Cocked and Loaded

British punk pioneers the Buzzcocks invade America again

Even for those who were more into Speed Racer and Toughskins than the Sex Pistols when they invaded America, there was a time when the prospect of stage-diving into middle age wasn't so far-fetched. But the problem with so much punk rock (Suicidal Tendencies, the Exploited, DRI and Fear come to mind) was simply that it was too dumb to last. Too often, all that cleansing, cathartic rage came packaged with overly affected posturing and shortsighted sentiment. And once young enthusiasts with a whit of intelligence could think for themselves, they had outgrown punk's trappings.

This not-so-shocking truth doesn't mean that tens of thousands of kids wasted their formative years. It just means that some punk bands age horribly. Their fans may be legitimately nostalgic, but they just don't want to be involved anymore. Only a handful of punk bands from the late '70s put enough substance behind their angst and adequate sophistication into their fury to secure a permanent spot in their fans' record collections. And of this group -- which includes Wire, Gang of Four, Minor Threat, the Dead Kennedys and the Clash -- only the Buzzcocks are likely to visit your town.

In September, Manchester, England's Buzzcocks released their sixth full-length studio album, Modern, on Go-kart Records in the U.S. Like vintage Buzzcocks material -- and there are several vintages to consider -- it puts forth a leaner punk rock that draws its pop-inflected vitality more from stamina, speed and agility than dull brute force.

The buzz in your ear: The Buzzcocks prove that some old punks never die.
The buzz in your ear: The Buzzcocks prove that some old punks never die.
Sixteen again: The Buzzcocks back in the '70s.
Sixteen again: The Buzzcocks back in the '70s.

Despite a couple of schlock-rock songs that responsible friends wouldn't let friends listen to, Modern affirms that the Buzzcocks, who range in age from 35 to 44, are still inventive and inspired. After all, they have a mighty venerable tradition to work with. At the very least, Modern is confirmation that they still have an edge in the studio and energy onstage. Reviews of early shows on the band's current American tour suggest that after 23 years, the 'cocks are still blowing 'em away in 1999.

But audiences aren't the only ones likely to be surprised by the band's longevity.

"I would have never guessed in a million years," says singer/guitarist Pete Shelley, quite content with being a Buzzcock after all this time. "I never had any other career in mind, though. And that's just as well."

What Shelley did have in mind back in 1976 was not proper employment or long-term goals, but the first flourishes of punk rock: Provocative, visceral, subversive, it spoke to restless, antiestablishment-minded British youth like Shelley and his future bandmates. Legend has it that teenagers Peter McNeish and Howard Traford met at a college electronic-music society in Manchester. Their appetites had already been whetted by the Velvet Underground and the Stooges -- as well as German prog-rockers Can and Neu!. But the catalyst was a pilgrimage the two undertook to see the Sex Pistols in London. Soon after, the pair had acquired the names Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto, as well as a drummer, a bassist and a slot opening for the Sex Pistols in Manchester.

Unfortunately, the first incarnation of the band imploded just before the show, but the night of the foiled gig, Shelley and Devoto met Steve Diggle, a singer, bassist and guitarist. Diggle and drummer John Maher stepped in to replace the previous rhythm section, and the Buzzcocks landed a tour with the Pistols. By January 1977, the Buzzcocks had self-released an EP, Spiral Scratch, on their aptly titled New Hormones imprint. A small loan from Shelley's dad funded that project, one of the first examples of the punk-rock do-it-yourself ethic at work. "The total bill came to about 500 pounds," remembers Shelley, matter-of-factly acknowledging the new modus operandi, with nary a hint of arrogance. "We've been the pioneers in lots of things," he laughs.

The four-song, 10-minute Spiral Scratch featured "Breakdown" and "Boredom," both classic, pulsating harbingers of the band's well-focused aggression. It foreshadowed the Buzzcocks' penchant for invigorating interplays of simple, singing lead-guitar lines on top of grinding fuzz. Lyrically, it hinted at their tendency to write about such inwardly focused topics as love and its discontents as well as an ironic life of the mind. Songs such as "Boredom," which ranks alongside Wire's "12XU" as a peak moment in punk rock, skipped beer, necrophilia and elementary politics -- common lyrical themes of the era -- in favor of more timeless expressions like the "Boredom" line "You see I'm living in this, a movie/But it doesn't move me."

Despite additional personnel changes (Devoto left to form Magazine), the band's second single, "What Do I Get?", hit the U.K. charts in February 1978. Also that year, United Artists released two full-length albums by the DIY pioneers, A Different Music in a Different Kitchenand Love Bites. Though the 1979 singles collection Singles Going Steady is superlative Buzzcocks, tunes such as the colossal "Moving Away From the Pulsebeat," "Operator's Manual" and a paean to pessimism, "Nostalgia," make all of these essential records.

The Buzzcocks' popularity peaked in Britain in 1979, about the time American DJs were gleefully slamming Sex Pistols records on the air. "It's always surprising how long things take to happen," says Shelley of America's Johnny-come-slowly embrace of punk. Ironically, the band flourished way too early in the U.K. to really enjoy the benefits of punk's eventual explosion in America more than 12 years later. Sure, Kurt Cobain and others adored them way back when, but it's likely that today's fans of commercially viable "punk rock" don't know the Buzzcocks from the Cocteau Twins. Shelley, who has lost count of how many Atlantic crossings the band has made, maintains a healthy perspective nevertheless: "Success is people going to the shows and enjoying themselves."

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