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When Steve Diggle met Pete Shelley over a drink at a Manchester Sex Pistols gig in 1976, he felt the world change. A few months before, he'd saved up just enough money from his first post-university job to buy a guitar, then got himself sacked for plotting a strike. Thinking about that summer, he recalls, "It felt like something was gonna happen." But after hearing "Anarchy In the U.K.," he knew that things would be different forever. "When people put punk-rock records on in 1976, '77, they had to rethink their whole lives. It changed your consciousness; it changed the way you looked at everything.
"When those initial punk records came out, it was that drastic and dramatic. It was like, 'Wow, what the fuck? Music's changed overnight; it's serious now.' I'm sure there are new bands on the horizon that will eventually get so boring that new bands will come through with something as powerful as that again. At the moment, you've got Lady Gaga and people of that fame. It's just supermarket stuff, really. At some point, you know, it's like a kettle boiling or a coffee pot percolating: Something's gotta give."
It's been three decades, but the spirit of '76 burns bright in Diggle. He windmills in all white in front of a Union Jack on his latest solo record, on which he laments the youth of today and the state of global warming. He also plays festival after festival all over the world with the latest incarnation of the Buzzcocks, capping a 30-year career as a razor-sharp guitarist and a formidable songwriter in one of the most important punk bands to come out of England. He had an inkling of their magnitude back then, he says: "We almost felt kind of good about ourselves, kind of good about what we were doing."
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When he was a kid, he didn't think about the future; he just thought about the now. On songs such as "Fast Cars" and "Harmony in My Head," he gave voice to what hundreds of punks must've felt at the time. "I was angry and wanted something exciting," he says. "It wasn't clear that I wanted to be a musician, just wanted to find something exciting to do. When you're 20, you want to feel like you're alive. It was essentially that, really. As it turned out, punk rock kind of suited me that way. It was kind of like putting [a finger] up to the world, the Gagas, ripping it up to pieces and throwing it up in the air and starting again. It had a lot to do with attitude."
And that attitude got them far. After the Buzzcocks joined the Sex Pistols on their "Anarchy" tour at the end of '76, they produced the first do-it-yourself, independently released record of the punk era. They cut and hand-pressed their debut EP, Spiral Scratch, for £500 and released it on their own label, New Hormones. "The idea that you could make your own record was revolutionary back then," he declares with just as much excitement and enthusiasm as he must've felt the day they recorded it.
While the Clash seemed to be fighting constantly with their label, CBS, the Buzzcocks fell in with the bizarrely supportive United Artists, who tolerated them labeling their first single "Orgasm Addict" and putting a naked lady with lipsticked grins for nipples and an iron for a face on its cover, a move that Diggle says pissed off the pressing-plant workers so much they decided to strike rather than press such filth. "You've gotta be a bit single-minded or have this strength to see through what you're doing," he says with a laugh.
Single-mindedness aside, Diggle stresses how important it is to be open to see the things around you. "You still get inspired by what's going on in the times," he says. "There are still things to write about. I just got a new solo album out called Air Conditioning, about the political inhalation we're breathing, about many things, from global warming to all kinds of things. The songs are nice, but it does have a little political leaning, which I think is good for me. We need something more relevant than singing all this crap about nothing."
This article appeared in print as "The Spirit of '76: For the Buzzcocks' Steve Diggle, the punk rock way of looking at the world is just as relevant today as it ever was."