Entertaining Friends: Buzzcocks, The Skids, Penetration

‘The great & good of punk toast Pete Shelley at the Albert Hall, 21 June.

“In the row behind me, there’s a father and son duo. Both shining examples of a regular exercise regime, the youngster is eager to see live the bands his dad is still so enthusiastic about. The lad doesn’t go home disappointed.”

One of the reasons I love the first wave of British punk is that most of the musicians involved were street-smart eccentrics. They all marked time throughout the humdrum early 1970s, patiently waiting for the opportunity to spread their creative wings.

John Lydon – from 1975, the first punk with a cartoon name, Johnny Rotten – was widely read and musically literate, thanks largely to his self-educated mum. Raymond Burns – who regenerated into Captain Sensible around the same time that Lydon became Rotten – may have been a toilet attendant in Croydon, and his mate David Lett, a gravedigger who dressed as if he should be at the bottom of a grave instead of stood over one. However, as the vampiric Dave Vanian, he and Sensible’s anarchic world view informed the ramshackle sonic assault of The Damned, the UK’s first punk band to release a single, the still mighty New Rose. The giveaway to Sensible and Vanian’s informed pop sensibility lies in the singers opening question – “Is she really going out with him?”– confirming that The Damned clearly knew their 1960s girl groups. The first punks weren’t daft.

So it was with Peter Campbell McNeish (1955-2018). Reborn in the punk fashion as Pete Shelley, his camp Mancunian drawl – allied to a coyly arched eyebrow whenever he and the band were on BBC1’s must-see chart show Top of the Pops – gave Buzzcocks’ tales of teenage angst an ironic edge which, as tonight’s memorial/celebratory show conclusively proves, has more than stood up to the passing of time. In a nutshell, a classic Buzzcocks song combined the bitter sweet simplicity of The Leader of the Pack with a knife eviscerating Shelley’s romantic dreams. That’s something everyone can relate to.

First on the bill are Penetration, with singer Pauline Murray still in fine, throaty voice. “From the Roxy in 1977 to the Royal Albert Hall is a very long journey,” she observes emotionally. That’s certainly true if you look around and consider tonight’s audience: in the row in front of me are two middle aged guys, bald, beer bellied and pissed throughout, their glazed eyes looking inwards at the better times forty years ago. In the row behind me, there’s a father and son duo. Both shining examples of a regular exercise regime, the youngster is eager to see live the bands his dad is still so enthusiastic about. The lad doesn’t go home disappointed.

The only thing I’ve heard before tonight by Penetration was their debut single Don’t Dictate, largely because indie popsters The Wedding Present used to cover it as an encore back in the 1990s. I’m immediately struck by how contemporary the up-for-it five piece sound, their loud/quiet/loud/quiet musical template clearly an influence on bands like the Pixies and Nirvana. Penetration are off stage after just half an hour, leaving me firmly committed to tracking down their back catalogue.

The Skids are on next. Another reformed punk band whove come a long way, in this case from front man Richard Jobson’s initial reluctance towards a reunion to last year’s best-selling new album Burning Cities. As Jobson informs us, the LP was only kept off the top of the independent music chart by “Leo fucking Sayer”, which must be some kind of bizarre, back-handed compliment.

Tonight’s gig was originally planned to end with the Skids as the headliners. Being the sterling chaps they are, when Pete Shelley’s death was announced they stepped back to allow the evening to climax with a celebration of the Buzzcocks’ music. Be in no doubt, though: what we had tonight from the Dunfermline sextet was a headline performance. Jobson grins throughout, kick dancing and throwing punches through the air like Rocky Balboa at the top of the comeback trail, match fit and loving every minute. From Animation to Into the Valley via Circus Games, Charade and Working for the Yankee Dollar – “Boris Johnson: What a wanker!” – the Skids triumphantly bring the curtain down on the first half of the evening.

Buzzcocks are fronted tonight by their still vigorous guitarist Steve Diggle, but perhaps suffer from incorporating original members John Maher and Steve Garvey into their current line-up, together with seven guest vocalists and a synthesiser on the mesmeric Something’s Gone Wrong Again (the sonic ancestor to Shelley’s brilliant solo singles Homosapien and Telephone Operator.) With so many additions, the sound mix isn’t as focused or stable as it was for either Penetration or the Skids, but when everything does lock into place, for instance on Dave Vanian’s What Do I Get? and Peter Perret’s Why Can’t I Touch It?, the Buzzcocks’ extended musical family are electrifying.

The effect on the audience is immediate as Perret acknowledges, changing the lyrics of his last verse: “Well HE seems so real I could touch HIM/Well HE feels so real I could touch HIM/So w-h-y cant I touch HIM?” Before leaving the stage, the fragile looking Only Ones singer offered a movingly direct tribute to the Albert Hall: “Pete was lucky to have fans like you.”

The great and the good guesting at the mic went all the way back to punks Year Zero – Vanian and Sensible, Pauline Murray, Jobson, Perret – right up to 2019: Sonic Youth’s gangly axeman Thurston Moore and Tim Burgess, silver-maned front man of psychedelic funksters The Charlatans (judging by the muted reaction from the audience, I must have been the only person there who knew who Tim was). The last song had to be Ever Fallen in Love with Someone (You Shouldnt Have Fallen in Love With?), and the stage was duly crowded with the great and the good of indie music yesterday and today. After the last chord echoed around the auditorium, there werent many dry eyes in the house.

It was left to an ex-toilet attendant from Croydon to have the last word. Captain Sensible, you made us laugh and cry at the same time: “Good luck, Pete, wherever you are… Drinking champagne, probably.”

Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to We Are Cult, ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘Infinity. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’. His biography of the actor Ian Carmichael was one of ‘The Independent’s Top 10 Film Books of the Year for 2011.

Photography © Robert Fairclough 2019

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