Other than the London-based Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks are considered the most successful and influential of the late-seventies British punk/pop bands. With their rapid, rudimentary songs of romantic boredom and frustration, the Buzzcocks represented the punk ideal in both form—scratchy guitars, strident realism, manic rhythms, joyful minimalism—and practice: by releasing their debut EP, Spiral Scratch, on their own label, they demonstrated that the independent method was a viable, if not preferable, alternative to the major labels that dominated the recording industry’s economics in 1976.
The Buzzcocks originated in Manchester, England, through the friendship of Howard Trafford and Peter McNeish, both students at the Bolton Institute. McNeish had begun playing guitar in 1970; by late 1975 he was playing in a group called Jets of Air. Both Trafford and McNeish loved the seminal albums of Iggy and the Stooges and the Velvet Underground; they “knew all of them back to front,” McNeish later said. While sitting in a pub they noticed a New Musical Express review of a
Original members included Howard Devoto (bom Howard Trafford, c. 1957, in Manchester, England; left group, 1977), vocals; Steve Diggle , vocals, bass, guitar; John Maher (born in Manchester; left group, 1990), drums; and Peter Shelley (born Peter McNeish, c. 1956, in Manchester), vocals, guitar.
Later members included Steve Garvey (joined group, 1977), bass; Mike Joyce (joined group, 1990), drums; and Garth Smith (joined and left group, 1977), bass.
Group formed in Manchester, England, by Devoto and Shelley, 1976; released EP Spiral Scratch on self-administrated label New Hormones, 1977; Devoto left to form group Magazine, 1977; signed with United Artists Records, 1977; released single “Orgasm Addict,” 1977; released album Another Music in a Different Kitchen, 1978; toured U.S., 1979; dissolved, 1981; released retrospective CD package Product, 1990; re-formed and toured U.S. and Europe, 1990. Appeared in video P.U.N.K., A *Vision, 1992.
Sex Pistols show and were particularly drawn to a statement made by the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten. Upon completion of a Stooges’ song, Rotten had bellowed, “We’re not into music, we’re into chaos.”
McNeish and Trafford went immediately to High Wycombe, just north of London, and saw the Sex Pistols twice in February of 1976. With an increased sense of urgency, yet minus the Pistols’ negative political agenda, McNeish and Trafford returned to Manchester to start a band similar in intent and style. They changed identities—McNeish became Pete Shelley (Shelley being his name had he been born a girl) while Trafford took the name Howard Devoto. “Buzzcocks” came from the closing line of a review of the classic pop serial “Rock Follies” in the London entertainment guide Time Out The review ended simply, “… get a buzz, cock.” As the critic Jon Savage later wrote in England’s Dreaming, Manchester was not initially receptive to Shelley and Devoto’s “dream of a music that was not about, in Richard Hell’s phrase, ’this idea of rock star as idol, ’ but about sharp minded kids talking to each other about what they saw.”
In the spring of 1976 the English punk movement was still so contained that Shelley and Devoto were able to lure the Sex Pistols to Manchester for a performance. In April, Shelley and Devoto booked the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester for only 32 pounds; the Sex Pistols’ performance that night would influence an entire generation of Mancunian (the descriptive phrase for all things native to Manchester) musicians.
After meeting bassist Steve Diggle at the Trade Hall that night, Shelley and Devoto—the Buzzcocks in name only, having yet to play in public—hired a 16-year-old drummer named John Maher, who was responding to an advertisement in Melody Maker. On July 20, 1976, the Buzzcocks again brought the Sex Pistols to Lesser Free Trade Hall. Yet this time they opened the show—their first public concert—and found themselves standing in the center of what would soon be called punk.
Before Christmas of 1976 the Buzzcocks had played ten full shows, including their London debut as part of the Sex Pistols’ Screen on the Green event. They were then managed by Richard Boon, a friend and Reading University student. Their influence was immediately felt. By the end of 1976, Manchester was, next to London, England’s premier punk city. Yet the city’s scene was more friendly than London’s, largely due to the Buzzcocks’ romantic, alienated ideal. “People were throwing in all these ideas,” Shelley was quoted by Savage as saying of the time. “It wasn’t only the freedom to make the music you wanted to, it was also that other people with other ideas were coming in. It was like going to college in a way.”
In December of 1976 the Buzzcocks, with producer Martin Hannett, recorded the four-song Spiral Scratch EP. Unable to interest major record labels, they released it on their own New Hormones label with 500 pounds borrowed from Shelley’s father. “There were no labels up there then,” Devoto was quoted by Savage as saying. “Again it’s the question of ambition. I don’t think we had much of an idea of the way things were swelling. But we had some sort of wherewithal, which made us borrow money, book a recording studio, and have records made.”
To Shelley, Spiral Scratch was an end in itself. “We only pressed 1000,” he said. “It was a memento.” Yet the Buzzcocks’ vision spawned an international movement. “Indies”—the name eventually given to the entire network of independent labels—went on to make up an estimable portion of record sales, while their aesthetic influence on all of youth culture has been immense. Spiral Scratch, along with releases on labels such as Chiswick and Stiff, literally ushered in the alternative era. Despite the band’s initial success, in March of 1977, after only 11 gigs, Devoto quit the group he had founded; his departure was ostensibly due to academic demands—yet he reportedly also felt that the punk movement was quickly becoming co-opted by the media and other commercial forces. The following summer he established the group Magazine.
Shelley quickly reformed the Buzzcocks, moving Diggle to guitar and adding ex-Jets of Air bassist Garth Smith. The Buzzcocks’ reputation grew as they toured extensively on the Clash’s White Riot Tour, which also included the Slits and Subway Sect. On August 16, 1977—ironically the day of Elvis Presley’s death—the Buzzcocks signed with United Artists for 75,000 pounds. Two months later they released their first major label single, the controversial “Orgasm Addict,” backed with “Whatever Happened To?” “Orgasm Addict” was something of a stylistic matrix for the Buzzcocks—playful lyrics fueled by nervous, guitar-driven punk rhythms. Shelley by then had developed a camp stage persona to match the gender ambiguity of his songs.
In November of 1977 Smith was fired for drunkenness and replaced by Steve Garvey. After issuing another single, “What Do I Get?,” the Buzzcocks released their first album, Another Music in a Different Kitchen, in March of 1978. Produced by Martin Rushent, the album included such songs as “Fast Cars” and “Moving Away From the Pulsebeat,” which illuminated a more personal side to punk’s anarchy. The jacket design was also important to the burgeoning independent scene. Designer Malcolm Garrett’s collages carried fine art references (Marcel Duchamp, Paul Klee) as well as common mass culture iconography. After Another Music in a Different Kitchen reached number 15 on the UK album chart, the Buzzcocks began the “Entertaining Friends” tour with the Slits. Another full album, Love Bites, was released in September, only seven months after Another Music in a Different Kitchen. Love Bites contained “Ever Fallen in Love,” a song that became the group’s greatest success, reaching number 12 on the charts. The Buzzcocks followed Love Bites with a tour titled “Beating Hearts Tour.”
In January of 1979 Shelley took time out to produce “Alberto y Los Trios Paranoias.” “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays,” a Buzzcocks single full of witty irony, was released in March, followed by a drunken, bizarre performance on the British television program Top of the Pops. The strain of watching the punk movement—initially an honest reaction to sociopolitical elements in Britain—become a tawdry fashion show was beginning to show in the Buzzcocks’ performance. They were falling into the trap they sought to destroy: they now had a career.
In mid-September Spiral Scratch was reissued by United Artists along with a compilation of singles titled Going Steady. A Different Kind of Tension, their third and final album, was released in late 1979. The Buzzcocks toured Britain with Joy Division, a young Mancunian band that seemed to be beating the Buzzcocks at their own game: Joy Division was peaking in popularity with a stoic punk rock that commented on inner feelings with stark clarity.
By 1980, drugs had become a part of Buzzcock life; a tour called “Tour of Installments” was begun and canceled. Financial problems also began to plague the band. In 1980 United Artists was purchased by the huge conglomerate EMI. “It had been a completely different atmosphere,” Savage quoted Shelley as saying of the change. “EMI wanted hits and we got sat on.” Shelley began working on what was to be the fourth Buzzcocks album with producer Rushent. He wrote and recorded the gay-disco song “Homosapiens” yet ultimately released it as a solo project. “I found that I work best if I’m just left alone to do what I want,” Shelley told Savage. “I wasn’t into being an entertainer; I was always into the more intellectual, artistic side.”
In February of 1981 the band split up; Shelley had sent each member a letter stating that he wished to sever all his commitments to the Buzzcocks. Bassist Garvey moved to New York; Diggle and Maher established the group Flag of Convenience; and Shelley continued with Homosapiens and XL 1, two synth-pop records. A series of reissues and live albums throughout the eighties kept the band’s name somewhat alive. By the late eighties, Diggle was still touring with Flag of Convenience, Maher had left that band to start a Volkswagen repair shop in Manchester, and Garvey remained in New York. Other than brief tours in 1982 and 1986, Shelley was inactive. Devoto closed down Magazine in 1983.
Yet as Diggle toured, he discovered that posters promoting Flag of Convenience gigs would often use the Buzzcocks name and logo. This activity led to Diggle and Shelley’s decision to reform the band. Another factor was the 1990 release of Product, a well-received three-CD compilation of the Buzzcocks’ entire career. The Buzzcocks toured Europe and the United States briefly, to tremendous critical praise. In 1990 Maher returned to his auto repair business, replaced by ex-Smith Mike Joyce.
The Buzzcocks have since reportedly recorded new material with producer Bill Laswell, but as of late 1992 they were still without a recording contract. A live album, Entertaining Friends, was released on IRS in November of 1992, along with a long-form video titled Playback. Playback was shot at the Hammersmith Odeum in 1979. A tribute album titled Something’s Gone Wrong Again: The Buzzcocks Cover Compilation was issued by C/Z Records in the fall of 1992; it featured young alternative bands such as Naked Raygun, Dose, and the Lunachicks performing much of the Buzzcocks’ rich late-seventies catalogue. Another greatest hits package, Operator’s Manual: Buzzcocks Best, was also released in 1992. The Buzzcocks, as New Musical Express’s Richard Cook wrote, brought to rock “a view of love as a source of boredom, resentment, very occasional relief: no great revelation, maybe.”
Spiral Scratch (EP), New Hormones, 1977.
Another Music in a Different Kitchen, United Artists, 1978.
Love Bites, United Artists, 1978.
A Different Kind of Tension, United Artists, 1979.
Singles Going Steady, IRS, 1979.
The Peel Sessions, Strange Fruit, 1988.
Lest We Forget, ROIR, 1988.
The Fab Four (EP), EMI, 1989.
Product, Restless Retro, 1990.
Entertaining Friends, IRS, 1992.
Something’s Gone Wrong Again: The Buzzcocks Cover Compilation, C/Z, 1992.
Operator’s Manual: Buzzcocks Best, 1992.
Rees, Dafydd and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers and Shakers, Billboard Books, 1991.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Summit, 1983.
Savage, Jon, England’s Dreaming, St. Martin’s Press, 1991.
The Trouser Press Record Guide, fourth edition, edited by Ira Robbins, Collier, 1991.
CD Review, October 1992.
Cover, February 1990.
New Musical Express, June 26, 1982.
Select, October 1991.
Spin, January 1992.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the video compilation Playback, EMI Records Ltd., 1992, courtesy of IRS Records.