Patrick Sisson - Writer, Journalist, Cultural Documentarian, Music Lover

Interview: Buzzcocks

January 2009


While the mantle of punk rock elder can be uncomfortable and ultimately a bit awkward, the members of the Buzzcocks have managed to maintain their dignity and humility three decades into their career. Perhaps it’s because, even with solo careers and a shifting lineup, the Manchester band keeps churning out new music, including 2006’s Flat-Pack Philosophy, that doesn’t distract from its late-1970s legacy, a string of classic singles and albums that were honest, energetic, and direct.

Recently, that legacy has been revisited and celebrated. Deluxe reissues of the group’s first three albums, Another Music In a Different Kitchen, Love Bites, and A Different Kind of Tension, filled with unreleased tracks and demos, were released by EMI UK in October, and the band just kicked off the Another Bites Tour, featuring performances of their first two albums front to back, this month. And in a true exercise in rock star canonization, guitarist and vocalist Pete Shelley’s signature mangled red Starway guitar– a hefty chuck broke off when he threw it onto the floor during rehearsal– was reissued in a limited-edition series by Eastwood.

According to Shelley, the missing chunk of the original guitar is in the hands of Howard Devoto, an original member of the Buzzcocks who left the band after just a few singles and formed his own group, Magazine, which is also reformed and riding the touring circuit. In back-to-back phone calls, the two core members of the Buzzcocks, Pete Shelley and guitarist/vocalist Steve Diggle, spoke candidly about the legacy of punk, Who-style destruction and Steve’s super-human strength onstage.

Pitchfork: When did the idea for the Another Bites tour occur?
Pete Shelley: It’s been around for a while. I suppose Brian Wilson is doing the whole concept with Pet Sounds, performing an album the way it was meant to be heard. It’s not something people do these days. I sit around and cherry-pick tracks and put my MP3 player on shuffle and find things I never thought I owned. We also got word from EMI that they were doing deluxe versions of the re-releases, more of a reason to do the shows. They’ll be out by the time we tour. We’re still waiting to hear from our agent to determine which ones to perform in the States.

Pitchfork: So there’s a chance this tour will come to the States?
PS: Yeah, the plan is to play in April and May in the States.

Pitchfork: A lot of your lyrics discuss romance, alienation, and anxiety. Have those feelings changed over the years?
PS: I suppose it’s mellowed. The songs, a lot of them, I wrote as circumstances demanded. They’re putting forward a point of view that I don’t necessarily believe in. It’s almost like the history of philosophy, where you study ideas which are not necessarily right, but by finding out why they’re not right, you can go on to find out new ideas. Does that make sense?

Pitchfork: Yeah, you learn as much by disproving something as by proving something.
PS: Yeah. They’re like states of mind, really. It’s really about how the realization that the relationship is over with changes from it’s as bad as it can be to it’s the other person’s fault and I’m better off without them. I’m not in a constant state of thinking like that. But it helps to have been in that situation and you can see the parallels in the lyrics. I was thinking this morning about “Ever Fallen in Love”. Most people think it’s about falling in love with someone you shouldn’t have. But it’s about the way in which you deal with that realization and how you try and find some way to change the other person, which is usually a bit doomed anyway. I mean, it’s not one interpretation fits all. People put themselves into the work. I just get the ball rolling and get things going. The rest is added by the listeners.

Pitchfork: And it seems like the way you write your songs, using you and I instead of he or she, is meant to make the songs more universal.
PS: Yeah, it’s one of those awful things about gender in songs. It’s a bit clumsy when women sing Frank Sinatra songs. Sometimes the lyrics have to change– sometimes it would be quite impossible. Some songs are specifically about someone in the situation. It’s a universal thing the way we deal with relationships with other people.

Pitchfork: And it never seems to get any easier.
PS: Sartre said hell is other people. So, you know, if everybody was like me, the world would be a horrendous place.

Pitchfork: In some of your work, like the single “Homosapien”, has being bisexual contributed to this exploration to gender, keeping it you and I instead of he or she?
PS: Yeah, because the object of my attention could be either. I can always say this one is about you, even if I wrote it about someone else.

Pitchfork: I was watching a documentary about you that was originally on Granada TV, and it mentioned that when you started the band, you took the name Pete Shelley because Shelley was the name your parents were going to name you if you were a girl.
PS: I always used to deny it was the poet, and say it was Shelley Winters. But I saw her on a chat show and she said her name was originally Shirley, and she changed it in honor of the poet. So, in a more removed way, I was named after the poet.

Pitchfork: Does it feel weird being one of the few members of the class of 1976 still performing and making music?
PS: Not really, there tends to be a lot of other people that don’t get as much publicity, or they get a lot. I mean, the Pistols are still playing. But, it’s always a hard thing to keep reality away, the everyday thing, people have to go and get jobs. When we were younger it was like, we don’t need a job, we can be punk.

How do you assess that punk movement, so to speak, when you have the benefit of hindsight and separation from the event itself?
PS: I won’t say I have total separation from it, since it’s an everyday thing. It’s sort of strange, because it’s so ingrained in what it means to be me, that idea about making music and actually mattering that you’re communicating with people. Punk is just an idea that got people to do a lot of different things. For me it was to make music. But it’s just as relevant an idea now as it was then. It’s a revolutionary idea. The American dream can still inspire people. Punk can inspire people to be creative, to be an active participant instead of a passive consumer.

Pitchfork: What were the conditions of the loans from your father you used to start your label, New Hormones? How long did you have to pay him back and was it hard to ask him?
PS: He took out a loan in order to give me the money. He didn’t have the 250 pounds, which in some ways he donated. I convinced him that it was a good idea and he was wise enough to trust me. He trusted me with all the other decisions after that. I don’t think he ever expected to see the money come back. There was no formalized agreement. There used to be a man who used to come around and you used to be able to borrow money off him, and you’d pay off so much a week. It was like door-to-door lending. It was frowned upon, but at least it wasn’t a loan shark. We had no dealings with the bank.

Pitchfork: A lot of movies in the last few years, like Control and 24 Hour Party People, have tried to give an impression of Manchester. Do any of them portray it right, or give a picture of the city as it was?
PS: I would be really surprised if anyone remembered it like that. In one sense, a lot of stuff happened, but a lot of stuff didn’t happen. There was a striving, but it wasn’t like everybody in Manchester was into punk. In the early days, you could fit them all in a phone box.

Pitchfork: You and Howard Devoto first made music in college, right?
PS: He first got in touch with me after I started an electronic music society at college. He was doing a film and thought I had a synthesizer. I didn’t, but that was the first time we discussed music. Then I saw he stuck up a notice looking for musicians looking to play a version of “Sister Ray” by the Velvet Underground. I thought hey, I know that.

What drew you to the idea of starting this music society? What artists were you drawn to?
PS: I liked Walter Carlos as he was then, Wendy as he is now. I formed the society and was able to book the music room and would just pass afternoons playing records on the hi-fi. I also made a recording on a reel-to-reel recorder, bouncing from one track to another, and tormented people by playing it at lunchtime.

Pitchfork: How is your relationship with Howard these days?
PS: He’s doing his Magazine thing and he’s booked through the rest of next year. He’s just about to start touring. He’s been living over in Thailand the last couple of years, so I haven’t seen him for about two years.

Pitchfork: Is it interesting seeing these bands tour at the same time and examine the shared history?
PS: It’s good there’s some sort of legacy we’ve acquired. It wasn’t anything we set out to acquire. I think it just accumulates. They do what bands are supposed to do, be truthful and honest about the music they’re making. Then other bands come along and have far more success because they don’t have the principles, but that’s always been the way.

Pitchfork: Did other punk bands react on your style of lyrics or a reaction to the fact that you were bisexual?
PS: No, they didn’t seem to bat an eyelid, really. Because the idea of what people know, or the stereotype of a punk, hadn’t been formed. So the idea of a punk was as different as every punk you met. People would have their own take on what being a punk was, which was as valid as everybody else’s. People were all about doing what they were doing. The common thread was that a lot of it was quite funny, there was a lot of humor. I think a lot of that got left out. People think it was all “argghh” and angry and violent, but it was really about people enjoying themselves and making things happen. Because there was no other way people could see of things changing from the outside. That’s why it was revolutionary, it put people into the driver’s seat. Don’t worry about the fact that nobody’s making good music. You only have yourselves to blame. You can go out and make it.

And you seemed to focus on everyday emotions in your lyrics.
PS: There were a lot of people singing about what was wrong with everything, and there were people going on about what everyday life was like. The music previous to that was the rock’n’roll lifestyle idea, about driving your convertible down the freeway. We didn’t have freeways or convertibles. So we sung about what we knew. It was the idea that the everyday trivial thing is universal, and that’s what always got shoved out of communication. The hardest things to talk about, really simple things, are where the richness of life is.

Pitchfork: Do you think that’s a reason for your long-lasting career, a focus on those topics?
PS: No, no, no, I mean, the reason we carry on is that we realize that nobody can stop us. Part of the joy of being in the band was when we discovered there is no law against it. People used to think about doing things and thinking there was a reason you couldn’t do it. And punk was about getting rid of all the preconceptions, making the dream possible. I suppose it goes back to the riots in Paris in 1968. Be realistic, demand the impossible. And it was about waking people up to the possibilities. It’s not just punk that’s done that, there are lots of forms of music that have that same idea, like hip-hop. It’s all about making people realize we can do something, it’s what it is to be human. This whole idea that only musicians can make music and everyone else needs to sit and be quiet is a stupid one. People have more rights to make music than musicians do.


How has your relationship with Pete changed over the years, especially since things picked up again in 1989?
Steve Diggle: We’ve known each other longer than we’ve known girlfriends and wives we’ve had over the years. It’s a long haul. It’s been 33 years I’ve known him. It’s kind of like being married. In the band, it’s like being married to four fucking people. But, me and Pete have stuck it out the longest. It’s up and down. We agree on some things and disagree about others. We’ve run out of things to argue about, since we’ve covered the whole gamut. We’ve done religion, we’ve done politics, we’ve talked about people putting their feet on the table, you name it. It’s just that we’re not the same people, and the fact that we’re different creates a third thing. When you put us together the third thing you get is the Buzzcocks, that’s what causes the tension and the dynamics. If it all went smoothly, it would be boring.

Pitchfork: Has that difference caused a lot of creative sparks?
SD: When you start a band, people are guitar players and bass players, and you don’t know who they are as people, initially, until things evolve. I guess that’s how many bands split up. When they find out who they are as people it’s like fuck, I don’t like you, I don’t fucking like you [laughs]. We’re never going to see eye to eye on everything, but you know, there’s a lot of good things, and a lot of time you just get on with it. The common bond is the urgency of the music. When we get on with the music, we just get on with it. It comes from the alchemy and the magic sparks that are out there between us. We’re not in the studio arguing it to death.

Pitchfork: What was your relationship with the Pistols and Johnny Rotten?
SD: It’s really good. When we go to L.A., we do the Steve Jones radio show. We recently did a festival in Belgium with them. It cost me a lot of money because when we went on, I smashed all the equipment, Who-style. I smashed the drum kit, which was £3,500. I smashed the mic stands. It was one of those moments, 60,000 people or more in the crowd, I thought the kids should see this kind of thing. But I don’t think the promoter was too happy. He was in some kind of bad mood. I said it was an artistic statement. Then he gave me the bill for £10,000. It was expensive, but kind of worth it. We’re good friends with the Pistols, we go back all that way. The Sex Pistols had their attitude, and we had ours, and the Clash had theirs, and we didn’t know what was going to happen. To play with them more than 30 years later, we never thought that would happen.

Pitchfork: Do you think, I feel old, we’ve been doing this for 30 years, or we’re still rolling along?
SD: I still feel as enthusiastic as ever. I still can’t believe I wake up and still enjoy writing music and playing music. I still feel I’m 17 when I do it, and I still take drugs and drink and do a load of things I shouldn’t be doing. I think maybe 10 or 15 years ago I might have felt old for a moment, but you go through phases. The last few years I’ve been on a positive roll.

Pitchfork: What do you think when you see Johnny Rotten selling butter on TV? Does that seem weird?
SD: That blew my mind when I saw him doing that. I buy my butter in the local market, from the local farmers that come into town. I don’t know what kind of fucking butter he’s selling. I don’t buy that shit. On one hand, it feels like it’s against all the principles we stood up for. But on the other hand, in this corporate age, I’m kind of starting to think, if someone’s going to give him a million bucks to do that… He’s kind of done his bit as well, know what I mean? You can have a go at him, but I don’t think he’s completely sold out. It’s difficult, it’s something I thought I’d never do. I don’t know, it’s never crossed my mind to do that kind of stuff.

Pitchfork: But didn’t you guys have a song in an AARP commercial?
SD: Do we?

Pitchfork: I think so.
SD: Oh yeah, we probably have songs in all kinds of stuff like that. But using the song, that’s just getting our music across to people. I think we’ve had songs in cat food and Toyota car commercials.

Pitchfork: I guess that’s the way the music business works.
SD: You know, that’s the music. I ain’t stood up there yet and said do you want to buy a car off me. It is a tricky business. I’ve met people in advertising agencies who say, “Hey, I’m a big Buzzcocks fan and I want to put that music in the ad, because I want people to hear this stuff.” That seems valid. I do question it as well. It’s tricky. But you know, that is part of the modern age, you know.

Pitchfork: How does it feel to listen to the new reissues, especially the demos and unreleased material?
SD: I played one of those albums the other week, when I got it, and the first song on there, “Fast Cars”, took me back, like Proust, when he took a cup of tea and went back to his childhood. It took me back to writing the song when I was sitting on the bed in my folk’s house, weird memories like that.

Pitchfork: Any other memories that come back, specifically about writing the songs or working in the studio?
SD: Take a song like “Autonomy”. When I wrote it, I was listening to that German group called Can, the Krautrock band, and it kind of made me laugh the way the Germans tried to sing English. “I… love you… mother… sky,” all that kind of stuff. It was weird. You have to be British or American to really do rock and roll, the rest don’t count, really. It’s just unfortunate. I thought, I should pretend to be a British guy being a German trying to sing English. When you listen to it, there’s a little but of a Krautrock flavor. It’s not everyday you write a song via that route.
We recorded a lot of that stuff in this place called Olympic Studios. It’s where the Stones and Led Zeppelin did their first albums. It’s a great studio, a massive room. The picture on Singles Going Steady is just equipment sitting in that room. We’d do it all kind of live. We’d go in and do three backing tracks, pick the best one, then work on that, do guitar overdubs and vocal overdubs. We start at noon at be on the pub at seven. I think the first album took about three weeks to do. We just went in and it poured out.

Pitchfork: What do you feel like now when you guys go on tour, something like Warped Tour, and see these 18-20 year old kids play? What do you think of their ideas of punk?
SD: Sometimes, you think maybe they got off at the wrong end of the stick, or maybe things were different when we started off. We started off with the Pistols and Clash and were all on the same bills and saw the same shows, so there was quite a high standard. We didn’t realize that at the time. When you hear a lot of these new bands, you think they’ve got it, but not quite. There’s one thing that does make me proud about it, people have got the spirit for it. I can’t understand why some of these new bands aren’t as good as the Clash and the Pistols, but they are great in their own way. They’ve got the guitars and the punk attitude. It’s great to see that. In the ’80s, when all that dance and electronic music came in, when everybody was told the synthesizer and drum machine were going to take over the world, the organic thing about picking up a guitar and writing a song was kind of gone for awhile. It was like the future was going to be done on a computer.

Pitchfork: Do you feel you share that same attitude when you’re making music now?
SD: I feel the same. I know you’re supposed to get older and a bit more conservative about things, but I still feel like I want to throw a brick through a window. [laughs]. A guy my age, that’s undignified, he’s supposed to sit back and be cool about it. But it still feels natural to feel like that. While I’m on stage, I still have the strength of ten indie kids a lot of times. When people put punk rock records on in 1976, 77, they had to rethink their whole lives. It changed your consciousness, the way you looked at the world, just like powerful records should. It does happen, and it happened with the punk things, and it happened before that with other great records. It makes me think fuck, what am I doing with my life. Same with all the bands, we were learning with the audience.

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