Roaring barre chords, relentless drumming, speedy rhythms, songs that tumble out with barely a pause for breath — all hallmarks of punk rock, right? The Buzzcocks, leaders in the original new wave “class of ‘77” that knocked England’s music scene on its ass, had all that. But the Manchester quartet also put catchy melodies and clever wordplay into songs that pushed emotions far from their peers’ angry rebellion and flip nihilism.
Fielding the same aggressive energy, the Buzzcocks instead explored insecurity, longing, guilt, anxiety and resentment. Amid the bulletproof bravado of the Sex Pistols, Clash, Damned, Generation X and Stranglers, the Buzzcocks unbuckled punk’s freedom of expression from rebellious enmity and embraced vulnerability and romanticism. As one of the musical crusaders kicking down the old guard’s door, they alone did it without rancor.
The Buzzcocks were sparked into life by the creative collaboration of singer-guitarist Pete Shelley and singer Howard Devoto. The former favored chewy pop with heart; the latter had more angular, artistic ambitions. After one independent EP, Devoto left to form Magazine, leaving Shelley — who emerged as a masterful (if idiosyncratic) pop singles auteur, helpfully augmented by contributions from guitarist Steve Diggle — to lead the band through a steady stream of U.K. chart successes in 1978 and ‘79.
The Buzzcocks were so adeptly devoted to the 45 r.p.m. form (with poptastic backing vocals) that it took them under two years to rack up enough winning sides for a blindingly great American compilation, “Singles Going Steady.” That short-form ethos carried the band for a long time: More than half of the 2003 London set captured on “Live at Shepherds Bush” was originally released on 7-inch vinyl.
I first saw the Buzzcocks in 1978, at the Roundhouse in London, and got completely swept up in the rush. I may have even pogoed. One tiny detail stuck with me all these years. Shelley, who made it cool to be a punk nerd (he’d studied electronic engineering in college, as had I; we bonded over that during a 1989 interview), was wearing a watch, and the strap must have been loose, because he repeatedly put his arm in the air between songs to shake it back from his wrist.
While others preened in leather, shades and spiked hair, the Buzzcocks dressed like polite students.
The Buzzcocks downplayed style, using it only in the elegantly futurist artwork of their record sleeves. While others preened in leather, shades and spiked hair, the Buzzcocks dressed like polite students. And their music remained consistent in approach without ever succumbing to sameness. Lyrical topics ranged all over the place, but they never added instrumentation (other than a rare bit of keyboard), sought ambitious production or entertained radical reinvention. (As the group disbanded in 1981 after making only three studio albums, there wasn’t much time for that, though others managed drastic development over that same span.) Odd chord sequences and surprisingly angled melodies supplied the sonic variety other bands sought in exploratory trend-hopping.
They didn’t go in for stage business, either. The Buzzcocks always played it straight, proffering a stripped-down whirlwind of thought-provoking lyrics and adrenalized guitar-bass-drums economy rather than rock ’n’ roll show business. The band seen here — albeit with a new rhythm section Shelley and Diggle drafted following the band’s 1989 relaunch — looks and sounds much the same as the one I saw in the ‘70s. If the singing isn’t always on-key perfect (it’s still punk rock, remember), the songs never lose their appeal or power.
From the two-note siren melody of “Boredom” to the stiff-upper-lip patience of “You Say You Don’t Love Me” (a classic forlorn lad’s mixtape missive), the Buzzcocks sketch life’s ups and downs with insightful admissions (“I Don’t Know What to Do With My Life,” “Something’s Gone Wrong Again”) and romantic angst (“Love You More,” “Oh Shit!”). Diggle’s songs — “Autonomy,” “Harmony in My Head” — come from a different place but are no less intrinsic to the band’s persona. And no one has ever written a more winsome song about forbidden romance than “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)?” or put more longing in romance thwarted than “What Do I Get?” — a taut, indelible single wittily perforated by a minimalist three-note guitar solo.
And who else would have such a profound grasp of disillusion to pair a list of ideological certainties in the double-length “I Believe” with an endlessly chanted refrain of “There is no love in this world anymore”? Many bands in the blank generation moved away from the big bang that birthed them, but the Buzzcocks never lost sight of it. As Shelley — who died of a heart attack in 2018 at the age of 63 — once told the Guardian, “Punk is an art of action. It’s about deciding to do something and then going out and doing it.”