Every modern jukebox worth its coin slot has them on heavy rotation. But ask your mom or your little brother for that matter who the Buzzcocks are. More than likely, you'll get a bewildered smile and an embarrassed reflex. The band name is peripheral to most, recessed much deeper than the average fan's cursory familiarity with similar bands like the Sex Pistols or the Clash.
But for the boys who spent their high school years being shoulder-checked into the lockers for no reason other than their unusual clothes and dour expressions, and for the girls who experienced a first taste of sexual liberation for having sung aloud the lyrics to "Orgasm Addict," the Buzzcocks are princes of the Manchester music scene. To not know who they are ensures that one has missed an important chapter in rock 'n' roll's real history: the punk years.
From his hotel in Atlanta, songwriter-guitarist Pete Shelley sounds stoned. It's several minutes into the interview before his thick Manchester accent becomes audible. The Buzzcocks are doing a short stint on of all things the Vans Warped tour. By several decades, they are the oldest band performing at the youth-obsessed rock fest, but Shelley says the experience has been enlightening. He stammers when asked what other bands on the tour he really likes, but given a moment, he gives props to Toledo's emo-glam band, We Are the Fury.
Seems any opportunity to play to an enthusiastic audience is something to be grateful for. "One thing we picked up on early was to take it one day at a time," Shelley says.
Of course, they've had the benefit of several years to perfect this Zen. It was 1977 when the band Howard Devoto (who after one year, went on to form Magazine), Steve Diggle, Steve Garvey and Garth Smith released the Spiral Scratch EP. Featuring Shelley's adenoidal din on four ephemeral and minimalistic punk songs, the music was not unlike the material being recorded by their UK counterparts. But despite the provincial snottiness and pizza-faced angst that most of the Buzzcocks' contemporaries relied upon, this band's earliest recordings hinted at an underlying musical sophistication. Between 1977 and 1981, the Buzzcocks would put out a literate body of progressive punk music and queer-anthems that today's songwriters still consider relevant and inspirational. Songs from Another Music in a Different Kitchen, Love Bites, A Different Kind of Tension and Singles Going Steady are still being covered by Green Day, Chris Martin and so on.
As evidenced by their late '90s offerings and the most recent 2006 indie release, Flat-Pack Philosophy, they never lost their edge. And though some might not truly appreciate their influence on the industry, the Buzzcocks' adherence to the DIY philosophy even after it went out of fashion has been hugely influential on independent record labels.
By staying under the radar, the Buzzcocks have been able to do things their way. And the music is so much better for it. But lest you think they are iconoclastic marvels, Shelley and Diggle (the two original members still in the band) know that the band's history is little more than a natural course.
"I don't think you can plan something like this. I suppose being somewhat obscure helped us get away with a bit more, but who knows?"
The band is, for all intents and purposes, above file-sharing arguments, making much of their music affordable and available for download.
Shelley admits, "I was guilty on home taping in the '70s. I don't care how they get it, just that they get it."
And thematically, there's still no agenda. "I just write about whatever takes my fancy. If it's relevant, great," Shelley says.
If the band's sagging skin and graying hair shows their age, their attitude is as keen as ever. Do they miss a time when talking about sex or using frank language in a pop song could be shocking? Not in the least. To Shelley however gratuitous it might have gotten it's progress, not the end of an era.
"Like Burroughs said, 'The worst form of censorship is self-censorship.' Things are as they should be."
And what better gauge for gratification than seeing their audience expand after all these years? "The crowds are getting younger. Yeah, there's old fans, but there's also a bunch of kids who must have heard about us by listening to their parent's vinyl. It must have been like Christmas to come across that stuff," Shelley laughs.
And if legacy is at all important, the payoff can't get much better than this: "People like us as we are."
Friday, July 14, at the Shelter, 431 E. Congress, Detroit; 313-961-6358. The Adored and the Strays support.Eve Doster is the Metro Times listings editor. E-mail [email protected]