Think about Buzzcocks for a moment. What did they look like? The image that popped into your head was probably from about 1978. Four stick-thin figures, brimming with angst and cheap speed and cocky with it. Hammering their instruments into submission in a rain of spittle and the occasional beer bottle. Now try and picture them 11 years later. Tricky, isn’t it? Buzzcocks split in 1981, only to reform in 1989, and they’ve been touring and recording ever since. Not even the death of frontman and principal songwriter Pete Shelley in 2018 seems to have stopped them. Those old school punk rockers are nothing if not resilient. If you want some examples of what Buzzcocks 2.0 sound like, then Cherry Red‘s six-CD set of live recordings and radio sessions, Late for the Train, is a good a place as any to start.
The main thing which rings the changes between pre-and-post-split Buzzcocks is Steve Diggle. In the “hit” version of the band, Shelley did all the heavy lifting in writing and lead vocals, while Steve Diggle played slashing power chords and sang the songs he wrote. From 1989 onwards, he muscled his way to the front of the stage, and by the band’s last (to date) album, 2014’s The Way, he was writing 50% of the material. That is reflected in the tracklisting of Late for the Train, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Throughout this chronologically compiled, six-CD set, you get to hear live versions of some of the songs which defined punk, some superb tracks by a mature version of the same band, and a chunk of fair-to-middling material.
Starting with a 1989 recording from Birmingham, with all the “classic line-up” present and correct, you get a 19-song trip down memory lane. It’s a pretty lo-fi recording, with some charmingly sloppy playing, but you get a taste of what it must have been like to see the band in their first flush of youth. The setlist is pretty much Singles Going Steady with a handful of (not very) deep cuts thrown in. It’s snotty and brash and sort of wonderful.
Disc two sees the band four years older and 30 miles further south in Worcester. By now, the band was Shelley and Diggle and a new rhythm section. The Fi is still pretty Lo, but the band’s backbone is a bit straighter, with punk rock attitude being replaced with, dare I say it… professionalism. The setlist is heavy on tunes from that year’s album, Trade Test Transmissions, their first post-reformation record. Unfortunately, not all of those songs bear close scrutiny when they’re up against stuff like “I Don’t Mind” and “I Don’t Know What to do With My Life”, giving the performance an almost schizophrenic feel. That said, the live version of “Palm of Your Hand” from the then-current album is a bit of a lost classic.
By the time we get to disc three, the quality of both the recording and the new material has improved. Recorded in Paris in 1995, the band strike the right balance of old and new material, with a more fan-friendly (i.e., more old material) setlist. This would have made a fabulous stand-alone live album.
By 2006, the band had got it right, as the recording of their performance from the Forum in London shows. The version of “Boredom” here is savage. The cream of the new material sounds strong alongside the classic hits and some surprising album cuts. It’s this and the Paris recording that really makes this set worth the money.
The last CD scoops up a selection of recordings made for the BBC – live performances and sessions. No surprises here, but if you’re a fan, it’ll be nice to have reasonable recordings of all the stuff you’ve probably only got on cassettes you can’t play anymore. The collection finishes with another recording of “Boredom”, this time from 2016 – two years before Shelley’s unexpected passing. Punk rock isn’t often poignant, but it’s hard to hear this recording without thinking of the 1976 version of Buzzcocks battling with producer Martin Hannett in some back street studio, using borrowed money to buy three hours’ worth of studio time.
Late for the Train is not an essential release, but it fits nicely with last year’s Sell You Everything boxed set, which gathered up the post-reformation albums. This live collection is a lovely thing to look at, but a bit more information about the musicians who weren’t Diggle and Shelley in the booklet would have been helpful. It’s a comprehensive live document of probably the only band that came from first-generation UK punk to wear their hearts on the sleeves and proudly proclaim their angst. Lots of groups picked up that baton, but most of them fumbled it. Somewhere, Pete Shelley is still holding on to it. Tightly.