In 1976, with punk on the cusp of transforming from sub-cultural pursuit into tabloid cause celebré, the Sex Pistols travelled north from their London base to play a gig in the working class city of Manchester. According to English punk mythology, committed to film in 24 Hour Party People, it was this gig that sowed the seeds of the ‘Madchester’ scene. It was also the genesis of the Buzzcocks’ punk rock career.
“I was hanging around outside the gig, and Malcolm McLaren took me in,” recalls original Buzzcocks bass player and later guitarist Steve Diggle. “I’d arranged to meet someone else outside – we’d been talking about forming a band. In the end I never ended up meeting the people I was supposed to meet there, and I spent the night talking with Pete [Shelley] at the bar,” Diggle says.
Within three weeks Diggle, Shelley, John Maher and Howard DeVoto had formed the Buzzcocks, and were opening up for the Sex Pistols. “At the original Sex Pistols gig there was about 30 people there, although everybody says these days that they were there,” Diggle laughs. “Pete and I sat at the back and talked about what we were going to do. It was amazing – it was like seeing the New York Dolls for the first time. Three weeks later we opened up for the Pistols, and all these journalists came down and reviewed the Sex Pistols and us as well. That helped put the provinces on the map, and made people realise there was something going on outside London,” Diggle says.
While Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s confrontational fashion style – leather, bondage gear, safety pins – tended to define the visual aesthetics of London punk, Diggle says the Manchester punk scene eschewed obvious fashion statements. “The London scene had the Sex Pistols and bondage gear, and then there was The Clash, who had their own thing,” Diggle says. “We were a bit more internal. They were very outward in their dress sense – we were from the industrial north, so our clothes tended to come from Oxfam, which is probably more punk in a sense,” Diggle says. “But we made a connection with the other bands – punk was about an attitude, not about what you looked like,” Diggle says.
DeVoto ended up leaving the nascent Buzzcocks after half a dozen gigs, going on to form the equally influential Magazine. “Howard did about six gigs with us,” Diggle says. “It was a shock when he left, but we decided to keep going and it became the classic Buzzcocks line-up. When Howard was there it worked, but it worked better without him,” Diggle says. “Howard went off and formed Magazine, so you ended up getting two bands for the price of one,” Diggle laughs.
The Sex Pistols’ infamous interview with a tired and emotional Bill Grundy ensured punk would be stamped on the public consciousness. The Buzzcocks, however, were not beholden to tabloid shock tactics. “There was a shock value with the Sex Pistols,” Diggle says. “In our case we thought the world was full of complexity. We read a lot of existentialist literature, and we brought that to the table. That made us different,” Diggle says. “There was also a uniqueness in the Buzzcocks’ input. We were more futuristic and experimental. We were influenced by bands like Can as much as we were by rock’n’roll,” Diggle says.
While the Buzzcocks avoided the overt anti-establishment rhetoric of the London punk scene, the Buzzcocks had its own visual aesthetic, initially centre around the art work of feminist artist Linder Sterling, who created the classic image featured on the Buzzcocks’ debut single Orgasm Addict. “Linder was around early on, and she was going out with Howard. There was the ‘woman as object’ image we used on the first single,” Diggle says. “By the time of the second album Malcolm Garrett was doing the art work. I remember him staying up until 6am doing the art work. Malcolm who created a lot of things simply, just by juxtaposing colours. It was a tussle between being his art, and a platform for the Buzzcocks. Between the two it created an image for the Buzzcocks,” Diggle says.
The Buzzcocks disbanded in the early 1980s, regrouping at the end of the decade. Original drummer John Maher and bass player Steve Garvey eventually left the band, with Maher going on to a career “building dragster cars.” The latest line-up features Chris Remington on bass and Danny Farrant on drums. “Our new bass players and drummers have adapted over the years,” Diggle says. “But the band hasn’t changed a lot – the songs have carried things on over the years,” he says.
Shelley and Diggle might be into their 50's, but the Buzzcocks’ punk attitude continues to burn brightly – the band’s 2006 album Flat Pack Philosophy is replete with scathing observations on the modern consumer capitalist economy – but Diggle says the anger has been replaced by a more considered philosophical outlook. “It’s not anger,” Diggle says. “It’s just when you get older you get wiser. You have your ups and downs, and we all get a kick in the teeth whether it’s a relationship, paying the bills or something political,” Diggle says.
In the Buzzcocks’ heyday England was grappling with tough economic conditions and industrial unrest, a charged environment that would lay the groundwork for Margaret Thatcher’s government. Thirty years later and England is working through the buffed rhetorical sludge and unfulfilled promises of New Labour. Have things changed for the better? “In 1976 England was in grey, black and white,” Diggle says. “Now things are going even more Orwellian. We used to have different buildings – now it’s homogenised, with shopping malls like in America,” Diggle says.
Diggle worries that the same consumerist culture is infecting music. “With music, in those days there was no MTV. Now we do, and it’s like shopping mall music,” he says. “On-line music doesn’t give you the sensation of going out and getting music – I think that’s been lost,” Diggle says. “When punk started it was full of passion. Now music is presented by girls who look like lap dancers.” Diggle says the Buzzcocks’ focus on the social and economic environment remains as true today as it ever was. “We sang about the human condition – and that’s why we we’re still here 33 years later. The songs are real. The songs were never written to be hits. Now people just want to be famous,” Diggle says.
Friday 20th: Sydney, The Forum (The Entertainment Quarter) + The Spazzys & Royal Headache
Tickets $44.00 + bf from www.feelpresents.com , www.moshtix, Moshtix outlets or phone 1300 GET TIX
Saturday 21st: Melbourne, Corner Hotel + The Spazzys & Royal Headache - SOLD OUT
Tickets $44.00 + bf from www.cornerhotel.com , the venue or phone: 03-94279198
Sunday 22nd: Hobart, Moorilla + The Spazzys
Tickets $44.00 + bf from Moorilla: 655 Main Rd, Berriedale, moorilla.com.au or phone 03-62779900