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Steve Diggle's name-dropping again.
The Buzzcocks' guitarist is lounging around a Cleveland hotel room, telephone in hand, mentioning how he's still "mates" with Clash co-founders Joe Strummer and Mick Jones.
"I run into them in clubs now and then," Diggle says, shrugging. "It's always a pleasure to see em."
Diggle's also ho-humming the fact that Bob Mould (Sugar, Hsker D) is, literally, a card-carrying member of the Buzzcocks' fan club.
"He's been on the newsletter mailing list for years," Diggle says with a yawn.
And then there's Nirvana. It seems Kurt Cobain and the boys insisted on getting some backstage autographs after a recent Buzzcocks show in Boston.
"They were very excited to meet us," Diggle says. "We were excited, too. After we gave them our autographs, we asked them for theirs. I think we're gonna jam together sometime soon. Maybe do some shows with them."
Diggle's roll call of devotees could go on for hours. And for good reason. The Buzzcocks was one of the earliest and most important punk bands to come out of England. The group's first gig was as an opening act for the Sex Pistols, and it was the Buzzcocks--not the Pistols, not the Clash--that put out the U.K.'s first independently released punk EP, the 1977 seven-inch Spiral Scratch.
So when Diggle casually brings up a name like Sid Vicious, he's not showing off. And he's not making it all up. He's just remembering the good ol' days. Back before safety pins and haircuts turned punk into style.
"The pure essence of punk only lasted for about six months, and that was in 1976," Diggle says. "After that, it all got a bit stale. I don't even remember there being anything like Mohican haircuts in 1976. And Sid Vicious, he wasn't there at the start. It was the Sex Pistols, the Damned, the Clash and us. The music was simple and desperate, a ripping up of everything and starting again. Bands and fans were frustrated with politics, unemployment. It was a very brief and magical time. It wasn't designed to last forever."
But it has. Sort of. Seventeen years after first getting together, Diggle and original Buzzcocks singer Pete Shelley are back on the road, pounding out their old band's considerable slew of punk-pop songs to a new generation of ears. The reborn Buzzcocks even have a new CD, Trade Test Transmissions, their first full set of new songs in 14 years. All of this from a band that was supposed to have broken up for good in 1981.
"We needed a break," Diggle says of the early retirement. "We'd been quite busy for four years. We'd done all sorts of tours, plus we had problems with EMI, our record company. And we got into a few drugs and stuff--our last three records were all a bit of a druggie situation. We were tired and exhausted. We agreed to take time off. But it all fell to pieces very fast."
Indeed, Diggle figures it took only three weeks for the Buzzcocks to fully disintegrate--about the same amount of time the band took to prepare for its debut with the Sex Pistols. Diggle and Shelley survived the rest of the Eighties in various ventures. As a solo act, Shelley scored a couple of dance hits with "Telephone Operator" and the nifty "Homosapien." Diggle hooked up with Buzzcocks drummer John Maher to form a combo called Flag of Convenience, a good but ultimately discarded blip in the bins.
But no one forgot the Buzzcocks. And through the years, the jumpy British music press was constantly printing rumors of a Buzzcocks reunion. In 1989, the rumors finally became fact.
"This American agent went ahead and lined up a three-week tour," Diggle says. "He asked us if we wanted to do it. I'm still amazed that everybody said, 'Yes.'"
Three weeks of shows gave way to a 40-date swing, which eventually evolved into a recording contract. But not without a few problems. Longtime Buzzcock Steve Garvey called it quits. So did Maher, who decided he'd rather concentrate on drag racing, his true love. The band vacancies were quickly filled by bassist Tony Barber and drummer Phil Barker, both of whom played on the CD and are on the current tour.
Trade Test Transmissions turns out to be typical Buzzcocks. It's punky and poppy, with a couple of songs (Do It," "Innocent") standing above the rest. But none of the newer tunes compares with such older, essential anthems as "Orgasm Addict," "Money," "What Do I Get" or the blistering "Something's Gone Wrong Again."
"I'm amazed that some of those songs are 15 to 20 years old now," Diggle says of the Buzzcocks' canon of killers. He adds that the band's live set runs about 50-50 between old songs and new.
"It's a different vibe now than 76," he says. "The audience tends to be about two-thirds new people. But they relate to the energy. It's amazing to get kids backstage saying they've not seen anything like this. But then, think about it--the Clash and the Sex Pistols, they all were gone a long time ago.