Live Review: Buzzcocksby Mitch Goldman
Moe's, Seattle 7/19/96
It's 1977 all over again. With the Sex Pistols touring, the original members of KISS re-staging their 1977 Love Gun/Alive 2 tour, and the Buzzcocks burning their way through small clubs, you may have to check your calendar to confirm our actual proximity to the millenium. But Britain's seminal punk/pop outfit the Buzzcocks are most assuredly not capitalizing on "reunion fever" in fact original members Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle reunited with a new rhythm section in 1989, to small business and critical success. Their two post-reunion studio releases, Trade Test Transmissions (1992) and this year's All Set are brimming with the kind of jangly, edgy-yet-infectious punk that launched their career back in the mid-70's.
As part of the original punk-rock scene in England that gelled in 1976, the Buzzcocks were one of the few punk bands to focus on fast pop tunes rather than socio-political rage, like the Sex Pistols and The Clash. Early singles like "What Do I Get?", "Ever Fallen in Love?" and "Orgasm Addict" (all collected on the band's watershed compilation album from 1979, Singles Going Steady) combined witty lyrics steeped in offbeat relationship themes with fast, quirky, punky pop ditties that barrelled along your brain, propelled by the guitar duo of Shelley and Diggle. Shelley played a rough-hewn Paul McCartney against Diggle's gentler, more lyrical George Harrison, and this asthetic juxtaposition made Diggle and Shelley appealing alter egos.
And alter egos they remain today. Onstage at a packed Moe's, Steve Diggle looked like a post-punk Pete Townshend, with a blowsy purple shirt and his windmill guitar moves, while Pete Shelley came off like a musical version of Bob Hoskins, with his rough, cockney look and his burly stature. But Shelley hasn't lost any of his guitar chops, and he proved it song for song, playing some great soaring melodies. His vocals were dead-on perfect, as were Diggle's. From the opening classic "I Don't Mind" to the closing encore "Oh Shit!" the foursome telescoped time with their pop masterpieces. Old songs like "Love You More" and "What Do I Get?" sounded as new and fresh as the All Set material, like Diggle's irresistible "What Am I Supposed to Do?" and Shelley's "Totally From the Heart". Steve and Pete looked and sounded as if these tunes still hold a lot of fun for them, and the audience ate it up during "What Do I Get" 400 aging punkers sang the "whoa oh oh what do I get!" part as if they were in their high school bedrooms, playing air guitar and wondering why the hell the Buzzcocks aren't as popular as Fleetwood Mac.
Post-reunion musicians Phil Barker (drums) and Tony Barber (bass) held down the fort, but the real show was the interplay between Diggle and Shelley. This hit a peak during a set-closing "I Believe" wherein the guitarists built up the song to a peak (with the audience simultaneously chanting and shouting the tunes final dire refrain: "There is no love in this world anyMORE!") and then dropped out one at a time, leaving the stage to the rhythm section. A sweaty crowd called the band back for encores, which got off to a rocky but spontaneous start when a planned "Why She's a Girl from the Chainstore" stopped when Barber broke a string. Diggle, undaunted, went into an impromptu version of his song "Love is Lies" (on which he sounds remarkably like George Harrison), which the band picked up without missing a beat. Sure, the set omitted a few obvious classics, like "Why Can't I Touch It" and "Ever Fallen in Love"; but few could quibble with the combination of material and spirit the band exhibited throughout.
Today's generation of retro punk bands like Green Day owe a huge debt to the Buzzcocks; it's nice to know the originals are still around, still vital, and still a hell of a lot of fun onstage.
I Don't Mind