Playing with Precise Abandon: The Buzzcocks in NYC

Let’s face it; Buzzcocks were never the most aggro band on the original UK punk scene. Though inspired to form by seeing the decidedly more in-your-face Sex Pistols, while other bands spit hostile epithets about the decay of society or feeling disenfranchised by a monarchist regime, Manchester’s Buzzcocks railed against “Fast Cars”.

So, when paranoia sent lower Manhattan into a brief tumult of panic, it seemed odd to find Buzzcocks at the center of the maelstrom. In the wake of the failed car bomb in Times Square earlier this month, New York City, if the tabloid media is to be believed, has been a bit on edge. Even so, when genial Buzzcocks frontman Pete Shelley was stopped mid-song during the band’s set last Thursday night at the Fillmore at Irving Plaza with a message from police that a specific car with a specific license plate number had to be moved, it seemed more innocuously surreal than terrifying. And it wasn’t until those leaving the show were led not through the front doors, but instead through a winding hallway and out a side entrance that the notion something really might be wrong set upon the crowd.

Unlike many of their contemporaries, Buzzcocks are still around; not only as a functioning band, but also in our collective hearts and music collections. The Clash still matter because of the strength of their conviction and the power of performance, and the Sex Pistols are still a part of our lives, in part, because they were a fantastic spectacle. Buzzcocks still matter because the songs are still as fresh and explosive today as they ever were, and if you need a reminder, the band is touring the U.S. for the first time in four years, and they’re only playing their first two classic albums and associated singles.

Seeing a Buzzcocks set today, especially on this tour, is maybe not much different than it must have been all those years ago. If this sort of thing matters to you, yes, Shelley and his musical ally since the band’s earliest days, Steve Diggle, are older. The former bears a substantial paunch, thin grey hair and a ruddy face. He also still retains that voice, the one which sent shivers up and down your spine the first time you experienced impossibly catchy tunes like “Ever Fallen in Love” or “I Don’t Mind”. Both of those songs feature alongside so many other classics, it almost feels like the band is boasting. And they’ve earned the right, too, because even the songs from Another Music in a Different Kitchen and Love Bites which didn’t arrive on U.S. shores packaged neatly in 1979’s introductory Singles Going Steady are bona fide classics. Few bands can pull off a show which only profiles a single album, so what Buzzcocks are doing here — especially by deliberately not playing songs like “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays” and “Why Can’t I Touch It?” which are both part of the band’s third album, A Different Kind of Tension — is fairly remarkable.

The tour was devised in the wake of the deluxe reissue of those first three albums, with Shelley saying he thought trying to tackle three might be biting off more than they could reasonably chew.

“We thought two was a happy medium,” says Shelley, who spoke to PopMatters a week before arriving in New York. “It was the first two that were released for many people, though I think it was a while before they were released in the States. The first album we released over there was Singles Going Steady. It was meant to be an introduction. In the UK people had already gotten used to us through being drip fed these singles.”

The success of that compilation, both initially and in the years since, may have given the mistaken impression that Buzzcocks, like so many of their punk contemporaries, were a singles band with no spare hooks for use on their albums proper. The reissues of Another Music in a Different Kitchen and Love Bites should help put that ridiculous notion to rest, as should a live show that feels as much about the songs as the experience. There are few rock pleasures more joyful than seeing Shelley approach the microphone for another of his trademark shrill deliveries or the pure bliss on Diggle’s face as he strikes heroic guitar poses with the biggest goddamn smile on his face.

Except for a hiatus that covered most of the ‘80s, Shelley and Diggle have kept Buzzcocks an ongoing concern, releasing new material and touring the world as ambassadors of wall-of-sound guitar fury and fabulously snotty come-ons like “Orgasm Addict” or “Oh Shit”. And whether it’s a marriage, a friendship or a working relationship, 30 years is a really, really long time. Remarkably, Shelley said that he and Diggle didn’t just get along, but that their relationship has gotten “strangely better.”

“We’ve both got used to each other’s foibles,” he said. “We both realized that there’s nobody closer than me and him. No matter what our differences are, we’ve still got a lot of common heritage, and direction and drive really.”

If there is one word to describe the sound of Buzzcocks, it might be “drive”. Every slashing guitar stroke, every arch observation delivered with precise abandon, every single moment of every song explodes forward like a rocket ship. It even works on “Moving Away From the Pulsebeat”, which at over seven minutes (five, if one only counts the Bo Diddley-esque opening salvo) is nearly as long itself as an entire early Ramones gig. It’s one of a number of songs the band had either not played in years or hadn’t ever performed live at all.

“A lot of the songs we’d never had a chance to play because we have too many songs,” Shelley says. “In fact, things like ‘Late for the Train,’ we’d never played live at all. Some of the others, me and Steve couldn’t remember the last time we’d played them.”

The band in their current incarnation appears perfectly suited for this sort of endeavor, with Tony Barber now in his 18th year as a member on bass and Danny Farrant, who joined on drums in 2006.

“It’s one thing to have an idea, ‘Let’s do the first two albums,’” Shelley says. “And then we spent about a week doing the songs and making sure everybody’s memory of the songs was still there. It’s been a good rediscovery. Playing the songs, we still connect with them. And that’s the great thing about playing them live. It’s one thing to listen to an album recorded 30-odd years ago; it’s a whole different thing to go, ‘1-2-3-4!’ and you’re off and running.”

And though they’d performed many of the songs from those first two albums countless times over the years, taking them on in sequence as this tour demands wasn’t necessarily a sure thing.

“At first I thought it was just me deluding myself into thinking the songs are still full of energy,” Shelley says. “But when we play them, it’s even more so. Songs are really for singing and playing. It’s almost like porn; it’s far better to be in the movie than watching it.”

There are some differences, of course. Years can alter even slightly one’s vocal range or cadence, and they can also slow a locomotive to the point where if you’re familiar with the route, you’re going to know if the scenery flying by isn’t perhaps more easy to focus on than it used to be. This was a slight concern early in the Buzzcocks’ set at the Fillmore, when both Spiral Scratch EP track “Boredom” and “Fast Cars” lacked the same punch they had on record. But by “No Reply” Buzzcocks were firing on all cylinders, refusing to let up until the show was over.

Shelley acknowledges that what you see and hear on stage might not be a replica of the good old days, but that doesn’t mean anyone should expect a Timbaland loop to drop into the middle of “Fiction Romance” either.

“It’s really what we’re familiar with,” Shelley says. “We’re doing the songs as we do them now, so there are differences I’m sure. We’re not trying to do a re-enactment, but it’s close.”

The Another…Bites tour continues through North America until mid-June, ending in San Antonio, Texas.

The door eventually opened into a Union Square neighborhood swarming with police cars, the Irving Place street in front of the Fillmore completely cordoned off. Sirens were the only thing breaking an eerie silence until three tourists in high heels dragging oversize suitcases scrambled by trying to figure out how to get around the barricades to their hotel. It turned out that the car Shelley had been forced to stop the show about was parked near the venue with two gas cans on its back seat. The NYPD, still on high alert after the near miss in Times Square, eventually smashed the windows with a robot, anticipating the worst. In the end, several blocks of Manhattan were shut down because a landscaper wanted to see a Buzzcocks show.