Even after 23 years, the Buzzcocks have inspiration to spare

Nov 3, 1999 at 4:00 am
"The first gig after me and Howard got the band together was at the College Textile Students Association, on April 1," Pete Shelley says. "It was an appropriate date, considering the foolhardiness of what we were doing."

What Shelley and Howard Devoto were doing in Manchester, England, in 1976 was giving birth to the Buzzcocks, the first punk band to combine crashing guitars and amphetamine rhythms with gorgeous melodies full of teenage heartbreak. It was a moment before punk had congealed into macho meathead posturing, when it was still OK to be smart and sensitive and witty. Originally the lead singer, Devoto left the band the next year. His songwriting partner Shelley took over the vocals. Thus constituted, the Buzzcocks released a series of singles that remain loved by everyone who's ever heard them. (They're collected on the near-perfect Singles Going Steady compilation.)

Taking punk's stripped-down blueprint and twisting it until it strains, these records are really like nothing else before or since. Listen, for instance, to "Orgasm Addict," the buzzing, snapping 1977 single that was the first release from the post-Devoto band. It works on one level as a high-speed paean to masturbation; indeed, it works so well that it set off a wildcat strike at the pressing plant when the workers there found the contents obscene. But "Orgasm Addict" isn't just a smutty novelty number. Shelley's fevered vocals are magnificent, giving the song a high-pitched, sweaty sincerity that perfectly suits its story of horny frustration. The detail in the lyrics perfectly captures that time in a young man's life when every waking moment crackles with sexual ache: "You've even made it with the lady who puts the little plastic bunnies on the Christmas cakes." All this, and enough guitar blitz to satisfy anybody with a mohawk. It's easy to see why the Buzzcocks were a few blocks ahead of good-but-not-great pretenders like 999 and the Vibrators.

What's more, as in all of Shelley's love/sex songs, there's a thick atmosphere of gender ambiguity. The second-person protagonist of "Orgasm Addict" is "making out with schoolkids, winos and heads of state," and "international women with no body hair." Likewise with the band's other classic love songs: "What Do I Get," "Love You More," "You Say You Don't Love Me." Though they trade heavily in lost-love conventions, you'll never hear Shelley telling you that he misses that girl -- or boy, for that matter.

Shelley says the ambiguity was always intentional. "And it tends to work," he says. "I mean, our fans are male and female, and they certainly seem able to associate themselves with the songs." This androgynous streak even extends to Shelley's choice of stage name. Born Peter McNeish, he chose Shelley as his stage name because it's the name his mother would have chosen had he been born a girl. "And, you know, it also sounds good, and has connotations with the poet and everything," he says. Shelley's gay persona and perspective enabled the Buzzcocks to avoid the male-rock-fantasy aspect that can put women off bands like the Clash and the Jam. There has always been a strong nonstraight and/or nonmale component in the Buzzcocks' audience, and people of both genders and all orientations have displayed that heartfelt devotion to the band that can only be called a crush. Not every band can combine such sensitivity with bona fide loud-and-fast thrills like the superquick "Fast Cars" or guitarist Steve Diggle's "Harmony in My Head," a heavy dose of Brit-angst that provides the salt to balance Shelley's sugar.

Although the Buzzcocks were known for tightly constructed pop-punk singles, a strong arty streak ran through their LPs. The naive experimentalism of early punk has largely been airbrushed out of the official history, but it's an interesting and distinct sound that holds up just as well as the more pop-oriented side. Listening now to songs like "Moving Away from the Pulsebeat" and "Noise Annoys," it's easy to see how the Buzzcocks fit in alongside Wire, Alternative TV and the early Fall out in left field. "There's always been a wide range of musical approaches in the band," Shelley says. "We just get to do a little more on an album."

It was this semipsychedelic side that came to dominate the original band's later records (allegedly aided by Shelley's then-constant LSD use), culminating in the towering "I Believe," surely the best seven-minute punk anthem ever recorded. Shelley, by this time, was working existential alchemy with his lyrics, and "I Believe" is some kind of miracle that way: "I believe in my mom and my dad. There is no love in this world anymore." Another late single, "Are Everything," sports a Sgt. Pepper-styled string line that predates "Raspberry Beret" by about six years. Alas, the audience for such musings had dwindled by 1980, so "I Believe" and other interesting stuff from this period met with indifference. The punks had the Exploited, the pop kids had Spandau Ballet, and the Buzzcocks broke up.

Shelley became a gay icon with the 1981 dance-floor smash "Homosapien," but it was clear that he needed the tension of a band situation to bring out the brilliance of his earlier work. When he and Diggle re-formed the band in 1991, they made it clear that this was no cash-in minstrel show, no "surfing a wave of nostalgia," as an earlier Buzzcocks song put it.

"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.