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Fast Cars, Lipstick And Autonomy: Why The Buzzcocks Were More Than A Singles Band

On January 25, 2019

It’s long been considered a badge of laziness for “serious” music buffs to favor a band’s compilation over their studio albums. You can see this sentiment at work in The Venture Bros episode where two of The Monarch’s henchmen talk about their favorite David Bowie albums. After one of the henchmen crows “Changesone! I love that album,” his cohort sneers “Could you be a bigger poser? Changes is a best of!”

In this line of thinking, greatest hits albums are tourist traps: The one-stop shop, must-hear destinations for dilettantes who don’t know any better. The “true” fans take on the role of locals — they know all the deep cuts and album tracks you won’t find on a comp’s map.

Of course, this perspective has its flaws: it encourages elitist “No True Scotsman” pissing matches; it overlooks the fact that some groups are singles bands and don’t have any buried treasure waiting to be excavated on the B-side; and sometimes you just want to skip your vegetables and go straight for dessert. And what do people who cry “poser” to compilation lovers do when a comp is considered a band’s definitive work?

For the Buzzcocks, 1979’s Singles Going Steady is that defining record. It holds a similar place of prominence in their discography as Gold does to ABBA: They’re compilations that are so good, so packed with essential hits, that it makes their actual albums look like afterthoughts. Equipped with more hooks than a bait & tackle shop, both records are often treated as the first and last word about their respective bands.

Treating them as such, though, is a mistake. Any ABBA listener who refuses to venture past the confines of Gold will miss out on sublime album cuts like “I Am A Marionette,” “Like An Angel Passing Through My Room,” and “Slipping Through My Fingers.” They’ll also never realize that Gold offers an incomplete picture of the band, as much of the Swedish quartet’s darker and more melancholic tendencies can only be heard on the album tracks.

The same can be said for Singles Going Steady. The Buzzcock’s first Stateside release (pairing their eight U.K. singles in chronological order with their corresponding B-sides), it paints a compelling-yet-simplified picture of the band as a pop-punk hit machine. All of the Buzzcocks signatures are there: The two-note guitar solos; the candy-coated, buzzsaw riffs; Pete Shelley’s high-pitched, yearning schoolboy vocals. If punk was, as Lydia Lunch once observed, “Chuck Berry on speed” than the Buzzcocks were The Monkees on speedballs — daydream believers banging out one breathless, nerve-jangling ode to love and lust after another. That side of the band is clearly in focus on Singles Going Steady, but their harder, more experimental side is left outside the frame.

Hopefully, this month's anniversary reissues of 1976’s Another Music In A Different Kitchen and 1978’s Love Bites, their first two studio albums, will help change the narrative of Buzzcocks as a singles band. Forming a trilogy with 1979's A Different Kind of Tension, these three albums and 1977’s Spiral Scratch EP represent the original Buzzcocks’ body of work before the band briefly dissolved in 1981. And while a good chunk of Singles Going Steady is represented on the tracklists of Another Music and Love Bites, the album cuts reveal different facets to the band’s sound and character.

Produced by Martin Rushent (who would go on to produce The Human League), the Buzzcocks’ first three records have a tight, dry sound to them. The band’s lineup underwent a few changes after the release of Spiral Scratch — the biggest one being the departure of original singer (and future Magazine frontman) Howard Devoto, who declared “What was once unhealthily fresh is now a clean old hat” as he ducked out of the punk scene. It’s on the Rushent albums where the core of the band solidifies: John Maher on drums, Steve Garvey on bass, Steve Diggle on rhythm guitar (and occasional vox) and Pete Shelley on lead guitars/vox.

Shelley, who passed away last year at the age of 63 from a suspected heart attack, is the architect of the band’s sound. To understand what he brought to the band, all you have to do is listen to the songs Devoto sung on Spiral Scratch. While Devoto is a fine punk/post-punk singer in his own right, his vocals are caustic and sharp. There’s a more performative, aggro quality to them: It’s not far removed from the sneering punk-heel archetype that John Lydon could do in his sleep.

Shelley, by contrast, sings his songs without any of those trappings. He trades in aggression for energy; he’s horny without being gross — a romantic without a trace of sap. That vulnerable everyman quality made him and the rest of the band the odd men out. They were soft while their contemporaries trafficked in hardness.

The Pistols sang about “No feelings” while The Clash shouted there would be “no Beatles or Elvis or Rolling Stones in 1977.” That was not an attitude shared by Shelley, who’d confess in interviews about his songwriting that “it was just like the stuff I’d grown up with in the ’60s, you know, like With The Beatles.”

He also wasn’t afraid to write about sex and love, which set his band apart from the other groups in U.K. Punk’s Holy Trinity. The Clash looked at love the way Huck Finn looked at his Aunt Sally: a negating, compromising force that would tie them down. When Strummer sings “He who fucks nuns will later join the church,” he may as well be Huck muttering “Aunt Sally, she’s going to adopt and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it.” As for the Pistols: For a band who got their start in a fetish clothing shop, they were surprisingly sex-averse. Their only two songs to tackle relationships, “Bodies” and “Submission,” throb with loathing and disgust.

But Shelley was willing to honestly engage with the pleasures and contradictions of romance & physical affection. Gang of Four sang “love’ll get you like a case of anthrax” like a warning; Shelley would have sang that line like he was aching to get infected. After all, what’s the use of looking forward to “No Future” if you can’t snog someone after everything goes to shit?

Shelley’s knack for crafting perfect pop-punk love songs animates Another Music and Love Bites: The exhilarated horniess of “Get On Our Own,” where Shelley’s voice ecstatically repeats “On our o-o-o-own” on the chorus like he’s about to pass out from excitement, the headlong rush of “I Need,” where Shelley rattles off all the hungers (both literal and carnal) that he wants satisfied with a junkie's fervor, and how Shelley turns romantic dysfunction into robotic malfunction on “Operator’s Manual,” pleading for a mechanic to tune him up and sort him out.

Part of what makes these songs so relatable is their ambiguity. Shelley was bisexual, and you can see that influenced his approach to songwriting. He doesn’t put the subjects of his songs in gender boxes, forgoing the use of pronouns. Even on songs like “Orgasm Addict” (perhaps the greatest ode to the clammy palmed, constantly horny horrors of puberty ever written), the butcher’s assistants and bellhops Shelley and Devoto make it with go undefined. “Lipstick” could just as easily be about a boy as any other gender. That universality makes Buzzcocks the rare pop-punk band whose work can resonate just as easily with queer listeners as it can with heteronormative ones.

Shelley also applied his natural and throwaway approach to his political songwriting. It’s easy to think of Buzzcocks as an apolitical band compared to the Pistols and the Clash, but a closer look at their history and songs dispels that notion. Sure, the Buzzcocks didn’t have a Malcolm McLaren or Bernie Rhodes around to talk up situationism and anarchist politics on their behalf to the press, but from the beginning they’ve shown signs there’s more going on to them than crushes and broken hearts. This is the same band that chose ORG 1 as the catalog number for Spiral Scratch because it was a reference to Wilhelm Reich’s theories on orgone “sex energy” and included references to Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction on the EP’s sleeve.

Singles Going Steady does include a few of their more philosophical/political songs: The faux-cheery anxiety of “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays”; capitalism as an omnipresent, invasive force in “Harmony In My Head” (“Your thoughts are chosen, your world is advertising now”); and even “Why Can’t I Touch It?” can do double duty as a song about desire and/or the illusory nature of reality itself. But they go deeper into this vein on the records with tracks like “Fast Cars” (the first punk song to namecheck Ralph Nader), “Paradise” and “I Believe.” While love remains the band’s primary muse, depression and alienation and existential concerns crop up throughout their first three records. Another running thread that connects these records is their noisier impulses.

Listening to Singles Going Steady, it’d be hard to guess that Shelley was a big Can devotee. The Buzzcocks guitarist frequently cited Can’s Michael Karoli as one of his favorite guitarists. One of the first pieces of music Shelley recorded was a homemade electronic experiment called “Sky Yen”; the song had more in common with Tangerine Dream than T-Rex. The biggest tell of all that Buzzcocks are a weirder band they often get credit for can be found in their origin story: The band came together because of a college message board ad that read “Wanted: people to form a group to do a version of [the Velvet Underground's] ‘Sister Ray.’”

Other punks paid lip service to Can in interviews, but Buzzcocks openly used tricks from the krautrock playbook on songs like “Sixteen” and “Late To The Train.” They weren’t afraid to let a song end on a noisy, motorik-inspired outro. Sometimes they would even go for the very un-punk move of letting a song go out with a minute-long fade (“E.S.P.”), and even brought in acoustic guitars and balladeering for their second album (the Diggle-sung “Love Is Lies”). And on “Fiction Romance,” you can hear traces of the frosty electronics Shelley would embrace during his solo career (Shelley’s biggest solo hit, the openly queer anthem “Homosapien,” actually was going to be a Buzzcocks demo). Shelley’s love of electronic music would inform much of his later output, even spurring him on to compose theme music for U.K. TV’s Tour de France coverage. Not a lot of punks can put “wrote Olympian-esque music” on their CV.

But if you had to pick one song from their oeuvre to make the case that there’s much more to the Buzzcocks than Singles Going Steady, A Different Kind of Tension’s penultimate track “I Believe” makes the most compelling argument. It’s the least punk song on those three albums: It’s over seven minutes long! It has long instrumental passages where the band vamps it up! It has Shelley howling “There is no love in this world anymore!” with zero irony!

“I Believe” is Shelley’s peak as a singer: A song where he gets to escalate his emotional intensity over the course of those seven minutes, working himself up in a lather until he’s pouring all the soul out of his body in those final moments. It’s the sound of an idealist affirming and losing everything that’s dear to them in the span of one song. And while it stretches on far longer than any U.K. punk song at the time, it feels half as long as it actually is.

Singles Going Steady is an amazing piece of work, but it misses those highs, those go-for-broke indulgent moments where Buzzcocks transcended three-chord bop nirvana. “The whole idea of Buzzcocks was, and still is, just the joy of four guys on stage making a racket,” Shelley said, reflecting on the band’s legacy. You can hear that racket loud and clear on Another Music In A Different Kitchen, Love Bites and A Different Kind of Tension. But you can also hear something else: the sound of a band trying to reach out and touch something that feels so real they can taste it.

Profile Picture of Ashley Naftule
Ashley Naftule

Ashley Naftule is a writer, theater artist, & karaoke aficionado from Phoenix, AZ. He's been published in Vice, Phoenix New Times, The Hard Times, and Under The Radar.

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