Tales From The Drop Box Episode 69 brings you Part 2 in the occasional series of bands from my past that were influential upon me in ways that were much more important than just offering a blast of good sounding music at the time. As with the Jam, Buzzcocks (no “The”) opened my eyes to the new “punk” sound that was slowly making its way to northern Canada. Sure, I was an avid reader of music magazines in those days (pre-internet by a long shot) but there was absolutely no way that any commercial radio station in Canada was going to play “Orgasm Addict” on its airwaves and I could only guess at how these records and bands sounded. Buying music at that time involved some risk. Buzzcocks were the reference point for every other musical discovery I made during that period. Buzzcocks played with the Clash and Jam on the White Riot tour? Go out and buy The Clash records and The Jam records.
I would later discover, when I attended Vancouver Community College – Langara Campus, that I could play Buzzcocks compilation of singles entitled Singles Going Steady (released in U.S. on September 25, 1979) on the airwaves – and I did repeatedly and with immense pleasure – every show – every day. Singles Going Steady was a life altering record for me. The Kiss record collection went to the back of the closet because there was something more interesting going on and Buzzcocks sound “crystalized” this exciting change in music, culture, and politics, including sexual politics. Sure, I had heard the Sex Pistols record prior to this one, but the anarchy the Sex Pistols referenced seemed a little contrived. Their shambolic performance was exciting but the poorly produced recording of Never Mind The Bullocks sounded like sludge when measured against Buzzcocks records.
Buzzcocks were excitement. Their songs lyrically were complex ruminations about love and yet at the same time they were not about love. The lyrics were delivered in a bed of chugging drums and bass with razor sharp guitars providing meaty hooks. The ferocity of the guitar attack on those records disguised some lyrically sharp commentary about the human condition. For an 19 year old college student it was a huge left turn musically. England had something going on, much like New York at the same time with the widespread acceptance of the Ramones, Television, Talking Heads and Blondie. Buzzcocks fit nicely in the mix and like the Sex Pistols represented a completely unique take on pop music, blending punk’s ferocity and style with pop music. Buzzcocks had captured the ferocity of the Sex Pistols but with much more control. They played pop music but Howard Devoto (original vocalist aka Howard Trafford) with Pete Shelley played nihilist on Buzzcocks first release, the brilliant Spiral Scratch EP. The tracks on this “debut” are classics. As you will note below, three of the four tracks from that intial EP are in my 15 favorite Buzzcock tracks of all time.
What was punk? Buzzcocks might share responsibility for spreading the movement and were definitely associated with the punk movement, but Howard Devoto , Buzzocks first lead voclaist recognized the limitations of the “punk” or “new wave” label and did the most punk thing imaginable – he quit the band. In February 1977, three weeks after the release of Spiral Scratch, Howard left the band because “I don’t like most of this new wave music. I don’t like music. I don’t like movements. Despite all that, things still have to be said. But I am not confident of Buzzcocks’ intention to get out of the dry land of new waveness to a place from which these things could be said. What was once unhealthily fresh is now a clean old hat.”
What the F$^*? Don’t worry about Howard, he went back to school for a year, got bored, and then started his own successful musical venture – Magazine another band that will likely end up on this podcast.
I followed Buzzcocks story as it unfolded. I was getting the NME (New Musical Express back then) and each week tried to find a line or two about Buzzcocks. Were they going to end? Surprisingly, Pete Shelley then the Buzzcocks (nee McNeish – changed his last name to Shelley because that was the name his parents were going to give him if he was a girl. Come to think of it, this may explain my subconscious attraction to the name Shelley!!!! I married one.) decided after Howard left, to become the singer and continue the band. Steve Diggle who had been hired to play bass moved to rhythm guitar. 16 year old John Maher played drums and for a short period they picked up the allegedly unreliable Garth Davies ( nee Garth Smith) to play bass. He was fired after Buzzcocks supported the Clash on the “White Riot Tour” (along with The Jam, Slits, and Subway Sect) and shortly thereafter they found Steve Garvey to play bass and the rest is as they say, history. It is this classic lineup that for me represent Buzzcocks best version of themselves.
At that time, a number of people in Canada couldn’t get past the name. What was a “Buzzcock”? Given that punk bands at the time were pathological in their devotion to lying to the press about almost everything it seems it was easier to print the myth and this is the myth: Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley after reading the headline “it’s the buzz, cocks!” in a review of the TV series Rock Follies in Time Out magazine decided to squeeze the words together. “Buzz” means excitement and “cock” was a Mancunian slang for youth or youngster. Therefore a Buzzcock was an excited youth! I had no care that the name sounded offensive although I never shared the name of the band with my mom who would tell me to turn that racket down. Also, she never asked what I was playing, ever.
Buzzcocks had the goods from the beginning. In a relatively short period of time they released the first truly independent record in the UK (the Spiral Scratch EP) pressing 1000 copies financed by Peter’s dad on January 29, 1977; on the day Elvis Presley died, August 16, 1977 they were signed to United Artists; and on October 8, 1977 released their first single “Orgasm Addict.”
Buzzcocks were the quintessential singles band at a time when the 7’’ single ruled. Pete Shelley is about 3 years older than me, and I was in awe. The bands initial run was short lived – Pete decided to go solo in 1981. As John Maher recalled in Record Collector: Pete went down to Martin Rushent’s studio (Genetic), ostensibly to write and work out new songs for the [new] album – and that was the last we saw of him. Then, two weeks later, we each got a solicitor’s letter through the post saying that he wished to sever all commitments with the Buzzcocks.
What the F$%&^? Don’t worry Buzzcocks reformed in 1989. Maher played the reunion shows and left. Apparently, he was able to move on but I think he was still hurt by Pete’s abrupt decision to end the band in 1981 and so, after playing the first scheduled reunion shows, he did a Devoto and preemptive strike to prevent the same thing happening again, and left. Buzzcocks carried on but in my mind they were not quite the same. Garvey played with them until 1982 but also left for health reasons.
This list only covers the period of the original band 1976-1981. The reformation Buzzcocks have put out a few top notch tracks and if I evaluated Buzzcocks entire recorded work, perhaps a couple of them would creep into this list. For example, I never tire of hearing “Sick City Kids” or “Isolation” both from the reformation period. However, as noted below, the decision as to what to include in this episode from this original period was very difficult. For a band that only put out three LPs in this period and fourteen 7-inches most of them with non-LP tracks, the choice as to what songs to include is complicated.
I was only able to see Buzzcocks once – at KROQ’s Inland Invasion 2002. Held on September 14, 2002 at Glen Helen Pavilion the Sex Pistols headlined but I was there for Buzzcocks. Having never seen them live, I was enthralled when they came out to play. It was like they had never left and I knew the words to every song they played. Really. It was a thirty minute sing-a-long and the highlight of a pretty memorable day! Here was that day’s lineup:
Main Stage: Sex Pistols, The Offspring, Social Distortion, Bad Religion, blink-182, Pennywise, Buzzcocks, New Found Glory, X, The Damned, Unwritten Law
Side Stage: The Vandals, Charged GBH, Circle Jerks, T.S.O.L., The Adolescents, The Distillers
Also memorable from that day was my wife, Shelley, accidentally starting a skinhead riot during the T.S.O.L set in the morning as the heat rose to 100 degrees in a venue with no shade. As I returned from the restroom, I was able to rescue her from where she was trapped against the fence (the only shade area) as a group of approximately 50 O.C. skins annihilated some drunk victim who had offended one of their girlfriends who was sitting beside Shelley.
So, Buzzcocks never made a huge splash in the U.S. and certainly qualify for a reexamination. Their influence on punk rock is, frankly, immeasurable. Without Buzzcocks I believe there might not be pop-punk as a genre and most of the bands that played the stage that day, including the Sex Pistols are indebted to Buzzcocks.
I could easily just play the entirety of Singles Going Steady in track order (a compilation of Buzzcocks first 8 singles put together for U.S. release in advance of Buzzcocks’ first U.S. tour) for this episode of Tales From The Dropbox. However, I challenged myself to actually think about how these songs would rank in my own order of personal preference i.e. how they connected with me as a teenager. Now 40 years down the road, these tracks still resonate albeit in a much different way and on a much different level. Hopefully, for those of you who remember and loved Buzzcocks this awakens the energy and spirit of that magical time. For those of you who have never heard of Buzzcocks, and think the name sounds obscene, here is your introduction to go and find out about one of the most influential punk bands ever and the reason why the question as to have you ever fallen in love (with someone you shouldn’t have) is relevant.
Finally, I have tried to spice up this list by giving you a couple of live versions, demos, or alternate takes to keep it interesting for those who, like me, consider themselves fans. Unfortunately, Buzzcocks are amongst the most reissued, repackaged, officially bootlegged band around, so the references below are usually to the original official release and then the release from where I dug out the particular track I’m playing! Whew…
Here is what you’ll find in Episode #69: (N.B. I put these in order from my favorite to my most favorite!) :
15.“Boredom (Demo)” – Original version is on the Spiral Scratch EP, “Boredom” is Side 2, Track 1 released January 27, 1977. Howard Devoto is the vocalist and this track expresses Howard’s view of rock music as a whole. Released on New Hormones with an original pressing of 1000 copies, Spiral Scratch is the first truly independent release in the UK. Original pressings are identified by the molded plastic labels and the cover does not mention “with Howard Devoto” which appears on the August 17, 1979 repress. This demo version is from the, now official, bootleg of demos, Times Up, which originally appeared mysteriously in 1978, and was reissued several times over the years. The most recent reissue is by Domino Records who released it again on March 10, 2017. There is also a box set limited to 300 copies that includes the Spiral Scratch EP. Of note, these tracks are more than 40 years old! The Times Up album is basically a “live” recording of Buzzcocks set at that time and recorded on October 18, 1976.
14.“Breakdown (Demo)” – This track, also originally appeared on the Spiral Scratch EP as Side 1 Track 1. The EP sold for £1 a copy. Howard Devoto again is the lead vocal on this track. Within days of the initial release, Howard Devoto quit the band. The Spiral Scratch EP quickly sold out its initial 1000 pressing, went on to sell 16,000 copies over the next six months. This version is again from the Times Up LP. I’ve included the demos of these two songs because the originals are readily available and familiar. I like the rawness of these two tracks. Another note about the Spiral Scratch EP – it was the fifth official “punk rock” record released (preceded by The Damned’s “New Rose”, the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” singles and two “first” singles by The Vibrators in November 1976 (“We Vibrate” / “Whips And Furs” (RAK, RAK 245, November 1976) and “Pogo Dancing” / “The Pose” (RAK, RAK 246, November 1976).
13.“Fiction Romance” – Not a single. Appears on Buzzcocks debut LP Another Music In A Different Kitchen released March 10, 1978. It is on Side 2, Track 2. I only really care about vinyl. That’s how I heard this first and perhaps it was the thrill of hearing these sounds emanating from the black spinning disc that gave them their unique impact. This is a live favorite and appears on a number of the live recordings/bootlegs. Buzzcocks catalogue was remastered in 1996, and for the most part the versions are “brighter” but not necessarily better. This is from the original LP version.
12.“I Believe” – Not a single. The longest track in Buzzcocks’ catalogue running 7:08. Originally released on Buzzcocks third LP, A Different Kind of Tension released in the UK in September 1979 and the other territories Canada and the U.S. in 1980. Track is a laundry list of “beliefs” held by allegedly Shelley as a “representative” person, but perhaps the most harsh analysis of why the times are contentious is Shelley’s repetition of the line “there is no love in this world anymore.” Perhaps that is true. Given all of the other takes on “love” present on this LP, “I Believe” is a direct statement that “beliefs” without love are rather meaningless. As the album’s liner notes indicate, the B-side of the LP is subtitled “The Thorn Beneath The Rose.” “I Believe” affirms that sentiment.
11.“Something’s Gone Wrong Again” – 8th single from Buzzcocks. This was the B-side of the “Harmony In My Head” single released on July 13, 1979 . The song was not released on an LP and therefore first appeared on the Singles Going Steady compilation released in UK on September 25, 1979. This might be the most negative song in Buzzcocks catalog, except for perhaps, “Boredom.”
10.“Autonomy (Live”) – Another track from the debut LP, Another Music In A Different Kitchen, on Side B, Track 3. This version of “Autonomy” is from Access All Areas Live which was released by Demon Records in 1990 as a limited edition (500 copies) picture disc. This show was filmed at Nottingham’s ITV Studios in 1989 – almost a decade after they broke up, but with the original lineup. Oh…and when I was young, I thought the lyric to this song was “I want you … on top of me.”
9.“Sixteen” – The last track, Track 6 on Side A of Another Music In A Different Kitchen, this also was not released as a single. Also rarely played live, as you will see, it is a perfect introduction to the next track in this list, that appeared on Buzzcocks next album – Love Bites – where Shelley figures out that youth is precious. In this track Shelley is looking back just 4 years (he is 20 at the time):
An’ I wish, I was sixteen again
Then things would be such fun
All the things I’d do would be the same
But they’re much more fun
8.“Sixteen Again” – From Buzzcocks 2nd LP, Love Bites released on September 22, 1978 just 6 months after the debut LP. This is also the last track, Track 6 on Side A matching the position of “Sixteen.” I’m not sure if this was a conscious decision but thematically the songs are linked. In this second and later take on the relationship with youth a more mature (6 months older!) view emerges:
Things in life are not played for keeps
If it makes you happy it’ll make you weep
And if you want some more practical advice
If you can’t think once then don’t think twice
‘Cause things won’t seem so nice
You’ll wish you were sixteen again
7.“Time’s Up” – ‘Time’s Up’ was recorded at Revolution Studios, Bramhall Lane Stockport on the 18th of October 1976. The session, recording Buzzcocks’ live set at the time, cost £45 and was engineered by Andy MacPherson. This version is from the Times Up LP. A different take of this track was released on the Spiral Scratch EP on Side A, Track 2. Again, Howard Devoto is the lead vocal.
6.“Orgasm Addict” – Buzzcocks 1St single on United Artists was released November 4, 1977. “Whatever Happened To…?” is the B-side. The French version of the single contains different takes of the same two tracks. This was the only single featuring bassist Garth Smith, who joined in early 1977 to replace Steve Diggle, who switched to guitar. Shortly after its release, he was fired for being “unreliable.”
5.“What Do I Get? (Live)” – 2nd single from Buzzcocks released January 20, 1978. B-Side is also a classic, “Oh, Shit”. This was the first Buzzcocks single to make the chart as Orgasm Addict failed to chart largely because radio wouldn’t touch that first single and even the pressing plant refused to press the single. What Do I Get? Reached No. 37 and spent 3 weeks on the chart. This version is from Beating Hearts (Live At The Apollo) recorded live at the Apollo Theater, Manchester 27/10/78.
4.“Promises” – 6th single released November 17, 1978. My mom, who was born on November 17th used to yell at me to turn down the bloody noise, but I think she actually liked this song. It was just poppy enough…but still bloody noise. B-side was “Lipstick” which was close to ending up on this list, but the choice to leave it off had to be made. The single spent 10 weeks in the UK charts peaking at 20.
3.“Harmony In My Head” – 8th single released on July 13, 1979. B-side is “Something’s Gone Wrong Again. Reached No. 32 in the UK music charts, the track is both written and sung by Steve Diggle. Apparently, this is Henry Rollin’s favorite Buzzcocks. Diggle claims he smoked 20 cigarettes before recording in order to get the gruff vocals.
2.“Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” – The 5th Buzzcocks single written in November 1977. Buzzcocks were watching the musical Guys and Dolls in the lounge of a guesthouse in Edinburgh, Scotland. Shelley wrote the lyrics to the song being inspired from the dialogue in the play “Have you ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have.” Apparently he wrote the lyrics in a van outside the post office the next day. B-side is “Just Lust.” Released on September 8, 1978, the track also appears on Buzzcocks second LP, Love Bites. This single had the highest chart position ever for Buzzcocks reaching No. 12 and spending 11 weeks in the chart. Pretty good performance on the Top of The Pops Appearance from 1978. (All Top of The Pop performances were lip synced – all of them.)
1.“Everybody’s Happy Nowadays” – 7th Buzzcocks single was released on March 2, 1979. The B-side was “Why Can’t I Touch It. This track is not released on an LP and for some reason was also rarely played live and rarely found on the myriad of live recordings available. However, there is a good video of their performance on Top of The Pops from 1979. Not sure why I like this song so much but it is my favorite Buzzcocks track. Perhaps it’s the catchy lyric – “life’s an illusion, love is a dream.”
I was so tired of being upset always wanting something I never could get, life’s an illusion, love is a dream, but I don’t know what it is . . . You spurn my natural emotions you make me feel I’m dirt and I’m hurt and if I start a commotion I run the risk of losing you and that’s worse…
I would put #2 & #5 as 1 and 2 but can not complain with the list, they were fun live, they played great and i wish more bands were like them. great show!!
also, the background you give on the timelines and how they came to be
Love it keep it comingQ!
I truly had difficulty with the top 5 they are all very close in my mind. I can’t argue with you, but I’d like too! Damn… Any suggestions for next one? Right now I’m vacillating between Replacements and Husker Du….
There you have it – choice made – Husker Du it is!
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