2011's 'A Different Compilation' and 2014 Album 'The Way' Are a Fitting Full Stop to Buzzcocks Past
In the conclusion of our survey of the post-reformation career of Buzzcocks, PopMatters looks at the final two discs of Cherry Red Records' comprehensive retrospective box-set.
Sell You Everything
Cherry Red Records
29 May 2020
A Different Compilation (2011)
In 1979, music executive Miles Copeland persuaded A&M Records to back his new label, I.R.S. Records, bringing UK punk to American shores. As his inaugural statement of intent, he turned to the Buzzcocks, who were soon to be heading on a US tour. The resulting Singles Going Steady compilation was critically acclaimed, failed to chart, but retains significant influence to this day as one of the finest LP-length releases of the punk era. Since then, Buzzcocks' material has emerged in quite a few compilation formats: several iterations of greatest hits, a singles box set, various live outings, the four-track studio takes, alternative takes, and unreleased leftovers. In our online jukebox era, where very little goes out of print and even less is truly unavailable, where the demise of "Greatest Hits" has long been predicted without ever occurring, there's a continued interest in having artists curate their songs.
A Different Compilation saw Buzzcocks reprising their repertoire with the souped-up studio capabilities of the 21st century. Shelley and Diggle have always had a very clear-eyed and unabashed awareness of their standout moments. There are only four songs present on that first compilation in 1979, that are not represented here. The compilation mostly avoids deep-cuts from their first three albums with only five such additions, plus two songs from the Spiral Scratch EP. Buzzcocks have been very selective when it comes to the comeback era, taking three songs in total. What's noticeable is how well those songs fit alongside the 1970s tunes, "When Love Turns Around You" is the standout of the entire run from 1991, while "Alive Tonight" and "Turn of the Screw" are effective up-tempo stompers.
To my ears, reared on music from the 1990s onward, the beefed-up production values sound better than the aluminum-thin-edge that was a feature of low budget punk records. On the other hand, there's nothing here with a significant enough twist that it would replace the originals in anyone's affections. It's a nice reacquaintance with lightly polished iterations of "Why She's a Girl From the Chain Store", "Orgasm Addict", and other hits — but this isn't a game-changing retrospective. However, it's a neat addition to the Sell You Everything package. If you're a completist, then you maybe already have it. If your interest in Buzzcocks has waxed and waned, then this is a good reminder of why they were worth your attention. Meanwhile, if you're a Buzzcocks neophyte, then this saves you going back to the slightly tinnier originals and — at 24 songs long — is extremely comprehensive.
The Way (2014)
In the eight years since 2006's Flat-Pack Philosophy, the music industry had continued its scorched earth retreat to a sustainable normal, and the means of production had undergone a radical revision. The Way emerged on the (now defunct) PledgeMusic: a platform allowing fan commitments to fund an artist's album. The band had also been reconfigured with drummer Philip Barker, and bassist Tony Barber bowed out, replaced by Danny Farrant and Chris Remington, respectively. What all these changes inaugurate was any great shift in the Buzzcocks' template: this is a welcome installment in the Shelley & Diggle Show.
The contrast between Diggle's gruffness and Shelley's thickened but still lighter tone is used to soaring effect on the call-response chorus of "In the Back" — an unexpected late peak. Written by Diggle before the band's original 1981 breakup, the song's sardonic lyrics and awesome choruses would make it a contender for the Best Song of the Comeback crown owned by "When Love Turns Around You", if it wasn't for the slightly straightforward verses.
As the final album before Shelley's untimely death, it's rather sad hearing these two musicians, who had rejected punk's nihilism in favor of a more humanistic vision, sound so haunted. On 'Virtually Real', Shelley wastes a top-notch riff on an old man's sneer at the flippancy of youth — "why waste your time liking and sharing instead of with me loving and caring?" Elsewhere, Diggle's broader foreboding is aimed at the entire canvas of life: "chasing rainbows, modern times" or "this world of control and the flame's getting higher".
Still, Buzzcocks always have a redeeming hopefulness. On songs like "Keep on Believing" or "Saving Yourself", we see Shelley persist in his belief that human affection is the balm for life's unscratchable itches, while Diggle encourages stoicism and resilience. A refusal to give in to the daily potential to just not bother may not seem revolutionary, but it's more valuable than rose-tinted optimism might allow. The stainless steel hooks further cock a snook at cynics: it's hard to feel down when faced with the bounce of "Third Dimension", the pop-punk roar of "It's Not You", or the echo of the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop" in "Chasing Rainbows/Modern Times".
While The Way is an album stripped to Buzzcocks 101, the bonuses here are among the best in the box-set and alleviate the air of sturdy reliability. "Dream on Baby" has an improvisational minimalism calling to mind a motorik set-closer that might collapse in mere minutes or spiral on-and-on hypnotically. It's also one of the only times in music I've ever been fascinated by the use of a fade-out: typically signifying an inability to conceive of an ending, here the band enact a controlled three-minute descent.
"Happen" is also a notable rarity, an instrumental with the twin-guitar attack in full effect, allowing one to observe the interweaving of the band's musical elements. The Diggle home demos make explicit Buzzcocks' connection to the 1960s pop scene on "Can You Dig Me's" conjoining of "House of the Rising Sun's" sunburnt crispness and even an organ solo. Meanwhile, "Dancing at Dawn" features a metronomic drum machine and electronic tones that give it the winsome naïf simplicity of a teenage bedroom hopeful — what a great note to end on.
* * *
Sell You Everything (1991-2014) is a comprehensive summation of several decades of vibrant creativity from Buzzcocks. Cherry Red Records deserves significant credit for creating precisely the kind of defining statement that box-sets should aim to be. While seeing Buzzcocks go from being the quintessential singles band to an outfit best on album-length releases is intriguing. Still, ultimately appreciation of the eight discs here relies on casting aside comparison or expectation rooted in the brief punk moment and approaching the band anew.
I was impressed by how Buzzcocks refused to stand still, that each of these albums is more than just a tweak on the one before, and that the benchmark they set for their work was the younger bands inhabiting then-current music scenes. That winning blend of competitiveness and humor makes their reunion output highly worthy of reappraisal. It reminded me of a fun evening I spent with Steve Diggle back in 2013, sat outside the Coach & Horses pub in Soho, sinking pint after pint while he enthralled me with cheerful tales of both light and dark. The same warm-heartedness is present everywhere on this box-set, and it makes time in its company a similar pleasure.
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