Howard Devoto and Steve Diggle of Buzzcocks on Spiral Scratch – interview45 years ago, Buzzcocks released Spiral Scratch, the first independent punk record in the UK. The original Buzzcocks frontman Howard Devoto and original bass player Steve Diggle tell Louder Than War the story behind the EP.

On 29 January 1977, Buzzcocks released Spiral Scratch, the first British EP that came out via an independent label (New Hormones). “An important stand against the established order of things”, summed up Tony Drayton of the punk fanzine Ripped & Torn. “This group is the new wave. Buy it, if you don’t you shouldn’t be reading this mag”, stated Mark Perry of the seminal independent publication Sniffin’t Glue.

Elsewhere in the UK, the day was coloured if not by boredom then anxiety; organised by the Provisional Irish Republican Army, a terrorist attack in West London ended in seven bombs exploding. Thankfully, no deaths or serious injuries followed.

Although not being political in a conventional way, Buzzcocks definitely used the canvas of life in a dada fashion. Their slap-in-the-face creative approach was one of the spokes in the wheels of the establishment. Influenced by existentialist writing and postmodern plays, the record gives a witty response to the bleak reality, slightly predating the surveillance capitalism of the present. “Spiral Scratch isn’t particularly personal at all, although the anger, frustration and distress were real enough”, says Howard Devoto, the original frontman and singer of Buzzcocks. Indeed, the record still sounds explosive, with its lyrical and sonic splinters aiming right into your subconscious.

On pages of Sniffin’ Glue, Mark Perry couldn’t find a more equivocal mode of expression than citing the lyrics of Breakdown, preceded by a few lines of the concise EP review. “The first time I played this thing, it jumped all over the place. I threw it against the wall and it broke into pieces”.

Another track with a topical title, Boredom was emblematic of the mood and socio-cultural state of affairs that led some to explore the world beyond the boundaries of so-called normality. Featuring a guitar riff, as persistent as public grumble and as vicious as the circle of daily routine, Boredom drills holes into the solid body of establishment. Despite a hint of the ubiquitous fuck-off-and-die message, existential questions, alluding to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, prevail.

I’ve taken this extravagant journey
So it seems to me
To arrive from nowhere
And to go straight back there
Buzzcocks, Boredom

Howard Devoto and Steve Diggle of Buzzcocks on Spiral Scratch – interview

The journey of Buzzcocks from real boredom towards the extravaganza of Spiral Scratch was down a road paved with stones of serendipity. Having met at Bolton University in Manchester, Howard Trafford and Peter McNeish rehearsed together and talked music. Once they came across a review of The Sex Pistols gig in NME which cited Johnny Rotten saying “We’re not into music, we’re into chaos!”. The band’s name and approach were intriguing enough for the two to travel to the gigs in High Wycombe and then Welwyn Garden City.

In-between those volatile performances, Trafford and McNeish stayed overnight at Richard Boon’s student house in Reading. Overcome with excitement, they had an exchange that defined the course of their lives. Later, Peter recounted this conversation in an interview with Jon Savage for his book England’s Dreaming.

After we’d seen The Sex Pistols, Howard and I were sleeping in the living room.” says Peter. “As we were going off to sleep Howard was quizzing me, like if we got our band started, what was my commitment. Would I stick with it? Was it a hobby or was I into living the life? And I said: ‘Yeah, I’m into living the life‘”.
Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming

In regards to this exchange, Howard Trafford says that “it rings true”, though details can hardly be recalled. “All I remember is that there were fleas in the sofa I was sleeping on”, he says.

It was not long before both Howard and Peter shook off their old selves, becoming Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley. Of his stage name, Devoto does not refrain from telling about the origin, which some sources back in the ’70s defined as a “real name on his mum’s side”: “The name predates my getting together with Pete. The house on Lower Broughton Road in Salford where I was living was owned by one of my philosophy lecturers. One evening [in 1975] in passing he mentioned someone he’d known back in his Cambridge days called Andy Devoto. The name caught my ear and I must’ve mentioned it to Pete because at the second Lesser Free Trade Hall gig he was talking to John Ingham and Caroline Coon and introduced me to them as Howard Devoto. They went away and wrote their gig reviews and, lo and behold, I was Howard Devoto. Which pleased me no end because I wanted to get away from the distressed old familiar me and be someone new”.

Unlike Shelley and Devoto, Steve Diggle was not inclined to give up his real name to a sophisticated pseudonym. Yet, his arrival to Buzzcocks got to be defined by similar spontaneity. Desperate to start a band, Diggle posted an ad in a local newspaper and found a potential member. “I’d found a guy in a newspaper and said that I wanna form a band and do a three-minute song, smash the guitars, like the Who or something, create some excitement,” recalls Steve Diggle. “I said, “I’ll see you outside Free Trade Hall because there’s a nice pub around the corner”. There was also another reason for choosing this meeting point. On that day, 4th of June 1976, the Sex Pistols were playing at Lesser Free Trade Hall. That was their first ever gig in Manchester.

“I turned up outside Free Trade Hall and there was Malcolm McLaren who said: “There he is”. I said I was planning to meet someone and form a band and he said: “They are inside here”. Two days later the newly formed Buzzcocks had their first rehearsal. “Around that time my mum went to see a clairvoyant who said: “’Within three weeks one of your songs is gonna be on a stage’. And I was”. Buzzcocks supported The Sex Pistols on 20th of July.

Preparing for the gig in July, the band was relentlessly rehearsing at Howard Devoto’s room on Lower Broughton Road. With John Maher on drums and Steve Diggle on bass, they created sounds that one of them describes as “terrible but beautiful”. On this paradox-led note, Diggle continues: “Nobody was listening to this type of music. This direction was existential. The noise we produced made one re-think the state of music at that point. Of course, The Sex Pistols were there but that was it. So this magical thing happened. We had enough inspiration to make things differently”.

Fittingly, soon after that, the band started rehearsing in a place, unusual for a punk band.
St. Boniface’s Church Youth Club became a creative home for Buzzcocks over the next few weeks. The place was offered by a St. Boniface’s school caretaker who happened to be a neighbour of Devoto. “The noise was probably annoying him a bit. But he was a nice bloke, so instead of complaining, he suggested we could use the disused church hall next to the school for our rehearsals. Free of charge. Which is what we did for a number of weeks that summer. After a while, he asked if we’d play at the school one afternoon. Considering they were letting us use the hall for free we felt pretty much obliged to agree. After the gig, the school realised what sort of band we were and we were told we’d no longer be able to use the church hall. That was when we started rehearsing at Lifeline, a support organisation for addicts, in the city centre”.

Time’s Up (demo)

In September 1976, the EP was taking shape with the demo version recorded at Revolution, a small loft studio in Stockport. Reissued in 2017 as Time’s Up, the sequence of demo records comprised four tracks that would eventually appear on Spiral Scratch, four other songs by Shelley/Devoto (including You Tear Me Up and Orgasm Addict) and two covers. On their shared creative input, Devoto says: “Once we’d seen the Pistols and our aesthetic was set, yes, creatively it was pretty much 50/50 between Pete and I. The songs, the look, the approach. Within that aesthetic, John and Steve were left largely to sort their own drum and bass parts. For example, You Tear Me Up has an unusual drum pattern – that came from John”.

Seemingly at a slightly slower pace than the EP, the demo versions exude raw energy. They are boosters of joy, following the realisation that life offers more freedom than people are told they can get hold of. Inevitably, there is darkness too. “We were dealing with advanced and sophisticated things really, compared to a lot of punk bands that came after”, says Diggle. “I mean The Clash were great at the political frontline but our thing was more about the complexity of life”. Both Steve Diggle and Howard Devoto refer to Dostoevsky as an inspiration. For Devoto, the Russian author’s suspense and recurrent motif of alienation influenced his songwriting with Magazine. “Dostoyevsky was part of the European literature course I was doing at college. It was his story ‘Notes From Underground’ that appealed to me in particular. A title that once got translated as ‘Notes From Under The Floorboards’ (a song from The Correct Use of Soap, the third album by Magazine)”.

Musing on Dostoevsky and his influence on Buzzcocks, Steve Diggle elaborates: “We were singing about the human condition and the complexity of things. One of my favourite authors is Dostoevsky but it’s [his novel Crime and Punishment] not just about killing an old woman, it’s not just about murder. I think a lot of our early material deals with complex issues like human emotions, the darkness of the human side. I mean there is a lot of darkness in Buzzcocks”.

Although these volatile songs with razor-sharp lyrics demonstrate escapist manoeuvres and attempts to reach out to the future, their underlying music references derive from the past. “Pete had been a Beatles fan, I’d been a Stones fan – in a way that says it all”, says Devoto. “I was the one with the Stooges records, pushing for us to cover a Stooges song or two even before we saw the Pistols. We were both Bowie fans and I suspect he’d only heard of the Stooges because in the past Bowie had talked about them in interviews”. Instead of the Stooges cover, the demo features Captain Beefheart’s I Love You Big Dummy and The Troggs’ I Can’t Control Myself.

Spiral Scratch: B’dum, b’dum

Following the demo, Buzzcocks aspired to record the refined versions of the songs for the upcoming release. On 28 December 1976, each member of Buzzcocks names four songs that they would like to do for the EP. Eventually, they agreed on Breakdown; Time’s Up; Boredom; Friends of Mine. “Boredom seemed an obvious choice. I suppose these four were the ones that made the whole statement”.

Howard Devoto and Steve Diggle of Buzzcocks on Spiral Scratch – interviewMartin Hannett aka Martin Zero stepped in as a producer. Some Buzzcocks biographers, e.g. Tony McGartland, state that the band met Hannett through “the agency he ran in the same building as the New Hormones office”. However, Steve Diggle recalls that the acquaintance was made through Devoto. “I think Howard was working for this magazine Manchester Review and that’s where Martin Hannett was as well. So that’s how they got to meet. We were thinking to go to a proper studio to make this record”.

Recorded swiftly at Indigo Studios in Manchester, Spiral Scratch captures the spontaneity and celebrates an unconventional approach. Three out of four songs on the EP were first takes. As in a fairytale, it took three attempts for Breakdown. “It’s just amazing what you can do with your limitations”, says Steve Diggle, also hinting at means of artistic expression. On the sweeping flanger effect that permeates Friends Of Mine, he denies they were using any of the guitar pedals. “We never used any of these pedals at that time – all things you can do, the noise you can make just out of your guitar, it’s amazing. It might be that Pete with his fingers was doing all that”. Steve’s instrument was a bass Hayman 4040. “My dad stole it from the back of his van and gave it to me [Steve’s father was a truck driver], then someone stole it from me. I took that as karma”.

Howard Devoto and Steve Diggle of Buzzcocks on Spiral Scratch – interview

Realising the limitations, the band formed their own independent label New Hormones in January 1977, just three weeks before the EP release. The band’s friend and manager Richard Boon became the label’s boss. With a name from Devoto’s lyrics, New Hormones was a reflection of the band’s focus on personal rather than global politics. “I’d first used that phrase in a poem or song years earlier. Give me some new hormones so I can be someone different etc”, says Devoto.

With the help of their university friend Sue Cooper and Pete Shelley’s father, the band managed to collect £150 for the recording and £350 for the manufacture. The resultant 1000 copies were sold within four days since the release date.

A milestone in the history of punk, Spiral Scratch was admired by the professional music press, emerging indie industry (Rough Trade) and punk enthusiasts. Nevertheless, it became the point of divergence for Buzzcocks and Howard Devoto. In February, the frontman informed his bandmates that he was leaving. Buzzcocks carried on with Pete Shelley on vocals and Devoto shortly formed Magazine. On 21 July 1978, the bands played together at Lesser Free Trade. In the end, Howard Devoto joined Buzzcocks to perform I Can’t Control Myself. In Tony Wilson’s words, “to acknowledge the past is the best way of meeting the future which is theirs. B’dum, b’dum”.

~

All words by Irina Shtreis. More writing by Irina can be found in her author’s archive.

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