When the first wave of punk exploded in 1977, thoughts of sustaining a career seemed far from anyone’s mind. They had to be; punk was an ephemeral blast of noise largely meant to signal to the complacent and complex groups of the day that the audience was getting bored to death by their latest symphonic offerings. After the mission was accomplished and the progressive dinosaurs promptly went extinct, what was left for the punks to do? If they got more exploratory themselves, they opened themselves up to charges of become everything they had sought to supplant. If they ran in place, they quickly become stagnant. The Clash did the former. The Ramones did the latter. The only group to really exemplify everything punk stood for in the minds of its fans was the Sex Pistols, who made one brilliantly snotty album and then blew up.
The Pistols’ fate — murder/suicide for one, low profiles and low funds for the rest — was hardly appealing, though, so others tried sustaining a career in a music industry antithetical to their passions. One such group was the Buzzcocks, who made it all the way to 1981 with their first attempt and who have survived from a 1989 reunion to the present with their second. At no point along the way have the ‘Cocks received the kind of acclaim thrown at their holy trinity of peers (Ramones, Clash, Pistols), but they’ve done nice enough flying under the mainstream’s radar, and their Singles Going Steady is one of the proverbial Essential Purchases For Any True Punk Collection. They also score huge points for so prominently influencing the Undertones, the best of punk’s second wave.
With such a tidy little niche, why would the Buzzcocks want to risk their reputation with new releases stretching all the way up to their self-titled latest? After all, punk rage is attractive in young men, but usually either silly or flaccid in gents carrying AARP cards (or the British equivalent thereof). Because of the many similar attempts that dishearteningly failed, it would be nice to say that Buzzcocks shows its authors getting away scot-free or to emphasize its superiority over the other post-reunion releases, but the latter is a lie and the former is something of a distortion. The album is good — remarkably so considering how late it comes in a group’s life span — but it’s still a late-era release and suffers from many of the same problems so common to that milieu. The production is the first sign of trouble. It sounds much slicker than punk but not slick enough to be modern, so it winds up feeling outdated instead. Secondly, Pete Shelley’s low, even voice lacks the charisma of his erstwhile whine, and Buzzcocks doesn’t seem like the Buzzcocks without it. Lastly, the songwriting featured here sounds mostly like so many other elder rockers. What once sounds like it came intuitively has been extrapolated into a formula, as if Shelley and Steve Diggle wondered at the outset what they were once loved for and then replicated much of it, all the while failing to capture the idiosyncratic details that are the mark of true inspiration.
When the record is playing, however, such concerns begin to fade with its easy affability. Since a parade of pseudo-punk hacks have been working steadily to erode the public’s ability to be shocked by art, it’s a good thing that the Buzzcocks don’t try to outdo anyone in this regard, sticking instead to the familiar territory of frustrating relationships and general ennui. They connect most forcefully on “Lester Sands”, a re-recording of a tune from their Howard Devoto days that ostensibly attacks hipster sacred cow Lester Bangs. From a musical standpoint, the ‘Cocks give little cause for complaint, playing hard and fast and never skimping on big anthemic choruses. Like some of their peers and a lot fewer of their progeny, the Buzzcocks know the value of a great melody in a punk song. Therein lies the secret to the modest success of both Buzzcocks and the Buzzcocks themselves as they grind ahead a full quarter-century after they started. By making a break with the nihilism of the Sex Pistols and the politics of the Clash, they never chained themselves to a sinking ship, instead betting on the enduring appeal of the three-minute pop nugget. Aggressive stances of this or that stripe will come and go like so many Fred Dursts. But men like Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle will continue to earn themselves deserved places in the pop world long after their contemporaries have dissolved back into the tuneless sludge from whence they came.