Sunday, February 3, 2013

Day Thirty-Three (and a Third): Buzzcocks - Singles Going Steady

I.R.S. Records¹ ■ SP 001

Released September, 1979
Produced by Martin Rushent
Engineered by Alan Winstanley (S1 - 1,8; S2-1,8), Doug Bennett (S1 - 2,3,5,6; S2 - 2,3,5,6), and Martin Rushent (S1 - 4,7;S2 - 4,7)
¹International Record Syndicate. Abbreviation not used on this record, but used on most releases from this label.

Side One (A-Sides):Side Two (B-Sides):
  1. Orgasm Addict
  2. What Do I Get?
  3. I Don't Mind
  4. Love You More
  5. Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)?
  6. Promises
  7. Everybody's Happy Nowadays
  8. Harmony in My Head
  1. Whatever Happened To...?
  2. Oh Shit!
  3. Autonomy
  4. Noise Annoys
  5. Just Lust
  6. Lipstick
  7. Why Can't I Touch It?
  8. Something's Gone Wrong Again
As we go, if you were to check, you'd find there are very few compilations in my record collection, and an even smaller percentage amongst my CDs. I don't normally go in for compilations, as, sometime around Rubber Soul, the album became the preferred format and was eventually considered as the construction in which people bought, enjoyed, experienced, and were provided music. Of course, not everyone (including some artists) had any interest in the idea, but it's less harm to have an album that isn't definitively an assembled, crafted set than it is to have parts excised from one that is and doled out by popularity. As it stands, a single compilation has appeared here. Another was mentioned in polling, and a small number will appear later. Largely, though, I leave them be, for fear of missing interesting interesting deep cuts, or getting things out of context that have very real contexts like Kate Bush's The Ninth Wave. Still, Singles Going Steady was my introduction to Buzzcocks, at the hands of--to the surprise of no one--my friend John.

While we were in college (and rooming together), John took up a variety of bands--Can (to the chagrin of another friend, not appearing in my vinyl, though I have a healthy CD collection), Captain Beefheart (wait a few hours...), Gang of Four, and Buzzcocks. Plenty more, of course, but those were ones that tended to stand out. I tended to lump the last two together for some reason, despite being almost polar opposite branches from the same tree. The Buzzcocks would never have written a song like "Anthrax", nor any like "Natural's Not in It" (which some may remember from its hilariously inappropriate appearance in an X-Box Kinect commercial, if they don't know it already). The subject matter and sounds of the bands were very different, but they did their best work (and most of their work) after the earliest considered end of punk--the demise of the Sex Pistols in early '78. Quite accurately for Gang of Four, they are considered post punk. The Buzzcocks, however, were still pretty distinctly a punk band, albeit an extremely popular (in the U.K, at least!) one.

Both bands were in my ears semi-regularly, but neither made a huge impression for a while. We will leave Gang of Four for later, and come to what brought the Buzzcocks to me--or me to them, I suppose. While I was unwittingly hearing nothing but singles, it was "Promises" that most appealed to my ears, as well as, somewhat oddly, "Why Can't I Touch It?" As I began to listen to the tracks around the two--this was after I'd learned this tended to be a good idea--I found I was doing things quite correctly in doing so. I ended up being the first of us to own one of their actual albums, once I found out Singles Going Steady was indeed a compilation. I actually ended up selling my copies of both--three wonderful reissues of their three full-lengths were released a few years back, including all of the non-album singles, b-sides, demos, BBC session tracks, and basically more demos. The other CDs were redundant.

Much like with Kate Bush, I picked this album up during one of my visits to Hunky Dory, paying about the price of a cheaper-end new release (at this point, a bit of a deal for this record!). I'd long since learned that, while the record is indeed a compilation, it is one that appeals to the more ordered side of my nature: The A-Side of the record is actually all of their first 8 A-Sides in chronological order. The B-Side is all the accompanying B-Sides, also in chronological order. While I.R.S.'s "lineage" (such as a founder named Miles Copeland III, brother of the Police's Stewart Copeland) meant they did have major label distribution, they weren't an imprint or vanity label, so a bit less intense "marketing" was involved and gave us this more sane approach. Cleverly, the inner sleeve has a column of sleeve art for the singles, with the first side's tracks and recording information to the left, and the second side's version of the same on the right--in essence, marrying A-Side and B-Side back to each other. Release dates, studios, and engineers are included for each track, appealing, as well, to my more pedantic side (previously alluded to when discussing Burning Airlines' Identikit).

"Orgasm Addict" is actually one of the most famous Buzzcocks singles--or, at least, I have the impression it is. It's about exactly what it sounds like: "You're a kid Casanova, you're a no-Joseph/It's a labour of love fucking yourself to death". People question songs like "Turning Japanese" and "She Bop" (at least some do), but not a soul, beyond the intensely pretentious, could mistake the meaning and topic here. Pete Shelley's voice is on the higher end of things, doesn't really carry any sneer or swagger, just a "shockingly" straightforward admission of something normally left coded, if mentioned at all. And let's not forget the mock orgasm he himself let's out, midway through the song. John Maher's drumming keeps a beat that means Pete wasn't the only one emulating the topic. It's one of the only remnants of Howard Devoto's time in the band (the studio portion of which ended with Spiral Scratch much earlier in the same year).

Used in a few commercials in interceding years, "What Do I Get?" was proof that the Buzzcocks (particularly Pete, who wrote it) were not interested in conforming to standards, traditions, or expectations of even the semi-nascent punk scene. The subject matter is not far from the dramatic, world-ending kind of teenaged response to rejection and failed attempts at finding love: "I only get sleepless nights/Alone here in my half-empty bed/For you things seem to turn out right/I wish they'd only happen to me instead". Like a lot of the Shelley-penned singles, it's an energetic, buzzing sort of sound: he and Steve Diggle man guitars and riff rapidly, while Steve Garvey (replacing alcoholic Garth after the "Orgasm Addict" single) mans a steady bass and John Maher plays somewhat unusually varied drum beats with lots of great little fills and touches that are severely under-appreciated in a band known more for its catchy melodies and lyrics.

Maher gets another nice moment as he introduces "I Don't Mind", which is self-deprecating, self-loathing, and self-doubt married to submission to a stronger personality in another of the many love-oriented tracks the Buzzcocks recorded (many of which appear on Love Bites, which does help to characterize the largely Shelley-written attitude toward it). The pleasant melody of the guitars and the backing vocals (courtesy Diggle and Maher) that "ooh" and "woah-oh" in rather un-punk fashion stands out a good bit more on this one, though it's also fun the way Pete's voice seems to chase that melody down until his semi-bored call out "I don't mi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yind", gives him top billing in the moment.

The guitars of "Love You More", galloping their way into a sudden harmonic are some of my favourites. While the lyrics of most Buzzocks are brought to mind readily from a song title alone, "Love You More" is not one of Pete's best vocal constructions--but it's a great riff, rattling cheerfully up at the higher end of its range. Maher's practically out of control if you stop and listen to him--or, well, not control, but just as if he got bored and decided to make things way more interesting for himself. Unbelievable variety in there! The final line, though, is a great one, especially as recorded to be a very abrupt end to the song.

So far as I can tell, "Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)?" was the biggest single for the Buzzcocks in terms of lasting appeal. It was the song chosen to represent BBC DJ John Peel in eulogy, appeared in his infamous box of at-hand 45rpm 7" records, and was later re-recorded by a variety of artists, including a rather interesting one (released as a single) from the Fine Young Cannibals. It's deserving, as the earliest of their singles to feel most fully-realized. While the previous four are catchy and fun and witty, "Ever Fallen in Love" has a sort of gravitas to its sound, a musical progression, a good riff, a catchy chorus, and a perfect example of the attitude Pete puts into his vocal performances. The song blasts in first, driving forward unrelentingly, but eases up and let's a semi-casual guitar lick cross in front of it, bouncing from note to note, heading ever upward. Pete's describing a doomed romance, a relationship that shouldn't've been, but sings about it in an unusual way: "You disturb my natural emotions/You make me feel I'm dirt/And that hurts/And if I start a commotion/I'll only end up losing you/And that's worse". The most affecting line of each triplet is the one he adds the most flavouring to, moving upward in a stylized way, then adding the "And that..." qualification as if it's an aside, with a tone that's sort of condescending, or somewhat precious. It's really infectious, and deserves the accolades and attention it does continue to receive.

My original favourite Buzzcocks song (and it remains so now), "Promises" starts with guitars running up four rimes as quickly as possible before counterbalancing by peaking twice and coming back down at about half that speed. Pete begins to sing about the joyous beginnings of a relationship but, "Oh", he sings, and John Maher answers with an absolutely awesome trip around his drumset at lightspeed. "How could you ever let me down?" he continues after Maher's run around, "Down!" Diggle adds as echo (sometimes I amuse myself thinking this is the sole reason he gets co-writing credit, but it actually does have tinges of his approach throughout). After the chorus comes around a second time, there's a short bridge, with riffs that slowly move upward a step at a time every few strums. "Oh what a shaaaame..." Pete's voice goes up and sort of cracks and fades off, to take us back to the song proper. While I have had experience in percussion and guitar, neither amounted to anything (and I mean that in a realistic sense, not a self-deprecating, false modesty sense), there are handfuls of things that get me every time in music if done properly. A good tom-based fill (anyone who reads this blog consistently will notice that quickly) is one of those things, and the way that it's sandwiched between the lines of a good chorus, and is opened with such a simple but catchy riff means this song remains worth all I've always felt.

The growing variation in songwriting makes itself most apparent in "Everybody's Happy Nowadays", their first single from 1979. Alternating beats are marked with the slow descent of notes from guitar, letting Garvey and Maher really control the song's opening and verses. Garvey handles the melody for the verses, while Maher keeps the feeling of the song both uptempo and kind of upbeat. Shelley brings his falsetto in for the chorus, a sudden rush of guitar and a flattening and speeding of Garvey's bassline, drawn upward by Shelley's voice as it rises up the range of his falsetto, dropping for the final syllable of "nowadays". There's a certain optimism to the song, in a strange way, as he goes from calling life an illusion and love a dream, to denying that they are either, from not knowing what it is, to knowing "just what it is".

The only A-Side that lacks a credit from Shelley is the last one included here (they did record further singles, but they would have no prayer of fitting on a record that is already relatively close to capacity on particularly the second side). "Harmony in My Head" is a Diggle track, and is also the only one (even amongst the B-Sides Steve also wrote) that features him as lead vocalist. The guitars of Diggle and Shelley trade styles back and forth through a few simple riffs and licks, as Diggle sings a throatier, yell of a vocal. The chorus is actually one of the second handful to catch my ear. Diggle's gruffness disappears, for a low pitched, almost Joe Strummer-esque recitation of the song's title. After its second appearance, the guitars turn to palm-muting and let only Pete sing the quiet backing harmony (ahem) of the chorus. While rapid paces are not foreign to the band, and Maher certainly doesn't take any opportunity to slow here, the overall feel of the song is lower and slower, contrasting nicely and establishing the variance in approach Steve takes to songwriting, as compared to Pete.

"Whatever Happened To...?" has one of the most openly featured basslines, somewhat odd as it is the only other track (besides "Orgasm Addict", its A-Side) recorded with the removed Garth and not the stalwart and longer-playing Steve Garvey. Garth opens the track alone, with short strikes of guitar announcing the entrance of the whole band. Pete lists a variety of things, questioning what happened to each of them, before coming to his real question: "Whatever happened to you and I?" It comes closest to Gang of Four territory lyrically, yet skewed by the romantic angle. Vengeful and dismissive, Pete notes that the object of the song (defiantly refusing to establish gender to buck trends, Pete later making his bisexuality more apparent and open in his solo work) has love most resembling a product--"Your love is a cashed in check" he sings as if this were a loving lyric. It's a good companion to "What Do I Get?" balancing the self-pity against anger.

"Oh Shit!" furthers the B-Side trend of dismissive anger, a rather dispassionate interjection (which you can probably guess) followed with explanations for the "surprise" defines much of the verse. This is the shortest song in all of the album, and indeed in all of their career (barring the outro bit of fluff "Radio Nine" from A Different Kind of Tension, which is just the sound of a radio tuned through static-y plays of various Buzzcocks songs). One of the most normal solos appears in the middle of it, The exclamation is later pushed into another usage, implying an original intent and a set up: "Face it/You're shit". The mock surprise attached to the blunt declaration of the worthlessness of the song's object works perfectly, as an affected guitar echoes out into the ether.

The other Diggle-penned track, "Autonomy", was another of my second "wave" of appreciated tracks (until the list became "all of them"). Maher starts off with a galloping beat that a careless ear might actually mistake for the galloping drumming of Clive Burr in "Run to the Hills", followed by the crunchy sound of riffing guitars that keep the same pace (as does Garvey's bass), before each line of the verse evens things out for a moment. A quick guitar descent turns to the slow build of the chorus: "I.../I want you-oo-oo/Autonomy". The guitars and bass slow their pace considerably for this, despite Maher's continued rapid beat. Despite Diggle writing the song, Shelley sings it largely alone, harmonized with (probably) Diggle for the chorus alone. Despite Pete's higher voice, this track shares the lower-end orientation of Diggle's other track, as well as the slower feeling--despite the galloping instruments.

A bit of a swinging beat turns to a gnarly lead that falls downward to muted riffing that turns to a lead that predicts Shelley's vocal melody, and then accompanies it directly. Each line ends with a variation on, "Have you ever heard your mother say/'Noise annoys'?" and everyone stops immediately at the end of the second word, until Pete instead asks if she has been heard to scream it, nearly doing so himself, guitars let ring this time as the song briefly runs into instrumental territory, and the best guitar solos on the record, traded between the two players for a good few bars each. For a song called "Noise Annoys", this is a catchy little number, which I doubt many would mistake for "noise". Though what some consider noise does surprise me on occasion.

Co-written with their manager (using a pseudonym), "Just Lust" is in the vein of the first few A-Sides at first, all catchy riffs and to-the-point rhythms. There's a brief slowing for four lines--"You shattered all my dreams and/My head's about to bust/Is it all real-that's how it seems/But it all comes down to dust"--that gives that moment an illusory quality, the guitars seeming to slide around each other just a bit, and an effect overlaid on Pete's voice to make it seem as though it is not quite real itself, an effect that becomes more prominent as the song comes to a close, the instruments eventually also dissolving and separating from each other.

The B-side to "Promises" I always remember is just that, but often cannot recall easily (similar to "Love You More" for me in this sense). The way the song starts suddenly, and Pete raises the pitch of his voice at the end of each line in the verse gives it a sense of lost context. Of course, that's not entirely strange: the song is a relative of "Shot by Both Sides" (and shares the rising riff that is so signatory of that song, though it's hidden in the background here), the first single Magazine recorded--after Devoto left the Buzzcocks to form that band (that song credited to Shelley and Devoto). The verses are actually the catchier vocal lines, in one of those strange instances that feels as if, perhaps, something was inverted.

Absolutely strange in the context of this collection, "Why Can't I Touch it?" is twice as long as most of the songs on the album, more than three times as long as some, and a full two minutes longer than the next longest. Garvey finally gets a chance to be the spotlit bass, a catchy groove that Maher just plays in lockstep with, letting it shine and relaxing for just the one track. Two semi-harmonized guitars, one in each stereo channel, announce themselves, playing similar but slightly different riffs that occasionally blend together. Pete begins listing the senses he can use to recognize "it", but wonders "Why can't I touch it?" with vowels dragged out over numerous beats, his voice following the gentle downward movements of Garvey's bassline. At only a third of the way through, echoing, strange guitar sounds manifest themselves, tweeting and whistling in the background. After the second verse (somewhat synesthestic) and chorus, Diggle and Shelley begin trading their riffs from channel to channel, giving the groove-oriented track an extended and more varied atmosphere than it would have if simply repeating all parts. Maher begins to fill more on the drums, Shelley and Diggle continuing to experiment with the space Maher and Garvey have left them, playing with the chords and pieces of their previous riffs. The riffs are kind of bright and cheerful, and weirdly happy, and a single-picked variation on them echoes out to finally close the song--a better choice than a simple fade, I think.

The second longest track is actually the next one: "Something's Gone Wrong Again," which makes use of a high piano note jabbed over and over and over for all but the chorus, giving a kind of tense insistence to the song itself--like it's that pinprick of realization that something's gone wrong, though Pete's lyrics and delivery of them implies a more "c'est la vie" attitude toward the inevitable failures of life. Slightly phased guitars shift in and out throughout the verse, but turn to a sort of warbling consistency over the chorus, where the piano drops for just a little while, the thudding, sigh and groan of the verses turning upward in tone for just a moment--odd, for the moment where Shelley repeats "Again/And again/And again and again again..." A second chorus turns into a shambling, disjointed, atonal solo of deliberate awkwardness. It's interesting to think of a deliberately steady, repetitive song doing so to emphasize the monotony of things going wrong. Outside the chorus, the only relief is the pointed bass lick that starts quite high and picks up speed as it heads downward before ending on a note somewhere between its peak and its valley. It's another complete jump away from the "Orgasm Addict"s and "Love You More"s of the album, hinting further at the curiosities that appear in their albums (like instrumentals as peculiar as "Moving Away from the Pulsebeat").

The Buzzcocks are inexplicably lesser-known as punk bands go, rarely coming in the same breath as the Sex Pistols, or the Ramones, or the Clash, or the Damned (also criminally under-remembered, despite the relative fame and acknowledgment). Perhaps it's the pop-oriented approach of their (ludicrously catchy) music, or the musicianship and "arty" end of things like their instrumentals--not a surprise Devoto was once in the band, enough to imply some camaraderie with Shelley and Diggle (who was bassist for the group, before Shelley moved up, with guitar, to frontman status, leaving Diggle to take on guitars, too). Now, like many things, this is probably a cultural divide across the ocean, but most of the named early punk bands are British, so there's really not a great excuse for dropping the Buzzcocks out here.

They have released albums since their initial (1981) breakup, smatterings of them here and there since that time. Some are actually pretty good, though the Shelley/Diggle divide has both balanced into a more even split of writing credits, and into a more "consistent" feeling per each. Perhaps it's the loss of Maher's more complicated drumming, or the absence of a brilliantly in-tune rhythm section of Maher and Garvey both--not that their current crop are amateurs, but the feeling inevitably changes. Devoto did actually come back to work with Pete again later, for the "Shelley/Devoto" album Buzzkunst (haw haw).

If you like catchy, pop-oriented music, and especially like it with a side of deadpan and wit, make sure this band has some kind of place in your library. If you aren't allergic to compilations--or even if you are--this record is a brilliant starting place, as it has all the hooks to put in you.

  • Next Up: Captain Beefheart - Safe As Milk
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