It made sense to start my final week of live shows in 2019 with the Buzzcocks, my first two having involved tributes to Pete Shelley, lost to the world a few weeks before.
Back then, the headliners were the Skids and Penetration, both set to join Buzzcocks in June for a long-planned Royal Albert Hall show that took on new meaning over the new year.
Understandably, those Preston appearances included poignant nods to the man himself, Richard Jobson giving it his all on ‘What Do I Get?’ while Pauline Murray’s ‘Nostalgia’ and ‘I Don’t Mind’ proved just perfect.
And then, at the business end of the year, we kind of got the real deal, Steve Diggle’s 21st century Buzzcocks back in the city where it all started for them, and where many others were moved to form bands in their wake, the inspiration well running deep.
I’m not sure if it was ever touch and go that this seminal punk outfit would regroup and return, but from what I gather from Steve they carry on with Pete’s blessing, and this short run of festive gigs with a fresh line-up set out the stall for a new decade.
Besides, Chris Remington (guitar) and Danny Farrant (drums) have 24 years’ service to the cause behind them, so it was only latest recruit Mani Perazzoli (guitar, backing vocals) on trial here. And he passed with flying colours.
So, after the summer’s RAH memorial wake (and a cruise ship warm-up), we had a momentous eight-gig return run – part-tribute, part-glimpse into the future. And punk rock was never about standing still. ‘Nostalgia for an age yet to come’, as a great wordsmith once put it.
This could never be business as usual with just one remaining survivor from their revered Class of ’77 (when they found their feet, post-Devoto). But I guess it never will be again, however determined the current four-piece are to set out their stall for the next chapter of this legendary outfit’s existence.
Some have inevitably voiced doubts about the resumption, but having been part of the band since the start (discounting an early Devoto/Shelley Bolton Tech existence) guitarist and now lead vocalist Diggle has every bit as much right to carry on. And here’s a way to keep those wondrous Shelley compositions alive, from a band who retain that original punk spirit, with a healthy balance on this occasion between heritage/legacy songs and more recent set additions.
The night before the band played Preston, but for me Steve’s first return to his old Manchester stomping ground since Pete’s passing made more sense. And so it turned out, and we were left in no doubt that the star turn here was doing this for all the right reasons, the sheer warmth radiated and mutual love between artist and audience something to see.
When I arrived, a homeless guy outside – yep, welcome to Food Bank Britain, where the turkeys voted for an early Christmas and we seem doomed to five more years of the same gloom – was eager to point me in the right direction, a Big Issue donation duly handed over, my new pal telling me in a rich Manc accent he could tell I was a proper Buzzcocks fan. I begged to differ though. He looked far more the part. What stories he could tell, I bet.
It’s been an issue at recent gigs that the ignorant tend to talk through supports and sometimes even headline acts, but there was no chance of that here, my friend Richard having to wait until folk-punk five-piece Shanghai Treason had belted out a full-on set to recount his Buzzcocks live at Loughborough ’79 anecdote, and how there were barely 30 punters in the main hall for special guests Joy Division.
For their part, Sheffield’s Shanghai Treason were loud and proud, banjo suggesting a Men They Couldn’t Hang meets Pogues vibe, while the singer seemed to bring a hard rock element to proceedings. Either way, they impressed, the determined playing and passion for their craft ensuring the crowd were on their side throughout.
Soon enough, the Rocky theme signalled the main act’s entrance, the grin on the face of Steve – stylishly turned out, as ever – hardly slipping all night, emotions soon kicking in, this punter on a high as the mighty ‘What Do I Get?’ gave rise to first LP opener ‘Fast Cars’, ‘Why She’s the Girl From the Chain Store’, and Devoto-era debut EP mainstay ‘Boredom’, the latter just as powerful 43 years on.
There was a reminder of recent strong fare with 2003’s ‘Sick City Sometimes’ before the glorious sub-two minute punk pop of ‘I Don’t Mind’ and new single ‘Gotta Get Better’, a number that started life as a Diggle solo track a perfect vehicle for this latest phase. Back we went to the debut LP for ‘Autonomy’ before a baggier middle section, 1999’s ‘Speed of Life’ and 2014’s ‘Third Dimension’ teeing up ‘Moving Away From the Pulsebeat’, a snatch of Buddy Holly’s ‘Not Fade Away’ within, Diggle briefly veering from Keith Richards territory to move like Jagger.
Now and again there was a ‘God bless you, Pete’ aimed above, the legacy of Peter Campbell McNeish truly honoured, his old compadre knowing full well what an honour it was to be the custodian of such great songs … and so many of them.
Steve was clearly enjoying the craic, trading fist-bumps with the devoted, throwing a few Richards-like shapes and delivering those buzzsaw riffs we so love, the now-undisputed frontman giving an impromptu line from Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ before they launched into ‘Fiction Romance’, a mighty jam on ‘Why Can’t I Touch It?’ and the B-side of the new 45, ‘Destination Zero’, the main set ending with Spiral Scratch‘s ‘Time’s Up’.
I reckon the rider was taking a hammering, with more than a hint of the ‘tired and emotional’ as Steve introduced ‘Love is Lies’ on returning, the man himself admitting, ‘You can take the Manc out of Manchester, but you can’t take him out of the fucking pub!’ I too was on a high, having requested that very song, happy in the knowledge there was a slurred ‘Malcolm’ in his intro, And from there I was in raptures with a glorious take on ‘Promises’, the song Diggle wrote and Shelley kidnapped, his political statement turned into ‘another bloody love song’ … to great effect.
Two more numbers followed from The Way, ‘People Are Strange Machines’ and ‘Chasing Rainbows’, before we were back in our late-‘70s bubble, a crowd-pleasing ‘Orgasm Addict’ followed by Steve’s rowdy masterpiece, ‘Harmony in my Head’, then what else but ‘Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)’, tears welling again with those opening chords and lyrics.
Long after the band had departed, Steve remained, shaking hands with all and sundry, chatting some more, the applause continuing. What a night. Buzzcocks past, present and future all in one, back in Manchester, and as vital today as ever.
With thanks to Gary M. Hough for allowing access to photographs taken on his Sony RX100 III on a rare night off. For more of his great work, head here.
For the latest WriteWyattUK feature/interview with Steve Diggle, head here, and for a 2015 chat with Steve, try here. And for details of the new Buzzcocks single and all the latest from the band, head to their website and keep in touch via Facebook.