To get the right tone for a feature, I love to find a little footage or play a song that best sets a scene. And with this week’s interviewee, I was spoiled for choice.
Would it be rare footage of that historic first Buzzcocks gig, supporting Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976, or any number of hit singles that set this highly-influential Manchester outfit once dubbed punk’s Beatles?
Would I plump for anything from the seminal Spiral Scratch EP, the first three albums that hooked me, or something from their considerable catalogue since reforming in 1989?
As it turned out, I went for Love is Lies from 1978’s Love Bites, one of the first songs that made me realise this was no one-dimensional band and that guitarist Steve Diggle could deliver memorable songs too, just like front-man Pete Shelley.
And it turns out that the song’s writer is impressed by my choice.
“Yeah, that’s a good song – a hidden little gem, that one, and our first acoustic song, really.”
Well, it did feature a bit of acoustic guitar. It was also perfectly placed on Love Bites, a nice contrast to all those great Shelley songs.
“Funnily enough, we played that at a gig in Dublin, as we were playing the first three albums again, and someone said to me that was the pivotal track of the album.
“I’d never really thought of it like that. I wrote more on the first album, like Fast Cars, Autonomy, and all that, but then I met my girlfriend and wasn’t writing much.”
Steve laughs at this point, his tone suggesting he was a little too busy elsewhere back then.
“But I started picking up again on the next one, then later on. Getting back to Love is Lies, we played it live in Australia a few years ago. I think that’s in people’s hearts as much as the other ones.”
I then make Steve, now 60, feel old, letting on how I was only 10 when that second album came out, having got into the band via my brother and his mates, learning the words via Smash Hits to defining hits like Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve) and Promises, the latter a joint Diggle and Shelley effort.
“Promises was my song, but I left the verses at home! There’s a demo where we’re having a bit of fun and I’m making the verse up as I go along. As I was doing that, Pete was by the mixing desk, so it was just me, John (Maher, drums) and Steve (Garvey, bass).
“We were working out which songs we had, and Pete said, ‘I think I’ve got some verses for that melody’.
“The difference was that it was going to be a socio-political song about promises made by the Government. I said, ‘You’ve turned it into a f***ing love song!’”
“Having said that, it worked out well all round. That’s the thing with lots of the songwriting, particularly later on. We complement each other.
“On our latest album, The Way, we alternate songs between us. We did an album years ago with a lot of my songs at the back half of the CD and a lot of his at the front, but this time we’ve gone for variety.
“It’s not just one kind of thing. And these days with people more impatient or less concentration, it’s a good thing.
“It’s a similar thing with the live set we do now, probably opening up with two or three of the old classics, then putting in a new one, then another older one, and so on.
“That way, there’s no problem with people not knowing the newer stuff. And it’s worked better than we thought – the new songs blend in.
“In fact, I think the new songs are the highlight now. In a full set, we’ve doing six or seven news ones, but they’re sprinkled out, and the new ones go down well.
“We went to Germany, Holland and Spain a while ago and because they knew the new album, everywhere we played they were singing along, which amazed me. You’d have thought they’d known them for years, as they were singing along at the front.”
I put it to Steve that the latest album is pretty much trademark Buzzcocks without being retrogressive, while the old songs sound just as fresh today. So they’ve obviously got it right somewhere down the line.
“There are a few darker moments as well, which I like about this album as well – there’s a bit of light and a bit of dark throughout.”
You obviously still enjoy playing live. You certainly do a lot of it.
“Yeah, well, it’s what we do really. And we’ve got such a back-catalogue. There must be around 150 songs.
“There’s always going to be one people will complain we didn’t do. But there’s a lot to choose from.”
It’s not just the Diggle and Shelley show of course, with Chris Remmington on bass for the last seven years and Danny Farrant having managed nine on drums.
“Well, I’ve had a few solo albums and other projects over the years, and Chris was with me for that too. So we’ve known each other well for about 15 years.
“Chris and Danny have blended in really well, and we get on great. Personality-wise and everything, it flows really well. The classic line-up was great as well.”
Does Steve think with the benefit of hindsight the initial 1981 split (when the band featured that ‘classic’ post-Devoto line-up of Diggle, Shelley, fellow-founder member Maher, and Garvey) was inevitable? And did they need that time apart?
“I think we did, looking back. The wheels fell off the wagon. For around five years it was quite intense. We had singles out every two months and were a hard touring band.
“We toured everywhere between being in the studio, and between all that had to write new songs. There was a lot going on.
“We embraced all that, and it was fantastic, but you reach a point where you realise you have to take a step back, and that’s kind of what happened.
“The idea was just to have a year off. At the time we found it a bit devastating, but I went off and did Flag of Convenience and Pete had his solo career.
“To me, working with other people made it a great time. It was something new, and I enjoyed all that.
“Then it came full circle. We realised we had a good thing at the beginning, so let’s see how that goes again.
“I was playing in Germany and France, billed as Buzzcocks FOC, and we were asked by an agent to do an American tour. Since then it’s been a never-ending tour.
“We didn’t actually plan to get back. We said we’d do that American tour and see what we had.”
Next summer it’ll be 40 years since the beginning, at least 30 of those as a fully-functioning outfit, given the initial break and the fact that Steve wasn’t there at the beginning. Or so I understood, until he put me right.
“No – I’ve been there all the time!”
Wasn’t it just Howard Devoto and Pete at first, with you arriving later, something to do with their spell at the Bolton Institute of Technology?
“I was there at the beginning! I blame Wikipedia for any confusion! It says on there about some bassist and drummer, but they just did a gig at a college.
“It’s a bit of a misnomer, that! They weren’t playing Boredom or anything like that, it was more covers like White Light, White Heat.
“I was going to form another band, then met them – by mistake really. I joined and we had just a few weeks to open for the Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall.”
Ah yes, that fabled event that no-one seems to agree on the finer details of, involving two Sex Pistols appearances, six weeks apart in the summer of ’76, which proved a defining moment for Factory Records, Joy Division, New Order, and The Smiths. Let alone Buzzcocks.
“Yes, it was at that first gig that I met Pete and Howard, and within a few weeks we came back. They said they were putting this band together, Buzzcocks, and I said I was set to meet up with this other guy and form my own band.
“It’s got a bit misconstrued. It was Malcolm McLaren who introduced me to them, saying, “Here’s your bass player!”
“The guy I was set to meet and the person they were set to meet were still outside at the time. So we met instead, had a rehearsal the next day, and that’s how it started.
“So our first real gig was at the Lesser Free Trade Hall. They’d only just met as well. Howard had put a note up in college, saying somebody wanted to play some Velvet Underground.
“Pete answered it and someone at the college joined them for a gig, which apparently was a bit disastrous, the drummer playing All Right Now through the whole set!
“But for me, the real Buzzcocks started when me and John Maher, who turned up a couple of days later, joined those two.
“That was the Buzzcocks that was on Spiral Scratch and the Buzzcocks that opened for the Pistols a few weeks later.”
You may already know the story, but I’ll try and fill in a few gaps, something set out in Dave Nolan’s I Swear I Was There – The Gig That Changed The World (and an accompanying Ralf Little-narrated 2001 ITV documentary involving Devoto, Shelley, Peter Hook, Bernard Sumner, Tony Wilson, and many more).
It seems that when Shelley met Devoto at college in Bolton, they spotted a Neil Spencer review of Sex Pistols in the NME and decided to check out this subversive outfit who shared similar influences, like The Stooges.
They drove down to the capital and sought out the band’s manager, Malcolm McLaren, at his shop, Sex, and went on to see the Pistols twice one weekend.
In fact, Shelley and Devoto were so impressed that they offered to put the band on back in the North West, a notion that McLaren, keen to spread the word, readily agreed to.
And while their college turned down that chance of hosting the Pistols (thus missing its place in history), Devoto and Shelley hired out the Lesser Free Trade Hall for around £35.
I would add that the rest is history, but because of all the differing versions, not least those in Ian Curtis biopic Control and Tony Wilson biopic 24 Hour Party People, it’s all become a bit confusing as to who was there and what happened.
Among the estimated 30-plus attendees at the June show, with prog metal outfit Solstice supporting – Buzzcocks were supposed to play, but weren’t ready in time – were many future leading lights, not least Martin Hannett, Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner, Mark E. Smith, Mick Hucknall, Morrissey, Paul Morley, Tony Wilson, and a certain Steve Diggle.
“I sat at the back talking to Pete about what we were going to do with the band. I had these ideas about this band I was going to form, he had his ideas too, and then we met Howard, who was working the lights at the back.”
That initial Sex Pistols visit went down so well that McLaren told Devoto, ‘Let’s do it again!’ Hence a second show on July 20th, 1976 – this time with Buzzcocks ready and also involving Slaughter and the Dogs – with tickets priced £1, and a full house of around 150.
Yet for all the power of the main act, Paul Morley saw the Buzzcocks’ proper live debut as the highlight of the night. And Steve Diggle won’t argue with that.
“Really, that’s how it started. As for all this about Bolton College … I’m from Manchester, not Bolton!”
In time, with the startling debut EP Spiral Scratch their only vinyl product, Devoto moved on to form the well-loved Magazine, Garth Smith came and went, and a little jockeying between positions led to the line-up that truly made it. And although that was all a long time ago, Steve Diggle remains passionate about the on-going Buzzcocks story.
While clearly proud of his roots, and still with an unmistakable Mancunian accent, Steve’s been based in London for around 20 years now. That said, he frequently returns to the North West, and my excuse for speaking to him is a Buzzcocks show at Chester Live Rooms this Friday, July 24th.
Then there’s the Blackpool Rebellion Festival appearance event at the Fylde resort’s Empress Ballroom on Saturday, August 8th (with details here).
“We’ve done the Rebellion a couple of times now, and kind of like to do that. It’s the polar opposite to the X-Factor really! It’s people voting with their feet, invading Blackpool and making it all colourful for a week or two.
“We’ve just done Glastonbury Festival, and it’s a bit different from that. That’s becoming a bit more of a corporate thing, whereas this is more heartfelt, I feel.”
Buzzcocks are then back in Manchester on Saturday, October 10th, starting the 25th anniversary celebrations for the Academy venue, as they did all those years ago at the Oxford Road venue, which has since hosted more than 1,600 gigs, its artists performing to more than three million fans.
On the night they will be supported by Marion and Goldblade (with details here), and Steve is looking forward to that special return.
“Yes, we were first to open there, and it’s a busy time for us. Between all those, we have a big festival in Portland, Oregon, and another massive one in Canada. We’re playing some huge places.”
So what does North America make of the Buzzcocks, 2015 style?
”They love us! We’ve been there a few times, with our own show in Toronto then this Amnesia Festival in Quebec, another crazy thing.
“We did the Riot Festival last year in America too, bigger than Glastonbury and moving between Toronto, Chicago and Denver, with around a week between shows.
“You can’t get anywhere without one of those little buggies. We do a lot of shows like that over there, which maybe people don’t realise over here, thinking we’ve just disappeared for a while.”
Meanwhile, The Way, Buzzcocks’ ninth studio album, is the first in which they went down the crowd-funding route, via Pledge Music.
For a band whose first release, the seminal Spiral Scratch, was cobbled together DIY-style with the help of £1,000 borrowed from family and friends, it brings it all full circle, despite their later major label success.
“It seems that one big corporate animal sucks up another these days. We were on EMI for years, and they owned the early catalogue, which is now with Warner Brothers.
“We thought we’d try out this crowd funding, as it’s almost like the old days where you’d go to the record shop for pre-orders, giving them the money for something that’s not in for another three weeks or so.
“We just thought it would allow us to make the album we wanted and make it quick. When you’re dealing with a record company it can take months and months.
“These companies are few and far between these days anyway. We just wanted to try this new approach and see what happens, and had a window in which we could do it.”
Going back to your days with United Artists, I gather you signed for them the day Elvis Presley died. Do you have clear memories of all that?
“Kind of, because we signed the contract on the bar at the legendary Electric Circus in Manchester, rather than at a big hotel or corporate office.
“That was some venue. There was an old cinema there, in Harpurhey, near Ancoats, and it was somewhere the Sex Pistols and The Clash’s White Riot tour visited too.”
It’s clear from listening to Steve that Manchester still has a special place in his heart, despite having moved away so long ago. In fact, I’m not really sure he moved away at all.
“Not really! You can take the boy out of Manchester, but … Actually, Liam Gallagher lives near me. He’s been down here years as well.”
How about Pete Shelley – where’s he based these days?
“Funnily enough, he’s gone even further afield. He’s in Tallinn now, Estonia, having married a girl from out there, moving out around two years ago.
“When we travel, we often have to meet him in London or some airport elsewhere.
“We left Manchester for various reasons, and I met a girl down here. I wasn’t planning on leaving Manchester.”
Is Steve a family man these days?
“Well, not really. I’ve got a son, but he’s 23 and doesn’t live with me.”
Did he follow in your footsteps?
“No, he’s doing art, and has just finished at Saint Martin’s and is just working out what to do in the art and fashion world.”
You could argue that Steve’s in that sector too, in his own way. It’s just that his art involves six strings and a band that inspired so many more to form, let alone a tribute TV pop quiz. Several acclaimed names on the scene have since spoken of the Buzzcocks’ influence, and there was even a Mojo inspiration award for the band in 2006.
“Yeah, absolutely! I thought my lad might take the same route, but you know how it is … you always go the opposite way to your parents. He’s finding his own way in life.”
And will there be any 40th anniversary dates for Buzzcocks next year?
“Yeah, we’re just talking about that, trying to figure out what to do. It’ll be something special, like a tour maybe. It could be our last major tour, just doing specialised gigs after that, here and there.”
Whether Garvey and Maher will be involved remains to be seen. But perhaps he could get John Lydon, Glenn Matlock, Steve Jones and Paul Cook down to mark the occasion, seeing as they were there for his first gig. Actually, he could get them to sit at the back this time.
“Well, Morrissey used to sit at the back taking notes years ago, in his old trenchcoat. He had long hair then.
“But yeah, we’ve come all this way on the journey, so let’s just see what happens. Either way, it should be a bit special.”
At this point I start reminiscing (as always seems inevitable when talking to my old heroes), telling Steve how – while I missed them live first time around – I was thrilled to see them a couple of times when they reformed.
First there was the Martin Hannett memorial festival, Cities in the Park, at Heaton Park in Manchester, on August 3rd, 1991, with The Wonder Stuff top of the bill and The Fall on fine form, as well as the likes of New Fast Automatic Daffodils, Cabaret Voltaire, Frank Sidebottom and John Cooper Clarke. But for me, the abiding memory was of finally seeing the mighty Buzzcocks.
Then, even better as it was a far more intimate gig, there was a show at one of my favourite venues, The Old Trout in Windsor, on June 17th, 1993, putting on a blistering set as part of their Trade Test Transmissions tour.
“I remember playing there. Wow!”
And here they are all these years later, with Diggle and Shelley still at the core, and the band still going steady.
“Absolutely, yeah! The great thing is that I think the band’s got better over the years. It just seems to go from strength to strength.
“There’s a broader perspective to the shows now, particularly with some of the newer stuff in there. It’s like it’s still growing, you know!”
That can’t be bad, not least as I would put this band’s first three albums – Another Music in a Different Kitchen, Love Bites and A Different Kind of Tension – among my favourites of any era.
And then there are all those great non-album singles beyond the Spiral Scratch EP, not least What Do I Get?, Love You More, Promises, Everybody’s Happy Nowadays, Harmony in my Head …
“Well, even Liam (Gallagher) said to me, ‘Forget Oasis, forget The Stone Roses, and all that – Buzzcocks are the best band to come out of Manchester!’
“That’s not a bad compliment, is it? I never thought he’d think of it like that. Of course, I said, “Oh, I don’t know about that. We’re all good from Manchester!”
Tickets for Buzzcocks at the Live Rooms, Station Road, Chester, this Friday, July 24 (7pm doors) are £20 (advance) via the box office on 0871 220 0260 or this link.