaked at #34 in England. Working at an astonishing pace, the band spent the summer recording their sophomore LP, <i>Love Bites</i> (1978-United Artists), which they released in September. The group's growing musical sophistication and instrumental prowess is apparent throughout. "Operators Manual," for instance, surges effortlessly between time signatures, while maintaining the band's trademark sound of distorted guitars that chop and bounce along to a fast-clipping beat. "Love Is Lies," written and sung by Steve Diggle, is a slow, Beatles-esque, and rather affecting ditty. Lead single "Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)" offers the band's biggest pop moments to date, with an undeniably catchy chorus and a killer guitar refrain. It hit #12 in the UK, making it their highest charting single ever. The LP was also the band's biggest success, reaching #13 in England and receiving justifiably strong reviews. Buzzcock's ended their triumphal year with one final non-LP single, the #20 "Promises" (1978-United Artists).
The next year, Buzzcocks slowed their pace considerably. In March, they issued another single, "Eveybody's Happy Nowadays" (1979-United Artists), which peaked at #29. July's "Harmony in My Head" (1979-United Artists) reached #32. The next month saw the major label reissue of the <i>Spiral Scratch</i> EP (1979-United Artists), a #31 hit on the UK singles chart. In September, one year after their second LP, Buzzcocks released album number three, <i>A Different Kind of Tension</i> (1979-United Artists). The album begins like a standard Buzzcocks album, as "Paradise" sprints out of the gates with grinding guitars and spitting vocals. The tone shifts quickly, however, with track two, the Diggle-penned "Sitting Around at Home," a snarling take on British Invasion rock that seems to predict Blur's central sound of more than a decade later. First single "You Say You Don't Love Me" is pure Buzzcocks pop. Incredibly, it failed to reach the charts. Diggle contributed two more gems to the record, "You Know You Can't Help It" and the raving and lurching "Mad Mad Judy." Shelley's "I Don't Know What to Do with My Life" is another Buzzcocks classic. The album ends (aside from a brief coda) with a trio of longer tracks that venture further away from the group's signature sound. The gothy and winding "Hollow Inside" sounds more like The Damned; the title cut flirts with prog rock and the vocoded singing of Kraftwerk; and "I Believe" returns to familiar Buzzcocks territory, then grows increasingly epic as it stretches to just over seven minutes. Despite its eccentricities, the very good record made it to #26 in England and marked the band's only US chart success, reaching 163 in America. In November, the band's classic compilation <i>Singles – Going Steady</i> (1979-United Artists) was released. It features the band's one-off A- and B-sides, neatly collecting onto one LP all the great songs unavailable on the group's three full-lengths. Though it didn't sell especially well at the time, <i>Singles – Going Steady</i> received a very positive review from <i>Rolling Stone</i> and has since been ranked among the best albums of all time.
In 1980, the band changed labels. Throughout the latter half of that year, Buzzcocks released a string of non-LP singles, but only "Are Everything" (1980-Liberty) dented the charts, reaching #61 in the UK. The following year, the band split up, with Diggle and Maher forming Flags of Convenience and Pete Shelley embarking on a solo career.
Gone but not forgotten, interest in the band was revived during the dawn of the CD era. At the end of the '80s, the live compilation <i>Lest We Forget</i> (1988-ROIR) surfaced, and a 14-track collection of Buzzcocks Peel Sessions was issued (1989-Strange Fruit). That same year, <i>Product</i> (1989-EMI) compiled the majority of the band's recorded output into a three-CD box set. The biggest news of 1989, however, was a full-fledged Buzzcocks reunion. All four peak-era members gathered together and toured the United States. By 1990, personnel changes were already occurring, though, as John Maher quit the band and was temporarily replaced by former Smiths drummer Mike Joyce. In 1991, after Garvey also departed, the band took on a new rhythm section, which consisted of bassist Tony Barber and Phil Barker on drums, solidifying a lineup that would last until 2006. This new quartet made a quick trip to the recording studio and emerged with an EP that would essentially serve as demos for a future full-length. Nonetheless, <i>Alive Tonight</i> (1991-Planet Pacific) was the first new Buzzcocks material in over a decade. That same year, a new single-disc sampler, <i>Operators Manual: Buzzcocks Best</i> (1991-EMI) arrived, offering a highly satisfying compilation for the CD generation. Continuing to ride the revival wave, a 1979 Hammersmith Odeon concert got an official release as <i>Entertaining Friends</i> (1992-EMI). Though the sound is a bit boxy, the band's performances of 18 of their best songs are thrilling.
One year later, the next-gen Buzzcocks issued their first new studio full-length in 13 years, <i>Trade Test Transmissions</i> (1993-Caroline). Apropos of the early '90s era of alternative rock and grunge, the album boasts a heavier, and sometimes muddier, guitar sound than the razor-thin tone of the group's first incarnation. Still, the Buzzcocks essence remains: taut punk-pop songs charged with a variety of frustrations. In the Love & Rockets-like single and album opener, Shelley asserts that he can "Do It," but spends most of the song "playing a lonely game" and "going nowhere." Throughout the propulsive and poppy "Last to Know," he pleads to be treated well, but fears he's being duped. Pairing with Shelley's frustration is Steve Diggle's deeper desperation. As before, he brings a tougher, rock 'n' roll feel to the Buzzcocks, and songs like "Isolation" and "Alive Tonight" burn with the brand of pessimism running through the music of the time. Despite a solid batch of songs, neither the songwriting nor the energy level of the playing could match the band's earlier output, and neither critics nor consumers were overly impressed. <i>Trade Test Transmissions</i> received lukewarm ratings and failed to make the charts. In fact, this fairly well encapsulates the entirety of Buzzcocks' post-reformation career. Since the band's original late '70s run, they've yet to hit the charts again, on either side of the Atlantic.
Still, the band were making good music and, presumably, a decent enough living to keep at it. Three years later, Buzzcocks issued their next album, <i>All Set</i> (1996-I.R.S.). It holds the dubious distinction of being the final release from indie label I.R.S., who'd issued classic albums by Go-Gos, Squeeze, and R.E.M., among others. Though <i>All Set</i> is hardly a masterpiece, it's a sharper record than <i>Trade Test Transmissions</i>. This is partly due to the production of Neill King, who had engineered Green Day's <i>Dookie</i> (1994-Reprise). This makes perfect sense, since Green Day had essentially updated Buzzcocks' pop-punk sound for the '90s. Admirably, Buzzcocks stretch themselves here, expanding their palette with moody ambience in the verses of "Hold Me Close" and mixing the arty post-punk of Wire with Elvis Costello's organ-driven pop on "Kiss 'n' Tell." Earlier in the record, the band deliver their classic style on toe-tapping tracks like "Totally from the Heart" and "Give It to Me." Diggle contributes only three cuts, all relegated to the latter half of the album. They're actually his catchiest in quite some time, especially "What Am I Supposed to Do." Even his wide open and slow-burning closer "Back with You" has a memorable refrain. Regardless of its merits, <i>All Set</i> slipped by largely unnoticed.
Another three years later, Buzzcocks returned with <i>Modern</i> (1999-Go-Kart), produced by bassist Tony Barber. Implicit in the title is the band's wish to remain vital and to avoid becoming a nostalgia act. Really, they'd already proved that with their two prior releases. Then again, the music marketplace is always looking forward. In the post-grunge era, Buzzcocks successfully shed the cloak of heaviness they'd worn earlier in the decade and opt instead for buzzing grooves that, at times (on Shelley cuts "Rendezvous" and "Why Compromise?," for instance), seem to predict the dance-punk of a few years later. Elsewhere, on songs like Diggle's "Speed of Life" and "Turn of the Screw," Buzzcocks remind listeners of their classic 1978 sound. "Runaround," meanwhile, harkens back to '60s Mersey Beat numbers (but with the addition of denser distortion). Buzzcocks also take a few experimental detours that don't pan out, like the odd, bleepity dub of "Doesn't Mean Anything," the undercooked minimalism of "Phone," and the hollowed-out skronking of "Stranger in Your Town." The scattershot <i>Modern</i> is a decidedly mixed bag.
Early in the 21st century, the dark and angst-filled tones of post-punk had made a comeback, and the band's new album, simply titled <i>Buzzcocks</i> (2003-Merge), came dressed for the occasion. With its stark and sooty cover and the angry and noisy tones found within, Buzzcocks convey a bad mood. From opening track "Jerk" to closer "Useless," the record is pervasively dark. Of interesting note here are two songwriting collaborations – "Stars" and "Lester Sands" – between Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto, who had recently joined forces on the onetime side-project <i>Buzzkunst</i> (2002-Cooking Vinyl). Really, though, these songs mix in seamlessly with the rest of the material, whether composed by Shelley alone or by Diggle. For better or worse, <i>Buzzcocks</i> is the group's most sonically cohesive (or, perhaps, monotonous) album since the straight punk-pop of <i>Another Music in a Different Kitchen</i>. All Music awarded the album four stars, but Robert Christgau gave it only one, calling it "callow punk alienation." Other reviews landed all across the spectrum, making the record the most divisive in the band's catalog.
For their next effort, Buzzcocks returned to safer territory. <i>Flat-Pack Philosophy</i> (2006-Cooking Vinyl), the third consecutive album produced by Barber, could at times be mistaken for late '70s Buzzcocks. Diggle's and Shelley's guitars exhibit a razor-thinness the band had eschewed since reuniting. The basic blueprint for the songs, too, is retro-Buzzcocks catchy punk-pop played at a quick clip. Shelley and Diggle again seem to be of one mind in their songwriting approach, although both men have lightened up since the last outing, offering more hooks, bouncing beats, and background oh's and ah's. Highlights include the driving title cut, swinging ditty "I Don't Exist," and the buoyant "Dreamin'." Though <i>Rolling Stone</i> were stingy with their grading of the album, online sources <i>Pitchfork</i> and <i>PopMatters</i> praised the record and gave it good marks. That year, drummer Phil Barker left the band and was replaced by Danny Farrant. This version of the band recorded a December 2 performance and released it two years later as the live album <i>30</i> (2008-Cooking Vinyl), commemorating the group's three full decades in existence.
Buzzcocks are among the most iconic bands of the punk era, injecting the genre with a pop sensibility that would prove highly influential over the coming decades. Their first trio of late '70s albums have all stood well the test of time, and the 45s collection from that period, <i>Singles – Going Steady</i>, is now recognized as a classic. Though the band's second outing during the 1990s and 2000s has yet to produce a great album, they remain vital and have produced a worthy and generally quite entertaining discography. At the very least, they have not tainted their status as one of the punk era's very best bands.