LEGENDARY HEARTS

Even after 23 years, the Buzzcocks have inspiration to spare

"There was never any thought of just playing our old hits to remind people how good we were," Shelley says. Ah, but this is one of the problems with all these punk reunions, isn't it? History is usually enough for the buying public. Even the supposedly iconoclastic punk audience flocks to see bands that are little more than living museum exhibits. Typically, diehard fans don't like new material, and everybody else ignores it. Sometimes the results only serve to humiliate everyone involved. Can you imagine what kind of person gets excited, in 1999, about new albums by, say, the U.K. Subs, or Fear? Even a more credible band like Stiff Little Fingers has released two embarrassingly awful albums since their reunion. In their case, the new lineup includes former Jam bassist Bruce Foxton and thereby manages to stain the legacies of two great bands. At their last Chicago show, SLF frontman Jake Burns exasperatedly acknowledged the futility of trying to play the unwelcome, mediocre new stuff in front of crowds who just want to hear "Suspect Device."

So Shelley, Diggle and company could easily crank out the oldies like sausages and take home a decent piece of change. They could be Buzzcocks forever without ever writing another song. From a career standpoint, they don't need the headaches of maintaining a fully functioning band just to pay the rent. Why risk the loyalty of longtime fans by releasing and performing unfamiliar new songs that people might not like?

It's because they still have quite a bit of inspiration left. Unlike most punk revival acts, the Buzzcocks can still write creative, energetic rock & roll. The new album, Modern (Go Kart), is the proof. Now, there's no point in pretending that anything on this album is as exciting as "Orgasm Addict," "I Believe," or the other classic material the original Buzzcocks recorded. Those records were made by much younger men in the heat and tension of the late-'70s punk ferment. But Modern holds many rewards for the discerning guitar-pop enthusiast.

Shelley still has a gift for fractured melodies, and his vocals have lost none of their high-pitched charm. Diggle's guitar leads sound as if he's left his amp settings unchanged since 1978. Diggle wrote and sings five of the album's 14 tracks, the best among them being the new-wavy "Speed of Life" and the melodic rocker "Turn of the Screw." (OK, OK, the album's song titles are pretty dire.) As always, Diggle holds his own alongside his more celebrated partner.

Other goodies include "Runaround," with a chorus full of spiraling hooks; the dorky synth-cheese of "Choices"; and the garage-y "Rendezvous." There are a couple of missteps, but even those are pretty easy to take. It sounds unbelievable, so it bears repeating: The Buzzcocks have made a very good new record that any fan of the band should hear at least once. Still skeptical? Go to the show. When they play the new stuff, pay attention instead of going to the bar or checking out potential sex partners.

Against all the odds, the new Buzzcocks are for real. It remains to be seen whether a constituency for their platform still exists, but the '90s success of Buzzcocks-influenced bands like Green Day, Blur and Elastica would seem to be a good sign. But regardless of the public appetite for high-energy guitar pop, it's what Shelley will always love. "I always applaud any practitioners of the form," he says. "It's an enjoyable medium and everything. That's why we play it. We're not bored when we're doing it. I have a great time."

How much longer will they keep it up? "As long as we can go, anyway," Shelley says. "I just started writing a song last night."

The Buzzcocks perform at the Galaxy on Monday, Nov. 8. Also on the bill are the Lunachicks and Down by Law.

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