Beyond the 130: Buzzcocks

Bent Fabric
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Beyond the 130: Buzzcocks

Postby Bent Fabric » 18 Feb 2015, 01:38

One of my favorite succinct and damning utterances from "veteran Northern curmudgeon Mark E. Smith" was a semi-recent observation that - emblematic of punk's/post-punk's failings - Buzzcocks had started off promising but "within two weeks they'd turned into Freddie and the Dreamers".

If you don't especially like Buzzcocks, it's a very resonant summary and dismissal of their musical "cuteness". Hell, even if you love them as much as I do, it's not difficult to see the deep and undeniable truth in the insightful pithy remark. The shit is often DEEPLY precious, however unflinchingly it may deal with the darker side of human relationships. It's as if some Northern Sam Phillips said "Get me four white boys who can use the tools of punk to make these cutesy sounding bleeding heart confessions that make 'From Me To You' sound like 'War Pigs'."

I can't stress this enough, but...this shit is ultimately a great deal more vulnerable than your average singer songwriter.

I came to them via a rather remarkable CD (it was 1989...) compilation called Singles Going Steady - it was cheap and just LOOKED promising (for MY part, I was 19, at a peak of income disposability, and very aggressively on the search for as much of "the good shit" as I might be able to find via my random grabs. It made a pretty immediate and direct hit - as I suppose it was designed to. After all, it contained (in sequence) the band's first 8 singles, A sides and B sides. I'll never know (as many of you undoubtedly do) what it was like to buy, hear and devour those singles one by one as they came out, but...for perspective, the American release of this compilation (designed as a primer for the American market) appeared one week after the execrable and (then) much ballyhooed "Heartache Tonight" by Eagles (pure WEA coffer filling Hamburger Helper by recidivist septum deviating stadium loiterers who had finally reached the long-coveted "Hey, we showed UP, didn't we? You're WELCOME." artistic stature that had undoubtedly always been their goal). "Pearls before swine" seems almost euphemistic in this context.

Anyhow - one song at a time, it REALLY got its hooks in me. My own naive ideas about music had mostly consisted of some sense that a handful of guys get together somewhere and start piling on the musical fairy dust, typically in the form of ideas and sounds lifted from other people's (recent) records. The very notion that one person could simply create a SONG out of nothing more than a compelling melody, a transparently emotionally manipulative series of chord changes, angsty adolescent boy/girl lyrics (hey - what did I know about Shelley's gender neutral use of pronouns? There weren't no internet then) and then present it as directly as possible...yeah, it undoubtedly took hearing "Ever Fallen In Love", "What Do I Get", "I Don't Mind", "Love You More", etc. to put those D.I.Y. pieces together (the pieces that got me "where I am today!").

"You Weren't There" types could have a field day with this sort of thing - a kid discovers a seminal pop-punk band (the first?) a decade belatedly and falls in love with them just like a neophyte. Granted - that may be more of a punk fetish than not (few people are castigated for coming to Spirit or Can or Love or Pet Sounds or Gene Clark or 13th Floor Elevators or Odyssey and Oracle or The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society well after the fact). If there is some sense that "the good shit endures", my Buzzcocks story is like a million others where people sort of find their voices/inspiration from the discarded relics of a long gone time (the space of ten years in pop music terms means a lot less now than it did then - I think it now means "two U2 or Beck albums - at least one of which will represent some 'return to form'"). To put it another way - the year that I bought this record climaxed with an actual reunion tour. I would see them at Chicago's Cabaret Metro performing the hits and key album tracks in the mid/late autumn of 1989, and there would be Jurassic Punks fervently singing along with every lyric. Local boys Smashing Pumpkins would open the show.

I can (and probably should) talk about this shit until the cows come home, but...

*(go look up "Ever Fallen In Love" on YouTube if you feel like it)*

I mean, "Ever Fallen In Love" really is a perfect storm of some crucial number of things that make me glad to be alive. Immediacy, a shockingly (yes) Beatlesesque command of harmony, melody, dynamics, tension and release, and arrangement (the coda is absolutely the sort of "Oh, we're wrapping it up with a nice big bow!" sort of thing you get in "Please Please Me" or, I suppose, "Go All The Way"). You see all these silly anemic bed-wetters get together annually in the name of what they call "power pop" and you start to wonder if this sort of thing was completely in vain?

*(go look up "What Do I Get" on YouTube if you feel like it)*

"What Do I Get" says a lot with very little. A plainspoken lament to adolescent/young adult romantic loneliness and isolation. The guitar solo might be the most punk rock thing I've ever heard. Again, the coda provides a nice wrap up to the whole thing. They were good at those almost Vaudeville style touches.

My "other favorite" of the classic 77-79 singles is "I Don't Mind" - the bridge is sublime, and the way the second bridge modulates the final verse into a key change is kind of unbelievable. It's a very diligent Brill Building level of songcraft applied to a very immediate and disposable art form made by people who had just picked up their instruments not that long ago. There's a lot to be said for having good instincts. And confidence.

The three albums made by the classic (third, in fact - things happened quickly back then) lineup are all winners:

Another Music In A Different Kitchen is SLIGHTLY tentative and halting, but contains some absolute classics: the ecologically minded "Fast Cars" (complete with punk rock Ralph Nader namecheck in late 1977, no less), the gorgeously repetitive and dissonant "Autonomy" (more on this later), "Fiction Romance"...just a monster, really.

Love Bites is considerably more focused - "Operator's Manual" and "Nostalgia" are as beautiful as anything I've ever heard.

*(go look for "Nostalgia" on YouTube, if you wish)*

Right?

The third and final album from "Buzzcocks Mk III" (a delineation that may give them a bit more prog cred) may be their masterpiece - their Abbey Road or Pepper or something. An experimental work that lacks some of the immediacy and innocence of the first two, but really earns their post punk stripes with palpable LSD damage. Songs like "You Say You Don't Love Me" and "I Don't Know What To Do With My Life", are trad. Buzzcocks masterpieces - compellingly compact, melodic and angsty with concise, biting guitar solos. Others - such as "Hollow Inside", "Money", Diggle's "Sitting Round At Home" (which could pass for a ZZ Top Deguello outtake), the title track - make a virtue of the type of repetition/dissonance that the band started exploring on the likes of "Autonomy", "Noise Annoys" and the utterly masterful "Why Can't I Touch It". This widescreen long-form business reaches its absolute peak on the album's finale "I Believe".

*(go look for "I Believe" on YouTube, if you haven't stormed off yet)*

There is a rather handy dandy one disc compilation called Operator's Manual that captures all of these magical moments in one place - both single and album highlights from the golden era.

They would peter out with a trio of - in my estimation - rather uninspired singles, and they would eventually reunite in the 1990s and start making new records (they seem to be still at it). This stuff has its fans, but has rather thoroughly failed to connect with me in any way.

To return to the topic at hand (their artistic peak), they very nearly seem like an impossible illusion to me now. I've got the LPs and I play them periodically when the mood strikes, but - had I not seen the last tour with this lineup, and a subsequent one with Mike Joyce on drums (we had no internet then, and you quite often saw these sorts of things without realizing that there was pedigreed personnel on deck...I've seen the likes of PJ Proby under similar circumstances), I might find the existence of a band this perfect almost mythic and impossible. To me, they were a very real, present and fully realized, high impact version of what so many others promised and threatened to be.

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Re: Beyond the 130: Buzzcocks

Postby Jeff K » 18 Feb 2015, 01:50

I think you should do every entry on Beyond the 130 because you write so well.
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Re: Beyond the 130: Buzzcocks

Postby Charlie O. » 18 Feb 2015, 06:12

John, my "Buzzcocks experience" mirrors yours to an almost uncanny degree. I agree with most everything you say, except that you appear to like the third album rather more than I do, and I loved the first post-reunion album Trade Test Transmissions (though I'll admit I haven't played it in a very long time).

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Re: Beyond the 130: Buzzcocks

Postby toomanyhatz » 18 Feb 2015, 06:49

Yep, my Buzzcocks experience is the same. Even now, though, I can't shake the notion that they're a singles band. Their albums are good but I never pull them out to listen to them.

"I Don't Mind" is the one for me - I guess I understand the notion that there's something precious about it, but my positive spin on it is that it manages to be simultaneously vulnerable and snarky. It's a neat trick.

It seems to be generally held wisdom that the 'real' stuff is the DeVoto era. I've never gotten this - it seems like they were pulling in separate directions from the beginning, and I guess ultimately Shelley seems more forward-looking to me, by virtue of his willingness to look backwards, as compared to Devoto's more self-conscious 'futurism'. (And let's not forget Steve Diggle, who wrote more of those songs on SGS than he's usually remembered for.)

I remember in the early days of punk rock liking the idea that it was more direct and less oriented to musical excess, but that the main fallacy of it was trying to distance itself from the past. I think I knew instinctively that 'year zero' was a bullshit pose. I remember saying at the time that if bands were more willing to combine their anger and intensity with pop hooks and tight harmonies (don't want to put it in such blatant "more like the Beatles" terms, but that's almost certainly what I meant at the time), that then they'd really have something.

I only realized later that the Buzzcocks were already doing it. I can't think of another band that so neatly fit a picture in my head of the kind of band that 'should' exist. I don't listen to them as much as I used to - probably don't like them as much as I used to either - but I still hold them dear. They feel very personal to me, almost like I retroactively invented them.
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Re: Beyond the 130: Buzzcocks

Postby sloopjohnc » 18 Feb 2015, 14:53

I'll write more later, but I'm always interested in Devoto's scope within the band and if the Buzzcocks might've adopted more of a Magazine sound had he stayed.
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Re: Beyond the 130: Buzzcocks

Postby sloopjohnc » 18 Feb 2015, 16:56

I'm a little older than some other guys on here so I got Singles Going Steady when it was released on IRS in 1979. I was a fan of punk anyway, but like SJS wrote, here was a punk band that combined the rawness of punk with great melodies.

My only complaint about the Buzzcocks and 999 is they have a lot to answer for in influencing bands like Blink 182 and Green Day.
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Re: Beyond the 130: Buzzcocks

Postby Phenomenal Cat » 18 Feb 2015, 19:36

toomanyhatz wrote:They feel very personal to me, almost like I retroactively invented them.


This is so great. I was once trying to chalk in my head why I had no interest in The Jam (BCB will put these thoughts into your head) and after adding up all the things I had wished they were doing, I realized that I was describing The Buzzcocks. The hooks, the economy, the winning vocals and wry sense of humor - it's all there. Just a classic three-piece dynamo, with one of those twin threats in Shelley and Diggle much like Mould and Hart or even Partridge and Moulding.
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Re: Beyond the 130: Buzzcocks

Postby bobzilla77 » 18 Feb 2015, 20:07

They were also quite prescient in their noting that "international women with no body hair" had the potential for mass fetishizing.
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Re: Beyond the 130: Buzzcocks

Postby jimboo » 18 Feb 2015, 20:15

toomanyhatz wrote:Yep, my Buzzcocks experience is the same. Even now, though, I can't shake the notion that they're a singles band. Their albums are good but I never pull them out to listen to them.




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Re: Beyond the 130: Buzzcocks

Postby The Modernist » 18 Feb 2015, 20:17

They were very good, but conversely not a band I have much interest in revisiting. It is difficult to say why without it sounding more critical than I intend, but there's something a bit limited about them, once you've lived with and enjoyed their music there's not much to get your teeth into afterwards..but they were perfect for 79/80.
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Re: Beyond the 130: Buzzcocks

Postby bobzilla77 » 18 Feb 2015, 20:20

It seems to be generally held wisdom that the 'real' stuff is the DeVoto era. I've never gotten this - it seems like they were pulling in separate directions from the beginning, and I guess ultimately Shelley seems more forward-looking to me, by virtue of his willingness to look backwards, as compared to Devoto's more self-conscious 'futurism'. (And let's not forget Steve Diggle, who wrote more of those songs on SGS than he's usually remembered for.)


I like it a lot, and wish there was a bit more of it, but it's enough. I don't wish they had kept going at it that way.

One of my fave things about them is how clever they can be without sounding "clever" like the Pixies or something. Think about the middle 8 with the bass solo in "I Need." Two note descending riff, unravelling with the solo before they all hit the same rhythmic figure and ram it into the floor in double-time and then end up back at the intro. It's so obvious, yet so unexpected, it's like they gave you what you wanted before you knew to want it.
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Re: Beyond the 130: Buzzcocks

Postby Guy E » 18 Feb 2015, 21:30

Great write-up.

I was there from the UA beginning and after Orgasm Addict I bought a copy of Spiral Scratch. Yes, it was great fun following the band because they just leaped from strength to strength. With Everybody's Happy Nowadays/Why Can't I Touch It the possibilities truly felt limitless, but alas, that was something of a high-point.

My father took a business trip to England around that time and having no idea what to buy me as a souvenir he took the recommendation of a young female record store clerk and bought Another Music in a Different Kitchen and a reissue LP by The Deviants with a nun on the cover slurping a Popsicle... sort of a theme purchase.

Cool dad, thanks.

So I always had two copies of that Buzzcocks debut album.
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Re: Beyond the 130: Buzzcocks

Postby pcqgod » 18 Feb 2015, 21:48

I actually started with the 'Singles' comp, but couldn't entirely get into it at the time. Not until I heard 'Tension' was I won over, and 'Kitchen' sealed the deal.
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Re: Beyond the 130: Buzzcocks

Postby Snarfyguy » 18 Feb 2015, 23:22

Guy E wrote: With Everybody's Happy Nowadays/Why Can't I Touch It the possibilities truly felt limitless, but alas, that was something of a high-point.

One of the great singles of its era, or any era for that matter.

I think I'll play it now...

Fantastic write-up.
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Re: Beyond the 130: Buzzcocks

Postby Rayge » 15 Jan 2018, 18:55

bump
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Re: Beyond the 130: Buzzcocks

Postby The Modernist » 18 Jan 2018, 13:32

Interesting that all the replies, apart from mine, were from US posters. I wonder if they're legacy is stronger in the US than the UK?

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Re: Beyond the 130: Buzzcocks

Postby Rayge » 18 Jan 2018, 13:56

The Modernist wrote:Interesting that all the replies, apart from mine, were from US posters. I wonder if they're legacy is stronger in the US than the UK?


Dunno about that, in my case I just missed it. I was in from the beginning, bought my copy of Spiral Scratch within a week of release, and kept on going. Sure the albums are all right, but it was as a singles band I knew them best, and Dog knows they were great at it - a new release was always a treat, and they kept on coming. I was definitely a fan of Shelley rather than Diggle in the songwriting department - I found the latter often a little clunky, less fairy-dust – and feel they improved a great deal after Devoto left, just because he was obviously pulling in another direction from the others – I was a big fan of Magazine too.
For me, the ’Cocks' high point was Orgasm Addict, with its slippery meter and funny lyric, but there never were any duds, and I also enjoyed the more outré tracks, such as Away from the Pulsebeat (is that title right - too busy to check?).
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Re: Beyond the 130: Buzzcocks

Postby jimboo » 05 Feb 2018, 23:44

The Modernist wrote:Interesting that all the replies, apart from mine, were from US posters. I wonder if they're legacy is stronger in the US than the UK?


Interesting you think I am American.
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