Mike Atkinson

Interview: Steve Diggle, Buzzcocks.

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on January 16, 2009

Photo by Nemone.

Let’s start with a banal but necessary question. On paper, you’re always billed as “Buzzcocks”, but most people refer to you as “The Buzzcocks”. Which is correct? I’ve always been confused.

It’s still confusing internally! Pete Shelley [lead singer] likes to think it’s “Buzzcocks”. I personally don’t mind “The Buzzcocks” – because grammatically, putting “the” in front of something means “the one and only”, “the definitive”.

So would Pete have preferred it if they’d called the quiz show Never Mind Buzzcocks? Would that have been more correct?

Well, he comes from a place called Leigh and they talk a bit funny there anyway. (Laughs) I think he’s wrong, you know? I don’t mind “The Buzzcocks”.

I’m sitting here looking at these rather handsomely packaged re-issues of your first three albums. [Another Music In A Different Kitchen (1978), Love Bites (1978), A Different Kind Of Tension (1979)] They also include a lot of bonus material. Do they contain everything you recorded, from signing up with United Artists in 1977 until you first split up in 1981?

There might be something left in the can here and there, but it’s more or less everything. It’s enough, you know? It’s a good comprehensive history of the band. And seeing them all like that, with all those demos and John Peel sessions and things, it all makes broader sense.

You’ve got a couple of live shows on there, that have never been released before. Where did they come from?

They’ve been in the archives at EMI. Shows were recorded, and just put in the vaults. During that period, I think we had a single out every two months and then an album out pretty quickly after that. So there wasn’t really time to put that kind of stuff out. But a lot of it was recorded, and mobile studios would be there, probably for a rainy day like this.

They sound clean and fresh; someone’s done a good job of remastering them.

That’s the whole thing with the Buzzcocks sound: it sounds like it was all recorded yesterday. There’s something about the music and the spirit in all the songs, that just sounds current and contemporary all the time. It was like our own Buzzcocks world. You’d put a record on, and you’d go into the Buzzcocks world.

It’s interesting that one of the shows was in the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall, as the Pistols legendarily appeared there a couple of times in the summer of 1976. Did those gigs really kick-start the whole Manchester scene as we know it?

Yes, I suppose so, because we put them on. We sorted that out. I met Pete at the first one, and then at the second one we opened up for them.

Did you see the Joy Division biopic, Control? They used the Albert Hall in Nottingham as the exterior for the Lesser Free Trade Hall show.

I haven’t seen the movie, but I do remember being there. I remember Ian Curtis telling me he’d got a girlfriend in France, and he was married, you know? And I think he hung himself a few days after. Ha! So that’s all I needed to know.

But being there at that time, and having the Pistols on, and opening up for them, it did kick-start a lot of things off. All the journalists had come up from London to review the Pistols, and they were amazed that there was a local band, doing this new thing called punk rock.

You were the first Manchester punk band off the blocks. Did you feel like part of a wider movement, and were you happy that it was being called punk rock?

Well, there was an attitude and an excitement. It was almost like putting two fingers up to the world – and to the music business in general, who wouldn’t give anybody a deal unless you went on your hands and knees, and you got told what to do, and you weren’t allowed to do anything that was real. And also the landscape was barren musically in Manchester, and everywhere else. So we were the first on the block in Manchester, and a lot of people looked to us. We also started two days before the Clash, in fact.

I’ve always thought of Spiral Scratch [the Buzzcocks debut EP from 1977] as the first ever indie record. Are you happy to take credit for inventing indie?

We’d done some shows in Manchester after the Pistols one, and we thought we’d go and record ourselves, to see what we sounded like. Then we thought: well, if we go to London to a big record company, they’re just going to throw it out of the window. So we got £500 together and made a thousand singles. And after that, we had about six of the major record companies all coming up to Manchester every other week, trying to sign us up.

You must have gone with the right label, because a lot of the early punk bands got really angry with theirs. The Clash always seemed to be fighting with CBS, for example. Yet with yourselves and United Artists, it seemed that you got a lot of artistic control. All your sleeve designs were exactly what you wanted, and there was always a complete package. Was it a good relationship?

It was. Because we had Spiral Scratch out, I remember Malcom McLaren saying: oh, you should sign a major deal quick, before it all disappears. But we just took our time, because we wanted artistic control.

At United Artists there was a guy called Andrew Lauder, who agreed to all of that. He came down to a lot of shows, and he knew what we were about to a certain extent. There was an empathy with what we were doing, rather than just going: oh, let’s sign them up to make a load of money out of them.

So he said we could have artistic control, and that’s why we put the woman with the iron on her head on the cover [of the first single, Orgasm Addict]. And at the pressing plants, they went on strike. They said no, we’re not pressing this filthy stuff!

What, because of filthy things like orgasms?

Yeah, I know! (Laughs) It’s not like nobody’s ever heard of one!

They were giving themselves away.

It was that time, you know? It was quite outrageous. So it was delayed three weeks because of that. Then we followed it up with a B-side called Oh Shit, which caused another problem! (Laughs)

But going back to the point of artistic control, at least we were allowed to do that. And we’ve met a lot of people who say: yeah, I took that record home and put Orgasm Addict on and my parents went crazy. “What’s this filth you’re listening to?” It was a bit like Lady Chatterley’s Lover. That’s not far from you, is it?

And then there was your incredible work rate. Your first two albums both came out in 1978, along with five singles in the same year, most of which weren’t on the albums. Was there a feeling that you were surfing a creative high?

It’s strange how suddenly you’re in the right space and time in the universe, and with your own mind. I personally felt like I’d found what I wanted to do. It was the same with Pete and the rest of us, and we just gelled. We got together, and this sort of magic was created. We didn’t have to rehearse it too much. It just seemed to take off, like it had a world of its own.

And from that, we were doing universities, and then we started doing theatres, and then we were travelling to America. So it just seemed like you’ve jumped on this plane, and we’ve gone on this massive journey.

But that kind of work rate is not something you can sustain forever. Did it begin to take its toll? Did you push yourselves too hard?

We started going to America a lot, and there were a lot of crazy, wild parties in America – and over here, and everywhere else where we played. But it’s a lot to keep up, for any band. Many bands come crashing down because of that, particularly when they start travelling to America. Because it’s such a wild, crazy place when you’re in a rock and roll band.

So we’d done this massive work rate, and we were constantly on tour, and there were a lot of drink, drugs, and girls involved. You know, it was that classic thing.

But when you’re 20 and 21 and all that takes off, you’ve got to embrace it, you know? It’s like Byron and Shelley, when they wrote the poetry and they went crazy, or like Turner tying himself to a mast. You’ve got to see and experience all this stuff. It’s all part of it.

Creatively, we did quite well to keep that going for all that time. But we stopped in the Eighties for a while, because it came crashing down for a bit, and suddenly there was all that New Romantic stuff, you know?

Maybe they were inspired by some of the romanticism of the Buzzcocks’ work? You were the band that re-introduced the love song, in some respects.

I don’t think they’re all love songs. We had a couple of hits with love songs, and we are tagged with that, but when you listen to those albums you’ll see that there aren’t just love songs on there. We sang about the whole human condition.

I mean, Harmony In My Head was in the Top 30 and that wasn’t a love song. Everybody’s Happy Nowadays, Autonomy, Fast Cars… but obviously you’ve got the Ever Fallen In Love song, and Love You More. So we’re kind of known for a bit of that, but I think there was a lot more to it.

Were you aware of the Magazine reunion that’s coming along? Does that spark any interest?

Yeah, I’m hoping to get to that if I can. That’s good; they’ve taken quite a while to get back. But yeah, I was always a Magazine fan as well. Obviously Howard [Devoto, original Buzzcocks singer who founded Magazine] was with us at the beginning; he did about six shows. But then you got two bands for the price of one.

And you share the same riff, in Lipstick [a 1978 Buzzcocks B-side] and in Shot By Both Sides [Magazine’s debut single, also released in 1978]. Which came first?

(Laughs) He did just as good a job with it. It’s kind of bizarre, isn’t it? I do remember him coming in when we were rehearsing – he’d just left [the band] – and he said “Do you mind if I borrow that riff?”

Oh, so he warned you in advance? That’s good. I thought you might have heard Shot By Both Sides and thought “Well, that’s a bit cheeky…”

No, it was the other way round!

You’ve set yourselves quite a challenge, in that you’ll be playing the first two albums in full on the new tour. What inspired you to do that?

There’s a lot of stuff [on those albums] that we haven’t played for a long time. So it seemed a good idea, since they’re all out again, in lovely packages with all the bits and pieces and demos and stuff. I’m going to have to start learning some of them again, as I’ve forgotten some of them! (Laughs)

It’s going to be a long set. You’ve got 22 songs on the albums to start with.

Well, we usually do about an hour and a half. I don’t know how long those albums are, but it will be quite a long set.

Are you literally going to play both albums back to back in their original sequence, or are you going to mix it up?

We’ll have to see how it flows. There were a lot of singles that weren’t on those albums, so maybe we might have to sprinkle a couple of singles in between the albums.

But the whole strength [of that time] was the great songwriting. You can see that every song’s a classic. It was always hard to choose A and B-sides. And the standard of songwriting on those albums has seen us through the thirty years, really.

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