Let 'em Eat Cock

In last year's rockumentary 24 Hour Party People, the north English industrial town of Manchester was depicted as the hub of the mod musical universe from the late Seventies through the early Nineties. Although one tune from the Buzzcocks -- the irresistible "Ever Fallen in Love" -- made it onto the soundtrack, the band took a back seat to the Sex Pistols and Joy Division, barely figuring in the finished movie at all.

"It missed about five years of the beginning," claims guitarist Steve Diggle, a Buzzcocks fixture since 1977. "I reckon there's another film there somewhere from the early days of punk."

In fact Diggle plans to set some of the record straight with this summer's anticipated publication of Harmony in My Head -- The Original Buzzcock: Steve Diggle's Rock & Roll Odyssey, personal recollections of the turbulent Manchester scene and his experiences as a Buzz-cock back when being a punk still carried more than a vestige of real rebellion. "Just little tales," Diggle calls the book, based on the title of his most anthemic Buzzcocks composition, "as if you sat down with me at a bar and we had a talk."

Conversing with the engaging and chipper Mr. Diggle reveals, like the stories contained in Harmony in My Head, astonishingly little in the way of jealousy or resentment over the way the Buzzcocks' seminal stripped-to-the-gristle power pop ended up being co-opted by everyone from Nirvana to Green Day and beyond. "You can tell the different world that we come from, with the Clash, the Damned, the Pistols," he explains. "When we started there wasn't anything more than the Ramones in the States." When pressed to judge some of the more recent progeny, however, Diggle admits, "It's a watered-down thing, really. It doesn't seem as real. It's good that there've been bands that have been influenced by us, but there is a difference -- just like there's only one Clash, there's only one Buzz-cocks. We're the definite article."

From Britain's first self-financed punk rock single (1977's "Spiral Scratch") to the searing frenzy of 1979's A Different Kind of Tension and the collection of brilliant 45s called Singles Going Steady, the Buzzcocks' early days seemed almost blindingly bright. Formed by Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto in 1976, the band led a furious pace that barely waned when vocalist Devoto left shortly thereafter to form Magazine, forcing Shelley to switch from guitarist to singer and Diggle to move from bass to guitar. By 1981 the Buzzcocks had already burned out. Shelley went solo while Diggle and drummer John Maher formed their own band, Flag of Convenience. After almost a decade of dormancy, 1989 saw a regrouping with a boxed set of old favorites (Product) followed by a large American tour aided by ex-Smiths drummer Mike Joyce. The Buzzcocks returned to producing new material -- 1993's Trade Test Transmissions, 1996's All Set, 1999's Modern -- with mixed, though never embarrassing, results. With a new rhythm section in place (Tony Barber, bass, and Phil Barker, drums) the 'cocks carried on.

Then with the rest of the band fanning the reunion flame, Diggle, drunk while on holiday in Greece, took a spill on a rented scooter. "I come slidin' off the thing and smashed up my wrist," he recounts. "It took a year before I could play again properly. I just had the plate taken out a few months ago. It's sore, it's still a bit misshapen, but it still works."

After Diggle healed, the Buzzcocks set to work again. The new self-titled album (released on successful American indie label Merge) is as tightly wound as ever. Devoto returned to co-author a pair of songs with Shelley, but it's Diggle who checks in with two strikingly spirited tracks: "Wake Up Call," with the insistency (and harmonies) of the band's best material, and the short, blistering "Up For the Crack." Even so, asking Buzzcocks to offer up the same dynamism as the Singles Going Steady heyday is expecting too much. But compared with the rest of today's pop-punk crap, the latter-day Buzzcocks albums remain worthy of praise and pride. Apart from Wire it's not easy to find middle-age punks aging this gracefully. Punk hasn't ever found an easy way to grow old with itself but it's hard to blame the Buzzcocks for keeping on. At least they're not snickering about it.

"It's about two-thirds younger kids and about a third of old folks from the time," Diggle says, describing the crowds coming to see the Buzzcocks this summer. "We're getting a lot of new kids picking up the records from their older brothers or their parents. The new stuff fits really well with the old stuff we do in the set. They might be a bit rockier than some of the older ones, but they're still catchy, though."

What feels promising and palpable is the excitement the gray-haired Diggle can't disguise in his Mancunian burr when he discusses their current job: two weeks as Pearl Jam's opening act, performing in front of crowds as large as 25,000. Making it clear this is far from the coldly calculated cash-in of the Sex Pistols reunion, they have avoided flattening their laurels -- while the 21st-century Buzzcocks may not supply the spark of the Seventies, they show Shelley and Diggle are trying to recapture it accurately.

"We do song after song after song, and there's no gap between the songs," Diggle explains. Of course, he admits, toward the end the 'cocks unleash a torrent of oldies, ensuring the crowd exits with the best possible taste lingering in its ears.

Resuming small club shows following the Pearl Jam matchup, the Buzzcocks tour concludes in Fort Lauderdale this weekend. Diggle mentions that the date -- July 19 -- is of special significance. "That's the night that me and Pete Shelley met," he says. "Twenty-seven years to the day."

No doubt another tale for the history books.

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton