The Buzzcocks

Harmony In My Head
Strongest album: Singles Going Steady
Weakest album: Parts One, Two, and Three EP

At their best the Buzzcocks played catchy, tuneful pop faster than a speeding bullet, zooming by sharp, tight melodies backed by wall-of-hooks punk. Lead singer/rythm guitarist Pete Shelley's songs concerned modern romance, love, sex, guys and gals, blokes'n'birds, love and sex again, and occassionally other subjects. Eschewing cheap nihilism and fashionable political subjects kept the Buzzcocks apart from the pack of late '70s punk, and as you might have guessed, they've dated a lot less than their contemporaries. In fact the music hasn't aged a bit - if anything, their early albums make most contemporary pop-punks sound old-fashioned and retrograde: the Buzzcocks possessed an intriguing experimental side that would flower in their last couple of years - once they had their formula down cold, they fooled around with it, as GREAT (as opposed to merely good) bands are wont to do. They didn't invent pop-punk, mind you - that honor belongs to the Ramones - but they took it to new heights and arguably perfected it. They were the early Beatles revved up on amphetemines and ear-splitting technology, horny for the birds down the street, and still boys nice enough to admit they loved their mum and dad. They've influenced more bands than I have space to list, even if it took 20 years to get the sound they invented on mainstream radio. If you're one of those kids who pogoed last summer to those Green Day and Elastica CDs, go directly to your local record store, TODAY, and put down your hard-earned money on the real thing. Tell'em Uncle Brian sent'ya, and if Singles Going Steady doesn't have you jumping up and down with sweaty near-orgasm, then ignore everything I say, since obviously we don't have much in common when it comes to music.

There's a fine website for fans of Pete Shelley and the recently-reformed Buzzcocks.

Time's Up (rec. 1977; rel. 2000) ***

With the unbelievably mega-pretentious Howard Devoto (read the interview included in the booklet -- good geez-us, lay off quoting French existentialists, will ya?) on lead vocal duties, Shelley as the sole guitarist, Diggle on bass, and John Maher on drums to round out the four-piece, the Buzzcocks are a substantially different band than the later Shelley-led outfit. This brief 11-song CD collects 1977's seminal 4-song Spiral Scratch EP, along with assorted early demos for a fascinating, if not always musically successful, glimpse into the band's beginnings. The music is rough and the Buzzcocks are definitely in the formative stage, still a very raw and unskilled garage band (witness the amateurish one-note solo Shelley telegraphs in "Boredom"), without much of the pop sheen they would hone on later efforts. With Devoto sneering his game-enough J. Rotten impression (actually, it's pretty dire -- Devoto's got a really crap singing voice), the Buzzcocks are more agressive punk and less pleasingly pop than the Shelley-era band: contrast the Devoto and Shelley sung versions of "You Tear Me Up," "Orgasm Addict," and "Love Battery," -- while Shelley sounds whiny and nerdy, Devoto sounds whiny, nerdy, and mean with a violent streak. The meat of the disc, naturally, are the four Spiral Scratch songs: "Breakdown," "Friends of Mine," the aforementioned "Boredom," and "Time's Up," -- the songs starting with B's being punk classics, and the other two good as well. Rounding out the CD is a fine outtake "Lester Sands (Drop in the Ocean)" which sounds like Pink Flag Wire, the generic punkabilly "Don't Mess Me Round," and a pair of incompetent covers, "I Can't Control Myself," and "I Love You, You Big Dummy." While in 1966 the Troggs sang, "this kind of feeling can move a nation," in 1977 Devoto sang, "this kind of feeling can destroy a nation."

Another Music In A Different Kitchen(1978)****

Before this record came out the Buzzcocks released Spiral Scratch the previous year with singer/guitarist Howard Devoto. It was one of the first independently released records in Britain and the first English punk record to emerge from outside London - the Buzzcocks inaugurated the still-going-strong Manchester scene. Devoto left the band soon after Spiral Scratch to form his post-punk band Magazine, who had a handful of great singles ("Shot By Both Sides" especially) when they weren't burying themselves in their overinflated pretensions.

Another Music is inconsistent and a bit monochromatic, but the individual gems are so great I can easily overlook those flaws. The side openers "Fast Cars" and "I Don't Mind" burst through like Speedy Gonzales with a British accent, Shelley's voice sounding cute and cartoonish, especially when he warns in the former that "Sooner or later/You're going to listen to Ralph Nader!" the pro-pedestrian sentiments the closest the band ever got to social commentary. The obvious Freudian imagery of "You Tear Me Up" and the subtly titled "Love Battery" is another guffaw, but there ain't nuthin' funny 'bout how them Madchester boys charge at'ya with them guitars. Guitarist Steve Diggle can't make up his mind whether he wants you or autonomy. Shelley repeatedly phones an ex-lover, awkwardly asks a date if they can get on their own, goes out with a sixteen-year old and doesn't like it, wonders whether romance is just fiction, wishes that he'd stayed at home when he goes out with his girlfriend, and admits that he needs food, sex, drugs, and you. The album ends with a long instrumental that's kind of interesting but nowhere near as compelling as the tight, three-minute pop songs.

Love Bites(1978)***1/2

Slightly disappointing, with two instrumentals two too many and a couple of sub-par numbers. Still, it's only slightly less invigorating than the first album, with the band improving its playing and the recording less raw and blurry. "Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)" is the band's best known single, possessing the type of chorus that'll keep poppin' through your head the rest of your life even if you've only heard it once. An acoustic ballad (!) by Diggle appears for variety, and Shelley sounds much bitterer than on the previously album. He screams that he's got nothing left, wishes the real world were like his dreams, dreams that he's sixteen again, worries that the look in your eyes is just lust, and gets nostalgia for an age yet to come.

Singles Going Steady(1979)*****

The absolute pinnacle of punk-power-pop bliss and perfection, eight A-sides and eight B-sides with guitars so fast and hard they'll cut and bruise, and melodies so heavenly they'll soothe your wounds before you even know they're there. From "Orgasm Addict", the funniest and most honest song about you-know-what since "Pictures Of Lily", to "Something Goes Wrong Again" 20th-century angst as a Woody Allen joke, one of the strongest singles collections anywhere, anytime, anyhow. Shelley's tortured pathetic-loser-in-love persona reaches wimp nirvana in "What Do I Get?", which somehow wound up as a catfood commercial (!) a decade later, and you've got to love a punk who doesn't pretend to act macho, who admits he's as big a loser as me and you. My favorite Buzzcocks song this week is Diggle's "Harmony In My Head" which splits raging punk (verses) and blissful pop (chorus) right down the middle, the opposites pushed to the breaking point of complementing each other. The B-sides are pretty great, too, especially the one that has dirty books, Chairman Mao, and puppy love. The Beatles double-date with the Sex Pistols, get messed up, and fall in love, which makes them happy and confused.

A Different Kind Of Tension(1979)****

Having perfected their formula, the Buzzcocks began screwing around with it. They make an admirable attempt to escape the confines of pop-punk, and while not all the experimentation works ("Sitting Round At Home"), more often than not they meet their ambitions. The swift opener "Paradise", the typically self-deprecating "I Don't Know What To Do With My Life", and Diggle's lustful "You Just Can't Help It" are the closest links to the band's signature sound, picking up where Love Bites left off, only with improved playing and cleaner production. In fact, the Buzzcocks abandon their wall-of-sound for a clearer, more spacious approach. They also slow down several numbers to a midtempo, such as the pretty, pleading "You Say You Don't Love Me", the album's obvious choice for single. A psychadelic side comes to the fore, particularly on the moody "Money" and the echoey "Hollow Inside". It's the final two songs that are the most stunning, however (the low-fi audio experiment of "Radio Nine" isn't a real song, but the twisting of a radio knob, so it doesn't count). The title track has two separate voices channeled through the left and right speakers, giving contradictory advice: "Be normal/eccentric, temperamental/calm, save money/spend money, critical/appreciative, love/hate," etc., with the band thudding a twisted electronic backdrop. The seven-minute centerpiece "I Believe" may be the best song on the album. In the verses Shelley lists things he believes in - worker's revolution, immaculate conception, his mom and dad - but when you get to the chorus he's shouting "There is no love in this world anymore", repeating that mantra over and over in the final minutes. This was a highly influential album that showed the direction for a great deal of '80s post-punk and alternative rock, proving that the Buzzcocks could break out of the confines of punk and still make exciting music.

Parts One, Two, and Three EP(1980)***

The Buzzcocks released three singles in 1980, and this six-song EP collects them all. The Buzzcocks continued to experiment, though the results here are a bit more haphazard than on the previous album. "Are Everything" slows down to an almost balladic (for the Buzzcocks) pace, a hypnotically repetive number that relies primarily on atmosphere, again unusual for the Buzzcocks. Unfortunately, Shelley's other two songs fail due to uninspired songwriting and intrusive horns. Diggle, who had previously been limited to one or two songs an album, trounces the group's main songwriter with his three clearly superior tunes. "Airwaves Dream" contains a filtered vocal hook, forbidding atmospherics, and a driving minor-key chorus, set to lyrics about media control. "Running Free" has all the energy of the early Buzzcocks, but with a wall of synthesizers instead of guitars. The band broke up in 1981 shortly after this was released.

The Peel Sessions***
Entertaining Friends**1/2

The above are not-bad live documents, but like most live albums they're redundant and a poor substitute for the studio versions. The Peel Sessions were cut live-in-the-studio for John Peel's Radio One show, and are uniformly inferior to the originals save for a biting "ESP" which improves on the awkwardly bass-heavy Love Bites version. There are a couple of other live items on the market, Lest We Forget from their final tour, and Live At the Roxy chronicling their first London gig.

Another Music and Love Bites have been paired together on one CD. Likewise, the CD reissue of A Different Kind of Tension appends Parts One, Two, and Three . Adding Singles Going Steady along with those two means that you can purchase nearly all the Buzzcocks' studio work on three CDs. Another way to do that is the Product boxed set, 3 CDs which contain all the same material along with an unreleased track and eight live performances. Alas, there has been to date no CD reissue of Spiral Scratch, not even on the otherwise all-inclusive Product. Given that nearly all of what the Buzzcocks released is in some way essential, Product would make a sound investment for any fan of hard, driving, melodic pop with a punkish edge.

After the Buzzcocks split, Diggle formed Flag of Convenience, a pop-punk band that sound pretty much the same as the Buzzcocks. Shelley, however, ditched punk altogether for a take on early '80s electro-pop, scoring a hit in 1982 with the gay dancefloor anthem "Homo Sapien". Shelley recorded three albums in the same vein, though he's considerably less compelling backed by synthesized dance-pop than by raging punk, with his wobbly barely-on-pitch voice front and center.

The Buzzcocks reformed in the early '90s and have released three albums so far, I believe. Amazingly, they sound exactly the same, picking up where Love Bites ended, with only a slight loss of energy. Having heard a bit of their '90s work such as 1993's Trade Test Transmissions, I'm pleased to inform you that their capacity for hooks and melodies hasn't diminished a bit. Having said that, I find that for some odd reason I'm disinterested in hearing their new material again. It seems like they are simply retracing their old footsteps without making any new advances. However, I really can't pass judgement yet since I haven't heard their new albums enough to give the material a fair chance.

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A Different Kind Of Tension?