Inspired by the Sex Pistols, Manchester (England) natives Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley formed the Buzzcocks in 1976, specializing in high-energy, staccato delivery of stripped-down pop songs. With John Maher (drums) and Steve Diggle (bass), the Buzzcocks cut Spiral Scratch, the UK’s first self-released punk record. Though ragged and rudimentary, the 7-inch features the frantic, minimalistic pop stylings that would characterize the group’s work and, with songs like “Breakdown” and “Boredom,” remains a seminal artifact of ’70s DIY.
Devoto departed shortly thereafter to form Magazine. Garth Smith joined, taking over bass while Shelley switched to vocals (in addition to guitar) and Diggle to lead guitar. The band signed to United Artists and, after one frenetic and controversial single (“Orgasm Addict”), sacked Smith; the arrival of Steve Garvey fixed the lineup that would remain unchanged throughout the band’s original existence.
Another Music in a Different Kitchen expands on the stark three-minute pop song and themes of confusion, alienation and betrayal, adding a new emphasis on harmony and humor and a growing coordination of the players in contrast to the earlier inspired chaos. “Fast Cars,” the jagged waltz “Sixteen” and the tom-tom pounder “(Moving Away From the) Pulsebeat” are all mini mindblowers. (The 1996 and 2001 reissues add four single sides that also appeared on Singles Going Steady. The French 2008 and American 2010 double-CD reissues add those singles, along with the September ’77 session on John Peel’s show, demos for most of Another Music, and the band’s venue-closing October 1977 set at the Electric Circus in Manchester.)
Love Bites demonstrates both the Buzzcocks’ perfection of their particular brand of pop and their disillusionment with its restrictions. Producer Martin Rushent clarifies the elements of the sound even further, and Shelley’s songwriting continues to improve, including the band’s highest-charting UK single, “Ever Fallen in Love” (later covered badly by Fine Young Cannibals). Other cuts, like “Sixteen Again” and “Real World,” would have made great pop singles as well, but much of the album (which includes two instrumentals) finds the Buzzcocks mired in repetitive structures. (As with the preceding album, the 1996 and 2001 reissues add four tracks available on Singles Going Steady. The 2008 and 2010 double-disc reissues add those singles, plus two 1978 Peel sessions, demos of most of the album’s songs and the band’s July ’78 performance at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall. Other reissues, on both sides of the Atlantic, combine the Buzzcocks’ first two long-players on a single CD.)
A Different Kind of Tension makes tentative maneuvers into the new, as the Buzzcocks attempt to throw off the yoke of pop music. It boasts some of Shelley’s finest songs, notably “You Say You Don’t Love Me” and “I Believe.” With Diggle providing some of the material, the band reaches a zenith of effortless craft, especially on Side Two (subtitled “The thorn beneath the rose”), where Shelley dives into the challenging waters of paranoia, selfconscious despair and harrowing uncertainty, climaxing on the title track. That’s followed by “I Believe,” a seven-minute summation of reasons to be cheerful continually undercut by a chorus of “There is no love in this world any more.” Powerful stuff. (The 2008 and 2010 double-CD reissues both add the singles that appeared later on the Parts One, Two, Three EP, four more sides that showed up on Singles Going Steady, two Peel sessions from ’78 and ’79, a batch of contemporaneous demos, a performance of “Autonomy” at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, and “I Look Alone,” the final finished recording by the Shelley/Diggle/Maher/Garvey lineup.)
After three more singles in ’80 and ’81 (later compiled as the Parts One, Two, Three EP), Shelley decided to go solo and the Buzzcocks came to an end. Maher and Diggle went off to form Flag of Convenience; following a brief stint on Shelley’s ’81 solo tour, Garvey moved to New York and quit the music business.
Singles Going Steady is a stunning compilation of the band’s eight classic UA 45s, proving conclusively that the Buzzcocks were an amazing singles band, perhaps one of the best ever. From the teen angst of the Devoto/Shelley “Orgasm Addict” to the 20th-century malaise of “Something’s Gone Wrong Again,” the songs are across-the-board great, and the album is a non-stop hit parade.
The six tracks (written half-and-half by Shelley and Diggle) on Parts One, Two, Three are a postscript to Singles Going Steady, a transition away from big-pop structures into a more elusive, subversive form that still possesses plenty of octane and odd hooks. “What Do You Know?” introduces horns; the relaxed pace of “Running Free” and the odd “Are Everything” (later covered by Heaven 17) are equally novel. (IRS later issued a CD combining Parts One, Two, Three and A Different Kind of Tension. Those two releases also are paired on the 1996 and 2001 CD reissues.)
Total Pop, an offbeat German collection, draws from Singles Going Steady, One, Two, Three, Love Bites and Tension, adding the band’s two live tracks (“Breakdown” and “Love Battery”) from The Roxy London WC2, a classic 1977 scene document. (The CD and cassette have three bonus cuts.)
The Peel Sessions EP, which dates from September ’77, contains only three songs: “Fast Cars,” “(Moving Away From the) Pulsebeat” and the absolutely peerless “What Do I Get.” The long-delayed Lest We Forget is a fine-sounding live compilation tape recorded at — with one Mancunian exception — various US gigs in 1979 and 1980.
Live at the Roxy Club April ’77, the first in an archival series of releases of recordings made at the legendary London venue, is eminently skippable. Unlike Lest We Forget‘s maturity, this documents the Buzzcocks at a weak point, playing one of the first gigs without Devoto. The band is an engaging shambles — sloppy, out of tune, sometimes downright awful.
Released as a teaser for the Product boxed set, The Fab Four EP consists of four consecutive A-sides (all included on Singles Going Steady), from “Ever Fallen in Love” to Diggle’s “Harmony in My Head.”
Product is brilliant. Except for the Spiral Scratch EP, this three-CD (or three-cassette or four-LP) extravaganza, complete with a detailed historical booklet, contains the Buzzcocks’ complete studio works: every track of the band’s three albums and twelve singles. The boxed set also includes “I Look Alone,” a fantastic basher that was an outtake from the Parts One, Two, Three series, and eight songs from a 1978 gig at London’s Lyceum. All better than Lest We Forget, these tracks offer the best released evidence of the band’s wall-of-guitar concert power.
That release was one of the factors that contributed to the Buzzcocks’ 1989 reunion, which answered the question they once posed in song (“Whatever Happened To?”) and fulfilling the dream of “Nostalgia”: “I look up at the sky and I wonder what it’ll be like in days gone by / I’m surfing on a wave of nostalgia for an age yet to come.” Sparked in part by the attention attending the classy Product, Shelley, Diggle, Garvey and (briefly) Maher mounted a reunion tour in 1989, and kept going from there. (Maher soon returned to his Volkswagen repair business, replaced for a time by ex-Smith Mike Joyce.)
Inspired by that unexpected turn of events, the group’s old label put out Operators Manual, a concise 25-track career condensation, and Entertaining Friends, a great 1979 concert document. (Time’s Up is a long- bootlegged collection of Devoto-era live-in-the-studio efforts which finally saw the legit light of day in 1991.) For their part, Shelley and Diggle weathered the departure of Maher and then Garvey, drafting a new rhythm section of bassist Tony Barber and drummer Phil Barker. They began (individually) writing new songs for the band. The first result of their renewed labors was Alive Tonight, an encouraging but diffident four-song 12-inch that doesn’t resemble the old Buzzcocks much beyond Shelley’s inimitable giddy vocals and flashback melody on “Last to Know,” a catchy case of romantic nerves.
“Last to Know” and Diggle’s “Alive Tonight” wound up being redone for the full-length Trade Test Transmissions, the first new Buzzcocks studio album in 14 years. With a bigger, more distorted guitar backdrop and forceful production as the only notable evidence of time’s arrow, whatever went into the Buzzcocks’ mixmaster way back when seems to have been relocated and recharged: Shelley shelves the stylistic alter ego of his intervening solo career to bang out rushing pop joys like “Innocent,” “Never Gonna Give It Up,” “Who’ll Help Me to Forget?” and “Palm of Your Hand” (a song about masturbation that nicely bookends 1977’s “Orgasm Addict”), stamping them all with the unmistakable sound that launched a thousand pogos. A more equitable division of labor — Diggle wrote and sings nearly a third of the augmented American edition — may have been necessary to maintain peace, but Diggle, whose singing is much improved from the old days and who has developed into a fine pop craftsman, sounds (as he did then) like he’s fronting a different band. For all his sexual enthusiasm, Shelley still comes from another plane as his bandmate, decrying fascism (“Crystal Night”) and irony (“369”) while Diggle doesn’t raise his sights much higher than basic survival (“Alive Tonight”) and ideas (“Energy,” “Isolation”). Rather than attempt to establish some working dynamic that integrates their concerns, the once and future ‘Cocks simply present themselves as a two-headed monster and leave it at that. A different kind of tension…
French is a live album recorded in Paris in April 1995; the 23-song set runs the discographical gamut from “Orgasm Addict,” “Noise Annoys” and “Why She’s a Girl From the Chainstore” through “Energy,” “Isolation” and “Innocent.” Encore du Pain captures the encore set from the same gig — the three songs that end French (“Orgasm Addict,” “Fast Cars” and “Oh Shit!”) plus seven more, including “When Love Turns Around,” “I Don’t Know What to Do With My Life,” “What Do I Get?” and “Ever Fallen in Love …?” French et Encore du Pain: The Complete Paris Live collects the whole set list on two discs.
The Shelly/Diggle/Barber/Barker lineup would stay together for 15 years, with Barber eventually taking on production duties for the band as well. All Set is another new studio record of memorable originals with familiar virtues. The highlights include “Totally From the Heart,” “Hold Me Close,” “Point of No Return” and “Back With You.”
Modern also has a lot of familiar qualities, but many of them are more familiar to ’80s synth-pop than to the Buzzcocks’ previous work. Indeed, with its sequenced-synth lead-in and disco groove, the album-opening “Soul on a Rock” could pass for one of Shelley’s solo recordings. Most of the album’s songs, on their own merits, are up to Shelley and Diggle’s usual standards. But Barber’s injudicious use of electronic tomfoolery — the icy analog synthesizer touches in “Don’t Let the Car Crash” and “Sneaky,” the cheap-sounding electronic percussion on “Why Compromise?” and “Phone,” and the almost-but-not-quite-Kraftwerk touches on “Doesn’t Mean Anything” — blunts most of their impact. He piles all these effects on the last two songs, “Stranger in Your Town” and “Choices,” building the album to a big anti-climax. Even songs that are spared such retro production choices (“Rendezvous,” “Under the Sun,” “Turn of the Screw,” “Speed of Life”) get way too much polish, with carefully contoured vocal harmonies and excessive phasing on the guitars. This might be how the ‘Cocks would’ve sounded had they stayed together in the ’80s and continued working with Martin Rushent — after the producer’s big success with the Human League.
Shelley may well have been the persuading force behind Modern‘s retro-synth sound; perhaps he’d been missing the approach he’d taken in his solo career. After a tour to support the 1999 Buzzcocks release, Shelley got together with his band’s original singer for a one-off project dubbed ShelleyDevoto. Recording all the music on Buzzkunst themselves in a keyboards-and-synthetic-drums framework (save for guest saxophone on a Can-like instrumental, “On Solids,” and guest backing vocals on “Self-Destruction”), the two musicians revisit the sounds of the past — Shelley’s solo recordings, Magazine, and their shared origins in the original Buzzcocks. (The album’s title conflates the band name with the German word for art.) Shelley’s rhythm guitar is muted and phased, when it appears at all; he plays most of his leads with violin-like textures. And Devoto’s voice hasn’t lost any of its eeriness. When it all clicks (about half the time), it’s great. “Deeper,” “A World to Give Away,” the instrumentals “Strain of Bacteria” and “Wednesday’s Emotional Setup,” “Going Off” and “Can You See Me Shining?” would’ve sounded fine on any of Magazine’s releases. With its driving punk tempo and gnarled guitar solos, “‘Till the Stars in His Eyes Are Dead” sounds like a choice out-take from Spiral Scratch: “The message is cheap and exhilarating / Now he’s slobbering on the glass / A sexistic boy having a worldwide wank / He says, ‘Well, that’s very punk of me.'” On too many tracks, though (most of them in Buzzkunst‘s second half), the rhythm tracks turn turgid and the duo loses its focus, succumbing more and more to the aimlessness that marked Devoto’s post-Magazine efforts in Luxuria. As he sings in “So There I Was”: “I was troubling / I was blindly calculating / How I was going on / So there I was, unintentionally funny…Then I was thrown into this sort of Zen apoplexy.” Well, it’s not as good as you make it sound, Howard. (The CD includes a bootleg-quality single-camera video of two songs performed live by Devoto and Shelley, with no other musicians visible.)
Still, the busman’s holiday must either have reinvigorated Shelley or shown him how much his regular band means to him (or to his landlord). Either way, the Buzzcocks got back on track with an eponymous 2003 album. Barber captures the Buzzcocks at their hottest and rawest, with buzzing guitars and relentlessly hard performances. Perhaps a bit too hard: the band seems to fill every frequency, with little breathing room on any track. Still, none of the songs on Buzzcocks is less than good, and the best of them — “Jerk,” “Keep On,” “Friends,” “Morning After,” Diggle’s excellent “Sick City Sometimes,” a remake of “‘Till the Stars in His Eyes Are Dead,” and “Lester Sands” (another Devoto co-write) — should give pause to anyone who might dismiss the Buzzcocks as just an old-fart band trying to recapture past glory.
Barber’s production on Flat-Pack Philosophy isn’t as raw as it was on the preceding disc. He imparts a clearer sound to this one, with more room for the guitarists to interact with each other, a crisp thump to the bass guitar, and just a touch of polish on the backing vocals (not to mention a teasing, synth-kissed coda to the album-closing “Between Heaven and Hell”). But Shelley and Diggle maintain their songwriting standards, and the band is in tight form. Highlights include the power-pop-informed tracks “I Don’t Exist” and “Big Brother Wheels,” the more mature romantic considerations of “Dreamin’,” “Reconciliation” and “God, What Have I Done,” the break-up song “I’ve Had Enough,” the sobering “Credit” (“Videophones / With all the latest ringtones / You buy-to-let your new home…Saddled with debt forever / Wish I could get something I really need”), and the optimistic self-reliance credo of the title track: “So when my thoughts make me depressed / I think the best, and fuck the rest…All of my hopes, dreams and desires / Assembly required / That’s flat-pack philosophy.” Words to live by.
Driving You Insane is a fine live disc from an April 2003 show in London. Spreading 32 tracks across two CDs, the set includes several tunes from Buzzcocks, but otherwise skips the post-reunion albums (apart from All Set‘s “Totally From the Heart”) in favor of a generous selection of old favorites. (Each disc includes three video clips from the show. The complete show also is available on DVD as Live at Shepherds Bush Empire 2003.) 30 is another live souvenir, this one from the band’s thirtieth-anniversary show at the London Forum. The CD includes a broader selection of more recent songs than Driving You Insane (touching on each of the post-reunion discs), but that’s not to say it includes very many of them; the band still sticks mostly to the earlier classics. Squeezing 28 songs onto a single CD doesn’t leave room for much between songs. The band rushes through its set like a gang of frat boys emptying a table full of pitchers at last call. (The cover art of 30 shows Diggle flipping the bird. Still punk after all these years.)
The Peel Sessions Album (which subsumes the previously issued Peel EP) offers four different looks at the band between 1977 and 1979. While the regular studio recordings are generally better than these radio broadcasts, there is a searing “E.S.P.” that is more gripping than the version on Love Bites, while two instrumentals from the same LP and Tension‘s “Mad Mad Judy” are all notably — and nicely — dissimilar to their subsequent renderings. The BBC Sessions CD contains 20 songs from the Buzzcocks’ visits to the Beeb from 1978 to 1997. Well worth acquiring, but it’s a mystery why the three tracks from the group’s earliest Peel session (from 1977) are MIA.
Chronology is a collection of demos by the Shelley/Diggle/Maher/Garvey lineup, recorded between 1977 and 1981, and including four unreleased songs: “The Drive System,” “Jesus Made Me Feel Guilty” (both by Diggle), “Mother of Turds” (co-written by Diggle and Maher) and Garvey’s “No Friend of Mine.” I Don’t Mind the Buzzcocks is an 18-song compilation of tracks from the first three albums, plus a few single sides. Ever Fallen in Love? Buzzcocks Finest is a remastered version of the same disc.
Inventory is a 14-disc set collecting all the Buzzcocks singles (including the four-song Spiral Scratch EP) from 1977 to 1981, with the original sleeve art for each single reprinted. The Complete Singles Anthology gathers all of these tunes, then extends the collection through 2003 — a more manageable package on three compact discs.
Among the punks having a go at 14 Buzzcocks classics on Something’s Gone Wrong Again are the Fluid, Didjits, Alice Donut and Naked Raygun. But Coffin Break barely follows the melody of “What Do I Get?,” Lunachicks make a joke of “Noise Annoys” before jumping into “Promises” and Porn Orchard insert an inane rap and prank phone call into “Why Can’t I Touch It?” Doing fair frontier justice to, respectively, “I Don’t Mind” and “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays,” Big Drill Car and Dose are the only bands here that seem genuinely interested in paying tribute to the honorees.