Posted September 4, 2006
Lorne Thomson photo
Of the Class of 76, three English bands stood out - and only one is from Manchester and still going. The Buzzcocks arguably had one thing that set them apart from their big brothers, the Sex Pistols and The Clash and it's still with them - a well-honed sense of melody that defined the term "pop-punk". Spiky as hell but with undeniable pop leanings, they blazed brightly on a scene that, frankly, bottomed out relatively quickly once it became locked into the media-driven thrall of style over substance. With original member Steve Shelley and (almost original member) Steve Diggle intact, The Buzzcocks are every bit as good an act as they were at the tail end of punk's heyday. A lay-off in the '80s and a partial reformation gave way to the band coming back to life in their own right for a string of albums that would take them around the world. September 2006 finds them promoting a new CD and touring Australia for the umpteenth time. Damn right they're popular; even Sir Elton John is a fan of the Buzzcocks....
By PATRICK EMERY
It’s hard to imagine what the snotty young English punks of 1976 would’ve said if it’d been suggested that some of their lot would still be playing 30 years later. After all punk had been constructed as a razor sharp reaction to the boring old farts saturating the commercial airwaves in the mid 1970s. One of the proto-punk bands, The Buzzcocks, burst out of Manchester having been inspired by the Sex Pistols’ attitude and sound. In contrast to the Pistols’ nihilistic interpretation of the simple roots of rock’n’roll, The Buzzcocks created a sound that blended the energy and enthusiasm of punk with the melodic quality of pop. Thirty years later the Buzzcocks are still going, and show no immediate signs of stopping, having just released a new album Flat-Pack Philosophy and embarking on a world tour to promote the album.
Guitarist Steve Diggle began his tenure in the Buzzcocks playing bass, moving subsequently to guitar to fill the position vacated by Howard Devoto (Devoto went on to form Magazine). The Buzzcocks’ repertoire included such defining punk pop classics as Orgasm Addict, Ever Fallen in Love and What Do I Get?, before the band broke-up in the early 1980s. In 1989 The Buzzcocks reformed and despite the departure of drummer John Maher and bassist Steve Garvey the band has continued to tour and record, playing to a crowd comprising both old and new fans.
In April 2006 The Buzzcocks found themselves the recipient of Mojo magazine’s “Inspiration Award”, a timely reminder of the band’s influence on punters and bands. Diggle is still obviously proud of and flattered by the award. “I was told we were going to receive an award”, Diggle says remembering the nigh the award was bestowed, “but I thought it was just going to be for sticking around. The fact that it was the ‘Inspiration’ award was fantastic. So many people come up to us and tell us how much we meant to them, so it was a really apt award.” Diggle is genuinely flattered by the official acknowledgement of the Buzzcocks’ influence – primarily because it was an audience, not industry, generated award. “It was voted on by the people who read the magazine, not some industry concocted, slap on the back bullshit”, he says. And it’s not just ordinary punters who proclaim themselves fans of the Buzzcocks. “When Elton John got his award that night he mentioned us three times in his speech. I was sitting in the crowd and thought ‘hey, did he just mention the Buzzcocks in his speech?’. It was amazing to discover he was a fan!”
So what is it about the Buzzcocks that’s so inspiring? “We made our own records,”,Diggle says. “That inspired a lot of bands to make their own records. And no other bands sounded like we did. These days you can hear the Buzzcocks in lots of bands, but that wasn’t around then. And the standard of the songs too – even though we write them!,” Diggle laughs.
When I invite Diggle to identify what it was that inspired the Buzzcocks originally, it reads like a treatise written by a punk impressario. “Anger, frustration, boredom”, Diggle replies. “We weren’t trying to sound like other bands. It was the end of the prog rock era. Songs were coming as long as the whole album. Bands weren’t saying a lot at that time.” As with many successful punk bands, a large percentage of the band’s initial attraction can be traced back to empathy between the band and its audience. “People saw us as ordinary guys, not big rock stars,” Diggle says. “We never made records to have hits. We made them for ordinary people. We thought ‘let’s make a statement about things’. Hopefully we inspired people to think, read books.”
Like the Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks’ songs occasionally caused a moral stir, without the tabloid splash classically associated with the Pistols. “With Orgasm Addict the record company plant refused to press it at the time. These days that wouldn’t be a problem, but in those days it was much different.” While commentators at the time generally chose to ignore any philosophical depth in the punk movement, in hindsight it’s recognised that punk was as much a philosophical statement as it was a pastiche of colours, sneers and anti-social behaviour. Diggle’s brand of punk philosophy blends self-empowerment with socio-political criticism. “We used a couple of slogans”, Diggle recalls. “One of them was ‘be yourself," which was the most effective one. Say what you want to say, do what you want to do. You don’t have to be brow beaten by society.”
From left: Danny Farrant, Steve Diggle, Pete Shelley and Tony Barber. Chris Gomez photo.
Diggle may be older and wiser in 2006, but he’s still angry. “Oh yeah! That’s why there’s songs on the album like Big Brother Wheels and Sell You Everything. It’s now marketing people, not politicians who are directing our lives. But we’re not necessarily saying it’s a bad thing or a good thing – we’re just pointing out things.”
One of the foci of punk anger was the perceived tiredness of the mainstream music industry. Despite the growth of the independent music scene, and the mainstream’s embracing of the digital revolution, Diggle is still suspicious at the industry’s relevance. “It’s still as bad as it ever was”, Diggle says. “There’s still record companies putting out absolute shit. The music industry is run by accountants – everybody knows that.”
A notable deviation from the standard operating bullshit of the music industry was the late John Peel. Peel spent his life championing new music, including the fledgling UK punk movement in the mid 1970s. In late 2005 a group of artists, including the Buzzcocks collaborated on a version of the Buzzcocks’ Ever Fallen In Love as a tribute to Peel. Diggle doesn’t believe anyone has – or maybe ever will – take over Peel’s role as a passionate advocate for new music. “There doesn’t seem to be. John Peel was a unique thing at the time. He was playing weird records before punk, but when punk came along he changed his whole show. It was a pleasure to do that song – his family asked us to do it, which was very touching.”
Despite the omnipresent hyperbole about the impact of on-line access to new music on new and established artists, it has seen the single return to its historical glory – albeit in a different guise. Diggle, not surprisingly, still loves the single concept. “The single was always an important part of punk. Downloading songs now is almost too easy!” Diggle cherishes the single, seeing it as something far more important than a simple transaction. “It’s one of the greatest things,” he says. “It’s as good as sex in some ways. You put it on, and it’s like ‘fuck!’” It’s like going to the local supermarket and buying a Picasso!”
The Buzzcocks’ "Flat-Pack Philosophy" is out now through Cooking Vinyl.
Australian 2006 Tour dates:
Thurs 7th: Byron Bay - Hotel Great Northern + Happy Hate Me Nots
Tickets $36.50 + bf from the Venue, phone charge: 1300-762545, online @ www.byronbayentertainment.com, the ABC Centre Ballina phone: 6686-2436 and Music Bizarre Lismore phone: 66223262
Friday 8th: Brisbane, The Zoo + Happy Hate Me Nots
Tickets $40.00 + bf. Available online from: www.thezoo.com.au. Also Rocking Horse and Skinnys Record Stores.
Saturday 9th: Sydney, Metro + The Thought Criminals, Happy Hate Me Nots & Mach Pelican (30 Years of Punk Spectacular!)
Tickets $48.00 + bf. Available from www.moshtix.com and all moshtix outlets, from the Metro Theatre. Ph: 02-92872000, online www.metrotheatre.com.au or in person at the box office 624 George Street, Sydney and $51.00 + bf from www.ticketek.com.au , all Ticketek offices or phone: 02-95503666.
Wednesday 13th: Newcastle, Cambridge Tavern + Happy Hate Me Nots
Tickets $35.00 + bf from from Venue, Beaumont St Beat, The Rock Shop or www.bigtix.com.au
Thursday 14th: Barwon Heads Hotel + Eddy Current Suppression Ring - Bus service available please call hotel to book. Phone: 03-5254220 for details. Tickets $35.00 + bf available online from the Venue and CC Music.
Friday 15th: Melbourne - Corner Hotel + Happy Hate Me Nots & Eddy Current Suppression Ring
Tickets $44.00 + bf available online from www.cornerhotel.com. Also available from the Corner Hotel box office. Phone bookings: 03-9427-9198. Presented by Beat Magazine
Saturday 16th: Adelaide, Fowlers Live + All Flight Crew Are Dead and Terrance Dicks (licensed all ages event)
Tickets $39.90 + bf. Available online at www.fowlerslive.com.au , www.venuetix.com.au or phone charge: 8225-8888 and all CIB outlets or phone charge: 8231 0824.
Sunday 17th: Perth, Amplifier + Capitol City & Burton Cool Suit
Tickets $40.00 + bf available online from www.heatseeker.com.au, also: Mills Records, Fremantle, 78 Records, Perth Beat Records, Karrinyup and Planet Video, Mt Lawley.