Buzzcocks always stood out amid the nihilism of punk‘s first wave. Set alongside the Sex Pistols’ aggressive street-trash style, Buzzcocks stood more in the lineage of British pop ‘likely lads’ stretching back to the Merseybeat bands. Buzzcocks’ lyrical themes — once Howard Devoto moved on in early 1977 — expressed a tangle of love and existential confusion spiked with a humor that was more charming than punk’s usual caustic barbs. Feted for kicking off punk’s DIY era with the establishment of their independent label — New Hormones — to release their Spiral Scratch EP, Buzzcocks went on a scorching run across 1978-1979 releasing three respected albums and a slew of impressive singles. Garnering a significant posthumous reputation for the distance traveled in that brief spell, far less attention has been paid to Buzzcocks’ three-and-a-half decade journey since reforming in 1989. A new box-set on Cherry Red Records, Sell You Everything, corrects this with a comprehensive look at the six albums, demo LP, and compilation recorded until Pete Shelley’s sad demise in 2018.
The 1991 Demo LP
The end of the Buzzcocks’ in 1981 was not one of music’s incomprehensible moments. The punk bubble had burst, and the band was having trouble establishing a clear musical direction, there were personal issues between the band members, and everything came to a head when EMI/Fame refused to advance the budget to record Buzzcocks’ fourth album. A temporary pause in rehearsals became a permanent break as the band’s key songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist, Pete Shelley, fell in love with the potential of studio technology and crafted a series of synthpop demos that led to a solo deal. Shelley addressed a perfunctory letter via his lawyers to Steve Diggle, John Maher, and Steve Garvey, announcing the band was over.
The rest of the 1980s saw the ex-Buzzcocks pursuing productive, if unspectacular, careers: Shelley achieved minor hits with “Homosapien” and “Telephone Operator”, while Diggle continued to build his chops as a songwriter crafting effective pop-rock. Eyes turned, however, to unfinished business: Shelley’s only release 1988-1989 was a re-visitation of 1981’s “Homosapien”, while Diggle’s band Flag of Convenience billed itself as Buzzcocks F.O.C. on the single “Tomorrow’s Sunset”.
Stoking the fire, a renewed interest in punk saw a spurt of Buzzcocks-related releases after years of inactivity. A 1987 compilation came out in Germany, then a US live compilation in 1988, while in 1989, a UK LP brought together the band’s appearances on BBC Radio 1’s John Peel sessions show. The big moment was EMI’s launch of a full retrospective in 1989 consisting of a lavish and comprehensive box-set, double album compilations of the band’s output, as well as a stand-alone edition of the live recording that saw release in the box-set. Buzzcocks were back in the spotlight! The band’s classic lineup of Shelley, Diggle, Garvey, and Maher met up at a studio in summer 1989, before heading out on a US tour in November.
With a significant number of gigs under their belt, and given both Shelley and Diggle were prolific songwriters, the band was ready to take a shot at new recordings. Seventeen songs were whipped into shape at Drone Studios, Chorlton, across February-April 1991 with the 1991 Demo LP released here officially for the first time. Given the absence of studio polish, it is very much a near-live lo-fi take on Buzzcocks. One downside is that quite a few lyrics — for example, the verses on “Who’ll Help Me to Forget”— wind up buried. Likewise, there’s a relatively samey pace across the whole record, which means songs blur together across 40 minutes of high-treble guitars and workmanlike drums. It’s no coincidence that the standout song is ‘When Loves Turns Around You” where the vocals stand out, while the simplicity of the lyrics allows them to worm their way inside the ear, spinning a dizzy image of ambiguous emotion.
This is very much not a continuation of where the band left off years earlier. The band had clearly stayed in touch with trends in the UK music scene — songs like “Wallpaper World” or “Successful Street” walk the same terrain as the Stone Roses’ “She Bangs the Drums”. A decade of experience in the pop scene of the 1980s is visible in the sound of songs like “Why Compromise”, and the LP fits comfortably at the poppier end of the early 1990s UK indie scene. It’s to Buzzcocks’ credit that they had moved with the times. However, it’s not a moment in sound that has aged well by comparison to the post-punk wash of taut sound they had started to explore on the B-side of A Different Kind of Tension.
As ever on a Cherry Red reissue, the bonus tracks are generous. Of the four demos resurrected from cassette, “All Over You” sounds like a broadcast beamed across time from the late 1970s — that’s a compliment — while “Inside” has something of the broad brushstroke sentiments and big lines that would drive Oasis to the heights. The inclusion here of the Alive Tonight EP, originally released in April 1991, is beneficial in fleshing out the vision of the songs on the LP: “Serious Crime” has a shoulder-bobbing funkiness, while the backing harmonies on “Alive Tonight” stand out more effectively with the studio upgrade.
Note: The numerical rating pertains to the individual album under review and not the full set.