The Buzzcocks Talk Punk's Past and Future
Truer words have perhaps never been spoken: "The road is still fun—although perhaps not as much fun as it seems over some drinks where you decide, 'Right, let's do it!'" says Pete Shelley.
Shelley, a founding member of the Buzzcocks, has just arrived in America to resume what has been thus far a two-year global odyssey called the Another Bites tour. The tour features a performance of the first two Buzzcocks albums played in full and in sequence, with Shelley (guitar/vocals) joined by co-founder Steve Diggle (guitar/vocals).
But it's not like the band needed to hit the road to improve its cultural standing. The Buzzcocks' reputation has long been cemented as one of the most influential bands of the British punk movement alongside The Sex Pistols and The Clash. But while the other bands carried a political agenda, the Buzzcocks crafted three-minute pop-punk gems focused on the experiences of life and love common to everyone coming of age. Never shy about his own bisexual orientation, Shelley avoided a gender-specific narrative—a point not lost on fellow Manchurians Morrissey and the members of Joy Division. Classic songs like "Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)" have been covered countless times through the years, and Nirvana, Green Day, Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys have credited the band through the years as huge influences.
Shelley has his own point of view on why the punk movement took root.
"It was a reaction to what was going on in music then, between disco and glam," he explains. "Popular music was demanding so much learning and expensive equipment that only kids with wealthy parents could get involved."
In turn, he explains, punk music was the natural reaction to enable participation by marginally skilled musical wannabes and audiences in a grim economic environment. In subsequent decades, Shelley says, "Punk just became part of the furniture, really."
And sometimes it was cast aside. The band broke up in 1981 after a dazzling run of three classic albums, and the members hardly spoke for years. But at the urging of prominent music agent Ian Copeland, the band reformed in 1990. It's toured with some regularity since, with Shelley and Diggle serving as the constants. Their fellow original members, drummer John Maher and bassist Steve Garvey, dropped out and have been replaced numerous times over the years. The current lineup, with Tony Barber on bass and Danny Farrant on drums, has been together since 2006.
The band's last album of new music, Flat-Pack Philosophy, was released in 2006. Asked if he's still writing music these days, Shelley responds positively. But, as for recording, well, there's been little luck: "The response was total apathy from everyone else," Shelley admits.
But, he says, there is some interest now—and the band will re-enter the studio at the end of this year.
As for the current tour, it kicked off in early 2009, coinciding with the deluxe re-release of the band's early works. After covering Europe last summer and the Pacific Rim in the winter, the band is currently undertaking a 25-city tour of North America. And its format, playing its first albums in sequence (along with other favorites), has some real benefit to the audience: In addition to hearing the more famous gems, the audience gets to hear some lesser-known tracks.
Shelley says the format does require that the band "work harder to keep it interesting" for themselves, but that the audience always has a way of making it fun. And over the past decade, his audience has remained a mix of young and old, with the young either dragged along by parents or checking out the band cited by contemporary groups they admire.
Asked about his thoughts on music today, Shelley professes to not following it too much. Blame that much on American Idol and Britain's Got Talent, he says.
"You can't watch it without wanting to break something," Shelley says.
But he's optimistic about a resurgence of the punk sensibility in music and society: "People are being fed this make-believe world and they're starting to say, 'Enough!'"
And he and the rest of the Buzzcocks promise to do their part to keep stirring things up.
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