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Two months after the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy In The U.K.,” the Manchester quartet Buzzcocks released its Spiral Scratch EP, establishing British punk as a self-sustaining phenomenon. Although the Buzzcocks soon moved from their own New Hormones imprint to the cozier confines of a major label, they never lost track of their independent roots. As punk hardened into a genre, they blazed their own trail, pushing into dissonant art rock without sacrificing the energy of early singles like “What Do I Get?” and “Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve).”
Although the original lineup splintered in 1981, original members Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle reunited in 1989 and have been playing together ever since. After five albums of new material, they took a break to look backward earlier this year, playing their classic albums Another Music In A Different Kitchen and Love Bites back-to-back to commemorate their belated U.S. reissue.
Thirty-odd years later, singer Pete Shelley hasn’t lost his adenoidal yelp, and the hormonal urgency of “Just Lust” comes through undiminished. Amid the “Another Bites” tour, Shelley talked to The A.V. Club about the frenetic pace of Buzzcocks’ first incarnation, the politics of everyday life, and the sexual fluidity of their three-minute love songs.
The A.V. Club: How did this idea come together to play both albums consecutively as a 90-minute block?
Pete Shelley: It’s one of those things that seems quite easy when you’re planning it. You think, “Oh, yeah, that’ll be easy to do.” But I think we’ve finally gotten into the rhythm of it.
AVC: Did the re-issues spark the idea?
PS: Yes. I mean, the reasons were that I honestly thought, “It would be good to do something.” And we thought, “Should we just play a selection of things?” Then we thought, “It’d be good to get back and play the albums like they were meant to be heard.”
AVC: It’s somewhat astonishing to look back and realize you released both albums, along with four or five standalone singles, in a period of little more than a year.
PS: In fact, the two albums—one came out in March, and the other in September. [Laughs.]
AVC: It seems ridiculous now. it must have been completely insane at the time.
PS: Yes, it was. As well as doing tours for both albums, whenever we released a single, we were either in the studio or on tour. It was good, because that’s what we wanted to do: to make music. It was good that we had the opportunity to make it, and thankfully, we’ve attracted an audience who wanted to hear it.
AVC: Was there a time in those six months to rethink things as far as the second album? Or was it really just a matter of continuing where things left off?
PS: Not really. I mean, by the end of that year, we were all a bit exhausted. As I said, it’s been nonstop. It was only about six months until we started working on the third album. So yeah, an awful lot came out in a really short space of time.
AVC: That level of exhaustion was one of the reasons you left the band in the first place, right?
PS: [Laughs.] Yeah, but now I’ve gotten used to it. I’m more immune to it.
AVC: Robyn Hitchcock said that the difference being in a band in your 50s as opposed to your 20s is that you pace yourself better now. Bands that have stayed together this long don’t tend to break up the way that they do when everyone in the band is younger and more emotional.
PS: You don’t panic. I suppose it’s like being a stock-market investor. When you start off, the market goes up and then they’re happy; when the market goes down, then they panic. So it’s a bit like that with the stocks and shares of having a band. When you start out and you have initial success you think, “Oh, this is great. We can do anything we want.” And then you get bad reviews and then you think “Oh no, the whole world is falling apart.” But after time, you get used to the ups and downs. It’s a bit like the seasons. I mean, looking back, we realize the volume of work we’ve got. And so now we can enjoy it! [Laughs.] It’s far more enjoyable, because you get to realize what its true value is, and you feel less exposed and vulnerable.
AVC: When you talk about that early body of work, you’re talking about three albums recorded within a couple years of each other, with the entire lifespan of the band being three or four years. This incarnation of the band, you and Steve and a handful of different rhythm sections, has been together four or five times as long, and has released twice as many albums. Do you see those as different phases, or just one continuous line with a few interruptions along the way?
PS: It’s easy having the first three albums and saying, “That was what we did when we started.” But I think we’ve actually reached a wider audience since we got back together. We’re playing [music] that people all around the world know, so it’s a lot of a wider audience, and people get to know more about us, hopefully. [Laughs.]
AVC: Tony Barber had been playing bass with the band since 1992, as well as producing the last three albums, and he was also was in charge of choosing the set lists each night. This being the first tour since his departure, was it easier going into each night already knowing what you’re going to play?
PS: It’s always a difficult thing to decide on. It’s because before you know it, you’ve got far more songs than you need. Then you have to start taking out one that everybody likes. “Oh no, that’s really good. Oh, I like that one.” Then it becomes a trade-in, really. It was good to play together this time, because the decisions had already been made.
AVC: There are obviously some songs you’ve played more than others. Are there songs that you hadn’t played at all since?
PS: “Late For The Train.” Some of them, we hadn’t played in so long that both me and Steve had to relearn them.
AVC: And does that just mean going back and listening to the record? How does that work?
PS: Yeah, it was just basically that. Because all the songs we play, we don’t use any notation or anything like that. So it’s just what we play by ear, in a way. It’s just making sure that everyone’s ears are attuned to the right song, so it’s working. But it was surprisingly simple. It was like riding a bicycle, one of those things you never forget.
AVC: When R.E.M. tried to add some of the songs from its first couple of albums back into its repertoire, there were songs where Michael Stipe had no idea what he was singing, and effectively had to write new lyrics to fill in the gaps. When you’re making it up as you go along, it can be difficult to make it up again the same way decades later.
PS: [Laughs.] I’ve not done a like-for-like comparison. But we do play the songs the way we play them now. It isn’t meant to be, you close your eyes and—but I think we play them better now. We have a better understanding. There’s a certain live element.
AVC: Are there particular songs where your understanding or approach has changed over the years?
PS: I suppose all, to a certain degree, because you can’t step into the same river twice. It’s always different. I’m singing songs about youthful inexperience, but with more of a perspective. In some ways, to me it enriches the songs, because they can still work. They still expose the paradoxes of life—they’re quite existential, rather than just what it was like to be young. It shows you what it’s like to be middle-aged as well.
AVC: So when you’re singing “Sixteen,” you aren’t as implicated in what’s going on in the song?
PS: But it’s like feeling like I’m 16 again. When I sing it, in a strange way I’m actually re-remembering the myths of time—the humor, the newness of it all.
AVC: One of the things that separated Buzzcocks, even at the time, from a lot of other punk bands, is a level of humor and ironic distance. There’s a level of self-awareness that a lot of other bands don’t have.
PS: I suppose because we weren’t really expecting anyone to pay any attention to it, we had more freedom to do what we wanted to do, and to say the things we wouldn’t say in polite company. For me and Steve, a big part of it is the humor. When people do retrospectives about punk, they don’t say how funny and humorous and witty people were. It’s always about how serious it is, and there’s no smiling, and you can’t have any fun at all. I mean, the Sex Pistols—John Lydon and the whole thing was meant to be comedic, in a strange way.
AVC: So many people think of the example of The Clash, where serious politics were at the core of it.
PS: We were writing about everyday, mundane life, which wasn’t being written about. I mean, there were plenty of songs written about driving down the freeway in a convertible. A lot of us didn’t have convertibles.
AVC: Instead, you wrote “Fast Cars,” which is about the dangers of driving fast. In a way, it’s an attack on the very essence of rock ’n’ roll, all those Chuck Berry songs about the joy of being behind the wheel.
PS: You have to find the humor. That’s one way of dealing with the bleakness of existence. [Laughs.] In some ways, that was what punk was about: subverting the form. You take something like two guitars, bass, and drums, and you turn it on its head so the normal clichés are weapons against it. People got used to rock ’n’ roll not really meaning enough. Really, its basic core is people being self-aware and being free thinkers.
AVC: “Fiction Romance” is a great example of undermining conventions. The song alternates between critiquing the false promises of love songs, and wishing they could come true.
PS: Yeah, there’s a sense of that. These issues are still there.
AVC: So the song is about being in that moment of not being able to figure something out, and then writing a song afterward?
PS: In some ways, I think that’s the reason why the songs, definitely for me, have seemed to last. They are about that inner dialogue—deciding whether something’s worth it. A song like “Oh Shit,” from “Oh shit, I’ve been dumped,” to “Oh shit, it was your fault, ’cause you’re shit.” So they’re all about the process. It’s not about something random. It’s about things that could happen to anybody, and you can still have that dialogue with yourself.
AVC: Although you didn’t release it until after Buzzcocks disbanded in 1981, you recorded Sky Yen, an album of side-long electronic drones, before the band got together. So you had a background in experimental music, which comes out in songs like “(Moving Away From The) Pulsebeat” and “I Believe.” There’s this lazy idea that Buzzcocks were only about caffeinated two-and-a-half minute pop songs, but that isn’t borne out by the albums in full.
PS: Doing these two albums back-to-back, you’re actually forced to not cherry-pick, but come up with an opinion about what the band is like, because it’s all laid out there. You get to see that with a lot of things going on. It’s not the man on the galloping horse.
AVC: It doesn’t seem to have gotten much notice at the time, but in the light of solo material like “Homosapien,” you can look back and see a complicated notion of sexuality at work in the songs. In movies like Different For Girls and Sam Taylor-Wood’s short film “Love You More,” the band functions as the patron saints of sexual fluidity.
PS: Again, it wasn’t really being dealt with in classic rock. It was either being extremely macho, or nothing at all. Or boy meets girl and everything’s all happy, or moon and June. I was just trying to be more, I mean, telling it like it was. It’s not just simple black and white, either/or. There’s a lot of gray area in everybody’s sexuality.
AVC: That sort of reaction against what was on the radio, what other people were or weren’t dealing with, were you conscious of that at the time? Or was it just simply a matter of writing about the way things were in your experience?
PS: I was mindful not to make it so it was polarized. I tended to write things that were gender non-specific, because then it would work no matter what sex or sexual orientation you were. The questions about love and relationships were still the same. They’re still the same questions no matter who you are and what they’re directed toward. It’s more in common with people with any differences that can be devised or imagined.
AVC: As you mentioned before, that’s one of the reasons the songs hold up so well. Those things don’t change.
PS: I mean, suddenly not much has changed. Starting a revolution, maybe that’s something. I’ll leave that up to someone else. It’s all about change for the individual, though. If you can get someone to look at something about themselves fresh. That’s the good thing about any form of art, is where it becomes a mirror reflecting their insides, so you can see more clearly.
AVC: When you sing the old songs, do you feel like you’re in a dialogue with yourself from 35 years ago?
PS: I get to see how I was. I suppose for people who keep a journal or a diary, they can look back on it and see the naked truth about themselves on the page, the angst and the passion. Instead of keeping a journal, I wrote songs. They would capture what I was feeling, and the ideas and philosophies I had. I was trying to come up with my own sense of self in relationships, etc. It’s good to do it again, because you go, “Yeah, I’m not quite sure about that, but I can really see that now.” I can see how that has changed me and made me who I am.
AVC: Are there particular songs that speak to you in that way now?
PS: They’re not leaping out to me at the moment. But it’s strange seeing how you work, because like I said, it’s like looking at a journal. Of course, most people have blogs now, and they look back and say, “Oh, did I really write that? Did I really think that? What was I thinking about?’”
AVC: If they’re honest, they can look back on them later and learn something.
PS: [Laughs.] Because nobody else will read them.