BUZZCOCKS

OVERVIEW:
They started out as a really good and catchy punk band. They were very idiosyncratic and influential. They released a lot of awesome singles, but never really made a great record (though their early full-lengths are still definitely worth getting to know if you love the singles). Luckily, all the awesome singles were collected on “Singles Going Steady,” which easily stands as one of the all-time great punk-rock “albums.” Their 90s and 2000s reunion records are mostly god-awful – really, just terrible – and add nothing to their legacy.

THE ALBUMS:

Spinal Scratch EP
Another Music In A Different Kitchen
Love Bites
Singles Going Steady *
A Different Kind Of Tension *
Trade Test Transmissions
All Set
Modern
Buzzcocks
Flat-Pack Philosophy

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SPINAL SCRATCH EP    (1977)

B+

This first Buzzcocks release was recorded while Howard Devoto was still the leader. He hadn’t yet turned his back on simple punk and moved onto the artsier (and awesome) Magazine. This EP is short and sweet, and pretty damn great. It’s definitely got more muscle than the first Buzzcocks full-length, and it’s rocking and fun and goofy throughout it’s super brief running time. Devoto sounds a lot like Johnny Rotten, and quite different than he’d sound in his next band. The band is totally unprofessional, and there aren’t really any surprises. But they sound so young and enthusiastic, and the songs are such great fun, it’s hard to turn this record away. Only the closer “Friends Of Mine” fails to make an impact – the other three tunes are wonderful little punk sprints, especially “Boredom.” This is definitely worth a listen for fans of both Devoto and Pete Shelley, the soon to be Buzzcocks leader.

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ANOTHER MUSIC IN A DIFFERENT KITCHEN  (1978)

B-

Pete Shelley takes over the band from Devoto, but I don’t think he’s really found his voice yet on this debut. The album opens with a little quote from “Boredom,” which was probably meant as a kiss-off to Devoto or the old line-up. But it wasn’t necessarily the best idea, as that song is probably better than any of the other tunes on this full-length! Anyway, this sounds like the speedy poppy nutty Buzzcocks everyone has come to love, but less refined and hooky and a bit more generic. None of the individual songs mean that much to me, especially when considering the awesome non-album singles recorded around this time (“Orgasm Addict,” “What Do I Get”). The opener “Fast Cars,” is goofy and fun, but it doesn’t reach the pop euphoria of later tracks. The second side of this album is way more interesting than the first (which consists entirely of same-y speedy punk songs with nice but lackluster melodies). “I Don’t Mind” is easily the best song on the entire record. “Fiction Romance” points the way to some of the tighter and more controlled future Buzzcocks tracks, and it’s a definite highlight on here. I’m not a huge fan of “Autonomy,” which ended up on “Singles Going Steady” – that strikes me as one of the least engaging famous Buzzcocks tunes. It’s heavy and intense, but lacks a good hook. The album ends with a super interesting Krautrock nod – “Moving Away From The Pulsebeat.” It has a killer drum sound, and some awesome ideas, though it never quite gels for me as more than a neat experiment. This is clearly a band finding their footing – and I can’t say I recommend it too highly.

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LOVE BITES  (1979)

B

Definitely a big step up for the band, but still lacking a bit of identity. The A-Side of this record is a giant winner though, with a bunch of great pop songs. “Real World” opens, and it has a great hook and an even better bass-line! Then comes the most beloved Buzzcocks song of ’em all – the classic and just perfect pop-punk song “Ever Fallen In Love.” Truly one of the best guitar-driven pop songs ever written. “Operator’s Manual” is fun and catchy and kinda early-Who-like (The Who is actually a HUGE influence on these guys). “Nostalgia” is one of their best album tracks  (i.e. non “Singles Going Steady”) – another great pop melody. “Just Lust” is funny and weird but not one of my favorites.  The rest of the album doesn’t do as much for me. There are some repetitive “experimental” tracks at the end (the overlong instrumental “Late For The Train” and the unmemorable “E.S.P.”) I do enjoy the acoustic driven Steve Diggle composition “Love Is Lies,” though the chorus of that one sounds a bit dopey to me. Overall, this is a fun pop-punk record, and the moment where Pete Shelley’s brilliant melodic sense comes to fruition. It’s just a little slight and same-y, and doesn’t really make the case for this as an ALBUM band the way I was hoping…

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SINGLES GOING STEADY  (1979)

A+ with the reissue singles, otherwise a solid A

Is it fair to really assess this compilation of singles and B-sides as an album proper? In the case of the Buzzcocks, I say YES, and I think most people would agree. Firstly, the original Buzzcocks only lasted 5 years, and their three studio albums came out within two years of each other. During this general time period, they released ALL of these awesome singles, most of which are better than the album tracks surrounding them, and most of which weren’t even ON one of the three studio albums. The amount of time during which all of these pop explosions were recorded is nowadays considered an acceptable length between a band’s two full-lengths. Therefore, this is a giant BURST of inspiration. And this comp takes a ton of great tunes and collects them under a single roof to create one of the classic punk albums. And certainly one of the most melodic and fun; it’s really just a classic pop album with chainsaw guitars. Some of the songs are more euphoric than others (and obviously that includes”Ever Fallen In Love”), some are just goofy rave-ups, but as a package you just can’t beat this record for poppy punky smart fun. Besides the already mentioned uber-classic, you get uber-classic “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays,” which switches between post-punky stripped down verses with repetitive lyrics and the buzzy thrashy pop wonder of the choruses. One of the catchiest songs ever written! There’s the genius and hilarious early single “Orgasm Addict” – amazing unforgettable lyrics! “Lipstick” is the OTHER Shelley/Devoto song that uses the incredible “Shot By Both Sides” riff (that’s the Magazine song)…it’s also a great song, if not quite as good as Magazine’s big single. Then there’s the amazing lengthy groovy gorgeous “Why Can’t I Touch It?” That song has one of those incredible Garvey bass-lines. There’s a slightness to a lot of this material, as these guys don’t really go too deep and things tend to get a bit samey. But the reissue I have adds all the “Different Tension” singles and a couple others recorded immediately before the break-up – it pads out the record with more variety, slightly different production ideas, and a bunch of other excellent songs (including “You Say You Don’t Love Me,” “Running Free,” “Why She’s The Girl From The Chainstore,” and the horn-laden and super melodic “What Do You Know”). Anyway, this is a must have for a punk fan – if you’re actually a punk fan you undoubtedly have it already. But if you just happen to love pop music in general, and you don’t mind some reedy weirdo vocals and buzzy wall-o-soundy punk guitars, then you’d be better off listening to this record than most others.

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A DIFFERENT KIND OF TENSION  (1979)

A-

Easily the best and most fulfilling Buzzcocks studio album. The band sounds a lot more controlled and professional than ever before – the playing is great, the hooks are always interesting and sometimes more than that, there’s some real variety in the styles and instrumentation, and the band goes deeper and darker than they’d even attempted on their more frivolous first two releases. Additionally, none of these songs were even ON the original “Singles Going Steady” release – so this is the only classic-era Buzzcocks record without direct ties to the compilation. My favorite track, and one of the greatest Buzzcocks tracks in the general, is the chugging 7 minute hook-monster “I Believe” the closes the record. It’s experimental, but still fun and entertaining – unlike some of this band’s other attempts at Krautrocky repetition which tend to feel a bit thin and self-serious. My other favorites include the killer “Sitting Around At Home,” which alternates a lumbering new wave verse with a peppy punky instrumental “chorus.” “You Say You Don’t Love Me” is another beautiful pop single. “I Don’t Know What To Do With My Life” has a classic Buzzcocks melody. The title track is a powerful experimental rocker with a pummeling Move-like riff and a great rhythm section arrangement (Steve Garvey – the bassist – has totally become the band’s secret weapon by this point). There are some slightly lesser moments on here, but overall it’s a super solid mildly experimental punk record and the go-to studio Buzzcocks album after the compilation.

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TRADE TEST TRANSMISSION   (1993)

C+

I’m the not the world’s biggest Buzzcocks fan, so I wasn’t expecting much from their reunion records. I’d heard they were mediocre at best. The rhythm section had been switched out, and the rhythm section was one of the best parts of early Buzzcocks. This first of the 5, released in 1993, doesn’t do much to disprove my earlier prediction. It’s certainly mediocre – maybe worse. But after I heard the following two albums, this one started to read as a slightly more successful attempt at capturing the Buzzcocks magic. Basically, there’s a nice respectable Buzzcocks reunion EP on here: “Smile,” “Last To Know,” “Palm Of Your Heart,” and especially “Who’ll Help Me To Forget” and “369” all recall the past glories, and contain fun hooks and quirky energy. “Forget” has a lead guitar line that recalls “Lipstick” (and/or “Shot By Both Sides”). “399” has the album’s  best vocal melody, sounds a lot like The Dickies, and utilizes a fun phased psych-out ending that lends it a bit of a vintage vibe. “Palm Of Your Heart” is another masturbation song, which is a pretty dumb subject to repeat on your first reunion single (especially considering the fact that your first single, period, had the same theme). But it’s a pretty catchy and enjoyable track nonetheless. These 5 songs are OK, but the band sounds a bit too 90s and Shelley’s spastic energy and voice have degraded quite a bit. Well, he’s OLDER isn’t he!? Unfortunately, old usually often has no place in punk rock – or at least, older punks are more successful when they drop the spastic angry youthful side and dive into the scuzz or the art-punkery. These guys try to sound like their younger selves and basically come up short. OK, 5 decent tracks – what about the other 10? Well, they range from mediocre power pop (“Innocent,” “Never Gonna Give It Up”) to bad power pop (“Do It,” “Unthinkable”). And Steve Diggle’s contributions sound like crappy sub-Husker Du 80s alt-rock (“When Love Turns Around” in particular). Not one of the other songs is better than average, and they’re mostly just shitty. They don’t quite approach the awfulness of the next two albums, so I will grade this record on a bit of a curve and award it a better score than it deserves. But essential listening? Hardly.

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ALL SET   (1996)

(no grade)

I could barely even make through this garbage. This is easily one of the worst releases I’ve ever heard from a band I respect as much as I do Buzzcocks. On first listen, I count ONE song that has a remotely interesting hook: “Point of No Return.” That one at least has a vibe that conjures up the glory of the original line-up. It’s still a bit lame,  but at least it has some MENACE. The rest of this is totally generic alt-rock,  not at all punky or eccentric, and WAY too slow. It’s not even power pop – it’s generic 90s alt-rock old-fart music. It all sort of sounds like bottom of the barrel Robert Pollard songs,  but with less character. I’m not a big fan of the previous reunion album, but at least it SOUNDED like Buzzcocks, and like the guys were happy to be playing together again. This just sounds like shit. Shelley’s singing is way too gruff and low and normal on here, and Diggle’s songs are just terrible. After my one listen, there were only other two songs besides the above-mentioned “highlight” that seemed less than 100% boring – the OK opener “Totally From the Heart” and the short little generic garage rocker “Kiss N’ Tell.” The last two tracks on here (“Pariah” and “Back With You”) are shockingly bad. “Hold Me Close” is overlong and nearly SCHMALTZY. What the hell happened to these guys? What’s with all these lame love lyrics (maybe they’re sarcastic – I haven’t fully investigated and I refuse to do so with music this bad). Oh well – perhaps the following records will pick things up a bit. This one leaves a terrible taste in my mouth, and I choose to forget about it.

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MODERN     (1999)

(no grade)

Goodness me oh my. This is slightly better than the previous album – they don’t try to sound like a mall punk band, and there a couple moments with half-decent melodic ideas. A COUPLE. That’s all. And those two moments are the Brit-poppy verses of the opener “Soul On A Rock” and one nice unexpected chord change in “Thunder of Hearts.” The rest of this album is simply awful. There are some half-assed attempts at sounding…modern. Those include some ugly synths, some dorky drum machines, and some obnoxious vocal filtering. This album is so wimpy and un-punky for most of it’s running time, these guys should have been forced to turn in those “cool” badges they gave out to all the late-70s Manchester bands. So far, this is one of the most pathetic “reunions” I’ve ever heard from a classic band. I don’t want to talk too much more about this album, but allow me to recount a few of it’s more egregious crimes. “Speed of Life” is a saccharine and overlong piece of crap (4.5 minutes with no good hooks!) “Phone,” “Under The Sun,” and “Stranger In Your Town” are all unfathomably hookless and generic and terrible. The closing tune ‘Choices” perked me up a bit, with some OK moments and the only slightly interesting use of the electronic atmosphere. Overall, though, you should avoid this even if you’re a fan. Let’s lump “Modern” and “All Set” together and erase them from Buzzcocks’ legacy, and all the pretty punk fans can sleep better at night.

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BUZZCOCKS   (2003)

C-

This seems to be the most revered of the reunion albums, so I gave it some repeated listens. I really have no idea how anyone could find this an acceptable Buzzcocks record. It’s barely a step up from the previous two. It has a more austere cover, and it’s self-titled, and it makes a more conscious effort to sound like a big loud punk record. It’s got two (weak) collaborations between Devoto and Shelley, so people were probably primed to love it. But this was clearly more a case of good promotion than an actual return to form. The first three songs are painfully mediocre and forgettable. The sound is heavier, for sure, but not really in a good way – I feel like I’m listening to your average major label rock album. Heavier, but way more generic. Then comes the first and really only good song – “Friends,” which has a solid hook. Diggle’s “Sick City Sometimes” is god-awful. “A Certain Move” is lame and obvious. The two Devoto collaborations are the best tracks after “Friends,” but they’re not particularly striking. “Lester Sands” sounds like an old-school punk track with lower vocals – an impressive feat for older fellows, no doubt, but not a very memorable song. “Stars” has a lot of muscle, but it’s just more formulaic crap to my ears. The rest of the album is boring and pointless – the band barely sounds idiosyncratic anymore, the quirks aren’t really there, and the melodies are stale and dumb. That being said, this is marginally better than the previous two, if only for it’s heavier and more focused sound. But overall…boo.

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FLAT-PACK PHILOSOPHY  (2006)

(no grade)

More crunchy poppy generic punk songs from the most boring reunion on Earth. BUT … this is actually way more interesting and hooky than the self-titled. There’s a pronounced 60s and even early Beatles influence on a lot of these tracks (“I Don’t Exist,” “Reconciliation,” “Look At You Now,” “I’ve Had Enough”), and overall the album is pretty energetic, if insanely slight and forgettable. There are some  pronounced vocal harmonies (“Between Heaven and Hell”). Major to minor changes. And just maybe, if you sped up some of the draggy mid-tempos, you’d get a something that actually sounds like a Buzzcocks album! It’s probably their most overtly power poppy album, which is a bit boring but at least nice to hear coming after a series of totally hookless alt-rock mediocrities. This is easily the best of the previous four records, but it’s still probably not as good as “Trade Test Transmissions.” More consistent though – there’s no “Do It”-like crap on here (well…some of Diggle’s numbers leave a lot to be desired). The title track is way too generic, ugly, and basically hookless – not a good way to kick off the proceedings. ‘Credit” opens with the sound of someone buying groceries at one of those self-checkout machines, and then it turns into a boring power pop song with 60s harmonies. “Big Brother Wheels” is an OK muscular power pop song with some fun harmonies, but not all that great. “Dreamin'” almost sounds like an old Buzzcocks track (if you sped it up, it would totally work in that context). Overall, this is a step up from what they’d been doing before, but it’s also totally inessential and I hope they just STOP and just continue touring on re-issues of “Singles Going Steady.”

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