They came, they saw, they conquered, and left us all with a dose of herpes and slice after slice of raw, beautiful singles and two quintessential romantic punk albums. This was Madchester way ahead of its time, before the Happy Mondays donned baggies and downed drugs in spades. The Buzzcocks were somewhat cobbled together by technology students Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto in 1975, two guys with an interest in electronic music, but who really saw the road to Damascus after attending a Sex Pistols gig in early 1976. They were impressed enough to organise the now legendary Lesser Free Trade Hall gig in mid 76 that, though only attended by 42 people, had an effect analogous to that of the Velvet Underground’s first album: everyone who saw it went on to have an effect on the punk scene.
With two new members who would become the rhythmic driving force behind the group, Steve Diggle (gtr) and John Maher (drums), they played with the Pistols on their second gig in Manchester and then went on to storm the 100 Club Festival in London, another breeding ground for early punks. They recorded Spiral Scratch, an EP that was a landmark in punk history for two reasons. One, it was the first punk single to be released independently of a major record label: secondly, it was released on the first self-financed punk label, New Hormones, in early 77. The standout track, Boredom (FF 1978 #12 and 1979 #25) matches the subject matter (‘I just came from nowhere, now I’m going straight back there’) with undiluted, direct, repetitive music (a two-note solo repeated 66 times). Devoto snarled and bellowed his way through lyrics that hinted at his disillusionment with the scene (he left the band on the eve of the EP’s release to spend another year in school before forming Magazine). Yet the band returned to this song, opening and closing their United Artists-released first album, Another Music In A Different Kitchen, with tantalising snatches of the song (by this time, the original run of the EP had sold out until its re-release in 1979 made the UK top 40).
We weren’t trying to sound like other bands. It was the end of the prog rock era. Songs were coming as long as the whole album. Bands weren’t saying a lot at that time. People saw us as ordinary guys, not big rock stars. We never made records to have hits. We made them for ordinary people. We thought ‘let’s make a statement about things’. Hopefully we inspired people to think, read books. [Steve Diggle]
The LP itself showcased a writing talent that Shelley had hitherto been unable to fully express. His effete, high-pitched vocals were at odds with the pub chants of the myriad of other bands in vogue at the time, and Maher’s robotic drumming became a solid foundation for the band’s music: he was allowed to show this talent off in the two long tracks that close the first two LPs, Moving Away From The Pulsebeat (FF 1978 #30) and the canonic, endless Late For The Train.
The band’s first single after Devoto’s departure, a short, vitriolic attack on masturbation, Orgasm Addict, predictably failed to set the UK charts alight, but the B-side caught John Peel’s attention sufficiently for him to make it #59 in his FF 1977 (probably because he wouldn’t have been allowed to get away with playing the A-side). Whatever Happened To…? spears nostalgia freaks with their own ‘twin sets’ and ‘hi-fi’ and in less than two minutes makes its points succinctly (a theme Shelley would return to in the song Nostalgia, from Love Bites). Yet for me their 7 inch summa cum laude is the song that encapsulates all the teenage yearnings and acrid frustration that would later provide a profitable career for the Wedding Present. What Do I Get? (FF 1978 #8 and 1979 #50) is the perfect pop hit that broke the band as a singles force, reaching UK number 37 in early 78: their strongest melody to date underpins words that strive to outdo Teenage Kicks in its unrequited lovelorn despair.
The band were to release one more major album, A Different Kind Of Tension, and a slew of excellent singles before an unsuccessful signing to Liberty Records. Though they have reformed several times, in retrospect, those early years held a beacon of excellence up to the shambolic energy of some of their compatriots, and Ever Fallen In Love found its way into JP’s Record Box. Hell, even the TV show had its moments.