Like fellow Mancs the Fall, Joy Division and Happy Mondays, the Buzzcocks are—or were—true progenitors of a style. In 1976, they took classic themes of teenage lust and malaise and injected them with an amphetaminic urgency: Has love ever sounded so unrequited as when it's unrequited for Pete Shelley? And they never ignored the art of it all, either; like their contemporaries Wire, the Buzzcocks found a basic frame for their songs (as well as for most of their record cover designs—instantly recognizable by their pop-art colors and angular shapes) and built everything within that frame. It was a flexible and self-reflexive formula—the same two-note guitar solo graces both "Boredom" and "Fast Cars"—and it worked perfectly until their premature expiration in 1980.
One can only speculate what the Buzzcocks would have become: guitar auteur Shelley was a fan of Krautrock, and his later songs—like "Something's Gone Wrong Again" and "Why Can't I Touch It?"—experimented with sound and structure in ways bands like Can did. Or they could have gone the same way Wire did in the '80s, becoming so spacey and expansive that they threatened to get lost.
Unfortunately, we never found out. And the Buzzcocks—in their current form—aren't quite picking up where they left off.
While this year's self-titled release on Merge Records may be the best thing the Buzzcocks have released since they re-formed in 1989 with a new rhythm section, Buzzcocks' meaty guitar sound and steri-clean production obscures what really made the Buzzcocks great. What should be a collection of innovative punk tunes becomes some kind of unwieldy cross between the best of Pennywise and the worst of the Libertines. Something's gone wrong. Where are the clean-but-damaged leads? The gunshot snare beats? The borderline-hysterical cracks in Pete Shelley's vocals? Buzzcocks is like Mondrian going Impressionist: sure, the talent's there, but what's the point?
The best songs on the Buzzcocks' new album are the two written by current Buzz Shelley and one-time 'Cock Howard Devoto. "Lester Sands" dates from the era when Devoto briefly fronted the band, and its acerbic lyrics and 1-2-3-4 beat translate well to Buzzcocks 2003. The other song, "Stars," appears in a more electro-punk form on the album Buzzkunst, a collaborative 2002 release by Shelley and Devoto, who artfully (kunst is German for art, after all) named their effort ShelleyDevoto. Buzzkunst is more of an insight into the mystery of the Buzzcocks that could have been, more so than anything Buzzcocks 2003 has produced. It's Krautrocky, Wirey, textured and inventive, exploring (and exploiting) the spaces between the beats: Buzzkunst doesn't forsake art for product.
But if the Buzzcocks' recent recorded efforts are predictable in a bad way, their live predictability is something to look forward to. Like the recently re-formed Wire, the Buzzcocks have managed to generate genuine passion at their live shows, with good reason. This version of the Buzzcocks has been together a full 10 years longer than the original; whatever gets lost in the studio is more than compensated for by a perfectly tight sloppiness live. After opening (just as they did at their first show in 1976!) for the now bloated and useless Sex Pistols at last year's KROQ Inland Invasion—if Belsen was a gas, Johnny Rotten is at least a giant windbag—the Buzzcocks have signed on to open for Pearl Jam, who, after giving up on suing Ticketmaster, are selling tickets for at least $30 (through Ticketmaster, natch!). Luckily, the Buzzcocks aren't opening for anyone on this leg of their tour. And for roughly the price of their new CD, you can instead purchase a portion of the real thing: close your eyes (or at least ignore the gray in Pete Shelley's hair) and you can pretend it's 1979, and the Buzzcocks still have a chance to reinvent themselves.
The Buzzcocks perform at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583. Thurs., June 5, 7 p.m. $15. All ages.
Check out this week's featured ad for Entertainment