When Pete Shelley disbanded the Buzzcocks in March 1981, guitarist Steve Diggle and drummer John Maher formed Flag of Convenience. Diggle had played the Dave Davies role in the group — writing and singing his two or three songs per LP, getting an occasional A-side, and improving all the while — so it was logical for him to carry on the Buzzcocks’ frantic, ambitious pop as Shelley opted for techno-blip dance music. Sadly, they labored long in obscurity, releasing only four singles between 1981 and ’86.
Life on the Telephone, a US 12-inch with two versions of the title track and a pair of other songs, is immediately agreeable; the clever parts come into focus after a while.
War on the Wireless Set, which compiles outtakes from ’81-’86 (plus one previously released 45, “New House”), is just the kind of hardhitting, ballsy material you’d expect from the people involved. “Heartbreak Story” is a particularly good find, with a martial beat and “Peter Gunn” guitar line. The real killer is “Back of My Mind,” one of two tracks here recorded by three-quarters of the Buzzcocks (sans Shelley) for that band’s fourth LP, which was scrapped when the band broke up. “Back of My Mind” proves again (as “Harmony in My Head” and “Airwaves Dream” had during the Buzzcocks’ existence) that Diggle was really coming into his creative own.
Maher quit around ’86, but Diggle carried on under the FOC acronym, releasing Northwest Skyline as his first real album. (Maher sits in on three songs.) Though seemingly more cheaply recorded than War on the Wireless Set, Diggle himself sounds more committed and more convincing, especially on social-issue lyrics (concerning such topics as racial prejudice and northern England’s chronic unemployment). Both “Northwest Skyline” and “Pictures in My Mind” (with Maher’s easily identifiable buzzsaw rolls) are especially impressive. (All four songs on Should I Ever Go Deaf are repeated on Northwest Skyline.)
In 1988, Diggle finally assembled a real, permanent band, including Gary Couzens, founding member of a then- unknown Manchester outfit called Stone Roses (he had left after one single, “So Young”), on second guitar. The resulting Exiles EP towers over the rest of FOC’s canon. Virtually a Buzzcocks single that never was, “Exiles” flies a “Boredom”-style guitar pattern into a furious verse and a piledriving chorus. A steam-powered hit heard by few, it proved that the writer of “Fast Cars” and “Harmony in My Head” was still capable of greatness. The EP’s other three tracks are nearly as good.
Ignored by the press and the public, the frustrated guitarist changed his band’s name to Buzzcocks FOC, after a massive Paris concert was unexpectedly advertised under the past/present moniker. When the rechristened group issued a single (“Sunset” b/w the vastly superior “Life With the Lions”), the press stopped ignoring Diggle long enough to howl in predictable outrage. While that led (indirectly) to the 1989 Buzzcocks reunion, it also meant the end of FOC and its finest lineup. On their own, Couzens and drummer Chris Goodwin wasted little time in forming a new group, the High.