❉ There’s much to get stuck into in this round-up of the second generation of the band’s career.
Song writing in punk rock is not as widely appreciated as it should be. Folk talk about punk attitude, influence, spirit, heroes, personalities, fashion, revolution, individuality. But the songs themselves are often not given the attention they really deserve.
The 45s released early in the Buzzcocks’ career are up there with the greatest pop music ever written. A subjective view, obviously. But these tunes stand on the shoulders of work by Bowie, Lennon & McCartney, and whoever else you care to name.
Buzzcocks were the pioneers of the DIY punk. Spiral Scratch, their first EP, was the first do-it-yourself punk release. Issued on the band’s own New Hormones label, they embodied true punk spirit – full of can-do and will-do. No barriers. Spiral Scratch is symbolic in so many ways. Not least by its inspiring and pioneering role in the independent record label movement.
With Devoto’s departure in 1977, Pete came to the fore and his sexually ambiguous lyrics did not require a snarling, aggressive delivery but subtle, concise and vulnerable articulation. We all know how it feels to miss out on a girl or boy. The public could very much relate to these songs.
Buzzcocks gave birth to a new type of rock star when What Do I Get? started to sell in numbers. Sartorially, they influenced generations. Stars of the future did not have to look they came from another world, outer space or as if they had been put together by a group of stylists.
They influenced the rugged cool of the Manchester indie scene and beyond. The working-class swagger. They also had the ability to compose, construct and perform classic pop songs. They were the arty northern outsiders.
Pete’s high pitched, harmonious vocals led the way on three albums of high energy, razor sharp, melodic punk. It remains unequalled since. Steve Diggle’s influence gave the band a different, darker dynamic. Combined, this was the invention of the pop-punk sub-genre – melodic pop tunes with a buzzing backbone. Another Music In A Different Kitchen, Love Bites and A Different Kind Of Tension contained music that was fresh, explored sexuality and put a different spin on punk rock. This was not gruelling pub rock masquerading as punk; it touched different emotions and was deeply personal at times. It had humour and in all, left a legacy larger than any other punk band apart from The Sex Pistols.
By 1981 juices had dried up a little and Buzzcocks split. Things remained that way for the best part of a decade before Shelley and Diggle reconvened, initially recruited John Maher and Steve Garvey and the band’s second generation began. The rhythm section changed at times during the following years as Buzzcocks released a steady flow of new material and toured aplenty until Pete Shelley’s tragic death in 2018. Like many, this writer has not really come to terms with his passing. Their shows with Stiff Little Fingers, The Beat and The Selector earlier that year were tremendous, and it would be fitting if the third generation of the band not only continued Pete’s legacy but pushed things on. Steve Diggle seems up for the task and will get the support and love of a huge population of punk fans, for sure.
Right now, the second generation of the band’s career is in focus courtesy of Cherry Red Records issuing a 160-track, eight-disc box set spanning the band’s output from 1991 onwards. There are full band demos, singles, extended players, home recordings, promotional issues, live cuts, rarities and twenty-nine unreleased pieces. It spans a twenty-three-year period and has sleeve notes courtesy of Pat Gilbert of Mojo magazine.
There is much to get stuck into.
In the late summer of 1989, Shelley and Diggle gathered Garvey and Maher together in rehearsal rooms in London to test the water for a proposed reunion tour in the USA. Things dropped into place and several ecstatically received tours of the States, Europe and Japan followed before Maher left in 1991, shortly followed by Garvey. Prior to these departures the band recorded demos. Combined with home recordings from Pete and Steve, they provide the tracks for disc one of this collection.
The 1991 Demo Album was only circulated on cassette. It was not on general release though copies remain out there and would be worth a quid or two, I reckon.
Demo albums are interesting. A little incomplete obviously but they act as a fascinating historical document, scouting the origins of some songs, and revealing others that failed to make the cut. Opening track Dreaming began its life in 1991 but didn’t get included on a studio album until 2006’s Flat Pack Philosophy, for example. Yet quite a few cuts appeared a couple of years later, on Trade Test Transmission.
Obviously, the production is flat and sparse at times compared to finished cuts but that is demos for you. Many were made at home by Steve and Pete separately. Steve’s Wallpaper World is an almost Byrds-esque and Successful Street has a Manchester baggy-vibe indicative of the time. The 1991 cassette was originally put together to make an album from the thirteen tracks included. The disc here has a further eight bonus tracks, including the entire Alive Tonight EP (which includes Successful Street) from 1991 and four previously unreleased tracks.
Following the departures of Maher and later Garvey Shelley and Diggle scouted around for a new rhythm section. It arrived in 1992 with bassist Tony Barber and drummer Phil Barker. The pair injected venom into the band: “Tony and Phil arriving certainly did have an effect on me and Pete.” Steve Diggle was to say.
The quartet booked into Eastcote Studios in Notting Hill, London and signed a distribution deal with Caroline Distribution. The resulting album, Trade Test Transmission was a triumph, surely one of the best comeback albums of all time. Superfan Barber, and Barker helped turbocharge the Buzzcocks’ sound. The guitars became heavier. The tunes were fast paced. Opener Do It rips things right up, its pace maintained right through to the blistering closing number 369.
Both Diggle and Shelley contributed a whole host of winning tracks, written during the years leading up to the album’s recording. Steve Diggle’s exhilaratingly tough and dark sounding Energy is a prime example; both the original album cut, and Steve’s home demo are included here.
Classic Buzzcocks numbers such as Palm Of My Hand, with lyrics about alienation and masturbation, were a throwback to the seventies. The title-track had muscle, the new line up firing out three minutes eighteen seconds of sheer vigour. The sound was flint sharp with a definite stamp of Pete’s finesse and charm.
Trade Test Transmission is a cracker. The second disc in this collection contains twenty-four tracks, eight bonus ones in addition to the sixteen originally on the album. Four home demos, Energy, It’s Alright, Take Your Life and Somewhere In The World, are being released here for the first time. The Libertine Angel EP is also included.
Buoyed by endless successful touring, including supporting Nirvana (at Kurt’s own request), Buzzcocks went back into the studio to record All Set, released in April 1996. A live album, French, had plugged the gap following Trade Test Transmission.
All Set was recorded in Berkeley, California, and was produced by Neill King, who engineered Green Day’s Dookie. Like Nirvana, Green Day held Buzzcocks in reverence. The pop punk vibe shines through. This was not down to King – remember we are talking about the finest exponents of the sub-genre here. Ask Billy Joe Armstrong.
This largely Pete Shelley album is full of succinct, instantly memorable tunes. Pete’s trademark, of course. The thumping opener, From The Heart. The dream-like melodic punk of Without You. Give It To Me has vintage sixties bounce. The snappy Some Kinda Wonderful is what pop music should be about.
Steve Diggle is on form. What Am I Supposed To Do has the kind of magnificent chorus, gritty guitars and fluid vocal harmony we expect from a great Buzzcocks song. A true gem. As is Playing For Time.
There were experimental moments. Hammond organ, synths and effects abound, and Steve’s acoustic-rock cut Back With You is almost Led Zep-esq in places. But it works and belongs, possibly because of the retro sound throughout the record.
All Set is an underrated album. It represents Buzzcocks showing all the emerging pop punk acts of the nineties how to make a genuinely great record. There was nothing to touch it in 1996. It wasn’t a commercial success at the time, however, as IRS Records went under shortly after its release, curtailing much of its promotion. However, its legacy will last forever.
Four previously unreleased demos are included on this disc.
1999 saw the release of Modern. The line up remained constant but the release divided fans. The use of electronic sounds and devices – drum machines, for example – did not go down well with some. Tony Barber oversaw the recording, with Phil Barker absent touring with the Stratford Mercenaries. Pete’s solo career involved musical experimentation and true punk spirit encourages a ‘do it yourself and do what you want approach’. Not, apparently, to every one’s liking – Martin Strong, writing in The Essential Rock Discography, pronounced: “Modern was a slightly turgid affair”.
The album does have classic Buzzcocks moments. Choices has the band’s ingredients, and the riffage of Runaround is fresh. And in Speed Of Life, another gem was born.
In all, though, a divisive release and one Steve sums up perfectly:
“We called it Modern because its modernistic for us… We’d come a long way from Boredom. The studio was a playground. I liked experimenting.”
One of the two bonus tracks is Steve’s superb cover of Autumn Stone by The Small Faces.
Buzzcocks (2003) saw the band back to familiar, and let’s face it, more populist territory. The foursome of Shelley, Diggle, Barber and Barker were reunited, and the result was not remotely experimental but a barnstorming slice of punk rock. Tony Barber again produced the album, recorded in London and released on Merge Records. It was heavy, dark, full-on and was just thirty-four minutes long. Steve’s Wake Up Call, Driving You Insane and Sick City Sometimes are prime examples. Heavy guitars, strong vocal and a no messing production combine, rendering the listener breathless.
Pete’s Friends bursts with energy and charm in its words and is a belter of a number, as is a lighter number of Steve’s, Certain Move.
An interesting footnote to the album is that on two of the tracks, Stars and Lesser Sands, saw the writing partnership of Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto re-kindled. Some twenty-six years after Spiral Scratch. Both tracks retain the heavy, darker feel of the album but both show a definite Devoto influence. A sinister overtone. A sneering quality reminiscent of early punk recordings. Nice, and welcome.
Again, there are bonus tracks, including live versions of Paradise and Oh Shit. Also, present is Don’t Come Back, included on a Damaged Goods sampler (Cheap Sampler Volume 3) in 2004.
A further three years passed before Flat Pack Philosophy emerged, disc number six in this collection. This was the band’s eighth studio album and again the line up was maintained, a formula working well for all concerned. Recorded once more at Southern Studios, London and released on Cooking Vinyl, it is again an album with no fat on it whatsoever, its fourteen tracks clocking in at thirty-six and a half minutes. And it is full of raucous pop-punk, natch.
The quick-fire slap of the opening four tracks set the tone. Flat Pack Philosophy, the song, is riffy and has delicious humour in its Ikea inspired lyric. Wish I Never Loved You explores the hard luck romanticism consistent in Pete’s song-writing. It is a super tune, up there with the band’s best.
Steve’s Sell You Everything (the title of this collection) is anthemic, whilst Reconciliation snaps into immediate action choc-full of the best melodic punk charisma.
The pace is retained throughout. The deep thud of the backbeat to God What Have I Done complements Pete’s characteristic vocal perfectly, articulating another hard luck tale.
Credit has a sharp swipe at greed vs need complete with check-out sound effects. Steve’s Big Brother Wheels is a delicious lost pop punk gem.
The version here comes with eight bonus tracks including live cuts of Love Battery and Sixteen.
The 2011 compilation, A Different Compilation is included as disc seven. A twenty-four-track release, familiar to many, with updated versions of the songs.
The band’s final studio album with Pete Shelley came in 2014. A new rhythm section had arrived in 2008 with Chris Remington and Danny Farrante taking over on bass and drums, respectively. The Way received a lukewarm response from critics on release. It is fair to say it doesn’t quite match the majesty of Trade Test Transmission or Flat Pack Philosophy, but it does have plenty of good moments. Pete’s Keep On Believing is a breakneck pop punk anthem if there ever was one.
The album alternates nicely between Pete and Steve’s tunes, and the disc here comes with a further batch of seven bonus cuts. These include a home demo of Steve’s In The Back and two excellent Record Store Day B-sides, Generation Suicide (2015) and Dream On Baby (2016).
Cherry Red Records have released a superb package here. Sell You Everything is exhaustive and for any Buzzcocks aficionado, contains enough in the way of new material to satisfy anybody’s cravings. For those fans of the band who maybe haven’t got round to getting hold of some of their post 1991 output, it is an excellent way of catching up.
The sleeve notes from Pat Gilbert measure up to the detailed collection they accompany and contain input from Steve Diggle.
Pete Shelley, aided by Howard Devoto, Steve Diggle and various rhythm section members, left a strong legacy not only to punk rock but to the world of pop music. No-one blended the two mediums better.
Don’t bother looking for anything better in this field; it hasn’t been recorded.
❉ Buzzcocks: ‘Sell You Everything (1991-2014)’ is released on 26 June 2020 by Cherry Red Records, RRP £39.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ Paul Matts is a writer from Leicester, England. His first novella, ‘Donny Jackal’, a kitchen-sink coming of age drama set in English punk rock suburbia in 1978, is out now both in paperback and as an E-book. His fiction has been featured in Punk Noir Magazine, Brit Grit Alley and Unlawful Acts. Paul also writes articles on music, in particular on the punk and new wave movement, and is a regular contributor for We Are Cult, Punkglobe, Razur Cuts and Something Else magazines. See https://paulmatts101.wordpress.com/ for more details, and to subscribe for updates.