Few bands have utilized bracing melodies, pointed lyrics, and single-minded propulsion as well as England's rightly canonized punk quartet Buzzcocks. Best known in the States for their seminal 1979 compilation Singles Going Steady, which features such anthems as "Ever Fallen In Love?" "What Do I Get?" and "Orgasm Addict," the band released albums that were considerably more diverse and experimental. The first three--Another Music In A Different Kitchen, Love Bites (both from 1978) and '79's A Different Kind of Tension--have each just been reissued by Mute as a double-disc chock full of demos, live recordings, and BBC Radio 1 John Peel sessions. Despite numerous lineups and a long break in the '80s, Buzzcocks have toured tirelessly the past 20 years, with frontman Pete Shelley and guitarist/singer/songwriter Steve Diggle (both founding members) in fine form. Taking a break from work on his third solo album, Diggle discussed the reissues in advance of an appearance the Musink Tattoo Convention & Music Festival, which takes place Feb. 19-21 at the OC Fair & Event Center.
OC Weekly (Doug Wallen): You've been playing the entire first two albums on tour recently, but what's it like to revisit the original recordings and other material from that era?
Steve Diggle: You find out how great they were, really. Usually when you do a live set, you pick stuff off each album. But actually playing the first two albums back to back was weird. That really took you back in time. And it's not every day we get to listen to them or concentrate them that way. They were well-constructed albums, especially the first one. When you put that alongside the first Sex Pistols and Clash albums - they all came out about the same time - Buzzcocks' sound was very futuristic really. Very distinctive. Here we are 32 years later and it still sounds like it could have been made a few weeks ago.
Singles Going Steady was so big for Americans that some fans may not have explored beyond it.
Singles Going Steady came out because we were really busy in Britain, and by the time we got to America, [the label] said, "Well, you've had all these hit singles in Britain. We better put them on an album and quickly bring America up to date." It's got all the classic singles, but the albums have much more interesting stuff. I mean, songs like "Fiction Romance" and [the seven-minute] "Moving Away From The Pulsebeat." We often went off on little avenues here and there on the albums. Sometimes people say, "I thought you guys were a single band." The band has a lot more to offer when you check the albums out.
It's not just short, fast anthems.
Absolutely. I mean, we knew we could do those, like [the 1978 single] "What Do I Get?" I remember writing [the same year's single] "Promises" and thinking, "Yeah, I wrote that Buzzcocks kind of pop tune." But then I wanted to write [slower, leftfield] songs like "Autonomy" and "Why Can't I Touch It?", beyond the three-minute pop song.
And your song "Love Is Lies" from Love Bites is this acoustic, pub-style ballad.
That's another. It's a different song to what you'd normally think of from Buzzcocks. But I always think that's a good thing. "Autonomy" has a weird structure to it, so it's nice to put a few things like that on there. And when we've played "Nothing Left" [live], we put this natural bit in the middle where it's just jamming.
Obviously, your band has been massively influential. What were your own influences back in 1978, when Buzzcocks released two albums and several singles in one year?
It was mainly our surroundings. Me and Pete grew up with the Beatles, the Kinks, and the Who. One of the first albums I heard was Bob Dylan, so that stayed with me. But by the time we got to doing Buzzcocks, we used a lot of our life experience. We kind of sang about the human condition, which covers a lot of ground. It was how we were feeling about things we experienced walking down the street. We read a few books as well. It wasn't like, "Hey, let's sound like the Rolling Stones or something." It didn't matter whether we could play guitars. It was a vehicle for our opinions and observations. These songs were just pouring out in the early days, and we were forever in the studio doing a single or an album. And we were on the road all the time. It was a very full-on and intense time, but very exciting.
Compared to a lot of punk since, the band is quite melodic and focused on songwriting.
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When we started with the Pistols, the Clash, the Damned, and the Jam, that was the nucleus of the British punk rock explosion. That was the initial attitude of things. We'd made [1977's debut EP] Spiral Scratch, but you can't go on making the same record. So the natural melodic side came out. The identity came out. The Clash became the Clash, and the Buzzcocks became the Buzzcocks. You had to define what punk bands were what, really, rather than it being this big umbrella of punk. Like you said, you can see that compared to a lot of other bands. Mainly it's the songwriting. We just went out and did them immediate and direct, and they still sound like that. They sound like they were from that time, but they don't sound like they should be locked away in that time.
Do you have a favorite of the three albums being reissued?
Well, they're all favorites in their own way. Obviously when you make your first album, there's that immediate thing. The first song I ever wrote for Buzzcocks was [Another Music opener] "Fast Cars," so that really takes you back right to the beginning. You didn't know where you were going or what was going to happen, but you knew something needed to happen. You knew you needed to feel alive.
Buzzcocks perform with the Damned, the Head Cat, Invisible Humans, the Sparing, Final Conflict, G.F.P., Powerflex 5, and Glass Heroes at Musink Tattoo Convention & Music Festival at OC Fair & Event Center, 88 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa, (714) 708-1500; Sat., Feb. 20, 1 p.m. $30 and $75. The fest takes place Feb. 19-21. Click for more info.