The Buzzcocks were always coy about their sensitive sides. They had song titles like Oh Shit and Orgasm Addict. They layered every track with screeching high-treble guitars and whiplash fast drums. Plus they hung out with a bunch of sarcastic jerks like Sex Pistols and tough blokes like the Clash. But like it or not (often not) they are the Poets of late 70s punk rock. Under the tumbling snare rolls and snotty vocals were soulful harmonies and clever, classic pop song structures. And beyond the juvenile humor there was a deftness with language that had more in common with WH Auden than Malcom McLaren, songs that personified insecurity, weakness, fear and longing in cathartic three minute bursts.
Of course they couldn’t admit to being the most thoughtful band in punk rock. Singer/Guitarist Pete Shelley still to this day denies he changed his last name (from McNeish) in honor of the Romantic poet, but where the rest of punk was all RIGHT Now Now Now Now, the Buzzcocks were always asking When? When? When? When will I be loved? Of course they were ironic about it, and bitter, and self-mocking, but still, everyone (especially a 14 year old who’d never been kissed) can hear the sincere wistfulness behind the tough posture. The first two albums especially encapsulate this struggle between those opposing statements: Fuck You and Love Me…to the point that they make you want to mosh and cry at the same time.
Over the years they’ve made lots of other records with varying degrees of expansion and success, but on the whole they have stuck to that fundamental pattern–a knife dipped in honey, or an ice-cream cone covered in drywall screws. Now they’re touring the US for the first time in a long while, covering their first two records back to back. It’s a unique opportunity, and I highly recommend you check it out. I spoke to Pete a few days ago as he was preparing to hop the pond, about what punk really meant, coming unstuck in time, and whether Lady Gaga is music or not.
BYT: You guys are playing the first show of your tour in Washington D.C. iI that just how it worked out or is there something special about our city?
Pete Shelley: No, no it just kind of worked out that way. It’s called ‘the magic of agents and promoters put a tour together.’ A lot of people think it’s done with a map and a blindfold. [Laughs] Thankfully this one isn’t too bad.
BYT: It’s pretty long though, right?
PS: 55 Days.
BYT: This the first time you touring in the States where you’re playing both albums back to back…
PS: Yes, yes but we did it, we started last January in Britain, and then went into Europe. Then, in November we went into Australia and New Zealand. So yea, it’s time to get out and play with someone again.
BYT: So I guess, having that experience and having done it and going back to it—the back-to-back album tour—I’m assuming they are in order?
PS: Yes, they are in full order.
BYT: That’s happening more and more I feel like a lot of classic bands are going that route with tours. Do you find that more liberating not having to switch up the set list all the time, or does it get exhausting?
PS: I think it’s more liberating because when you’re on tour you’re not sure whether to play this song or this song, and now we know we have to do it. But I mean it’s a bit remarkable and enjoyable getting to go back to some material and play it live one more time.
BYT: So there were songs that for some reason never became live staples?
PS: Yes, but I guess part of the reason was that we had too many songs.
BYT: In whose opinion?
PS: I’m sure after we’ve played a few album’s worth and even a few singles, people are still going to say “Hey you didn’t play that one!”
PS: Because that’s what happens when we play a set, so we tried to play a few songs that people say that we don’t often play. But we’ll consider them for next time.
BYT: So on the encores you are playing more recent stuff and more songs from later years…
PS: Well no, we’re going to stay back in the 70’s. We also are going to be doing the 6 singles which we released around the time of the albums. There are still a lot of songs left off too.
BYT: Certainly the re-releases demonstrate that. I was going to ask about what you think about revisiting that song writing. On more recent records, like on Modern, you don’t have exactly the same kind of guitar layering or harmonies, but still I feel like all the songs that have been written by Steve [Diggle] have a singular aesthetic throughout the years. Did that kind of get gelled at an early age and you were like “BAM That’s how we write songs” or is it more of a conscious effort like “Let’s write a Buzzcocks song.”
PS: No, no it’s much more organic than that. That’d be a pretty cynical marketing ploy.
BYT: No, no I’m not saying that! Although that would be brilliant if someone could do it.
PS: In the 60’s when I started listening to music, which of course back then was mostly singles based, everything was good tunes done in about three minutes. Which fit perfect with my short attention span. When I like a song I don’t rush a recording and record it immediately. I let myself forget a song because it’s the ones that you keep remembering and that come back and haunt you that are the ones that make it and that are going to last, and I think that has worked.
BYT: You say you started listening to songs in the 60’s and I can see that influence on you guys, but there also is this element of noisiness, too.
PS: It’s all with a bit of attitude.
BYT: Can you imagine writing a lot of pop songs that didn’t have that attitude? Now or any point in the future?
PS: Not really. Once you record a song it’s got to be something that is going to inspire you and grab you once you start thinking about it, especially in the studio since you hear it over and over again. And if it’s anything that doesn’t excite me…I try and avoid that.
BYT: It’s funny, it’s been said that you guys were initially sparked to reform the band by the Sex Pistols. I’ve always felt that those early albums were very different than the punk that was going on at the time, so much more tuneful and thoughtful…
PS: Yeah, but that was mainly because there was no rulebook, and it was before people would say, “Oh, you’re not punk.” So you could do what you want. The punk ideal is actually just to have a go at it. Make an attempt. You have to allow yourself to fail as well. It is a challenge and a risk…
BYT: Do you think it is still that way with the current musical landscape? Is it still possible to have that kind of freedom?
PS: Well, yeah. In some ways you are discouraged, but you have always been discouraged. Expect discouragement in this business, it’s never been a system that has encouraged people to make music. In some ways they try to discourage people so the music that gets peddled is the music which you go out and buy. Like with Lady Gaga, I just can’t see what all the fuss is about. I was watching American Idol last night when she was on, and I couldn’t even hear a song in there at all. To me it’s just what sheeple will buy. [Editors Note: only punk legends are allowed to say sheeple. Don’t you try it.]
BYT: At the same time, it seems like there is not a lot left to work against… you said you felt that the freedom to compose whatever songs you wanted to compose but at the same time you were imbued by this punk attitude that shocked everyone at the time. But now it’s hard to shock anyone…
PS: It was shocking because it had this type of energy that wasn’t prepackaged. It didn’t seem to follow what people thought what music was, even people today won’t consider it music. The good thing about being in Manchester was that we weren’t affected by what was going on in London.
BYT: Did any bands at the time seem like, “Oh, these are contemporaries” these are more than contemporaries, but that these guys are doing the same thing that we’re doing even though we were in different places.
PS: I mean, definitely the bands at the time in Manchester. There was the Fall, who were trailblazers of their own path. Also, Joy Division, as well, who toured with us on many occasions. It was people helping each other out. That was the sort of thing about punk. We sort of had to gather together and circle the wagons in order to be more affective.
BYT: Did you feel any out reach or kinship with American punk bands at the time?
PS: Um, we were a little late coming over to the United States. We came over about 1979, so it had all been going on for about 3 years, which is a lifetime in pop music. So we used to come across bands, and subsequently bands would say, “Oh, hey listen to the Buzzcocks.”
BYT: I wanted to ask—this is kind of nerdy—but I wanted to ask specifically about the song Nostalgia, which is one of my favorite songs. What, could I ask, was the inspiration for the wording of that song, the “Age Yet To Come” part especially?
PS: That was a song that I wrote, prepunk actually, about 1974. The lyrics are a sort of play on words, about nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.
BYT: What it just a phrase or something that made sense to you?
PS: I dunno it could have been. But it was 36 years ago! It was all about dreams, like in the play on the words in the line “And although this may sound strange/ My future and my past are presently disarranged.” Or in the second verse, “I always used to dream of the past/ But like they say yesterday never comes.” So, its all about that: juxtoposition time.
BYT: It’s kind of a young person’s song in a lot of ways. That longing to be older and younger at the same time…
PS: Well I was quite young when I wrote it!
BYT: Right like you said, 1974! Was it, now, playing on this tour, what’s your relationship with the words now? Does it seem like yesterday has come?
PS: It strange how well the song actually survived, because there is lots of music which you listen to–you know going through your CD collection you find others that Oh that song doesn’t work nowadays, neither does that one–but I mean other songs do work and there is an extra dimension when you play them live again. So in some ways since it is a song about self-reflection you end up going through a bit of rediscovery. The songs were written as a testament to what I was thinking and going thorough at that time. In the same way that you can go look back at anything you have done before–old movies of yourself like that–and you tend to reconnect and reevaluate everything that you have done and you get a greater sense of perspective about what things that are important. So anyway, it’s almost like a kind of therapy, just going on tour and having the chance to reconnect with my former self.
BYT: It’s like an extra level of juxtaposition and paradox in time too, singing this song about nostalgia for the future while feeling nostalgia for the past that initial nostalgia represents…
PS: Right! Especially since though it was nostalgia for an age yet to come and not only has the time come some might say the time has passed. People always say ‘Ooh it must have been great back then,’ but really it wasn’t all that great. It was exciting, things happened. But you didn’t have the sense that all these decisions were going to change the rest of your life. Although now looking back you realize it did do that actually, and a lot of other people’s lives as well.
BYT: Well thanks so much for talking to me today sir! You certainly changed my young life a lot with your music.
PS: Why thank you!. Nice talking to you as well.
Tumble down your own Rabbit Hole of memory tonight at the black cat!