'Cocks, Rock

Buzzcocks still kick ace, in case you've forgotten

There's history and there's what people remember, and usually they don't have much in common. Childhood memories often don't match up with the home-movie version of the same events; the sets change, the wrong characters say the right words, the plot twists unexpectedly. It's unfortunate, but it happens. Hard facts soften with age, sharp images blur with time, names on the tip of tongues move to the back of minds.

An example: People still readily remember the Sex Pistols and the Clash, "Anarchy in the U.K." and "White Riot," Paul Simonon smashing his bass on the cover of London Calling and Johnny Rotten asking a Winterland wonderland, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" Of course, they do. For those of a certain age and a certain inclination, it's practically stamped on their DNA.

Here's where recall and reality diverge: It wasn't a duo after all. It was a trio. Check the history books--George Gimarc's Punk Diary: 1970-1979, say, or Jon Savage's England's Dreaming. A slightly altered set of facts exists in those pages, an expanded version of the truth, a new column of figures that add up to a different sum. And a few characters to add to the rogues' gallery: a band from Manchester called Buzzcocks.

Two of these guys helped change the face of music in the 1970s, and neither one is named Johnny Rotten or Joe Strummer.
Two of these guys helped change the face of music in the 1970s, and neither one is named Johnny Rotten or Joe Strummer.

See, when the Sex Pistols and the Clash were giving rock music a face-lift in the late 1970s, the members of Buzzcocks were standing right next to them during the entire operation, wielding a scalpel, making their mark. The group held its own and then some; Singles Going Steady, 1979's collection of would-be hits, is a masterpiece that equals Never Mind the Bollocks... and London Calling, 47 minutes that are all balls and strikes. They weren't as notorious as the Sex Pistols, nor as ambitious as the Clash, but they were every bit as volatile, splintering apart after only a few years.

"The first one was a big rush, really," singer-guitarist Pete Shelley says. "We did so much in such a short time, from initial conception to splitting in 1981. That was just five years, all told. But, really, we did quite a lot in those five years."

And yet, no one remembers a rock-and-roll swindle much greater than anything Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren ever concocted. The Pistols burned out and the Clash faded away (which is the gentlest possible description of 1985's Cut the Crap). Buzzcocks split the difference, sort of, breaking up in 1981 and re-forming eight years later with a new rhythm section (bassist Tony Barber and drummer Phil Barker) and a handful of albums (including this year's Buzzcocks) that did nothing to detract from their reputation. (And "Totally From the Heart," the first song on 1996's All Set, may have even added to it.) But though he's one of the few people who could answer yes to Rotten's infamous question, Shelley doesn't mind that Buzzcocks don't get the credit they deserve.

"Well, I think Steve probably thinks that more than I do," Shelley says with a laugh, referring to his fellow singer-guitarist Steve Diggle, the only other original member in the band. "I tend to think, well, one day everyone will realize." He laughs again. "And I think that things are changing, so people are starting to take notice."

Maybe the band's upcoming stint (June 21 through July 8) on Pearl Jam's summer tour will force a few more people to pay attention. Could happen. Or maybe a kid will pick up a Simple Plan record and do a little research, connecting the dots from the Canadian punk-pop group to blink-182 to Green Day to Buzzcocks, following the timeline back to the beginning with a few trips to Kazaa and an iPod. That scenario is a little more unlikely, but you never know.

After all, that kid has been surrounded by Buzzcocks his entire life, an entire generation of bands (feel free to add the Ataris, Alkaline Trio and a host of others to the above list) that should be kicking in a few bucks to Shelley and Diggle's 401(k). He just doesn't know it, doesn't see that the punk revival's dress code may belong to the Sex Pistols and the Clash, but the Buzzcocks own the sound--pop that snaps and crackles, punk that's more interested in tearing apart songs rather than governments.

That sound--which debuted on the group's self-financed Spiral Scratch EP in 1977, before singer Howard Devoto left to form Magazine--shows up again on Buzzcocks, released March 18 on Merge Records. The strongest effort from Buzzcocks since Shelley and Diggle got the band back together in 1989, it's a disc that plays by the same loud-fast rules as 1978's Another Music in a Different Kitchen and Love Bites, but does so through adult eyes. "Life's full of disappointments," Shelley sings on "Useless." "Wonder where the good times went/Craving for recognition rather than accomplishment." (So maybe Shelley's not quite so content with how he and his band have been remembered.)

Devoto turns up on Buzzcocks as well, co-writing a pair of songs--"Stars" and "Lester Sands"--with Shelley. The former first appeared on Buzzkunst, last year's collaboration between the duo under the name ShelleyDevoto.

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