In 1992, Buzzcocks‘ bassist, Steve Garvey, and drummer, John Maher, dropped out for health reasons and a desire to return to their existing career, respectively. Shelley and Diggle recruited Mike Joyce, drummer with the Smiths throughout their imperious reign in the 1980s, and Tony Barber, who had been a part of the bands Lack of Knowledge and Boys Wonder. The reinvigorated lineup felt ready for a proper album. It was an auspicious moment for Buzzcocks given the significant focus on the Seattle music scene had brought guitar-based punk rock back into the mainstream. Buzzcocks were also a respected name in the U.S. northwest with the Fastbacks’ covering one of their songs, and the band Love Battery taking their name from another. Then the biggest force in music at that moment, Nirvana, acknowledged Buzzcocks in interviews before reaching out to them to arrange what would become the ill-starred European tour of February 1994.
Recorded across a compact one-month session in March-April 1993, Trade Test Transmissions continued the subtle shape-shifting visible on the 1991 Demo LP. This was a vision of Buzzcocks with the guitars revved up to match the more muscular sound of the era. Shedding more than half the songs from the demo, the band had moved on, tightened up, and delivered something that could stand without shame in the company of their hallowed albums of the 1970s.
Trade Test Transmissions is an eminently likable record. It’s opener, “Do It”, cuts from a test signal straight into buzzing guitar and a surging rhythm section. The real heart of the song is Shelley’s gloriously despondent verses — “it’s not infatuation to hope that you’re the one to care” — juxtaposed against the hilarious mock-boasting of the chorus. “I can do it till the morning comes like the river fills the sea, I can do it like incessant drums, I can do it like the birds and the bees.” Shelley’s ability to articulate tangled emotions with wry amusement continues on “Innocent”. “Even though you’re not my mum, I’ve got to get my washing done, who calls the tune must pay the piper, fix the plug, and catch the spider.” Then we’re into the album’s heaviest moment, “TTT”, where vocal effects obscure the words giving center-stage to the raw guitar riff powering the song along.
Diggle, well-known for his energetic stage presence, shows his ever-increasing strengths as a songwriter. Resurrected from the earlier demo, “When Love Turns Around You” remains a star-turn, and it is very understandable why it would be one of only three songs from the comeback-era to wind up on A Different Compilation later in this box-set. The song sounds like a precursor to Green Day’s energized peaks, both vocally and instrumentally. “Isolation” thrives on subtle pauses where good lyrics are allowed to stand out (“there is a searchlight in my heart”). Meanwhile, “Crystal Night” marries an upbeat backing to the rather dark sentiment that the Nazi-era Kristallnacht pogrom against the Jews could easily happen again.
The album’s central weakness is that, despite the polished production, the album still possesses the same consistency that marked the demo. Once the initial rush subsides, Trade Test Transmissions can feel like a long straight road running through a vista of undifferentiated crop fields to the horizon. On most songs, there are a few seconds of breathing space right at the start, then in we go! Guitars! Drums! Bass! Vocals! There’s no air. It’s just every instrument hammering away, verse-chorus-verse-solo-round and round, over and over. That uniformity also deprives the album of any audible journey or progression. There’s no sense of any song needing to be where it is in the running.
While there are winning songs here, it’s Diggle’s home demos, included here as bonuses, that sparked me more. “Energy” is a barely together stitching of guitar stabs and scratches, while “Take Your Life” has a scuzzy edge, dirty fingernails over the strings — great stuff. They’re a good addition to what is, overall, a solid album that showed the elements that made Buzzcocks one of UK punk’s ‘big four’ were all still in place. It just needed a few more surprises to hotwire the heartstrings.