Talk about meeting one of your favorite artists and then getting to hang with him before and after a sweat-drenched sold out gig. That’s what happened in 2003 when I visited Chicago to do a brewpub tour and catch Peter Shelley’s lifelong punk-pop outfit, the Buzzcocks, across the street from historic Wrigley Field. One of the friendliest and least conceded artists I’ve encountered, Shelley had just signed with indie icon, Merge Records, and released an enjoyable eponymous Buzzcocks disc he was supporting by touring the US and beyond.
Inarguably a seminal ‘70s punk legend, Buzzcocks vocalist-guitarist Peter Shelley continues to compose exuberant rockers and perform thrilling live shows well into his fifties. Along with former bandleader Howard Devoto (who went on to form Magazine with Barry Adamson), then-bassist Steve Diggle, and long-departed drummer John Maher, the Buzzcocks delivered the frenzied 7” Spiral Scratch E.P. in ’77 just as The Clash, Sex Pistols, and Damned began defining the exciting British underground scene. Sans Devoto, Shelley took over lead responsibilities, Diggle moved to guitar and vocals, and then-newcomer Steve Garvey plucked bass on British-only albums Another Music In A Different Kitchen and its resplendent ’78 follow-up, Love Bites. The most pop-rooted, melody-related combo of the initial Brit-punk era, these inspirational Manchester natives reached an early zenith with the delightful A Different Kind Of Tension, culling the masterful Singles Going Steady from priceless 45’s prior to disbanding in March ’81.
Rumors persisted and finally Shelley and Diggle assembled a new rhythm section for ‘93s admirable Buzzcocks comeback, Trade Test Transmission. Though falling short of that triumphant masterwork, ‘96s fine All Set and ‘99s slight turnabout, Modern, then set the stage for ‘03s far better 12-song eponymous collection. Its disillusioned footstomping opener, “Jerk,” begs for forgiveness in a facetious manner. Streamlined harmonies graze the confrontational “Wake Up Call” while the sun-drenched “Driving You Insane” debates decisive resolution and the dual guitar-injected “Sick City Sometimes” grapples with metropolitan demise.
Adjacent to Wrigley Field at Chicago’s Metro, the Buzzcocks appease long-time fans and curious indie kids by unleashing a marathon 27-song set. Shelley, sporting white-dyed short-spiked hair and shaking his left leg to the groove, flails his axe through bottom heavy versions of classic punk treasures like the maladroit teen anthem “Boredom,” the ominously calamitous “Something’s Gone Wrong Again,” and the giddily tactless “Oh Shit!,” preparing the sweat-drenched anticipatory audience for sped-up, kinetic takes on newer fare. Diggle handles lead vocal chores on a few energetic rumblings while carrot-topped bassist Tony Barber and durable drummer Phil Barker (both onboard since ’93) provide stampeding rhythmic thunder. During their 6-song encore, the seasoned quartet roll through the exuberant snot-nosed diatribe “What Do I Get” and the hyper-sexual ditty “Orgasm Addict,” allowing the drunken moshpit to sway beyond its former parameters.
AW: You’re still able to write biting lyrics about personal politics. New songs like “Useless” maintain the same urgency and resonance as the Buzzcocks early punk material.
PETER SHELLEY: Well. I think if people treated each other properly, the world would be a better place.
I’d hate to be on the other side of “Jerk.”
I was dating a Brazilian girl and while I was doing the album, it was actually the day after I recorded the lyric for that song, she pissed me off. So I had a good row and wrote more lyrics. Then, the song “Morning After,” the night before I was supposed to do lyrics for the song and I had no idea what to do. So I got a bit drunk and the next day when I was getting my hair done in the morning with an awful hangover I came up with “Morning After.” So that’s what the song is about.
The flashy “Keep On” has the sonic immediacy and ‘keep on keepin’ it real’ lyrics I crave.
For that one, Tony came around one evening and said we need some more sounds and he programmed up the drum machine beat. I started playing guitar and we got a couple ideas. He took the ideas back and then made it into a working model with bass guitar.
Is it easier to construct songs nowadays?
It’s easier to get a general idea to let a song hang together. But it’s mainly the lyrics that are hard. You only have one verse and one chorus, but each time you sing the verse you have to come up with new words. That’s why I always wait until the last moment to try to commit as to what kind of song it’s gonna be.
Seminal artists such as Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, and Mick Jagger have lost their edge. What’s the driving force that keeps your songs fresh?
I don’t know. It’s almost a form of mania. You get this idea. It’s like an itch you wanna scratch. Even when you walk around the street you have notes in your head consuming you.
You’re mindful of writing efficient songs.
It’s not like I apply myself to write a song. I just find myself distractedly doing it. When Howard and I started doing the Buzzcocks, strangely we weren’t part of the Manchester scene. We didn’t hang out with those musicians. There was a thriving pop scene, but we decided we didn’t want to do that. If we did that, we wouldn’t be able to do what we wanted because we’d have to do covers and then we’d get used to the money. So we decided on punk.
On the new album, both “Stars” and “Lester Sands” were co-written with former Buzzcock Howard Devoto. Were they recent collaborations?
No. “Lester Sands” was written in ’76. It appeared on a Time’s Up bootleg which we’ve subsequently released legitimately and it even has a video clip of the gig. So it’s been a demo we never played live. When I thought this should be an aggressive album, I thought that song would help the aggression. In 2000, I met Howard and we talked about the Buzzcocks 25th anniversary in 2001. I thought maybe we could write some songs together. The first one was “Stars,” which was actually a medley of a lot of Buzzcocks samples. So we did that and the other songs drifted off into other routes.
Mark Perry’s cheap, photocopied rag, Sniffin’ Glue, documented the ’77 punk scene well.
Punk was supposed to be about deciding on what you want and then going ahead and doing it. Mark was using a Xerox machine instead of going to the printers. He’d copy as many as he could sell. It was all about being a participant in your culture rather than a passive consumer… doing your own clothes.
Punk icons the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, and Buzzcocks seemed united for the cause of self-expression.
Later on, it became a more disorganized thing. In the early ‘80s, the new wave became a little more extreme and the melody got thrown out along with anything to capture my interest.
Perry claimed the punk scene died by ’78, but that’s when America began accepting the aforementioned bands.
I don’t know. In some ways, it was a generous construct. That’s why at the beginning it was labeled punk. Then, it quickly became new wave, which had more to do with what bands looked like rather than sounded like. Punk was like a religion, a belief system which was about your own personal freedom and making things happen by doing what you wanted to do. We organized within ourselves because we didn’t have a chance to get booking agents. There were a lot of people around at that time who wanted to do things. So we networked ourselves. All of a sudden everyone seemed to believe there was acceptability. We actually inspired people.
There was a mutual respect amongst punks.
Oh yeah. We did enjoy the Sex Pistols and they often said we were their favorite band as well. There was a lot of camaraderie. It’s strange now. In England, it was easier not to work than work. So giving up work to form a punk band seemed ideal. And bands like the Sex Pistols haven’t worked since. (laughter) I dropped out of college twice – the Bolton Institute of Technology – for electronics.
Perhaps the most consistent early album the Buzzcocks made was 1980’s A Different Kind Of Tension, which had crisper production.
We tried a different technique with Jamal, the drummer, and Steve Gall, the bassist. We worked out some bits of tangled verses and middle 8’s until we got very good verses. Then, it was stuck together. Everything is quite regimented. And the next thing that came out was my solo album, Homosapien, which was actually a precursor to Tension.
Amazingly, some Homosapien tracks were written in 1974.
I’ve always written and some of those ideas were only half written at first. Every now and again I go back and see what I’ve got. The Homosapien album started out as demos and it was decided that it was finished and we didn’t need to go back to the studio to do again. And we did a few more songs.
Tell me about lost albums like ‘80s Brit-released Cinema Music & Wallpaper Sounds.
It was on Groovy Records, but never actually made it to America. It was a bit older and had drum machines. We were messing about and there are cool noises on it. There’s one called The Free Agents Album. It was very experimental in an industrial way that came out on that label. Also, a solo album, Sky Yen, with oscillating electronic sounds (consuming Germanic techno). I actually met someone who had that LP on this tour. It was just me, recorded in ’74, under my name.
I know you were initially inspired by T. Rex, David Bowie and Eno, but were pre-punks like New York Dolls and Stiff Little Fingers influential too.
No. Alice Cooper was at the time because there’s something perverse about people leaving the building while you’re playing… that kind of reaction. And the Stooges and the Sparks (were influences).