For most punk rock bands, a propensity for intensity is par for the course. It’s not uncommon to see a band squeeze out several albums of sheer greatness and then break up while at the height of its energy, preferring to burn out in a blaze of glory rather than fade away into embarrassing obscurity.
Manchester, England’s the Buzzcocks certainly embodied this musical model, disbanding over a label dispute in 1981 after three full-lengths and the singles tour de force “Singles Going Steady.” Yet, against all odds, since reforming in 1989, the legendary band has continued to grow, evolve and –more importantly — produce vital music.
On its latest, self-titled album, released March 18 by revered independent label Merge, the band maintains every bit of the freshness it exhibited a quarter-century ago. Co-founder and guitarist/songwriter Pete Shelley laughingly attributes the longevity of the Buzzcocks’ career to an astoundingly simple philosophy: “We only do what we enjoy doing, [and] we don’t write songs that we don’t enjoy playing.”
Of course, since Shelley is one of British punk rock’s hallowed graduates, he deserves this measure of freedom. Not as determined to change the world as the Clash, or out to offend the masses like the Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks relied on nuance as their secret weapon. A brasher, less parentally sanctioned update of pop radio laments for sex-starved teenagers, the quartet’s tension-serrated riffs merged with deceptively simple melodies and harmonies. The BBC naturally banned their debut single “Orgasm Addict,” but subsequent nuggets like “What Do I Get?” and “Ever Fallen in Love?” solidified the group’s future influence on everyone from Husker Du to Foo Fighters.
Just like the band’s earliest days, Shelley describes “Buzzcocks” (produced by current bassist Tony Barber) as filled with “lots of hooks to hang your thoughts and feelings on.” Immediately evident from the opening bombast of “Jerk” is the undeniable chemistry between this version of the band, which also includes longtime guitarist/songwriter Steve Diggle and drummer Philip Barker. Whether it’s the squealing guitar snaking out of “Keep On,” or the fuzzy distortion decorating the hook-laden “Sick City Sometimes,” the set is a cohesive, unrelenting assault on the ears. “It works as an album,” Shelley agrees. “Everybody who has heard it so far says that it just slips from one track to the next.”
His lyrics have never been as piercing either, as evidenced by lines like “I turn around and it all looks the same / I don’t even know if I’ll ever be loved again / The only thing I can rely on is change,” from “Friends.” However, more notable is the presence of the band’s other original founder, Howard Devoto, who earns co-writing credits with Shelley on two tracks, the sneering “Stars,” and “Lester Sands.”
Although Devoto left to form post-punkers Magazine soon after the Buzzcocks’ debut “Spiral Scratch” EP — heretofore the only officially recorded evidence of their collaboration — the partnership between the two recently rekindled under the moniker ShelleyDevoto on the 2002 electronica excursion “Buzzkunst.” Surprisingly, Shelley says the technological bent of that album actually emerged from the two’s attempts at recapturing that initial Buzzcocks rock magic.
“Initially, one of the ideas when we started working together was that we would have some material which the Buzzcocks could record, for the next album,” he explains. “The first track which came up in that collaboration was ‘Stars.’ Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on which way you look, perhaps a bit of both — it was the only one which was really easily put into being a Buzzcocks song. Whereas all the other ones that we were coming up with were equally as good, and that’s why we did the ‘Buzzkunst’ album.”
Devoto isn’t involved in the touring band — and, hence, won’t be with the Buzzcocks when they tour America later this summer, opening for Pearl Jam. However, the crowd reception to recent live shows in Australia, their first gigs in 18 months due to Diggle’s broken wrist, pleased Shelley immensely.
“We managed to fool them,” he laughs. “Usually when people get wind that you’re playing a new song, they stand and listen, because you know they don’t know what to do. Then when there’s something that they know, they can jump around a bit more, because usually you can tell when the new songs happen. But we managed to fool them. They didn’t really know whether it was a song they had listened to a lot.”
Indeed, likely because the band has stuck fiercely to the straightforward formula that has been its strength from day one, the Buzzcocks are one of the few punk originators to preserve the integrity of their legacy while inspiring a whole new generation of fans today.
“People are coming up and saying, ‘I’ve been listening to your records since I was four,’ since they were listening to their parents’ records,” Shelley says. “It’s just gotten to the age now where the children of old punks are now teenagers and they’re going, ‘Yeah, I want a bit of this as well.’ It’s good, because they’re usually quite well-adjusted people — surprisingly, after having been indoctrinated by my thoughts and views of life.”