Buzzcocks' Steve Diggle Looks Back on Their Pop-Punk Classics
When the Buzzcocks, already on their third lineup, released their full-length debut Another Music in a Different Kitchen in 1978, the British punk band's punchy sound and quick-witted lyrics sent a shockwave through the U.K. scene ruled by the Sex Pistols; a year later, the now-classic compilation Singles Going Steady introduced them to American audiences. Helmed by the late Pete Shelley, who took the reigns as vocalist after founding member Howard Devoto left to found post-punk band Magazine, it would take a few decades for the rest of the world to catch up to these pop-punk progenitors.
This month, Domino Records released reissues of Singles Going Steady and A Different Kind of Tension, the group’s third and final studio album with the band’s most famous lineup of Shelley, Steve Diggle, Steve Garvey and John Maher. The reissues see these records pressed onto vinyl for the first time in decades and come with exclusive artwork and unreleased photos of the group curated with help from graphic designer and longtime collaborator Malcolm Garrett.
The current lineup, consisting of Diggle, Chris Remington and Danny Farrant, is set to play the Royal Albert Hall on June 21 alongside The Skids. Booked before Shelley’s death at age 63, the band is going through with the show as a "celebration of Pete's life,” Diggle told NME.
Billboard spoke to Diggle, the band’s longest-standing member, about the reissues, his life with the influential rock band, and the purpose and future of punk in the social media age.
These reissues are the first time A Different Kind of Tension and Singles Going Steady have been pressed on vinyl since the '70s. Wondering what you think about vinyl making a comeback.
It's good that vinyl's making a comeback because it means people will listen to the album. When people download things now, they only listen to a couple of tracks instead of the whole thing. Remember when those records came out, that was all there was. It's great people are still buying records. It's an experience of the music that shows what the band was actually doing while making an album. It goes down one side, and another side...it's a journey. A download is all frequencies.
Singles Going Steady was your intro to the U.S. market for a lot of people. What was that first big wave of stateside love like back in '79? Did that come as a shock?
We put two albums out in the U.K., Love Bites and our debut Another Music in a Different Kitchen along with Singles Going Steady. We kept putting off going to the States, but by the time we got to do the first tour, they said we better bring our catalog up to date with Europe and that's how Singles Going Steady came about. Most of those songs on the record were hits over here, so we had to bring America up to date through a “pop history” of our hit singles over here. Quite a lot of people in America thought that was our first album!
Do you feel like that affected how you were viewed stateside?
Not really, no. We'd done all our songs over here, and when we went to America, it was us introducing ourselves. A Different Kind of Tension was a different pitch, but then Singles Going Steady became a classic. It became a very special thing. If you want to be introduced to the Buzzcocks, you start with Singles Going Steady and work your way from here. Each album has a very different feeling, whereas Singles Going Steady was, well, singles. A Different Kind of Tension was our third proper album, so that was a lot heavier.
What was the recording process for A Different Kind of Tension like?
The moments with A Different Kind of Tension suggested the experimental. We did it a bit more avant-garde. When you listen to a Buzzcocks record, you know it's the Buzzcocks. You can see over the years when those albums came out at the time how it influenced a lot of people and you can tell in a lot of records at the time that they were listening to us. This record was very unique: you have great songs with a catchy pop element, but there were discordant guitars on there. It wasn't straight to you -- even the pop songs had weird moments.
Can you tell me a crazy tour story from that era that people might not know?
There’s so many; it was a crazy rock n’ roll journey. For me it was more about the intensity of touring and all the weird things that happened in between. We made four records after these, and it's what we've been doing the last 10 or 15 years whenever we got back in the '90s. In a lot of ways, it was me and Pete all the way up until him sadly dying recently. That's all we've been doing, making records and touring... the band seemed to get better all the time. It takes about two years to get around the world. People see these new albums and a lot of the older fans welcomed new material, but when people come and see it live they want classic stuff.
Hence the reissues that made this interview possible.
The great thing about these records is that they stand the test of time. Most of them were recorded live, so they have an immediate, timeless feeling. They always sound fresh. Even though we started out as a punk band, we kind of broke down into being the Buzzcocks, same as like when the Sex Pistols, The Jam and The Damned came out. These bands carved their own identity, and we did too. These albums reflect what the Buzzcocks could do.
What do you think those things are?
With Singles Going Steady we were going for the catchy pop punk single or whatever, but then again songs like “Why Can’t I Touch It” and “Autonomy” are a lot more avant-garde. It wasn't just straight-edge simple pop songs. It was very complex and clean, but with more experimental guitar riffs.
While we’re on the topic of the avant-garde, I know the Buzzcocks were inspired by experimental writers, particularly William S. Burroughs and James Joyce. What continues to inspire the Buzzcocks?
We were inspired by our day-to-day lives, everything that happens around you, people paying their gas bill, the human condition, the things going on inside you. We were inspired by Burroughs, Joyce and lots of existential writers -- Sartre, Camus. When I was young, if I bought a hit single, I’d buy a book at the same time. It's in our lyrics as well. Bits of philosophy and really simple things. It adds a lot of depth to the music. When you look at a Picasso or a Van Gogh, you think that's an incredible painting that's taught me a lot of things in life. I tend to look at the Buzzcocks records like that. We never sat down and said “let's do it like this”; it just happened. At the same time, when we got on the stage it was animalistic, it was an assault on the senses...it was punk! It made people come alive.
I found this older interview where you say punk music is about questioning things and questioning yourself, and I was wondering if you still feel that way.
The Buzzcocks' music was about questioning who you are, self-realization, questioning your environment and trying to discover something. When Plato and Socrates started, that's what they were looking for. When people listened to the records, they were trying to find out who they were. We didn't have the answers, but we weren't really looking for the answers. Once you experience certain things in life, you can never go back. You've got the ammunition, and it helps you, music. We were less distracted then, what with social media now and whatnot.
Do you feel the Internet and social media equalized the playing field? Now anyone with a phone can record themselves, and distribution is a free-for-all.
Years ago, we had cassette players, and now anybody can make a song. The interaction of a band, the noise we were making... you can't sit down make it on computers. Putting four people in a room and not knowing what's gonna happen offers humane motions. In a computer, everything's perfect... the old way of doing it with guitars and drums offers up human interaction between musicians which creates magic. Some things are accidental -- life's not perfect so why should the music be perfect? We have a song called “People Are Strange Machines,” and that's about that -- are we becoming a machine? Are we adapting ourselves to become automatons? We need to keep thinking in a human way.