Formed after witnessing a Sex Pistols gig, this Manchester quartet first self-released the Spiral Scratch EP.
When Howard Devoto left to form the also-notable Magazine, the band's lineup (guitarist/occasional singer-songwriter Steve Diggle, drummer John Maher, bassist Steve Garvey) solidified around primary singer-songwriter-guitarist Steve Shelley. They released their hilariously hummable first single, "Orgasm Addict" and the poppier, just as great "What Do I Get?" before delivering their full-length debut, Another Music In A Different Kitchen. And a really good debut it was, the band's strengths being immediately apparent, as breakneck tempos built around buzzsaw guitars, catchy if repetitive choruses, and clever lyrics (alternately angst-filled, horny, festive, and humorous) are the order of the day. Shelley's high-pitched, nerdy voice is a bit of an acquired taste, and a couple of these songs kinda come and go, but when those poppy "ooh" harmonies popped up on "Get On Our Own" I was smitten, and "I Don't Mind" is simply one of the most perfectly realized pop songs ever (try not to sing along to its overdriven chorus). The powerful stop and start dynamics of "Sixteen" are also pogo inducing, "Fiction Romance" slows the pace down a bit while showcasing Shelley's imaginative wordplay and romantic nature, and "Autonomy" (written solely by Diggle, who co-wrote two other songs as well) features a darker sound, with a drum intro that Iron Maiden may have clipped for their classic "Run To The Hills" (it sure sounds like it). Again, the choruses to "Fast Cars," "No Reply," and "I Need" are overly repetitive, but they're insanely catchy as well, and the extended epic "Moving Away From The Pulsebeat," whose reliance on pulverizing percussion and razor sharp, repetitive riffing shows a debt to Krautrock bands like Can, offers further evidence that The Buzzcocks weren't your typical punk band. In fact, much like The Undertones, The Buzzcocks weren't really a punk band at all ("power pop" is far more fitting), despite being given that label. Don't get me wrong, for sheer speed and energy the band was a match for just about anyone, but they lacked the nihilistic attitude and were better musicians than most of their so-called punk "peers." Anyway, said energy rarely flags on "Moving Away From The Pulsebeat," which provides a hypnotic and ultimately playful (if overly long) finale to a fun first album that's rarely less than very good, though I'd only call a couple of these songs genuinely great.
Love Bites (I.R.S. Records ‘78) Rating: B+
The Buzzcocks' second strong album in a single year was more experimental and less obviously punk indebted, with slower tempos, extended running times, expansive instrumental sections, and even some tastefully employed guitar solos here and there. As such, although the overall songwriting isn't as strong, and it's certainly less exhilarating than the breathless rush that was Another Music In A Different Kitchen, in many ways Love Bites is the more interesting album. Sure, some of these songs kinda come and go or are too repetitive and/or long, but the rhythm section, particularly drummer John Maher, really impresses, and certainly "Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)," probably the band's most famous song (in large part because an inferior cover version was later a hit for Fine Young Cannibals), is an all-time pop rock classic, with all the band's best attributes (clever "love gone wrong" lyrics, a driving rhythm, and an absurdly catchy chorus) up front and center. In fact, the song's melody was so good they decided to speed it up for "Nostalgia" (ok, not exactly, but it sounds like an inferior rewrite to me), but the band shows much more imagination with the shifting dynamics and amusing lyrics of "Just Lust." A driving groove propels "Sixteen Again" (a sequel to the previous album's "Sixteen"), another album highlight with a memorably melodic solo, and Diggle (the low-key, Beatlesque "Love Is Lies") and Garvey (the short, new wavey yet rockin' instrumental, "Walking Distance") aid and abet Shelley's cause with satisfying songwriting contributions (Diggle also sings "Love Is Lies"). Mayer's big propulsive beat drives songs such as "Real World" (the album's heaviest number and a good one if a bit of a grower), "Operator's Manual" (rather average given that they named a later compilation after it), and "Nothing Left" (one of those overly long songs I previously mentioned, this one is all about its big motorik beat - the Can influence again - and frustrated lyric), while "ESP" rides the albums best riffs for almost 5 minutes (alas, should've been 3 minutes max). As with the previous album, "Late For The Train" ends the album with something of an epic, this one an all-instrumental excursion. Led again by Mayer's big beat (take a bow for your fantastic performance, Mr. Mayer) and Shelley/Diggle's razor sharp riffs, it provides a riveting if overly long finale to a surprisingly adventurous and mostly successful second album. I slightly prefer the more consistent and less obviously flawed debut, and let's face it, The Buzzcocks are best represented by Singles Going Steady, but I believe that Another Music In A Different Kitchen and Love Bites are both well worth having, with this album in particular showing that the band's reach was well beyond that of most punk bands (though again they weren't truly a punk band at heart), even if said reach sometimes exceeded their grasp.
Singles Going Steady (I.R.S. Records ‘79) Rating: A
Although initially inspired by the Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks soon arguably surpassed their heroes with a stack of great singles, most of which appear here. Played with a sweaty vigor at a breakneck speed, these 16 infectious power pop anthems are still highly enjoyable today, over 25 years later. In fact, Green Day stole more than a few moves from these guys, but The Buzzcocks lack Green Day’s slacker, juvenile lyrical bent (at least circa Dookie), and the band’s clever lyrics (often about sex and even romance, which was something that further distinguished them from their more macho punk peers) are part of the reason why critics have always rated them so highly. Of course, this classic singles compilation also features song after song of irresistibly catchy melodies, propelled by spirited performances; in addition to the six songs (“Orgasm Addict,” “What Do I Get?,” “I Don’t Mind,” "Autonomy," "Ever Fallen In Love?,” "Just Lust") already mentioned, Singles Going Steady includes "Love You More," a sweetly melodic winner that ends all too abruptly, "Promises," a driving rocker (no, she doesn't keep them), "Everybody's Happy Nowadays," with its bright upbeat melody, cynical tongue in cheek lyrics, and catchy falsetto chorus, "Harmony In My Head," a harsher song (due to Diggle's rough lead vocal) that still settles into an eminently singable chorus, and "Noise Annoys," which is alternately ultra poppy and abrasive (but in a good way). "Autonomy" and "Just Lust" were highlights on Another Music In A Different Kitchen and Love Bites, respectively, but among such stellar company they're actually among the weaker songs here, and most of these songs were non-album singles that were previously unavailable on any long players (it's a distinctly European phenomenon to withhold great songs from full-length albums; see The Smiths, Suede, Oasis, and Belle and Sebastian, for starters). As per previous efforts, the band gets experimental towards the end of the album, and the last two songs, “Why Can’t I Touch It?,” a loose and funky 6-plus minute jam that sounds like a great lost “classic rock” song (love the back and forth riffing and the “so close yet so far” lyrical premise), and "Something's Gone Wrong Again," a coldly hypnotic and intense synth-based new wave rocker, are most unexpectedly pleasant surprises. Songs 1-8 are the damn near flawless a-sides, songs 9-16 the less inspired but still largely enjoyable b-sides (for example, a song like "Oh Shit!" may be a filler, but at least it's a fun, funny throwaway), and though some of the b-sides were clearly b-sides for a reason (“Lipstick” is a rewrite of “What Ever Happened To?,” which itself is a rewrite of "I Don't Mind"), and a certain sameness pervades some of these songs, Singles Goes Steady provides ample proof that The Buzzcocks were simply the best British singles band of the punk era.
A Different Kind Of Tension (I.R.S. ’79) Rating: B
This one is more of a mixed bag, as side 2 in particular showcases the band’s experimental side. Personally, I wish there were more straightforward, melodic songs such as “You Say You Don’t Love Me,” the album’s catchiest and best track. “Paradise” is similarly simplistic but isn’t as good (though it is pretty good, as this band does very little that isn't at least that), and “You Know You Can’t Help It” likewise surges along powerfully but is overly repetitive, as are several of these songs. Diggle actually wrote “You Know You Can’t Help It” and two others on side 1: “Mad Mad Judy” rocks hard and passionately but simply isn’t all that good, but “Sitting Round At Home” is a definite album highlight, with Diggle’s distorted vocals and some slow-to-frenetic musical outbursts. The song is oddly catchy and surges to a furious finish, but too many other songs here are rather anonymous, such as “Raisin d’etre,” which at least has the band’s rock solid rhythm section and even a guitar solo (one of several on the album) going for it, or repeat a single catchphrase such as “I Don’t Know What To Do With My Life,” which is likewise salvaged by its propulsive thrust. “Money” begins the album’s second side, which seems disconnected from side 1, as its moody, atmospheric music and coldly robotic vocals are matched to disillusioned lyrics. Alas, like too many of these songs, “Money” isn’t especially memorable, unlike “Hollow Inside,” which still manages to sabotage one of the albums more interesting melodies by running it into the ground (the word "repetitive" doesn’t even begin to describe it). The new wavey, effects-laden title track, again boosted by Mayer’s crashing drum assault, is also interesting (although again, I’m not sure that “interesting” equals “good”), as Shelley juxtaposes lyrical opposites together in nonsensical but creative ways. Alas, the song is too long; predictably, this is also the case on the 7-minute “I Believe,” which at least has a catchy chorus and another interesting lyrical idea: optimistic verses followed by the completely pessimistic “there is no love in this world anymore,“ a sledgehammer line that may very well have officially closed the curtain on the punk era. Anyway, as you’ve already surmised, this album is seriously flawed and can be quite frustrating, and I’d therefore rate it as the third best of The Buzzcocks' original three studio albums. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the band’s adventurous chance taking, and there are a lot of good ideas on this album, but it doesn’t quite come together as it should have. Perhaps if the band had better fleshed out some ideas while reining in their excesses elsewhere this album could’ve lived up to its potential, but hey, this is The Buzzcocks, so it’s still a good album overall; it’s just not as good as I think it could’ve been (and truth be told, 9 out of 10 times when I want to hear The Buzzcocks I’ll put on Singles Going Steady). Soon afterwards, I believe largely due to drugs and record company problems, Shelley pulled the plug on The Buzzcocks; they reconvened in 1989 and remain a working band ‘till this day, but I’ve never heard the later stuff and the general consensus seems to be that it’s good but not as good at the albums reviewed on this page. Feel free to send me an email if I’m wrong about this.
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