Punk idols Buzzcocks are back, a year after losing revered frontman Pete Shelley, with a new single to mark the occasion, officially released in mid-February but available during the band’s short run of December dates.
And latest 45, ‘Gotta Get Better’, released by Cherry Red Records, neatly sums up co-founder Steve Diggle’s take on the last 12 difficult months for the band and himself … and the state of the nation right now. Is this a sign that there’s a new album on its way?
“Yeah, we’ve got a few tracks. I like the B-side too, ‘Destination Zero’, always a difficult thing to do, y’know. We’ve recorded them, and I’ve a lot of others we’re working on, but we wanted to get these new songs out there to tie in with this tour – something current.”
The title suggests a desire to move on, channeling the power of positive vibes.
“Exactly. It’s kind of a universal statement, but kind of applies to us and me personally in the band, with Pete dying and that. It’s been a difficult year, one way or another. But it’s a song of inspiration, one everyone can relate to, and in classic Buzzcocks vein, like ‘Promises’ and ‘What do I Get?’”
Pete Shelley formed Buzzcocks with Howard Devoto in Bolton in February 1976, but it was with the arrival of Steve Diggle (initially on bass) and John Maher (drums), that they became a functioning band, making their debut in style – opening for the Sex Pistols on their memorable return to Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall that July; Lydon, Matlock, Cook and Jones’ famous first visit a month earlier having been organised by Pete and Howard.
By early 1977, Buzzcocks, one of the first bands to form their own independent label, New Hormones, had released the seminal ‘Spiral Scratch’ EP, but soon Howard left to form Magazine, bassist Steve Garvey joining in his place, his namesake switching to guitar. And that August, the new line-up signed a recording contract with United Artists, releasing the landmark ‘Orgasm Addict’ single, swiftly followed by ‘What Do I Get?’, their debut UK top-40 entry and first of a string of chart hits.
Over the next three years, they toured extensively, releasing a trilogy of revered LPs, Another Music in a Different Kitchen followed by Love Bites (both 1978) then A Different Kind of Tension (1979), as well as the mighty Singles Going Steady compilation.
In 1981, the band went their separate ways, but the same four-piece reconvened in 1989, and while Steve and John would in time move on, the Shelley/Diggle partnership remained intact until Pete died of a suspected heart attack in Tallinn, Estonia – where he moved with his wife, Greta, in 2012 – last December.
But they honoured a special show booked for the Royal Albert Hall in London in June, that event – already planned to include long-time friends Penetration and the Skids – becoming a tribute to Pete and the band’s legacy, involving various high-profile guests. And after honouring a further summer engagement overseas, it soon became clear that they’d decided to continue, starting out with this eight-date UK tour, Steve taking over lead vocal duties, announcing, ‘I’m going to raise the mast and set the sails for the next voyage of the good ship, Buzzcocks’,
And on that journey, he’s joined by fellow survivors Chris Remington (bass, since 2008) and Danny Farrant (drums, since 2006), plus new guitarist Mani Perazzoli, who featured in the earlier show.
Incidentally, Steve, now 64, hinted about a new Cherry Red reissue boxset when we spoke last week, that project following previous reissues, although details are sketchy at this stage.
“The first reissues put the spotlight on those albums we did back in the late ‘70s, but these we did later on were good as well, so a boxset of those will make a lot of sense of that latter phase.”
Last time we spoke, in late July 2015, we talked a fair bit about The Way LP, and you suggested you were enjoying the new material more. I get the impression you’ve never really been content just playing the old hits. Proper punk spirit, maybe.
“Well, yeah, it’s always good to do a bit of new stuff. But we got heavily into touring, and it took a while to get The Way out. Now we’ve got this single out though, and we’ll get a new album out next year. It keeps it current, and vibrant.”
Was it always clear for this post-Pete phase you would go out under the Buzzcocks banner? You could have toured again, for instance, as Flag of Convenience (also involving fellow ‘Cocks Steve Garvey and John Maher) in honour of that 1981/9 project.
“Well, I also had that (CD) boxset of my four solo albums, Wheels of Time (2016) and like a lot of stuff from that, and a lot of people suggested I carry on with that. I could have done a lot of that and some classic Buzzcocks song of mine. But we were doing our tribute gig to Pete at the Royal Albert Hall already. With Pete dying that became something else, but this band was there already, really.”
In the scheme of things, your bandmates Chris and Danny have been with you quite some time now.
“Yes, we’ve still kind of got the Buzzcocks band, so it’s a case of moving on from there, and when we played the Royal Albert Hall I was singing all the songs anyway, along with a few guests.
“We then had a Buzzcocks gig on this boat booked in, from Barcelona to Sardinia and back. And funnily enough, on our last tour Pete came to my room a couple of times after shows and twice during that time said, ‘I’m thinking of retiring, but you carry on, with my blessing’.
“That sounds a bit eerie now, us not knowing what was around the corner, but I’d joke with him, saying, ‘You’re not going anywhere! We’ve still got some stuff to do!’ But I think he’d have been happy for us to carry on.”
I couldn’t get to the Royal Albert Hall show, but as well as some great radio tributes on BBC 6 Music, I heard some fitting live tributes to Pete, starting with two acts who joined you for that London event – Skids when they played Preston Guild Hall and Penetration when they played The Continental across town, with some lovely memories and Buzzcocks covers from Richard Jobson, Pauline Murray, and co. I also recall French outfit Nouvelle Vague’s cracking ‘Ever Fallen in Love’ cover when they played Gorilla, Manchester.
“That’s great, and I remember a lot of people sending me links to songs they played at their gigs, and even Elton John at a big football stadium gig in Philadelphia dedicated a song to Pete.”
A fortnight after Nouvelle Vague, The Undertones were across the road at Manchester’s Ritz, dedicating ‘Thrill Me’ to your former frontman and reminiscing about the day The Undertones met the Buzzcocks backstage in Sunderland at a festival the previous summer.
“That’s right, we did! And I know we inspired them in the early days. You can hear it in their sound.”
“A lot of love. We inspired a lot of people in those early days, and there’s a great catalogue of songs out there – another reason for carrying on really. This way we keep the songs alive – my songs, Pete’s songs, and those we wrote together. One of my first was ‘Fast Cars’, for which Pete added the verse. It was the same with ‘Promises’. When we’re singing those, we’re singing together, if you like. It’s keeping Buzzcocks alive really.”
While putting some questions together I was dwelling on one such Shelley lyric, on ‘Nostalgia’ from Love Bites, Pete musing, ‘I guess it’s just the music that brings on nostalgia for an age yet to come’. Fairly prophetic in the scheme of things, eh?
“Yeah, very prophetic! I never thought that at the time. I felt it was more of a cynical thing, and how Pete was at the time. But we’ve sort of lived up to that.
“When I look back there’s such a body of work there. When we’re out on the road playing those songs, we don’t tend to listen to them at home, but now I’m trying to dig out a few that people have asked for, including a few they haven’t heard live for years. Then we’ve got both sides of the new single and all the classic ones! So I’m trying to pick them from all generations and angles.”
It certainly is a mighty body of work, with at least 150 songs to choose from. Deciding on a setlist must bring on a few headaches, albeit positive ones.
“Well, yeah. We’ve got a lot in the pot at the moment, and they all kind of work. But there’s only a given amount of time, so it’s, y’know, ‘We’ve got to condense this’.”
It helps if you can get off the stage before midnight, I guess.
“Exactly! And there will be songs we’ll play at some gigs and others elsewhere. So we fit them in somehow, but alternate them a bit.”
It’s 40 years since your third and final LP of that late ‘70s phase, A Different Kind of Tension, and I’ve probably been playing that more than any other Buzzcocks album lately. And I still love it. That said, listening to the lyrical content of Pete’s songs, he seemed to be … unravelling a little at the time. Or was he just … over-stimulated?
“Well, it was probably getting on for four or five years together, and we’d probably had about eight hits and had been on tour for all those years, including time in America, or in the studio. So people were getting a little worn down. So I think at that point – on some of those lyrics – he’s a bit vulnerable and … not confused, but maybe analysing himself a bit, and the band, or whatever. There was a little more darkness and intensity on that album, I think.”
But it’s stood the test of time, for sure.
“Yeah, and there’s a bit of the experimental there. We brought a bit of the avant-garde on some of it. Not particularly on my songs – I did more straight-ahead songs to kind of balance the heaviness, and complement them.”
Indeed, and you worked well that way, throughout all the years you made records together.
“Absolutely, and songs like ‘Autonomy’, ‘Fiction Romance’ and ‘Moving Away From the Pulsebeat’ on the first album – even though we’re known for the hits – involve a bit of the avant-garde too. And later we did ‘Why Can’t I Touch It?’ and stuff like that, going down all those avenues. And by the time we got to A Different Kind of Tension, it brought elements of that out as well.”
Talking of 40th anniversaries, that also applies to ‘Harmony In My Head’, your last top-40 hit (their sixth, although it’s a crime that 1978’s wondrous ‘I Don’t Mind’ and 1980’s gorgeous ‘You Say You Don’t Love Me’ never made it there) and another great Diggle composition. You should be proud of that.
“Yeah, we’d had a few hits by then and I felt we had to go on Top of the Pops with a heavy one again, like in the early days, something a bit more solid and a bit harder after ‘Ever Fallen in Love’, ‘Promises’ and ‘Everybody’s Happy Nowadays’. And yes, that has stood the test of time and it’s one of those songs that when you put it on it comes at you a bit steam-rollery! A bit lively.”
You and Pete were in the band together from 1976 to 1981, then again on reconvening from 1989 through to 2018, accounting for more than half of your life working together. I’m guessing over all that time you got to know each other’s thinking well, with real understanding of each other. Erm … do you believe in ESP? Was there a kind of telepathy at times?
“There was, yeah! From the first rehearsal back in ’76, you just kind of knew there was some empathy between us, y’know. If I had a song or he had a song, we’d know where it was going. We’d say, ‘It goes like this …’ and it’d be a case of ‘Yep, it’s alright. I’ve got that.’
“Like ‘Everybody’s Happy Nowadays’, I’d say, I don’t need the chords, and then I came up with the riff. We never sat down and had to slave away at these things. He’d bring things in that were well on their way, but there was that magic between us. And when he’d gone, I thought there won’t be anyone again like me and him who could play guitar together. We had that chemistry between us.
“We’ve got another guitarist with us on this tour, but nobody could get what we had. It’s just one of those things that we met and had that thing between us. Personally, as well. We got on well. We had little squabbles here and there, but artistic squabbles. We’d still go to the pub together and have a drink. We had that gap, but it’s still 40-plus years. There was that major part of my life with him as a musical colleague, but also personally.
“We were very close in a lot of ways and always kind of got on. We’d have a bit of a laugh but also talk about lots of heavy things. To be honest, there was only me and him who would stay in the pub too long! All the others used to go, y’know!”
It was great to see your fellow bandmates from that classic line-up, Steve Garvey (bass) and John Maher (drums), involved with the Royal Albert Hall show.
“It was nice to see them, and we had a few days together leading up to the Royal Albert Hall, rehearsing. It was really nice to have them two back again.
“Each player has their own sound, and when that bass and drums kicked in … ‘Ah, I remember that kind of sound!’ That defined a lot of the early stuff. Now Steve lives in America, John’s on the Isle of Harris, and things have moved on. But it was great to spend a week or so together again, rehearsing, the gig, then a sleeve art exhibition we all went to in Great Portland Street. It was a great thing all round really.”
A worthy send-off for Pete.
“It was, yeah.”
Pete was based in Tallinn, Estonia, in later years, but the current band all live fairly close, with Steve in Highgate, North London, not far from another famous Manc.
“Liam Gallagher lives just up the road, so when I’m in the pub with him it still feels like being in Manchester!”
Famous neighbours also include The Kinks’ songwriting legend Ray Davies, Steve having moved to the area more than 30 years ago.
“I never thought I’d leave Manchester. But I met a girl down here, and now find a lot of my old friends are either teaching in Europe or off somewhere else. I don’t know anybody in Manchester half the time, although I know every street, nook and cranny and still feel Manchester underneath. But when I go back to do this gig, it’ll all come flooding back.”
Are there specific songs you hear from the Buzzcocks’ catalogue that take you back to a time and place and remind you of being there in that studio with Pete?
“I think most of them, really. When he died, it was all over the BBC news, and they were playing our songs on Radio 6 Music one particular day.
“I missed a lot of that, because people were phoning me up and I was trying to sort things out, but at the end of one show – I think it may have been Lauren Laverne – I was listening in to see what people were saying, and heard six songs back to back. That really blew my mind. I thought, ‘Bloody hell! We were really good!’ And hearing Pete’s voice singing, a little tear came in my eye. I was saying ‘You go for it, Pete!’ at the radio, y’know. I think one of those was ‘Why Can’t I Touch It?’ And that’s one that takes me back.
“We did most of our stuff around then at Olympic Studios (in Barnes, South West London), where The Who, Led Zeppelin, and The Beatles recorded, and the Rolling Stones did a lot there – ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and all that. So I was thinking, ‘This is the studio!’ On the cover of the first album, the picture of us in the black shirts, just behind us is one of those famous screens there.
“Anyway, with ‘Why Can’t I Touch it?’ (recorded at Strawberry Studios, Stockport), I remember this groove, and we didn’t really have a groove kind of song at that point, so I went in, did that riff, John and Steve joined in, then Pete – a bit late turning up – came and joined in, adding the words. We recorded ‘Everybody’s Happy Nowadays’, had a meal at a Greek restaurant, then around 10 o’clock that evening recorded that B-side.
“We’d had quite a bit of ouzo by then, but felt, ‘Well, we’ve got the A-side, so that’s alright’. There’s a bit in the middle where me and Pete are jamming, looking at each other, me playing some off-chord piece, us answering each other. But it was all down to a nod and a wink, and ‘OK, let’s get back into the song’, and moments like that take me back to that recording process, back to the Greek restaurant, keeping it going … and the ouzo!”
I mentioned The Undertones, and talked in May this year to Damian and John O’Neill about their experiences recording their debut LP with engineer Roger Bechirian in early ‘79 (and parts of the follow-up the following January) at Eden Studios, Acton, West London, and I presume you and producer Martin Rushent followed into that studio not long after to make your third long player. Was that a good experience?
“Yeah, that was great. And we might have done a bit of ‘Harmony in My Head’ there too, y’know. And a few others.”
Correct, with that single later mixed at Marquee.
“Yeah, the mainstay was Olympic, but if that was busy we’d sometimes do backing tracks somewhere else, then work back on it at Olympic, or Strawberry Studios. At Eden I remember being with Martin Rushent, looking in a cupboard for more microphones, rather than use the standard ones. We found one of those old black ribbon types, and I’m pretty sure that’s how I did the vocals for ’Harmony in My Head’. I think that gave it a great sound. That was quite a key thing, using some dusty old mic. stored in a cupboard!”
Our latest conversation came the day before the first anniversary of Pete’s death, and I asked Steve – busy rehearsing for much of the week – what he might be doing to mark the occasion. Would he be raising a glass to his close friend?
“Oh, absolutely! There will be those moments tomorrow. I often think, ‘I can’t believe it’s been a year,’ but a year’s not a long time at our age, is it? There are often moments where I can’t believe he’s not here anymore, going through all that pain process and getting over it. I remember when my Dad died, and it’s a bit similar in a way. You have to blank it out of your mind for a while, and I’ve kind of done that in order for me to be able to function.
“Now, from tomorrow, it’ll be a new stage really. You’ve done the tears, you’ve done the painfulness, and you just have to remember those lovely moments and try and feel warm and remember Pete in a lovely way.”
You’ve obviously kept yourself busy, and the planning for the Royal Albert Hall show must have helped you focus on something positive during those difficult first few months.
“It did. It was a bit of a painful run-up to that, but you’ve got to move on. Like with my Dad, I decided to put it all in a file at the back of my head. You can’t be getting emotional about it every day, or I’d be having a nervous breakdown.”
The important thing is you still have the band, honouring his legacy that way, remembering him and all those great songs you wrote between you all.
“Yeah, from ‘What Do I Get?’ to ‘Ever Fallen in Love’ and all those, I never thought I’d be singing those songs, but do a pretty good job of it, y’know. And I think Pete would be with me on that as well. And let’s hope we’ll have a lot of love on this tour.
“It’ll be nice to get out there and connect with the audience again. I know we did the Royal Albert Hall, but now we’re getting up north and travelling about a bit, and it’ll be a bit of a celebration wake as well, where we can all celebrate, sing along with those classic Pete songs and remember him that way. It should be a bit cathartic for everyone in that sense.”
For July 2015’s WriteWyattUK feature/interview with Steve Diggle, Buzzcocks Going Steady, head here.
Buzzcocks’ December 2019 UK tour: Norwich UEA Waterfront, Wednesday 11th; Wolverhampton, Slade Rooms, Thursday 12th; Preston 53 Degrees, Saturday 14th; Manchester Gorilla, Sunday 15th; Glasgow, Oran Mor, Tuesday 17th; Newcastle, Wylam Brewery, Wednesday 18th; Sheffield, The Foundry, Friday 20th; Leeds, The Key Club, Saturday 21st. For full tour details head here or to the band’s website. You can also keep in touch via Facebook.