Buzzcocks played on the tension between punk and pop

Buzzcocks played on the tension between punk and pop

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The mythology surrounding the Manchester music scene hit its peak with 2002’s 24 Hour Party People. The film dramatizes, in fourth-wall-breaking fashion, the rise of such legendary Manchester bands as Joy Division, New Order, and Happy Mondays. It’s a great movie, but as a chronicle of Manchester—which, granted, it never claims to be—it flops. 24 Hour Party People is more the story of a single label, Factory Records; Factory bands are given the spotlight. Non-Factory prime movers from The Fall to The Smiths are mentioned briefly or not at all.

At least Buzzcocks gets some attention in the film—which it should, considering it was the first punk band in Manchester, not to mention the first punk band in the U.K. to self-release a record. That record, 1977’s Spiral Scratch EP, is also the only Buzzcocks disc to feature original frontman Howard Devoto. Yet Devoto is the only member of Buzzcocks to appear in 24 Hour Party People (both as a character and as an actor). Singer-guitarists Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle moved to the front of the stage after Devoto’s departure in ’77 to form the groundbreaking post-punk band Magazine. Under Shelley’s and Diggle’s leadership, Buzzcocks never experimented in the ways Magazine did. Instead it spent the next few years perfecting the marriage of pop and punk—a process that came to a head with 1979’s A Different Kind Of Tension.

A Different Kind Of Tension is never cited as the ideal gateway to Buzzcocks. Almost invariably, that honor is bestowed upon Singles Going Steady, the anthology of Buzzcocks singles that’s perennially cited as one of the essential records of the punk canon, if not all of rock. No argument here. But A Different Kind Of Tension has a distinction of its own. It’s the final album Buzzcocks made before taking a long hiatus in the ’80s, and it marks the high point of the group’s trio of original, non-anthology studio albums (the other two being Another Music In A Different Kitchen and Love Bites, both released in 1978). It’s also the only one of the band’s three ’70s albums that doesn’t share a single song with Singles Going Steady. If Singles is the first Buzzcocks record a person should hear, A Different Kind Of Tension is a close second.

Buzzcocks is a punk band, but the songs on A Different Kind Of Tension embody that titular tension—the group’s desire since its inception to play simple, stupid songs that were neither simple nor stupid. That paradox is central to Buzzcocks, and it’s never as strongly as evident as on this album. The Ramones may have created the idea of bubblegum-plus-chainsaw pop-punk, but instead of feeding ’60s garage rock into a ’70s punk meat grinder, Buzzcocks used the chirpier, harmonically rich songcraft of The Beatles and The Zombies as raw material. The record’s most tuneful example of this is “You Say You Don’t Love Me,” a forlorn, bitterly witty love song on par with Singles Going Steady classics like “What Do I Get?” and “I Don’t Mind.” This is Shelley’s sweet spot. As the main singer-songwriter of Buzzcocks—on A Different Kind Of Tension, he writes and sings eight of the non-instrumental tracks compared to Diggle’s three—Shelley used heart-on-sleeve yearning and unrequited lust to romanticize punk and resuscitate the love song in an age when pop’s arteries had begun to harden.

Tension may be a hallmark of Marx’s theory of historical materialism, but A Different Kind Of Tension couldn’t be less political. Or rather, more apolitical. On the seven-minute anthem “I Believe,” Shelley pairs up and spits out opposing points of view, a list song to end all list songs. “I believe in the workers’ revolution / And I believe in the Final Solution,” he sings with sugar in his voice, letting the matter and antimatter annihilate each other. It may seem evasive or even glib, but at a time when the remnants of the punk scene were becoming increasingly politicized—The Clash topped leftist Rock Against Racism bills while some Oi! bands began associating with the right-wing National Front—Shelley sang about politics only to make it clear he didn’t care about them. Love carries all the conflict he needs.

Though Diggle isn’t the prime mover of A Different Kind Of Tension, or of Buzzcocks as a whole, he is responsible for two of the album’s greatest songs. Playing John Lennon to Shelley’s Paul McCartney—at least vocally—Diggle lends his raw-throated warble to “You Know You Can’t Help It” and “Sitting Around At Home.” Syrupy yet unsettlingly creepy, “You Know You Can’t Help It” harkens back to Buzzcocks’ most famous song, “Orgasm Addict,” with its exploration of obsession and fantasy; now the theme isn’t masturbation, but sexual addiction. “You know you can’t help that sex is good / You know you can’t help it, you just can’t help it,” Diggle yelps, providing the kind of winking, unsavory double entendre Buzzcocks often flirted with (“You know you can’t help it, getting into her”).

That track is offset by “Sitting Around At Home,” a hyperactive spasm that could pass as the English cousin of The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated.” But where Joey Ramone begged for chemically induced lethargy as the solution to his woes, Diggle is already there. “Sitting around at home / Watching the pictures go…” he observes, ostensibly staring at the TV but too bored and brain-dead to finish his sentence. Between the sluggish verses are frantic, thrashing choruses full of haywire guitar and lid-blowing drums. After the pogo-ing is over and the punks go home, there’s nothing left to rebel against. The only option is curl up into a ball and drool. In that sense, it’s the most political song on A Different Kind Of Tension. (The seminal New York hardcore band Gorilla Biscuits faithfully covered “Sitting Around At Home” on its 1989 album Start Today, where it fits seamlessly with the rest of the record.)

“Radio Nine,” A Different Kind Of Tension’s instrumental closer, is its lone concession to the encroaching artiness of post-punk. Ironically, Shelley began his music career as a tinkerer with oscillators and early synthesizers, making abstract electronic music inspired in part by Brian Eno, before putting his full attention toward Buzzcocks. He applies that sensibility to “Radio Nine,” a collage of snippets of Singles Going Steady hits—such as “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays” and “Why Can’t I Touch It?”—spliced into white-static radio noise, as if someone were spinning a radio dial past ancient Buzzcocks hits no one wanted to listen to anymore. With the benefit of hindsight, the collage is kind of depressing—like a highlights reel eulogizing a band that hadn’t yet climbed into its deathbed.

By the time A Different Kind Of Tension was released in September 1979, British punk’s original insurgency had been taken over by post-punk—especially the rise of synth-driven, new-wave pop. In fact, Shelley would soon reinvent himself as a synth-pop artist with his 1981 hit “Homosapien.” At the same time, Joy Division—a fellow Manchester band that Buzzcocks had toured with in 1979—ended following the 1980 suicide of singer Ian Curtis, and the group’s survivors began to turn toward synth-pop themselves as New Order. This was only the beginning of New Order’s success; it was all but the end of Buzzcocks’. Although Shelley and Diggle reunited at the end of the ’80s and have soldiered on ever since—eventually releasing far more albums in the ’90s and beyond than they did in the ’70s—Buzzcocks remain a cult band, a footnote to the far more famous Manchester bands that it had paved the way for.

A Different Kind Of Tension became a self-fulfilling prophecy, an album admirably yet tragically out of phase with the swiftly shifting trends of its time. That lack of slick, danceable cool is what made it fizzle, and it’s also what makes it endure. There’s heart to it—and messiness and confusion and self-contradiction. The hooks couldn’t be more barbed. For all its bubble and bounce, A Different Kind Of Tension isn’t a record for party people. It’s music to sit around at home to, watching the pictures go.