Still cocky after all these years

Regarded as one of the most influential bands to emerge in the initial wave of punk rock, The Buzzcocks will be going steady in Tel Aviv.

Buzzcocks 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Buzzcocks 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The problem with youthful hell raisers and rabble rousers whose essence derives from reckless abandon and outlandish folly is that they eventually mature and grow older. Just ask Pete Townshend, the leader of The Who, whose bristling proclamation “Hope I die before I get old” has continued to haunt him for decades as he’s slouched toward balding, adult respectability.
For the generation of punk rockers circa mid-1970s – the epitome of a youth-only musical and cultural revolution if there ever was one – the years have been just as vindictive: The Clash and The Ramones decimated by early death, the Sex Pistols’ loutish Johnny Rotten reborn as the grumpy John Lydon, and the only occasionally still-inspiring Elvis Costello comfortably ensconced as an artiste the kind he used to scorn.
Steve Diggle and Pete Shelley, charter members of the seminal punk band The Buzzcocks, are survivors who haven’t moved on to write rock operas, endorse golf clubs or date supermodels. They’ve reconciled the riddle of what a punk rocker does when he reaches middle age by laughing it down Peter Pan style and continuing to play insanely catchy, adrenalinefilled pop tunes.
The 55-year-old Diggle sounds like the kind of guy you wouldn’t mind sharing a few pints with down at the pub.
Jovial and transparently without an agenda, the 55-yearold British guitarist is a far cry from the stereotype of the belligerent, anti-social punk who might spit on you without warning. That doesn’t mean he’s mellowed entirely.
“I was going to sue them at one point but I got a bit bored with the whole thing,” Diggle guffawed, talking about the popular BBC TV musical quiz show Never Mind the Buzzcocks, which combined his band and the title of a Sex Pistols’ album.
“That’s one of the things I don’t like about the music business. I’m not going to pay attention to some comedy quiz show based on our music. It’s a compliment that they used our name – but I don’t have control over what they do on the show and how they relate to us. I take what we do quite seriously.”
As well he should, since The Buzzcocks are now viewed as one of the most influential bands to emerge in the initial wave of punk rock. The Sex Pistols and The Clash may have gotten more exposure due to outlandish behavior or political stances, but it’s the Buzzcocks’ crisp melodies, inventive guitar lines and biting lyrics about adolescence and love that set them apart from their contemporaries and continued to serve as the blueprint for rockers ranging from Nirvana and The Smiths to Radiohead, Green Day and their latter-day progeny.
According to Diggle, while inspired by the energy of the burgeoning punk rock scene originating in London with the Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks were always more firmly rooted in rock traditions of the mid-1960s that had been watered down by the middle of the following decade with self-indulgent artists, record company expense accounts and long-winded concept albums.
“The music I loved growing up was The Who, the Stones. The first things I remember hearing were Bob Dylan and The Beatles,” said Diggle during a phone conversation from his London home. Like most teens in the early 1970s, he grew his hair long, wore bell bottoms and listened to what he described as “hippie music.”
“Yes had their moments,” he laughed, “but it got to the stage where one song was the whole of the album. The musical landscape became very dull and boring. For me, punk rock brought that passion back to the music, and it created something pertaining to my generation. I remember thinking at the time in 1976 that it was all about getting back to shorter songs and smashing your gear like The Who. The progressive bands were singing about mushrooms in the sky, but nothing pertaining to our lives in any way you can relate to when you’re 20. Every now and then, it’s time to rip it up and start all over again.”
IMPRESSED BY the Sex Pistols, young Pete Shelley and his school friend Howard Devoto did their part to forward the musical revolution by forming their own band in Manchester in late 1975 and bringing the controversial London punk band to their hometown in early 1976 with the hopes of opening for them. While Shelley’s bass player and drummer dropped out at the last minute, the Pistols did play and Diggle was among those mesmerized in the audience.
“The Sex Pistols came to town, and the punk rock atom was split from there. Like other parts of the country like Sheffield or Liverpool, kids just started forming bands overnight,” said Diggle.
“People suddenly came alive where it had been dead and boring before, and the punk rock thing set everything alight. It was like this revelation that anyone could join in and be in a band.”
Diggle, who had met Shelley at the Sex Pistols show, was asked to join the Buzzcocks as bassist. Near the end of 1976, they recorded their first demo and joined the Sex Pistols on a British tour, their success brought attention to Manchester as a source of new wave talent.
“The Buzzcocks started the whole thing off in Manchester; we put Manchester on the map,” said Diggle.
By the middle of the next year, Deveto left the band to attend college (he later formed the band Magazine), Diggle switched to guitar and vocals and, based on a promising EP, they were signed to United Artists.
Following a word of mouth buzz due to their first single, the decidedly controversial “Orgasm Addict,” the band released their first two hit albums in 1978 – Another Music in a Different Kitchen and Love Bites.

Propelled by catchy pop melodies with punk guitar energy, the albums catapulted The Buzzcocks to stardom in England, and to lesser acclaim in the US, where a singles collection Singles Going Steady was released in 1979.
By 1981, it was over, as the group disbanded after one more album, the victims of record company hassles, too much too soon, and accumulated burn-out.
“It was kind of like being in the eye of a hurricane, but I sort of embraced it – like [19th-century painter William] Turner when he tied himself to the mast so he could see how to paint the sea,” said Diggle. “You have to learn how to deal with all the craziness and the nature of what the rock world is like. It was hard, like working in a 24- hour environment for years, but it was also great and we produced a lot of great work.”
For the remainder of the 1980s, Diggle and Shelley worked on various musical projects, but by 1989, amid the success of post-punk indie rock and burgeoning stages of grunge, the time was ripe to test the waters again, with original drummer John Maher and bassist Steve Garvey in tow.
“When we split up, it was definitely the time for it, but we didn’t necessarily say it was the end. An American promoter asked us to do a tour, and since we’d never really had a farewell tour, we figured why not? Then from there, we went to Australia and it kept going. It was never something we sat down and calculated,” said Diggle.
“The main things was that the old chemistry was there – that’s what was amazing. Pete and I didn’t have to work too hard, it just flowed naturally.”
The reunion turned into a permanent situation by the early 1990s with two new recruits – Tony Barber on bass and Phil Barker on drums, a lineup that has stayed constant until Barker was replaced in 2006 by Danny Farrant.
The Mach 2 version of The Buzzcocks – who will be performing on March 15 at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv – have released five albums, the most recent being 2006’s Flat- Pack Philosophy. Despite a weighty legacy, Diggle said that the band wasn’t tied into recreating their trademark sound, even if it’s what the fans want.
“On Modern (1993), we tried these electronic noises and different things, and people said, ‘Oh, this doesn’t sound like a Buzzcocks album,” he said. “With the latest one, at that time a lot of bands were sounding like The Buzzcocks, so we thought we’ll go back and sound like ourselves.
And it was great! We took quite a bit of the classic elements and gave them a modern twist. On the next album we’re talking about doing, we’ll probably go out and try something different again.”
Diggle, who maintains a solo career in addition to his Buzzcocks duties, explores even farther afield when working on his own projects, including his recently released third album Air Conditioning.
“When I do a solo thing, there’s no point in trying to make a Buzzcocks album, so I try to be more varied. Air Conditioning is a bit more political for me – about the power of control and the political inhalation we breathe,” he said.
“Sometimes it feels like 1984 did happen in London, the soulless glass buildings looking down at you and the corporate companies controlling the corporate world. So it’s about questioning stuff like that.” Diggle paused and then emitted a true punk chortle. “It’s almost like going back to my roots.”