“No-remix demos, all recorded live, no overdubs … October 1976, 4 track, cost about £45.”
For many, the Buzzcocks story starts (and perhaps ends) with their crossover single ‘Ever Fallen In Love With Someone’, a distilled pop-punk gem that was a deserved hit for the band. However, to focus on this single three minutes or so ignores the immense body of work that the band, largely fronted by seminal guitarist and singer Pete Shelley, who died yesterday, have accumulated over the years.
On the surface, Mute‘s decision to release this much-bootlegged collection of early Buzzcocks demos and studio sessions seems ill-advised – except that it really does make a degree of sense. The Grey Area sub-label originally developed as an outlet for re-releases of material that was held to have had a devastating influence on counter-commercial music styles; to this end, re-releasing tracks that influenced a generation of punks and launched the career of Howard Devoto (née Trafford, singer and chief songwriter with the band at this point, later frontman of Magazine and responsible for introducing Barry Adamson to the world) – is every bit as understandable as their re-releases of post-punk pioneers Cabaret Voltaire, Wire and Throbbing Gristle.
I never held much of an opinion in my early years on the perceived greatness of the Sex Pistols, although after watching The Filth And The Fury, I’m prepared to change my mind. Not so my opinion of Buzzcocks, especially on this collection. Their sound, even at this early stage, was less prone to excess, and the songs are delivered with a precision and exactness that carried forward into live (documentary) evidence from the period – just check out the classic post-Devoto Live At The Roxy compilation. These are very much well-executed, catchy underground pop tunes, with only Shelley’s fuzzy guitar work and Devoto’s sneering vocals planting the band in the punk firmament. Other members at the time were John Maher and Steve Diggle.
Social comment is not prevalent here, Howard Devoto’s lyrics preferring to deal with the more pressing post-teenage issues – sex and lust (‘Orgasm Addict’ and ‘Love Battery’ being two of the more crudely obvious examples) and frustration (‘You’re Messing Me Around’, and the classics ‘Breakdown’ and ‘Boredom’). Devoto’s lyrical take is pretty raw here, unlike his studied poetry-like work with Magazine, while still hinting at his future greatness. Knowing his future direction helps understand why a song like the cover of Captain Beefheart’s ‘I Love You Big Dummy’ fits here so damn well.
Eleven historic tracks are presented here, bolstered by a collage of video footage of the first Buzzcocks gig at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1976 – the scene of the Sex Pistols entrance into the Manchester punk movement. What’s worth the entry price alone is the inlay booklet, which is so fat with pages that you can hardly close the case. The content is an obsessive collector’s dream – photos, scribbles, concert setlists etc, as well as the original press release for the seminal Spiral Scratch EP, liner notes from Greil Marcus and a 1977 interview with Devoto. Overall, Mute have done an excellent job on this reissue, marking this out as the most comprehensive, definitive and hopefully final version to date.
Originally posted 2003; re-posted 2018 following the sad death of Pete Shelley at 63 years old.
(c) 2018 Documentary Evidence