On the Dying Gasps of Buzzcocks, 1981
For a story so often told, that of the classic Buzzcocks line-up of Shelley, Diggle, Maher and Garvey has developed surprisingly few variants. The accepted version runs: first album good, second weak, third weird, but never mind because what you really need is the unbroken run of singles from Orgasm Addict to Harmony In My Head and the rest is to some or other extent filler. And, as far as that goes, it’s pretty much accurate. Despite perfectly decent non-singles like Love Battery, Fiction Romance and Nostalgia, Buzzcocks were never an albums band. And the unbroken run of singles brooks no argument. It’s comparable to the early work of the Beatles or the Who for productivity and consistency, and by those yardsticks – quality of sheer pop genius spewed out over shortest interval – it knocks oft-cited “Great British Singles Groups” like Madness and the Smiths into a cocked hat. Even the B sides are perfect, which explains why these 7”s were all marked “A” and “1” rather than “A” and “B” and, for those songwriters and pundits who still think in terms of singles and albums, invites the question of whether the perfect B side is, contrary to popular belief, a far smarter and rarer beast than the perfect album track. Discuss, with reference to the Ontological Argument. And Lipstick, and of course Why Can’t I Touch It?
The dying gasps of Buzzcocks (and yes, I do know that they are still going) manifested themselves in the form of three 7” singles, each with one Shelley and one Diggle side. Strangely, given his patchy track record, Diggle prevails every time. But there’s nothing wrong with the Shelley sides. “A” and “1” were dropped here in favour of abstract symbols, signifying both the absence of hierarchy and the fact that the band were taking far too much acid at the time. The acid thing is the stick that critics favour when beating these six fine songs into historical insignificance. The fact that Martin Hannett produced four of them probably doesn’t help. But the acid thing is precisely what’s so great about them. While the production of the third album edges into similar sonic territory, the album lacks the openness, the rapidly diversifying instrumentation (the melodica/keyboard/whatever combined with Shelley’s vocoder on Running Free and the trumpet on Airwaves Dream are favourites) and – crucially – the songwriting on display here. I once interviewed Bob Mould, who, when asked about the formative influences on Hüsker Dü’s oft-imitated blend of pop songs, sheet metal and psychedelic whimsy, cited Buzzcocks’ acid-fried US tour of the third album as one such. Apparently, Shelley was so tripped out that he couldn’t be bothered to sing the songs and instead leant over the bemused audience yelling out the chord changes.
Mould wasn’t the only inhabitant of Minneapolis at that show. Listen to Are Everything and Raspberry Beret back to back. Like Airwaves Dream and Strange Thing, Are Everything is more one brilliant idea extended over five or six minutes (after the fashion of Pulsebeat or the peerless Why Can’t I Touch It?) than a bona fide A (or 1) side. The other three are more akin to the pop songs of the unbroken run, though Shelley’s What Do You Know? is scarier and wronger by far in the way it marries the near-hysteria of his vocal to the 1980s horn section from hell. What ties all six together is the way they signpost directions Buzzcocks could have taken onwards, upwards and away from their claustrophobic third album into the everything-is-possible hothouse of the early eighties. Instead, they became the last broadcast from a still young pop group worn out by the demands of the treadmill. But they are right up there with the very best of Buzzcocks’ brief and extraordinary moment in the sun, whatever the accepted version may say.