News came through yesterday that Pete Shelley, singer in one of the great punk bands, the Buzzcocks, had died, aged 63. The Buzzcocks have, if anything, grown in stature over the years. The leaders of the northern branch of punk; influences on all of the great post punk bands that followed, like Joy Division, the Fall, the Smiths, New Order and probably a later generation of Mancs too – Stone Roses, Oasis and others.
I wrote a bit about them in “I Was There – A Musical Journey” of course. Here it is:
So the punk triumvirate were the Pistols, Clash and Jam. The Damned briefly lurked up there on account of being first to get their rowdy records out. But they were a bit of a joke ultimately. Fourth in the hierarchy were definitely Buzzcocks. The northern punks, inspired by what they read about the Pistols to come down to see them and, shortly after, form a band. They went on the riotous tour with the Pistols and Clash, and made some of the important DIY EPs: “Spiral Scratch”, “Boredom”, “Orgasm Addict”, in 1976 and 77. Iconic titles, music that I heard on John Peel but didn’t really connect with in a big way, not at first. Then the tunes got bigger, sharper. “What Do I Get”, released in February ‘78, showed what was coming: a fast Ramonesy riff, an industrial edge to the guitars, a whiney vocal over a great pop melody about the trials and tribulations of love, courtesy of Pete Shelley. By then, the co-founder, Howard Devoto, had moved on. He formed Magazine. They had a more leftfield sound, closer to Roxy Music. One truly great song, “Shot by Both Sides”, a decent album, and not a lot after that. Equals cult band for the rest of time! Nowhere near as good as Buzzcocks though, because their debut album was one of the greatest.
“Another Music in a Different Kitchen”. I loved it the day I bought it, soon after it came out in April 1978, and I love it still. Of all the punk albums, only “The Clash” and “London Calling” and “Pink Flag” by Wire rank as high. The buzzsaw guitars, those pop melodies, the counterintuitive stance. Anti-rock’n’roll in philosophy; pure rock’n’roll in sound. Take the starter, “Fast Cars”. A sample of the old favourite “Boredom”, and then a diatribe against fast cars. Not a celebration. A damnation – of cars. So anti-rock’n’roll. Hating the car. A riff as good as any The Ramones came up with. Brilliant. As a non-driver until the 90s it hit my button! Still does, even though I now drive. The song to put up against all that boy racer nonsense that permeates our culture.
Every song on the album is diamond sharp: three chord surges powering, mostly, tales of boy wishes he had girl, or boy splits with girl. Taking refuge in drink and drugs and clubbing. The Manc way, over the years to become one of the great themes of pop music: Smiths, Stone Roses, Oasis. Founder members, Buzzcocks. The final track, though, was something else. “Moving against the Pulsebeat”, featuring maybe the first punk drum solo! To this day I’ve never really latched on to the lyrics; it’s just the driving beat of the drums and those buzzsaw guitars again. It makes me want to reach for my air guitar every time I hear it. Maybe it’s metal in disguise. It must have inspired some metal bands. Metallica, probably. Ends with a snatch of “Fast Cars”. A brilliant album topped and tailed by two of the definitive, but unorthodox punk tracks.
After that, there wasn’t all that much from the band that grabbed me. As ever, that meant Buzzcocks had their most successful single ever: “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t Have Fallen in Love With)?”. Great pop tune, no more no less. A singalong chorus that still gets ‘em going at any reunion party for forty and fifty somethings. (Do I know this? Of course not, but I’m sure I’m right. And they won’t be finishing with “Pulsebeat” either.) And there’s another track I love. I got it when I bought a Buzzcocks triple CD with pretty much everything they did in their early and successful days, called “Product”. The track’s called “E.S.P” and it’s driven by a hypnotic two note guitar riff. There’s not much else to it, but while the riff is repeated it seems from time to time to jump to another level. I’m not sure why, but it makes the song uplifting at every turn. A work of simple genius.
(By the way, the reference I make to “Fast Cars” being reprised at the end of “Moving Away from the Pulsebeat” isn’t 100% right, because really it’s the solo from “Boredom”.)
A lot of the tributes today are making a lot of the early EPs, with the state-of-the-youth cry of anguish, “Boredom”, the seminal song. The DIY ethos of the music and the marketing is often said to be the beginning of indie, a term which is still with us today, denoting an attitude, a detachment from the mainstream (even when part of the mainstream) a generally dissatisfied outlook on the world. The Buzzcocks didn’t have a long period of success, but their early works helped define a generation of music lovers and our affection for the music never went away. After a period apart the band reformed, and have been touring for many years. I saw them at Brixton Academy a few years ago, and to be honest, didn’t enjoy it. We stood near the front and the music was so ear-splittingly loud, the sound so distorted that I retreated to the back of the venue after a while to protect my hearing. It was one of those evenings when you only really recognised the songs because they were etched on your memory. The bassist was being an arse as well. So it wasn’t the best exercise in nostalgia that I have been to! But it didn’t sully the memory of those great songs, and one of the finest albums of all time, “Another Music in a Different Kitchen”.
So RIP Pete Shelley: in your brief time in the sun, you made a real and lasting difference.