May 25th 2012
After the show I bump into Pete Shelley and with a jocular tinge to his voice he tells me that they had to get Howard Devoto back on stage for the encores so that they could sell out the Apollo. He’s kinda joking of course, but the 3500 capacity venue is far bigger than the usual Buzzcocks venue and tonight’s special show is a celebration of the band’s near four decades at the coal face of classic song writing.
There are few bands that have the ability to write tunes this fluid and timeless. For a brief period of time, fast forwarding from punk, Buzzcocks were machine gunning out singles that were each breathtakingly better than the one before. This was in the last classic period of the seven inch single- the perfect pop format- a format that totally suited the band- with the two songs and often a better B side than the A side, bagged up in a great sleeve- how pure punk rock pop can you get.
Buzzcocks were made by punk, Shelley and Devoto went to London to find the Sex Pistols in a weekend of excitement, borrowing the college car from Bolton tech they saw the Pistols twice and secretly taped them and made their own very own version of the band. The 2 Pistols gigs in Manchester kick started the city’s modern music scene and the ‘cocks debut Spiral Scratch EP was the first punk rock DIY single that changed all of our perceptions of how to make and release music. Quite revolutionary.
A week after its release Howard Devoto left- he was so punk rock that he was disillusioned by the movement before anyone else. Tonight is all about Howard Devoto singing with his old colleagues again, a dusting down of punk rock history which poses one of those endless what ifs or eternal question marks. The Devoto less ‘cocks made three brilliant albums of pure pop art through fuzzbox but where would they have gone with Devoto? would they have turned into Magazine? or a very different hybrid.
The gig is split into three sets- the first third is the Buzzcocks of now. All the new material which sees the band play songs from the last couple of albums. The sound has changed little over the years- the twin buzzsaw guitars, the alternating vocals from Diggle’s gruff assault to Shelley’s quicksilver bleating perfection. The mini set is dotted with some great songs that stand out because they still have that twist of melody and that classic songwriting capability. The last two albums have been criminally ignored as the the band have slipped from fashion but the songs can be just as good.
The second set is the classic Buzzcocks with the oriental rhythm section of great drummer John Maher and Paddy Garvey going the band again, the punk rock jukebox, where all those classic A and B sides come flying at you. There’s album tracks that should have been singles and B sides that could had been hits on their own. Why can’t I Touch It? sounds great- Buzzcocks go funk and should have been a pure hit but was the b side to the fab Everyones Happy Nowadays- the moment when the band started to pull apart their buzzsaw attack and make something quite strange out of it and still remain within the pop parameter.
These songs were hits but they should have been massive. I’ve always been baffled by the way Buzzcocks got halfway up the greasy pole of success but never to the top. Their singles were like the Beatles in terms of melody and progression. Maybe the punk rock movement that gave them their space also denied them the mainstream. The mainstream media at the time had some kind of strange fear of punk, Buzzcocks may have got Top Of The ops but daytime radio was trickier and daytime radio was the key.
The music stands the test of time, the band may get older but their songs remain youthful rushes of rushing guitar and pretty melodies- it’s like Dorian Grey In reverse. This was one of the key bands of punk, they took punk out from the London elite and gave it to the north. They invented DIY and they understood the fast forward speed of punk- the idea of rattling out the singles and twisting their format round, taking the formulae apart and experimenting with it without ever losing the excitement. They were linear, tight and perfect and the songs were witty, clever and hysterical love songs, punk rock love songs that sung of lust and envy and fast cars. Tonight they sound rushed and as out of breath as ever, like there is no time to cram in all these great ideas.
The band sound ragged in parts and Steve Diggle is as loud as ever and quite over excitable in parts- it’s this dynamic tension between his scissor kicking rockism and Pete Shelley’s sardonic very much non rock approach that is the key to Buzzcocks- the two opposites, the warring couple- each with their own powerful, creative agenda and yet when they join together and those two guitars interplay with each other it’s perfect.
The third set sees the return of Howard Devoto. There is 50 minutes ear marked for this section on the timings around the venue which sees hopes raised for as real scoop like a version of Shot By Both Sides- the Shelley song that he gave to Devoto who wrote the words and changed the verse- that could have been a perfect moment. Instead we get charmingly untidy versions of the four songs from the Spiral Scratch EP, barely remembered and teetering on collapse-a perfect punk rock statement. Diggle plays the bass like a guitar player sitting on the drum rise whilst Shelley plays the classic sawn in half guitar rasping out the simple chords that were so key on the original release which was arguably the only true punk record from the early batch of releases.
Devoto is as enigmatic as ever. He makes some great quips, ‘set your hearing aids to 45rpm’ he explains as the band collapse into a version of the Troggs I Can’t Control myself’ which stops halfway through, they return to it for the encore and play an incendiary version of the song.
It’s fittingly disconcerting and very punk rock, not sure if the Apollo has ever seen anything like it before. Buzzcocks turn everything on its head and their almost winging it versions of their Spiral Scratch period is played exactly in the spirit it should have been.
Tonight is a history lesson and a rush through the back pages of one of the key bands of much misunderstood movement.
Pete Shelley once snag ‘Nostalgia for an age yet to come’–maybe it just arrived.