Although they are an essential part of the story of British punk, in some ways the Buzzcocks remain an oddity — they’re not from London, they have an accessible sound, and far from embarrassing themselves with money-grubbing reunions, they continue to make quality music to this day. Inspired by a Sex Pistols gig in their hometown of Manchester, Pete Shelley (guitar) and Howard Devoto (vocals) formed Buzzcocks in 1976. The group, which also included Steve Diggle (bass) and John Maher (drums), not only gave Mancunians a taste of the mostly London-based punk scene, but helped usher in the era of the indie label by issuing its first recording, the Spiral Scratch EP, on its own New Hormones label. Before the band could proceed much further, though, Devoto got fed up with the restrictions of the punk genre and left to form Magazine. Shelley took over vocals, Diggle switched to guitar, Steve Garvey joined on bass, and the band went on to become one of punk’s most commercially successful acts with classic songs like “What Do I Get?” and “Ever Fallen in Love”.
Buzzcocks called it quits in 1981 due in part to record label woes, but in 1993, Shelley and Diggle reunited, adding new members Tony Barber (bass) and Phil Barker (drums), formerly of Lack of Knowledge. The new version of the band released three albums in the ’90s — Trade Test Transmissions, All Set, and Modern. The Buzzcocks’ story took a strange turn when Devoto agreed to re-team with Shelley to compose a few songs for what was to be the group’s 25th anniversary album. The writing went so well that the pair released an entire album of songs last year, Buzzkunst, under the name ShelleyDevoto. Since the ShelleyDevoto project found the old collaborators dabbling in electronic music (an early shared passion), Buzzcocks fans might be surprised to find that the group’s new self-titled effort, its first of the new millennium, is a return to its hard-rocking roots. Fresh from some live dates in Australia, Shelley recently spoke to PopMatters about his recent projects and the Buzzcocks’ plans for the future.
PopMatters: The new album is hard-rocking and back to basics compared to Modern and the ShelleyDevoto album, your most recent works. What accounts for the leaner sound?
Pete Shelley: Modern was at the tail end of the 20th century, so it’s quite a long time ago since it was released, so that had a bit to do with it. By the time we were touring with the Modern album, at the gigs people would say, “It would be great if you could get some of the power and energy you have when you play live on the record.” So I suppose that was involved in it. And in some ways the songs were a lot harder and in your face, for want of a better expression. So it all conspired along with Tony [Barber]’s production to make an album that — every time I put it on, there’s a voice in the back of my mind saying, “Is it too loud?” [laughs]
PM: Did the current musical climate, including the resurgence of guitar and garage rock, play a part?
PS: Yeah, there’s always those people out there, the ones that make the noisy music with the guitars. Most of the time they take a page out of our book to do it, so we just thought we’d put in some pages of our own.
PM: How long did you spend writing and recording?
PS: The writing is always the difficult part. “Lester Sands” had been written 26 or 27 years ago, so that took a really long time from getting written to us having a pop at a version of it. Other ones were really quick. For instance, “Morning After” I only wrote the lyrics on the day it was recorded. So it was really quick like that. It varies from a rush at the last minute to something that is ruminated upon for a long time.
PM: I spoke to you when you were touring for Modern and you said that “Runaround” had happened the same way.
PS: Yeah, that was going to sleep having no idea what the song was going to be about then waking up at two o’clock in the morning with an idea and going with it. But I prefer to work that way rather than having everything organized and knowing what I’m going to be doing. I like a bit of chaos.
PM: Does Steve Diggle work like that or is his stuff in a more complete form when you go into the studio?
PS: He does tend to spend more time at the demo stage than I do. But we both are a bit chaotic.
PM: You don’t write collaboratively, but on this album the songs gel together well. How do you make sure songs coming from two different people result in a cohesive album?
PS: I think the congratulations have to be given out to Tony Barber for that. He plays the peacemaker and making sure about what songs are done for the album. We let him have that say-so. Of course we can argue with him but usually he comes up with some interesting ideas.
PM: He produced your last two albums. How did you go from using outside producers to using Tony?
PS: It started out when we were doing the Modern album. We started recording demos and the thing is when you’re recording demos if you spend a lot of time doing the demos then they become like finished tracks. So when we started to do the Modern album we were doing demos and the things we were putting down were sounding really good so Tony went to the mixing studio and mixed the Modern album from what we’d been doing. So it worked like that, and also it’s a lot easier working with somebody who you work with all the time rather than somebody in from the outside as producer. I suppose we’re less in awe of producers ’cause we know what they do. [laughs] I mean, they say “Turn the drums up” and things like that.
PM: You cover “Lester Sands” from the Buzzcocks’ Howard Devoto days and “Stars” from the ShelleyDevoto album. What prompted you to revisit those songs?
PS: Well, “Lester Sands” was because in 2000, when Howard and I got together, it was initially to see whether or not we could come up with something for the Buzzcocks’ 25th anniversary. So the idea of maybe doing some songs came out of that. So I sent off Howard a CD. He phoned me the next day and said “I’ve got words for this one” and that was “Stars”. So that was actually based on the Buzzcocks sample.
PM: So that was intended for the next Buzzcocks album anyway.
PS: Well, it was. We were hoping that we would get more but out of the rest of the stuff that we started coming up with, it was different to what Buzzcocks could be. So we thought, let’s do it as a separate project, so that’s how the Buzzkunst album came about. Similarly, with “Lester Sands”, it has been a song that we sometimes play in soundchecks but never considered doing properly. The thought just occurred, why not? It’s a good song, it’s never been properly recorded, let’s see what it’d sound like. And we did and it sounded every bit as fresh as all the others. It sold itself to us really.
PM: You usually write your own lyrics, so what’s it like to sing someone else’s words, specifically on “Stars”, which Devoto says he wrote about his teenage self? Was it strange singing a song someone else wrote about himself?
PS: No, not really because in a schizophrenic way that’s what I sometimes do — sing songs written by another one of me but somebody who’s not me now. If you’re singing a song, you have to try to find the meaning in the words for yourself, find your motivation kind of thing. It was quite easy, I mean, I’ve been singing Howard’s words for years and making them my own. It was quite simple really.
PM: The ShelleyDevoto album was the first Devoto had done in a decade and he said he’d gotten out of music because he couldn’t make a living. And since Buzzcocks have been back together, you’ve put out every album on a different label. Has it been hard getting your albums out there?
PS: Oh, it’s always a struggle. One record company turned us down on this album, and when asked why not they said, “It didn’t sound like we expected it to sound.” So our manager asked why, could they enlighten us a bit further, and they said, “It sounded like Buzzcocks.” And that confused him. [laughs]
In the long distant past, when there were no independent record labels, then there were just major record labels and they were seen as being the only way to get music out there. They were the people you had to go to cap in hand. But now it’s quite different in that all the major record labels now are just interested in profits really. And the field is open for independently minded people to put out records.
PM: And I imagine you feel more at home in the independent community at this point?
PS: Well, yeah, ’cause it’s actually the people rather than the company that you work with. Any good time that you have with a record company is because of working with the right people who are enthusiastic and passionate about the music, whereas sadly you don’t see that in most record companies, to be honest. So it’s always a challenge in figuring out who is hot at the time and trying to get them to put out your record.
PM: What about touring? This time you’re opening for Pearl Jam at large venues instead of playing club shows. How did that come about?
PS: Just before Christmas we heard from our agent that we were on the short list for a spot with Pearl Jam. There’s a story about how Eddie Vedder used to take Steve [Diggle] into guitar shops a long time ago, but Steve only vaguely remembers him. [laughs] So I don’t think it’s a direct result of that. But they’re fans and it’s only natural that they should try to better educate their audience [laughs] into the ways of how it should be done.
PM: How do you feel about playing huge venues?
PS: We’ve played big places before, but not of the order and magnitude we’ll probably be playing with Pearl Jam. It’ll be an interesting thing. It will be strange because it won’t be all people who’ve come to see us. We’ll just try our best, I’m sure. In some ways it’s easier if you’re not doing the headlining [laughs] ’cause there’s less actual pressure on you so you can enjoy yourself more. But we played the Inland Invasion thing and people said there were 40 or 60,000 people there, so there’ll be fewer people at the Pearl Jam shows.
PM: Are you doing any headlining dates?
PS: Our tour starts at the end of May, beginning of June so we do about three weeks or so by going clockwise. I think we start in New Orleans and go clockwise through Texas, up through California, and through the Midwest ’til we get to Chicago, which I think is the last date we’re doing on our own, then we’ll join up with Pearl Jam on the 21st of June until the 8th of July, then we’re carrying on down the East Coast into Florida and finishing up there. Although hopefully we’ll be coming back before Christmas to do what bits we had to do with Pearl Jam. Because it would be shame for all the people, like in Detroit, who’d have to go see Pearl Jam and I’m sure some people probably will claim they’re allergic to us. Especially the people in some places like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. So the plan is for us to come back at the end of the year.
PM: You have as many songs with the new lineup as the old one. So how do you make decisions about the set list? I’m sure you want to promote the new material while pleasing old fans.
PS: Our secret weapon, that’s Tony. We let him choose the songs. He spends time going “There’s that one and that one and that one’s a bit slower and that one’s off that album.” That would drive us all batty if we had to choose. Some people think that you just choose when you’re onstage and we have tried that [laughs] on occasion. But it’s too much decision-making. I hate making decisions. And we have so many songs to choose from that we could play five or six sets with 20 songs in each and not have any duplicates. I prefer it if Tony makes a decision and if anyone disagrees with it, they disagree with him. [laughs] I like getting off scot-free.
PM: So he’s the mastermind.
PS: Yeah. And it also makes him feel better to think that’s what’s happening. [laughs]
PM: I want to ask you about a specific show, the KROQ Inland Invasion festival and the bizarre article by Larry Miller of the Daily Standard where you were accused of making derogatory statements about George Bush. What was that all about?
PS: This columnist, his friend took his teenage daughter to see the Inland Invasion thing and reported back to his friend about how this band Buzzcocks had been saying “Fuck George Bush” and the negative response from the crowd. So I got in contact with him and told him we hadn’t said anything because we’d played the songs nonstop without any gaps so there was no point [when we could have said anything] and I never actually remember saying that and nobody saw me say it. So after he did what a journalist should actually do and checked the facts he realized it was actually Blink 182 who was the culprit, so to speak. He apologized and offered to buy us a drink when we’re in L.A., but I think we can buy our own drinks.
PM: Did the fairly recent Buzzcocks’ 25th anniversary and Punk Jubilee cause you to reflect on your career?
PS: It wasn’t anything which really affected me in a visceral way. It was strange to me because when the Jubilee happened the first time it was like everybody else was having a party except for us but when you see it [now], it seems to be turned on its head and it’s always the punks who were having a party. [laughs]
PS: It was interesting seeing all the old footage and some new footage that came to light. Apart from that, it was like a potted history lesson. It was interesting that now a lot of the people who make the decisions and the programs were actually people who were around at the time and are interested in punk and now have the chance to say what they did. I mean, I was little too young for the ’60s, so I suppose we had punk.
PM: What did you think of your portrayal in 24 Hour Party People? I think there was just one scene with someone who was supposed to be you . . .
PS: Yeah, he was supposed to be me, but when my son saw it, he just fell about laughing. It’s nothing at all like me.
PM: But Howard Devoto had a cameo. Weren’t you invited for one?
PS: I did actually find the letter where I was invited for a cameo. I was searching through some papers at the beginning of the year and I came across a letter from the director, Michael Winterbottom, asking if I wanted to do a cameo appearance. But I never replied to it.
PM: What’s in store after the tour? It sounds like ShelleyDevoto was a one-off.
PS: For the time being, it’s a one-off. I do believe Howard has recorded an album solo. So he’ll probably be leaving space for that. Even if it does happen it won’t be for a couple years if anything works out.
PM: So it will be back to working with Buzzcocks?
PS: Yes, I want to get as much work done as possible. You never know what’s going to happen. I mean, especially after the sad news of Joe Strummer. It’s something which makes you think that nobody knows when their time is going to come up. It would be awful to think “If only we’d have done that.” So I suppose we’re going to try to cram in as much as we can.