Harmony in his Head: The Lost Steve Diggle Interview
This year it’s forty years since Steve Diggle released his first solo effort, the 50 Years of Comparative Wealth EP. To mark this anniversary, Louder Than War presents the first part of a previously-unpublished interview Mark Youll did with the Buzzcocks guitarist in 2009 in which he speaks about his formative years growing up in Manchester, his early musical inspirations, mod bands, Motown and the advent of punk rock.
MY: What were your first memories of Manchester as a child?
SD: Lots of terraced streets. I was born in a house with a garden and stuff and I suppose that might have been posh then, a semi-detached, you know? Me mam had a business and that went down the pan so we had to moved to a terraced street, like Coronation Street , that was when I was seven. In fact me mam had this baby’s clothes shop and she’d give credit out to people as you did in those days, people would pay back weekly. One of them was Myra Hindley’s mother or some other weird connection. My dad also decorated Ian Brady’s bedroom around the time Brady was sixteen and he was coming out of Borstal. Dad never told me till years later, I think it was the eighties when he mentioned it, around the time of The Smiths and stuff. I couldn’t believe it, you know? That whole thing was lurking in the background for us; it was a big thing in Manchester and we didn’t live far from where it was all going on.
Was this when you were growing up in Rusholme?
Well, I’d moved to Bradford by then but I was born in St Mary’s hospital just off Oxford Road. I’m the only Buzzcock that was properly born in the centre, just to the left of the curry mile. In the eighties at St Mary’s they split these two Siamese twins. It was the first time this had been done and it was a big thing.
So I was born there and then because me mam’s business went down so we moved. That was a great time, I remember being seven and walking down the street and there were all gangs on the corners and I thought what are we getting into here? But it was great, and we adapted to that, it was very inspiring that street. It was called Goole Street which is where the new city ground is now. The pub on the corner is still there, The Bradford Hotel. I keep meaning to go back and see it, see where I come from. We had a street army defending the woody on bonfire night. It was the school holidays and we stayed up till twelve or one in the morning defending the wood cause kids would come round and you would throw bricks at them ‘cause they were trying to nick your bonfire wood, you know? We would get up at seven and we’d be running down the street with people’s back doors, about forty back doors for the fire, and then we’d be back in bed for half ten. Me and another mate had a street newspaper as well. We had a little printing machine with a cylinder and so we made a street newspaper. It only lasted about one and a half issues!
What sort of things went into the street newspaper?
The main thing was about a Great Dane escaping from a security van and just stuff about the neighbours. You kind of knew everybody which was great, like in the east end, but it was a real northern thing. There was a lot of interaction with people. We would get in trouble with people and we’d get a clip around the ear off some bloke if we was up to summat or whatever. We never thought nothing of it then, like you’d get arrested these days. It was a great environment. There was a croft at the end of the street, it was just like a wasteland where we would go and play football and end up smashing some blokes window or summat. Great times. The guy I did the newspaper with, we would be told by people in the street that we would get nowhere, but he became ended up a brain surgeon! Very creative and very inspiring time.
When did your interest in music begin?
My cousin lived two doors down and he loved Elvis. He was a rock & roller and from his upstairs window there would Elvis and Little Richard coming out.
Would that have been the first music you remember hearing?
Well, I suppose that would have been the awakening. My dad used to have Nat King Cole records and the old 78s and we used to sit on them and break them. Nat King Cole coming out of an old radiogram with that big bassy sound, they were like old jukeboxes made of wood, you know? You had your dials with radio Luxemburg and you couldn’t usually tune it in but it looked good! So my cousin would play Rock & Roll much to the annoyance of the rest of the street and then The Beatles came along just when I got my first transistor radio. I would listen to all these joke bands, comedy stuff that George Martin was producing like Charlie Drake or Bernard Cribbins…Rolf Harris even! The thing I didn’t like was my mam got me that radio on HP so every time school would finish, I’d have to get a bus to a place miles away to pay the fucking ten-bob or whatever it was to pay for this fucking radio! I remember The Beatles’ ‘Love Me Do’ coming on and it was cool. Other than that it was Michael Holliday singing ‘Runaway Train’ which had sound effects on it. So it was ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘Please Please Me’ and then me mam got me ‘Twist & Shout’ the EP off the market, and that was what really got me going. The next thing I know my cousin’s sister took us to see A Hard Day’s Night at the Manchester Apollo, and we also went to see Help! after that. Across the road from us lived this lad and his sister had the first Bob Dylan album and first Beatles LP, and I remember going across the road and listening to that. It was mad to hear The Beatles and then Dylan, Dylan with this voice, you know? I remember thinking I don’t know what he’s saying but something sounds right about it. His voice is still like that to this day, you still can’t quite work out what he singing about! So I remember listening to these records and watching this lad’s sister drying her hair with a hairdryer, this great big thing that looked like a Russian sputnik or summat. She was combing her long blonde hair and I’m watching her and listening to Dylan and The Beatles, and I plucked the string of this old Spanish guitar and it resonated against me, and I think that was my first sexual experience! Little did I know that all of that would become my life.
What came next, would it have been groups like The Who and Small Faces…?
Yeah, the Stones and The Who. I used to watch Ready Steady Go and all that. I’m just proud of myself that I had good perception to pick out groups like The Rolling Stones, because you kind of knew that groups like Brian Poole and the Tremolos and Freddie & the Dreamers didn’t count. Back then it was all pop music, stuff you could have a sing and a jive to.
Would you say the destructive elements to The Who’s music were essentially what drew you to them?
Well, I was into the melodic stuff in those groups as well. I remember being in junior school and they would take us to the swimming baths and you would hear ‘Tired Of Waiting’ by The Kinks. It was the summer and you’d be swimming and have these songs in your head. Ray Davis lives in Highgate where I live now, and I’ll be having a coffee and I’ll see him buying a newspaper, it doesn’t get more British than that! There was something real about those bands and those songs, it made a big impact. The thing about The Beatles was you had your mam and dad and your school teachers teaching you stuff, but this music was telling you something else, something they couldn’t explain. They could tell you about geography and maths and that, but The Beatles gave you a sense of humour. It was poetic and colourful. By the time they got to Magical Mystery Tour it was psychedelic, me mam thought that was a bit weird.
Did you prefer the early Beatles to the later period?
No, I liked it all. I liked the journey they had. One thing about groups from that period they all had this journey. The Who had the three minute songs and smashing up the guitars and stuff, the next minute they had them big beards! I miss that in music today in a way. Sound effects and studio effects that changed those bands, like The Beatles’ Rubber Soul and by the time The Who got to ‘Baba O’Riley’ with the synthesizers and that sort of stuff. It was all great poetry and great magic and it all touched your soul and made sense. It was up there with Shakespeare and all that stuff.
Would you say the mod thing was more to do with the storytelling in the songs than the attitude and the clothes?
It was the attitude as well, but being a sensitive kid then you were looking for more, you were looking for the poetry in life. You’re living a shit terraced street so you had to see through all that you know? There was a guy that used to wear a T-shirt all the time that lived in the street we used to call him “T-shirt man”. In those days it was a bit weird for a bloke with kids to wear a T-shirt! Normal blokes would have greased back hair and would shuffle down to the local pub. Blokes were traditional back then. It was people with ordinary jobs and you thought you’d never get out of that. My brother became an artist. We had to see past all that, to the poetry. It still counts today. You can call The Clash poetry or the Buzzcocks, Pistols. From this, you could get into art or whatever else you wanted to really…
Was northern soul something you listened to?
Oh yeah, my brother used to go more than me, places like The Pendulum and The Twisted Wheel, and he’d come home with singles by The Bar-kays and all that sort of stuff. I don’t know why I didn’t go as much as him but I did go a few times….
Did you see people like Roger Eagle DJ?
I didn’t know who anybody was then, I was very young. But we were into all of that stuff, what became Wigan northern soul. You could sometimes blag your way in, but most of the time we didn’t have the money so we couldn’t go all the time. My brother had stuff had Johnny Johnson & The Bandwagon’s ‘Blame it on the Pony Express’ and we’d have parties at the house and half the fucking records would get nicked. I got into Motown around that time…
What was it about Tamla Motown that appealed to you?
The songs, the tunes, it was instant, you know?
Why do you think Manchester embraced black American soul music as much as it did?
Probably because it’s got heart and spirit and soul. Like a lot of the places this music came from places like Detroit, rundown areas but it’s soulful you know? It was also the origination of the blues and pop via slavery or whatever. To be honest I felt like a slave up there, you’re gonna be fitted up a shit job, so I felt like a slave as well! The music was catchy and it was great. Also, it was what The Beatles were listening to with the Smokey Robinson ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’ cover they did. You didn’t think about influences then, it was just the music. I once swapped a pushbike for a load of records and my granddad bought me a record player but it never worked. I used to listen to the stylus! I was twelve when I bought Help! and I’m listening to Help! through the sound of the stylus! I had all me Beatles chewing gum cards stuck to the inside of this record player, it was fantastic and it smelt like a record player, you know, that kind of smell. I wish it fucking played!
Tony Wilson once remarked that Manchester was the ideal environment for punk because of its social condition at that time. Would you agree?
Yeah. Like we were saying about the blues in America, or Motown in Detroit. I don’t think anybody really thought before punk, that you could be influenced by your town, and bring that into music in a sense. You can listen to a lot of records and there is lots of stuff about love, relationships or whatever, but with those Manchester bands and that Manchester attitude and things that come from around there and those streets, it comes through in the music, you know? There is less distraction up there. When you come to London there is a lot of distraction. When I finally moved to London I was being invited out to this and that, just loads of distractions. When you’re in Manchester in a room with a light-bulb, you start to think you know what I mean? You start to think who you are. It gets a bit philosophical.
Do you think that was reason the Manchester groups like the Buzzcocks, Joy Division or The Fall had such an edge, and sounded raw or so dark?
Yeah. Manchester, way before punk in the fifties and early sixties was always known as a good-time city. The beer, the pubs, it was a vibrant city for that. It gave you a spirit. I remember me granddad going to the Bellevue dogs, and what they had there was amazing…
What was the Bellevue?
It was like a massive amusement park, almost like what Blackpool has, but with a zoo as well. As a kid you could see elephants and stuff like that. They even had a flea circus. I remember going and thinking I can’t see any fleas here. There was more fleas in people’s houses! I remember going to Belle Vue as a kid and seeing lads in parkas with, you know, The Who on the back of them…
What year would that have been?
Around ‘65. I would have been ten.
Was it much later you would be interested in the mod music and the clothes?
It would around that time really. It started with The Beatles and I had me black polo-neck and the Beatle boots. I remember me cousin was still into Elvis and Little Richard, but we said Elvis doesn’t write his own songs, so we thought Elvis was a bit dumb. You’d see the Elvis films on TV, and he would but saying (adopts American Accent)“Hey, let’s start the show right here..!” then The Beatles came along and blew that away, particularly with their first film (A Hard Day’s Night) for all it’s realism. The clothes kind of came in from that. We made some guitars from cardboard boxes and tubes and did our own Beatles performance in somebody’s backyard. I couldn’t afford a parka, but I bought me first Levis and a pair of brogues and braces, stuff like that.
Was image important to you at that age?
Yeah, I think it was. Via The Beatles and James Dean’s Rebel Without A Cause, which would be on the telly late at night, all that stuff had a big effect on us as kids. Like I said, the streets were black and white, old blokes doing their thing, so you needed a bit of glamour somewhere. I remember when a kid a bit older than us had his scooter in the street, and I remember it had no kick-start so he had to push it up and down, but I remember clearly it had union jack flags and side-panels an all that. That sparked a lot of things off for me. That sense of rebellion. Your folks weren’t into it, and so you could get the clothes and be like them. It was almost like a gang mentality then. When you got your first Levis it was great, before that you would get your jeans for like ten-bob, in dark blue or ice blue with a white X on the back. I remember a guy in the next street got some Oxford shoes in cherry red, all polished, and I thought how did afford them? But getting me first pair of Beatles boots that had to have the seam down the middle, that was it. Timpsons used to sell them, Proper ones with the heel and the tag at the top. Then I saw Lennon with a pair that went up to his knee and I thought where did he get them? The style was very important.
Did you see any live groups around that time?
It was quite a lot later when I saw the groups. I would have been around sixteen. Before that, I remember going to see a band at the local church and there was a Coca-Cola machine there and all that!
Do you think the attitude and music of the mod scene was easily transferable to what would become punk?
Absolutely yeah. I remember seeing that whole Brighton thing (mods & rockers riots in 1964) on the telly. That was important to it all. We had an auntie who lived in Chelmsford, so we used to get to go to places on the south coast when these disturbances were going on. That was a distinctive image for me, those kids jumping off walls onto the sand and fighting. I think it’s natural to have criticism and be rebellious in some ways. You’re fitted up for something in this life, particularly for the working class where its like get a job, get married and all this. So with the clothes and that attitude, you felt different you know? The teddy boys, my cousin with his drape coats and all that. We are that, they are this. I mean it’s weird, I love Elvis now, but watching him then in Fun In Acapulco jumping off a cliff into the sea, and I thought I’ve never seen cliffs and the sea…it was like going to the fucking moon, it was kind of alien. The Beatles and The Who seemed to be about us and the streets. It was The Who saying “I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth” or Kinks “Tired Of Waiting For you…” Songs like ‘Well Respected Man’ were real man, told you things. Also Saturday Night & Sunday Morning being on the television, Room At The Top, all that stuff had a massive impact on who I would be and what we would be as a band.
What groups were crucial to the advent of punk?
The psychedelic thing and then you had the Velvet Underground thing, Andy Warhol. My brother passed a lot of the art things onto me. He used to go out drawing old buildings and then he got into all that arty Ozzy Clarke sort of stuff. Later came The Southbank Show, which was very important looking back. It was a real culture thing. When you put these things together it was the development of punk really, for me anyway. I remember somebody at some point mentioning the Sex Pistols but then the term punk was really unknown. McLaren had seen the New York Dolls and all that stuff, and then he came back home and put the Pistols together. In Manchester I was taking acid listening to Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come and we would trip out to all this stuff when I was seventeen. It’s not like kids these days who hold of get music easily, it’s so accessible now. Back then you had to dig stuff out, discover music naturally. I like that period of ‘67/’68 when music tripped out a bit. There was something a little bit Alice In Wonderland which was magical for your imagination.
What was your reaction to the Sex Pistols initially?
By that time I was rehearsing with a group, tripping out, taking photographs of stuff spinning around. Eventually, I got bored of all that and started thinking about The Who again, three minute songs and smash the fucking guitars you know? With that whole hippy thing I went to see Yes and one song was the length of a whole album. But even that stuff was quite rebellious at the time. The whole country had moved onto this ( progressive rock) thing. It was a powerful thing. Taking acid and listening to this stuff made sense. I felt that anger and frustration. I thought, I don’t wanna be a fucking window cleaner!
Tell me about the group you were in before Buzzcocks.
Well, we had some rehearsals and I thought this ain’t going nowhere for me. Everybody was tripping, these guys were weird, taking this and that and I thought I needed more than that. I would play The Who’s Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy, with all the singles on it and I thought that was the way to go, three minute songs, none of this long blown out stuff. Also, to afford a synthesizer in those days, they were like a thousand pounds. Most people didn’t have the money for a guitar.
We also need to write about something pertaining, something in our lives you know? I had people knocking on my door tripping on whatever trying to tell me their problems and I thought there must be more to it than this. Getting internally and emotionally fucked on acid, a lot of them joined the Hare Krishna in the end! That guy Lance from the band came back to see me with a Hare Krishna record, a book and an apple. I never ate the bloody apple, I said I’ve joined a bloody punk band; it’s all bloody changing for me. It was back to that Saturday Night, Sunday Morning thing of “whatever people think I am, that’s what I’m not”. That stuff was always in your mind.
Was punk a word people associated with at that point?
Yeah, this was early ’76. I had three scooters, but I’d lost my scooter licence and started playing more guitar. I was about seventeen or eighteen and I wanted to get down to it, punk helped me get where I wanted to be.
Did you play any bass before playing with Buzzcocks?
What happened was, my dad was a truck delivery driver. I had dug some foundations in the fucking rain for my uncle to save up for a guitar. Anyway, one day I was sat reading Proust on the couch and he said ‘I might be able to get you a guitar’ so I came home one day and he said ‘I’ve got you that guitar you wanted’ so I went up and it was a bass.
Around this time I was rehearsing with a couple of guys round the corner and we did ‘Brown Sugar’ and ‘Paranoid’ and stuff like that. That wasn’t going anywhere so I rang up an ad in the Manchester Evening News. I wanted to form a band like The Who, doing three- minute songs and smashing the guitars, and that’s what I did. Through that I met Pete and Howard. Everybody wanted to be Jimmy Page or Richie Blackmore back then.
Did you enjoy playing bass?
Well, looking back to what I did on Spiral Scratch, it sounded quite good, minimal, but just right. I was playing the basic root notes, but it had the feel. The bass was good but it didn’t sit right for me you know? Back then I wasn’t a musician, I was an angry young guy. When I moved over to guitar it made more sense.
I think your move to guitar was crucial to the sound the band would later have.
Absolutely. If you listen to Spiral Scratch and what Pete was doing, and when I moved to guitar, it became more mellow, more tuneful. I had a song called ‘I Might Need You’ and after playing it to Pete it quickly became ‘What Do I Get?’ I always wish I had that fucking cassette with that original version on it, I’d fucking sue him. Before it was songs like ‘Orgasm Addict’ and ‘Boredom’ then it was more tuneful. He fucking ripped me off…
Do you think a song like ‘Orgasm Addict’ was written to intentionally shock?
I think so, yeah. Howard was reading William Burroughs and stuff like that, which has all of that shit in it, that sort of imagery you know? I kind of used the same idea on ‘Harmony In My Head’ but I was reading James Joyce. Bowie was also quite influenced by that stuff as well, so around ’79 I thought I would have a go.
Howard was a big Bowie fan.
Yeah, although he did have an album by a group called Silverhead which I had. Silverhead was Michael Des Barres, a posh bloke that married Pamela Des Barres, that famous groupie. They were one of the early bands I saw. Steve Jones from the Pistols had that album as well which amazed me. They were a bit Stones, a bit Stooges.
What do you remember about the recording of the Spiral Scratch EP?
It was very instant. We recorded some demos that became the bootleg, Times Up. We had to go back into the studio to do a single or an EP and then Martin Hannett came on board and said he would like to produce it. We did it all in an afternoon and went to the pub. A remember this big corridor where we had the amps, and when it sounded good Hannett with his mixing would fucking undo it! I don’t know if he knew what he was doing, but that made it fun you know? When you think about it, Andrew Loog Oldham didn’t know what he was doing with the Stones, he would put echo on everything, but thank god he didn’t know. He produced some good stuff. Sometimes when it’s too professional it’s not always the right thing…
Did you think Hannett was a big part of how the record sounded?
A help and a hindrance! I mean, if we’d have left it to the resident engineer, maybe he might have done a good job as well?
I remember hearing Love Bites and then later Spiral Scratch EP, which to me sounded tribal in comparison.
Yeah, it’s wrong the Scratch EP, but at the same time its fucking right. When people put it on they said it changed their life overnight, it changed mine when I heard it as well. The way I looked at music changed. Things were no longer a mystery when you had to join a group and have a jet with your name on the side. Now anybody could do it.
Had Howard stayed with the group, do you think yourself and Pete would have been comfortable playing the kind of music that would later be Magazine?
I couldn’t see that really. I liked Magazine but I couldn’t imagine me or Pete playing that stuff. In a way it was a bit progressive, loads of keyboards and stuff. A bit of Bowie and Low in there too. But all that stuff like Bowie and Lou Reed was great for your imagination. I don’t think it would have worked with Howard really, I think he got out at the right time. He was always a bit separate. He didn’t like coming to the pub with the rest of us. He wanted to finish his degree. So it made sense that Brian left, we were rehearsing a couple of days later.
He was almost like a Brian Eno sort of character really.
Exactly. We all grew up on the Eno stuff, Taking Tiger Mountain and Here Come The Warm Jets, and we all loved that stuff. It was all art really, but the real art to me was The Who sleeves. You look at those Kinks sleeves as well; they are an art in themselves.
Your move to guitar was crucial to the sound and success the Buzzcocks would enjoy later.
Yeah, that’s what created another magic and took it to another place. Me and Pete developed a unique sound with two guitars. Pete is exact and cold in a way and I’m more soulful. I listened to Keith Richards, soul music and what Lennon was doing on Beatles’ records. I like to be free and go with the flow a bit more, where Pete is cold. ‘Everybody’s Happy Nowadays’ is my riff. Take that away from the fucking song and there would be no song.
Around that time Garth would be replaced by Steve Garvey.
Garth was ok, he played on ‘Orgasm Addict’, and then we got Steve Garvey in on bass. He looked better. You can always tell, if somebody’s got the wrong guitar and is wearing the wrong clothes, it doesn’t fucking work basically. To be honest, I didn’t want Garth in the group; he was Pete’s school mate. You had middle in the middle on this big fucking elephant next to him…
Wasn’t Joe Strummer a big fan of Garth?
Yeah, that was all the violence. On the Anarchy tour we went to a pub called Tommy Ducks in Manchester. There was an open coffin in there filled with cards and jewellery or summat and the whole ceiling was covered in knickers. They were all brown with cigarette smoke you know? But one night we went there with the Pistols. It’s not far from where the G-Mex is now. Later on a Clash tour Joe asked us to take him back to that pub.
What was your reaction to Joe’s death?
It was very sad. He was like an older brother to us all you know? He was one of the most important characters in it (the punk scene). You had the Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, The Jam and us. That was the nucleus, where it all started. The rest of them bands came later and weren’t as good. We were like the premiership; we stood the test of time. I was in a club with Mick Jones a few days before Joe died and he said to me “have a good Christmas”. Next minute I’m on my way up north for Christmas and it came on the news, Joe Strummer has died. My last meeting with Joe was in some pub and I was out of my mind on stuff, so I couldn’t really speak to him. He was very inspiring. He was also a public schoolboy like George Orwell. All those Clash records were totally inspiring.
Was there any sort of rivalry between the bands?
Not really, we were all mates. Not really matey, but we would check each other’s stuff out. We were all part of a big mission in a way.
What made the group sign to a major label (United Artists) rather than sticking it out with Rough Trade?
When we put ‘Spiral Scratch’ out I borrowed me dad’s car and went to an industrial estate and there were a thousand seven-inch records. I’d never seen a thousand records. You’d see a thousand in a record shop but not on a pallet. We had to put them all in picture sleeves by hand. Packaged by hand, it was very organic. We thought “Fuck this” and went to the pub. We decided we were not into it to be a record company. We wanted to just do the music and go to the pub. Do the things you’re supposed to do when you’re twenty. We didn’t have business minds at that age. CBS said we could have as much money as we wanted but Andrew Lauder came down and offered artistic control…
Obviously that was important to the group?
Yeah, we didn’t want someone saying “here’s a million quid, now you do what you’re told”, we would have been fucked. So we signed to United Artists and the first record was ‘Orgasm Addict’. Then the pressing plant went on strike coz’ they wouldn’t press it. So the release date was delayed by three weeks. It seems nothing now but then it was filth, it was shocking. In the 1980s you had rappers singing “Whore” and “ fuck the bitch”, so really we must have paved the way for all that stuff.
I’ve got this mental picture in my head of Legs And Co acting the song out on Top Of The Pops…
Yeah, dancing with dildos! (laughs). Our next single was ‘What Do I Get’ with ‘Oh Shit’ on the b-side, so that caused loads of shit as well!
Do you think Tony Wilson and the Factory club nights were important to the success of the scene?
The Electric Circus was way before that. It was an old cinema. It was dangerous getting there, you never knew if you would get your fucking head kicked in going to the gig. It was a heavy area in Collyhurst, all those old pubs and old fashioned people. You were lucky to get there and back in one piece. It was like the Rocky Horror Show on the bus, the clothes some of the girls would wear, suspenders and all that. The Pistols placed there, The Clash. I remember Malcolm McLaren up a ladder fixing egg boxes to the ceiling, soundproofing the place. Punk had opened up loads of doors. The first place that opened up to us was a place called Foo Foo’s Palace. Foo Foo Lammar was like the Lily Savage of his day. It was hen parties mainly, but he had this other room and he would have the punks in there. If there were any fights Foo would come in and bang people’s heads together and throw them out. Can you imagine a bloke in a massive dress throwing people out of the pub?
From ‘Orgasm Addict’ onwards the group wrote very quickly, to the point you were releasing singles every three months.
Yeah, it’s amazing looking back at how consistent the band’s output was. We would bang a single out in a couple of hours. Somebody in the studio next door would be rehearsing the intro to a song about five hundred times; we’d just stick it down and be at the pub for five o’clock. Me and Pete would do off the ball work and then we’d take it to the group, this fantastic bass player and fantastic drummer and they would have it straight away.
Did you have reference points in the studio, particular styles or records you wanted to imitate?
No, never did that. I can’t speak for Pete but most of it came from your heart and soul. Having said that, ‘Autonomy’ was a bit Can. Just as we started the band we saw Can in Manchester. It was experimental and we were open to a lot of things. We had grown up with Bowie and Eno, stuff that sparked your imagination. To me though, there are limits to getting arty, and then it’s too arty, and then you think, what about the fucking direct stuff? It’s about perfecting the art of the direct stuff, then you can mess with it.
What did you get from Can?
Well, I knew about Can and I knew about Stockhausen through my brother. I remember John Peel playing Neu! And all that stuff. I always found that stuff very cold. It wasn’t The Who that for sure. There was a track called ‘Mother Sky’ (from Soundtracks album, 1970) and it was a German trying to sing in English. Can were a big influence on ‘Autonomy’ and when it was reviewed the NME’s Adrian Thrills said it was up there with (Bowie’s) “Heroes”. We thought about many things but we were also in our twenties, out drinking and messing about with girls. Looking back, maybe I should have done a bit more on the songwriting! (laughs) Before I met the band I’d written this song ‘Fast Cars’ but I never had the verses. That was my first Buzzcocks song, they had ‘Boredom’ and ‘Addict’ and that was mine.
How did ‘Fast Cars’ come about?
I think it would have been a Beatles sort of thing. The structure and chords were a bit Mersey beat. I can’t remember now but there were a couple of Beatles songs it was influenced by. I remember looking through a dictionary and seeing the words ‘Fast’ and ‘Cars’, a bit like Eno and his Oblique Strategies, you know? When I was seventeen and on the dole I was reading poetry and I loved the sound of words. At school I would write the best stories. The other kids had better grammar but I wrote the best fucking stories! I even started writing poetry to the teacher cause I wanted to shag her, but I was too young. I remember realising that poetry didn’t need to mean anything, not always a definite thing but has the power to do
The coldness in those groups was a direct influence on bands like Joy Division and A Certain Ratio.
Yeah, it was a pop song and beyond. It was the richness of the groups and also the richness of your life. We were outlaws in a terraced street and when the Bowie thing came that street was being knocked down. There was a quest if you like something more to life than these streets. You became Billy Liar, you had these thoughts but you couldn’t execute them. You couldn’t walk down the street saying “I’m David Bowie”, you’d get your fucking head kicked in you know? I read somewhere that Morrissey would wear high-heels in Piccadilly in Manchester. I used to walk around in a blue mac and Doc Martens and still didn’t feel safe!
How important was the success of ‘Ever Fallen In Love’ to you?
My theory is, it’s a catchy song. I backed Pete up on that and he backed me up with say ‘Harmony In My Head’ which I preferred really. It’s a pedestrian song compared to something like ‘Autonomy’ or ‘Big Brother Wheels’ or something. It actually took five fucking weeks to get in the charts and I think the only reason it did as well as it did was because at the time in 1978 we were playing all these big theatres and it just went up the charts every week. Because we toured around that record’s release it went massive. We never toured around the time of ‘Harmony In My Head’ and it stayed at number thirty and a lot of people loved that song.
What do you remember about the band’s first U.S tour?
It was mind blowing. America to me then was like in the 1960s and Batman and Gotham City, The Untouchables and Jimmy Cagney. James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, America was a distant place and then all of a sudden, we were there. I never thought I would ever go. After a couple of years of success over here and then Top Of The Pops and then eventually we went. Steam coming out of the roads, it was like Kojak you know? What we quickly realised about America was you had to be bigger and better. Suddenly you’ve got this big country with this bigger mentality and they love bands that kick ass over there. So we kicked more arse over there and we got bigger and better. We started smashing the drum kits and doing Who-type things but not consciously. We never sat down and planned to be like The Who, but you can understand why a group like them did the things they did. We had stage invasions on that first tour.
It’s interesting you mention The Who in the U.S. From the American footage of that time you can almost sense a huge change in their creativity onstage and within their image. Did the same thing happen with the band?
Well, I loved The Who as a kid and then all of a sudden I’m in a group with this other guy singing and I’m fucking bored so I wanna do something different which is when I became more dynamic onstage. I was never directly influenced by Townshend but I can see him in myself and I can see now why he became more dynamic within The Who.
Was Richard Boon orchestrating these stage antics to gain more media?
No. Everything came from the group. Richard was a nice guy and he was inspiring in his own way but what we did was our thing. There was also a kind of self-destructive side to America with the chicks and the drugs but we were on top of the world. I remember by the time we got to L.A we were playing the Santa Monica Civic which held about six-thousand and Elvis Costello’s down the road at the Whiskey A Go Go playing to fucking five-hundred!
Miles Copeland, The Police’s manager was working for us out there and he did a lot for us. We weren’t very nice to him a lot of the time; we didn’t really trust any managers. I remember me and Pete had fucked a couple of birds in some toilets and we came out in their dresses or blouses and Miles was introducing me to some film directors! I think we freaked him out a bit. America loved the Buzzcocks, but it crushed us in the end just because we embraced it and it and got too wild really.
Do you think the heavy touring and drugs marked the end of the group into 1980?
Yeah, I think so. We had done five years solid on the road or recording, no breaks. Before the band I was on the dole reading poetry with a sense of freedom that was taken away when the band really happened. Being on the dole was a good thing if you used your time productively.
Pete gave his resignation to the group via letters to the whole band. How did that make you feel?
I thought he was a bit of a twat really. I had known him five fucking years and I thought he could have just phoned me up and told me he’d had enough. We were all a bit fucked you know? At that time I had a guy living in my house and my brother had come by with a mate of his who was into Stockhausen and other weird things and stuff about the war and so we started recording vacuum cleaners and stuff like that (laughs) so by that time there were two different camps.
In your mind did you think you would carry on without Pete?
I had a demo of eight songs and Pete had a couple of songs but not enough for an album. I wanted to do kind of psychedelic stuff so we got into the studio with Martin Rushent who had just done the Human League’s album in New York. Pete didn’t get there until days later so we just got on with my songs. Even fucking Jimmy Pursey came down and we had a party and were getting stoned. No music was done.
Rushent later asked Pete to get his songs finished and come to his studio and record his songs with his new drum machine. Those songs became his Homosapien album. So we waiting in the studio and then he sent those letters which was fucking out of order you know? To this day he’s still a cunt for that, (laughs) but he still had to come back.
What is your relationship with Pete like today?
Very good. In fact, he’s better than ever right now.
Do you think being in the band today is more enjoyable under less pressure?
The whole thing has been enjoyable really, even the tough times. We’ve argued many times in vans and cars, and made roadies cry thinking me and Pete were gonna kill each other, but without that you don’t get the magic. You have to fight for the magic sometimes and express yourself. I’m not interested in the problems he sings about but I respect what he does. You have to be thick-skinned. Not everyone will like you. There would be people that didn’t like what Picasso was doing but he didn’t give a fuck, he’ll still paint.
Pete knows he can’t do it without me. He had tears in his eyes when we got back from New York. When you think about it, I’m the only one who hasn’t left this group. Howard Devoto left, John Maher and Garvey left but I’ve never fucking left. I’ve never thrown the towel in. I’ve threatened to , and of course I could fucking would do, but I’ve always believed in it.
I was on the verge of signing a deal with London records anyway with Flag Of Convenience ,but I had a bust up with some people in the band so that was that.
Do you think the Buzzcocks achieved their own musical potential?
Not really, I think there is still a lot of potential in the band. There is still more for us to explore. I think that the problem may lie in Pete’s insecurities of things. The nature of the way Pete writes his love song themes. The insecurity of “Nobody loves me” where I don’t give a fuck if nobody loves me or not. Like I said about Picasso, There’s the painting if you fucking like it you like it, if you don’t, you don’t…You can only do things in life at certain times. We made those records, but we couldn’t recreate that first album today, it wouldn’t relate to people. Your first girlfriend, your first experience of a fucking job, your first knock-backs in life..
How did you find recording for the first time without Pete?
Well it was weird; I didn’t want to do it. Pete was the first to record alone with The Tiller Boys. He even sold me some of the records, I never played them, and to me it was like John and Yoko experimentations. On the last three singles we did with Hannett we recorded at a studio near the GPO tower before we ended up at Townhouse studio and that was the first time we took loads of drugs in the studio. It was about being on the road, partying with girls after the show. If you don’t do that when you’re twenty, you’ll never fucking do it you know? That time is a whole book in itselF..
But as well as the birds and taking drugs we were also on the case, the music you know? Of course we had Hannett back in the studio so if Rushent couldn’t make it we thought let’s get psychedelic.
Was that with Flag Of Convenience?
Yeah. I had a load of psychedelic songs. ‘Running Free’ was a great song but the vocal on that was me singing at six o’clock in the morning, tripping, coking, stoned. Hannett said “shall we do a vocal now?” and I’m like “It’s six in the fucking morning Martin and I’m off me nut, but I’ll do guide vocal” and that guide vocal is the one he used on the record. We were out of our minds at the Townhouse but there had to be a bit of madness otherwise you might as well work in an office. Back at Strawberry Studios I would find Martin Hannett in a cupboard saying “I’m seeing things!” (laughs).
Pete was obviously going in a completely different musical direction to you.
When I heard Pete’s record I told him in The Hacienda that he sounded lonely on that record, he didn’t speak to me for a few weeks after that. Even as a solo artist you need someone to feed off. In my solo band without Chris (Remington) playing the bass and those marvellous bass lines is like the Buzzcocks without my fucking lead work away it’s fucked. ‘Everybody’s happy nowadays’, you take the riff away from that song and it’s fucked.
I said to Pete “don’t play outside the band, it’s about Buzzcocks”. The Beatles never played outside of what they were doing and the Stones never really did, The Who never did solo stuff till really late on. Of course Pete did leave and I’m not really giving him a hard time about it, but he had to fucking come back. I can’t speak for other groups but (with Buzzcocks) everyone makes the group what it is. There is something wonderful about the chemistry, the Buzzcocks made some great records.
Is poetry important to the lyrics and music you write today?
Oh yeah, totally. It’s about having this heart and soul. I’m not a fucking scientist, Pete is a maybe a scientist in the way he thinks, the nature of the way Pete writes is a love song sort of thing. I’m more about the feelings and the fucking injustice of the world. I don’t give a fuck if nobody loves me. It’s like back to the Picasso thing of “there is the painting, if you fucking like it you like it, if you don’t like it you know?
Is that what still inspires your song writing?
Well, I’m still political, you know? I’ve got a song called ‘Rock Revolution Punk’, it’s not my best song but I’m putting it on the album, and then another called ‘Sound Of Revolution’, so this revolution thing is appearing a lot, I want it to stick in people’s minds. There are also a lot of the sweet songs like ‘Tambourine’ so I need some dirty ones to balance it all out. If you’re gonna sing about anything, revolution is a valuable word. My manager tells me to stop watching MTV after gigs; he says it’s killing my mind.
Do you still have a healthy interest in bands and music today?
I do, but I hear a lot of echoes of stuff that has been before. I’m interested in some of the Cribs’ stuff and what they have to say. In fact I’ve met Johnny Marr a few times over the years and I remember when he worked in a shop (X Clothes in Manchester) and he said “I’m in a band called The Smiths” and I said “with a name like that, good luck to yer kid”. Little did I know how big they would become. I love the attitude and songs of Oasis, and the Roses and that stuff. That Manchester thing lives on.
Is Art and literature still a big influence on your music?
Yeah, but book writers really. James Joyce is one of my heroes. More words, more poetry. I read all D.H Lawrence and it’s all strength and inspiration really. That song ‘Why She’s The Girl From The Chainstore’, there’s a lot of background with that. Orwell had spoke about this writer Henry Miller, so I got his book called Black Spring and within the first few pages it said “Forget James Dean, forget Marilyn Monroe, everyone on your street is a hero” and I thought that’s perfect for a punk you know? These people in the street are bigger heroes than the ones on posters. I had that word chainstore in my head for some fucking reason, and so I thought lets make the chainstore girl the hero of my song.
A lot of it goes back to them sixties books really, that beauty and freedom. There is Bernstein’s language barrier thing where he talks about words spoken in the home of a working class family that are different to the words spoken in the classroom. A kid at home hearing “turn the fucking telly over…” is sort of spellbound in the classroom by all these big words. It was the thing about underachievers and overachievers that inspired the lyrics to the chain store record.
I always loved how Lennon told it how it fucking was with ‘Working class Hero’. It‘s that sort of inspiration that is important to me. More than the sex, the drugs, rock and roll, the fame and the glamour, I’m back to the roots. Before I joined the group I wanted to get that fucking message across. I don’t give a fuck if nobody loves me; there are bigger issues at stake for me. Coming where I come from I remember people taking their two weeks holiday and spending their money fixing their car and was “thinking go to the fucking library or learn something”. Get something out of life, don’t end up on Jeremy fucking Kyle you know? The punk days made everybody get up and do something.
Your song ‘Hey Maria’ carries references from those days in 1979 and ‘Harmony in My Head’.
She was a girl I knew from many years ago. The second verse was written in about two minutes cause my missus was dragging me out to the shops or something, and I wanted it finished. It’s a reflection of my life and people in my life, lyrically I am quite proud of that. I was in a car crash when I was seventeen and my mate died. It was the first time I had to come to terms with death. He was my mate, we went drinking together and then he was gone. The car spun off the road and hit a fucking petrol pump, we should have all gone up in smoke.
The lyrics in the song say “ they say if you know what it is to live, then you know what it is to die, time is ticking out on the streets, no time to wonder why” and I was trying to get across that time is running out for everyone so fucking enjoy yourself. Yeah, the ’79 and ‘Harmony’ stuff is symbolic in that respect. It was James Joyce that said you’ve got to feel alive you know. I’ve give it my all and it’s sort of worked out for me with the success of the group, but had I ended up a bricklayer in Manchester I still would have put as much effort in.