Buzzcocks – Late For The Train
Released 22 January 2020
New collection subtitled “Live & In Session 1989-2016”, which finds the reformed version of Buzzcocks in Birmingham, Worcester, Paris and London as well as a full disc of BBC sessions…Ian Canty ponders the pitfalls of reformations, even for punk pop’s overlords…
When Buzzcocks got back together in 1989, it came at the very beginning of “reformation culture”, to coin a phrase. They initially reconvened in the classic, hit-making line-up of Shelley, Diggle, Garvey and Maher for a run of well-received live shows. The very positive reception to these gigs gave them the impetus to move away from being merely a nostalgia exercise and instead move towards recording new material. Pete Shelley had retained his genius for very human and realistic love songs that tugged at one’s heartstrings, achingly vulnerable and couched in down to earth realism. This gave something hugely positive for the reformed Buzzers to build upon. The band personnel fluctuated over time, but Buzzcocks remained a safe bet in concert and their albums, while not rivalling the collections of 78-79, each contained a few gems.
It is in the live setting that this new set Late For The Train mainly concentrates on, bar the BBC Sessions selections. We commence with that classic line up caught at the Hummingbird in Birmingham on 7th December 1989. This gig is a 19 song run through of old favourites from Spiral Scratch’s Boredom to 1980’s What Do You Know/Why She’s A Girl From The Chainstore. The sound quality is not too bad and listenable, good bootleg is probably the level we’re talking here. The drums dominate a bit too much perhaps and vocals are a little unclear in places.
The audience certainly seem up for it though as the Buzzers race through the set, complete with feisty versions of Love You More and Noise Annoys. Unfortunately the bass goes fairly wonky on Fast Cars though, practically stopping the show! One thing to note is that ESP segues into Walking Distance, something which is not mentioned anywhere in the packaging. Finishing on a punky nap hand of Orgasm Addict (which breaks down too at the halfway stage), Oh Shit! and Boredom, that this is a greatest hits set was to be expected. They sound a bit rusty here perhaps, but with those wonderful Shelley songs present, how could it not amount to something at least half decent? I would not have thought many present would have felt short-changed either.
By 1993 and the second disc here, Maher and Garvey had bowed out and been replaced by ex-Lack Of Knowledge members Tony Barber and Phil Barker. These new arrivals formed the backbone of Buzzcocks for a number of years and featured on their first albums as a reformed band. This gig in Worcester at the Northwick Theatre taped on 21st June 1993 finds Buzzcocks around the time of the Trade Test Transmissions LP, with a number of songs from that album freshening up the setlist. The sound is gritty but pretty good and as TTT was a strong collection, having tracks drawn from it does tend to enhance things. They represent the first signs of Buzzcocks as a live act reborn, rather than purely a nostalgia show.
Starting with the powerful, slightly queasy dread of the title track and pure pop gems Innocent and Last To Know, on this showing Buzzcocks are seemingly intent on proving that they were far from a spent force trading on former glories. Most of the LP is played during the set, with the cheeky ode to masturbation Palm Of Your Hand a real highlight. It is also good to hear Get On Our Own and Fiction Romance given airings, as they don’t feature otherwise in the duration of this comp. Overall this disc gives a good impression of a band on the up, galvanised with the addition of Barber and Barker and some choice new Pete Shelley songs.
Next we move onto Paris on 12th April 1995 for a concert at the L’Arapaho Club. Buzzcocks were still a year away from cutting their next LP All Set and as a consequence this gig again features a mix of Trade Test Transmission tracks and customary dips into the back catalogue. The tail end of the set was previously released on Dojo in 1995 as the French/Encore du Pain album. The sound here is clear and full, probably the best on Late For The Train. Which is hardly surprising I suppose, seeing as it was recorded with the purpose of issuing a live LP.
The band begin with I Don’t Mind and during the set Strange Thing and Why Can’t I Touch It get rare runouts. By now well-bedded in numbers like the power-packed Libertine Angel and Do It fit in seamlessly alongside the selections from their 76-79 heyday. Ending proceedings with a punchy and much improved go at Fast Cars, Buzzcocks here come over as a cohesive unit for the most part and this disc shines as a good example of the band live in their reformed state.
Disc 4 comes from the Finsbury Park shows in 1996, where Buzzcocks supported The Sex Pistols at their comeback show. I was present, arriving near the front of the stage just to hear them start with You Say You Don’t Love Me, which, in the words of a Mark Williams character in The Fast Show, was nice. This was a necessarily short 9 song set, given the amount of bands of the bill, boasting four songs from the recently released at the time All Set, along with five old classics.
We’re back to a rougher sound quality here though, with the odd drop out/ghastly noise. Back With You sounds just horrible in patches, but the audio is not too bad on the whole though. The band are nicely paced here, not tending to pile through things at too fast a speed (as they occasionally did). Tense Pete Shelley number Hold Me Close impresses and they gallop through oldies Love You More, What Do I Get? and Boredom with aplomb, before leaving the stage clear for those loveable old spiky tops.
The fourth disc is bulked up with a Live At Maida Vale session taped in 2003. This features songs from the self-titled seventh album which emerged in the same year and of course a few delves back into the past. As these are drawn from the Beeb archives, it means that we don’t have to worry about sound so much here. There are two takes a piece for Certain Move, Jerk and old favourite Breakdown from that ground-breaking first EP.
Keep On is a fairly typical Shelley song, but full of power and he’s in good voice too. Lester Sands, a relic from the Howard Devoto days which also made the year’s LP, is a full-on firecracker and the self-loathing lyric of Jerk in both takes is enhanced by a snappy and energetic performance. This Maida Vale section of the set is a pretty sure indicator of where the band was in 2003.
Moving on to disc number five, this documents a Buzzcocks’ show at The Forum in London in 2nd December 2006 which was part of their 30th anniversary celebrations. This concert also was previously released as 30 by Cooking Vinyl Records in 2008. Seeing as Late For The Train is aimed squarely at mega-fans of the band who probably have already taken up the opportunity to own the entire set featured here, I struggle to see the logic in its inclusion. At least the Paris show has been beefed up considerably. The sound, while ok, isn’t sparkling. Having said all that, a pretty good day (or night) at the office for Buzzcocks is revealed as things go on. You Tear Me Up starts things fiercely enough and Friends, from the 2003 album, is a strong newie.
I suppose the odd thing about this show is they only include one song, Reconciliation, from the Flatpack Philosophy. The album had been released at the start of the year and as it was pretty well-received, this seems like an odd decision. But I suppose they were making a conscious effort to include something from every LP and era of the band. For instance the hardy and infectious Soul On A Rock and Speed Of Life came from 1999’s Modern. Going further back Hollow Inside off A Different Kind Of Tension shows up and All Set is represented by single Totally From The Heart. Incidentally the latter was an ace of a song which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Singles Going Steady.
It makes for a fair showing, but if I had one criticism it is that the band perhaps go at the songs a little too fast, something that I’ve mentioned above that they did at times in a live setting. This tended to blot out the subtleties in their work and muffle their emotional impact. Moving Away From The Pulsebeat makes a nicely rhythmic appearance and it’s always good to hear Operator’s Manual again, such a strange, appealing and atmospheric piece. 369, from Trade Test Transmissions, is a fast and snappy wonder and Times Up appears for the first time on here too. A “heads down” run through some old familiars signs off 30. A good live show, but a bit unnecessary to include it here as it has already seen issue.
Finally, the last disc included here brings together various BBC session tracks from 1993 to 2016, kicking off with Do It/Isolation live from 1993’s National Music Day. Next, from the same year, come five offerings from The Jakki Brambles (Whatever Happened To?) Show. Again this focuses on Trade Test Transmission material, with the exception of the big hit Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve). This was a “live in the studio” sort of thing, but with a crowd in attendance. The sound has a slightly too loud guitar in the mix, threatening to drown Pete on Palm Of Your Hand for example.
The third set on this disc comes from a year later, cut for Mark Radcliffe. This still concentrates on TTT era Buzzers, with all four tracks coming from it and accompanying singles. Again live in the studio (don’t expect the same audio as Peel Sessions), these cuts are looser than the released takes, but Last To Know sounds spunky and vital here.
Perhaps the most interesting sections of this disc are a trio from a 2006 Mark Radcliffe session which has two selections from the Flatpack Philosophy LP and four tracks from the Marc Riley show, taped in 2015. On the latter, apart from Promises, all of them come from the last LP by Buzzcocks The Way. The former has the title track of Flatpack Philosophy, which burst out with real vigour and though Love You More starts with what sounds as a bum note, it shapes up into a lively enough version.
Going back to the 2015 session, Promises squeezes in a few more guitar notes than on the hit cut and It’s Not You is a neat collaboration between Pete and Danny Farrant, who had replaced Phil Barker in 2006. The bass, courtesy of Chris Remington (who came in for Tony Barber in 2008), pounds along ominously and the whole song impresses, taking the band down a new avenue. The riffy title track and In The Back complete the quartet. The final BBC items come from the 6Music Festival, where the band play Ever Fallen In Love, Boredom and People Are Strange Machines (from The Way), which are fair quality live takes.
Obviously this set is squarely aimed at the Buzzcocks fanatic and as I’ve stated above it makes the inclusion of the 30 show puzzling. But apart from that, what is included may perk up the mega fan’s interest. The less committed might well find the BBC stuff tempting but as for the live sets, I would imagine that they probably be more likely to seek out something from the original incarnation. I don’t know if the Back To Front shows were recorded. But if they were, including something from that would have been good, particularly the section that brought Howard Devoto back to Buzzcocks fleetingly. Still, if you saw one or more of these gigs that do make the cut, this collection works as a decent memento.
The accompanying booklet is a bit light on detail about the actual gigs featured, but does feature a few nice stories from fans. Even then I would have liked these to have been about the live shows documented, rather than more random recollections of other shows. In fact, none of them even so much as mention the five live dates that make up the set, which seems to me a missed opportunity. The graphic design is actually really good, it’s just a shame the contents of the booklet don’t live up to the look.
Late For The Train does bring together an interesting collection of material with good to reasonable sound quality, much of it seeing the light of day for the first time. But to me it just seems that crucially the care and eye for detail, something that used to be an intrinsic part of everything Buzzcocks did, is sadly lacking a bit here. These lapses let down the package as a whole. Which is a shame as Buzzcocks 1989-2016 could usually be guaranteed to put on a worthwhile gig and Pete’s expert songcraft had never dried up. In conclusion, a decent collection that could have been a CD or two lighter.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here