Alongside The Clash, Sex Pistols and The Damned, Manchester’s Buzzcocks can be counted amongst the frontline of first-wave U.K. punk. Spurred on by the glue-sniffing power-pop of the Ramones and the rest of the scene forming around nascent New York club CBGB, the Buzzcocks made its onstage debut supporting the Pistols at a hometown gig in July 1976. Six months later, it became the first punk band to release a record (the Spiral Scratch EP) without the support of a major label, opening the floodgates for every artist who’s gone DIY since.
History aside, what sets the band apart from peers of its era is a non-stop barrage of hooks, plus some of the catchiest (and cheekiest) choruses ever penned. While best known for the hit-crammed compilation Singles Going Steady (collecting all 16 U.K. A- and B-sides from ’77 to ’79), nearly every song on the Buzzcocks’ first two full-lengths, Another Music in a Different Kitchen and Love Bites, could have been a classic. Since a 1989 reunion, the band has added five new albums to its discography, but for this tour — dubbed Another Bites — the setlist includes both original LPs front to back.
“In a way, it still feels like we’ve only just started,” says guitarist Steve Diggle, his thick British accent and upbeat personality cutting through a long-distance cellphone connection. “I know it sounds like a long time, but the 34 years since we formed have flown by so fast. I can still remember going in and recording those first two albums perfectly. For this tour, there were a few songs we had to work at to relearn, particularly ‘I Need’ from the first record. Now, we’ve got it working really well, and have been asking ourselves, ‘Why didn’t we play it more back in the day?’”
Flashing back to the past, the four original Buzzcocks (Diggle, singer-guitarist Pete Shelley, drummer John Maher and first frontman Howard Devoto, later known as the brain behind Magazine) showed impressive prescience in self-releasing their debut effort. Borrowing £500 ($1,000) from friends and family for a one-day session with soon-to-be-infamous Joy Division producer Martin Hannett (here credited as Martin Zero), Spiral Scratch was recorded and mixed in just five hours. From there, the four-song EP was initially released in a run of 1,000 via the band’s own New Hormones imprint, making it the first independent label founded by an English punk act. Eventually, the EP’s original pressing would go on to sell 16,000 copies.
“At the time, we thought we’d made the most uncommercial music around,” Diggle giggles. “We didn’t think there’d be any point trying to bring it to a major label because they wouldn’t understand it, so we just decided to make our own record. In the States, people had been putting out albums independently since the ’50s, but it was still a pretty new idea in the U.K. Spiral Scratch was important, not just because of the music, but because it showed people that if you had a few pounds you could press 1,000 singles. Afterwards, every punk band started doing just that. You have to remember this music was largely unheard of back then, so doing it ourselves was also basically a necessity. We didn’t realize just how powerful that would be.”
On top of forethought, the band is also known for its sense of humour, challenging the late-’70s standards of taste with sassy first single “Orgasm Addict.” With its now beloved cover art collage of a naked woman with an iron for a head, plus sample lyrics like “Sneaking in the back door with dirty magazines/ Now your mother wants to know what all those stains on your jeans” [sic], it was originally banned from BBC radio, along with the Buzzcocks’ next B-side, “Oh Shit!”
“It all felt very natural to us,” says Diggle of “Orgasm Addict.” “We didn’t sit down and plan a career or hold board meetings with ourselves like record companies want people to do now, we just thought it was a great song! The people in the pressing plant refused to press it because they said it was disgusting filth, so the release date was pushed back about three weeks. I’ve had loads of people come up to me and say they bought the single when it first came out, only to have their parents ask them, ‘What’s this garbage? Turn it off!’ That’s always good to hear.”
With so many years together, it would be impossible for the Buzzcocks not to have accumulated a few wild experiences on the road, one of which includes travelling through Europe with Nirvana during the alt-rock superstars’ final tour of 1994.
“We played eight of their last shows with them, starting in Portugal and then making our way to France,” says Diggle. “They were big fans, and I was blown away by them as well. Kurt Cobain was actually quite an introvert, but once he got onstage he’d be a completely different person. Two weeks after the tour ended, I heard on the news that he’d gone home and shot himself. When I die I’ll go up there and have a pint with him, John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix.”
Unlike other reunited acts, who often reveal themselves as doughy dad-rock imitations of younger selves (here’s looking at you, John Lydon), the Buzzcocks of 2010 are just as energized, tight and gleeful as ever. Singer Shelley might not look quite the same, but close your eyes and that snotty accent sounds identical to 30 years ago. Meanwhile, Diggle has maintained all of his swaggering stage moves of yore, with larger-than-life windmill guitar riffs, ripping solos and legs spread in the Johnny Ramone fighting stance. They’re joined by hotshot drummer Danny Farrant and bassist Chris Remmington, but the real draw is watching the pair of original pop-punks party like it’s 1979. Witnessing a recent Montreal gig climax with the band members smashing their instruments through amps, it seems clear they’ve found the fountain of youth.
“One of the main reasons we’re still around is because of the standards of songwriting,” Diggle says. “It’s easy to play these songs so many years after they were written because I still find them great. If the songs weren’t crafted very well it’d be hard to drag them out night after night, and I’d probably tell Pete, ‘Listen, I can’t fucking do this anymore.’ But because they’re such classics, I almost feel like we’re performing standards pulled from the archives of a punk rock library. That’s what makes it such a delight.”