From the Boudinet Archives VIII: Analysis of the Buzzcocks and the Rise of Punk

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18. Apr. 2012, 21:10

Note: As I alluded to in my Favorite Albums journal, in college I wrote a number of essays touching upon the subject of popular music. Every essay included in these journals was written between 2007 and 2009 and in the MLA format, so please excuse the at-times somewhat forced academic subtext of these essays.

Wrote this write-up of the Buzzcocks during my junior year of college, when I was just beginning to truly immerse myself in the history of punk and post-punk and move beyond the genres' foremost acts, i.e. The Clash, Ramones, Talking Heads, Sex Pistols, etc. The paper presents a decent overview of the most crucial underlying forces that beget the rise of the punk movement in Britain, and perhaps most importantly, is the paper that first introduced me to Simon Reynold's tour de force and deconstruction of Post-Punk: Rip It Up and Start Again.

The Buzzcocks: Innovators of Punk and Pop Music

Introduction

One of the quintessential bands to emerge during the 1970s British Punk Rock Movement, the Buzzcocks established a legacy as influential musical iconoclasts during their heyday in the late 70s and early 80s, staking their own place in punk history amongst such worthy peers as The Clash, Sex Pistols, and the Damned. The quartet’s penchant for intense, nihilistic subject matter fused with pop musical styling resulted in a discography of catchy songs that brim with furious, raw energy, making the group among the most accessible of the punk movement. Outside of their musical achievements, the Buzzcocks also have garnered acclaim for helping jumpstart both the Manchester music scene and the independent label movement, thus extending their influence as rock artists beyond the punk scene and into both the Alternative and Indie Rock genres as well. Subsequently, although the band’s inclinations toward the brief, brash, and fast-paced melody in their songs defined them as a punk rock band, the Buzzcocks eschewed the political subject matter and revolutionary sensibilities embraced by many of their contemporaries, choosing to focus their rebellious energy on songs that convey youthful, ambivalent attitudes towards love and anguish. Thus, the Buzzcocks created their legacy as part of the mid-1970s British punk movement due to their deviations from the movement itself, expressed in both their romantic lyrical motifs and their independent approach to the music industry.

Background

First, the Buzzcocks are categorized with the British Punk Rock movement that quickly transformed from a simple music genre into a defining culture in the United Kingdom. As part of a widely recognized anti-establishment period, the punk rock movement in Britain consisted of bands characterized by the lyrical intensity, political criticism, and nihilistic views prevalent in songs that were short, fast-paced, and stripped of any truly impressive instrument use. As if the visceral melodies of punk were not radical enough, the movement upped the ante by combining its destructive sound with political messages calling for anarchy and mayhem throughout all of Great Britain, the punks’ malevolent mission statement summarized in a 1977 quote by Sex Pistols lead singer Johnny Rotten: “‘All we’re trying to do is destroy everything’” (RollingStone.com). Although the movement’s anarchist objective never reached its fruition, the fervor it inspired on the United Kingdom youth directly resulted in the formation of a number of important punk rock bands, among them the Buzzcocks. Music journalist David Nolan credits the Sex Pistols’ legendary 1976 show at Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester for creating the Buzzcocks, whose three founding members had invited the Pistols to perform in their hometown: “‘We know that the lads who went on to form the Buzzcocks were there because they organised the gig’” (BBC.Co.Uk.). The intensity and excitement of both the Sex Pistols provided the impetus for original Buzzcocks co-founders Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto to form the group, and the band quickly established its own following within the British punk sub-culture despite its digression from the movement’s radical political motifs, choosing instead to direct its lyrical content toward the more personal relationship issues affecting all of Britain’s youth. Perhaps the best description of the group’s abilities occurs in a 1999 Rolling Stone article which calls the band’s sound “pointedly furious music that, at its heart, was some of the most finely-structured guitar pop since the Beatles” (Tarnow). The Buzzcocks further deviated from the norm both by centralizing themselves in their hometown of Manchester rather than migrating to London and by releasing a consistent string of singles, most prominently “Ever Fallen in Love,” “What Do I Get,” and especially “Love You More,” rather than albums. Ultimately, this independent, working-class approach to the music industry would have as much of an impact on the band’s legacy as their music.

Themes

From a thematic standpoint, the Buzzcocks’ knack for writing songs that effectively integrate punk melodies with lyrics concerning romance, of all topics, set them apart from their contemporaries, who generally shunned subject matter so blatantly in discord with the violent anger of punk. There remains no equivalent to “Anarchy in the U.K.” or “London Calling” in the band’s discography, rather, the 1978 single “Love You More” appropriately illustrates the band’s penchant for un-punk lyrical content. Instead of expressing a fuming attitude toward politics, the Buzzcocks sing about romantic feelings and expressions of love, evident in “Love You More’s” lyrics. “I’m in love again/ Been like this before/ I’m in love again/ This time’s true I’m sure.” An unabashed pronouncement of romantic love, “Love You More” represented the opposite type of subject matter one would expect in a punk song, instead invoking the most traditional pop theme in rock and roll history. In combining the primal melodies of punk with more traditional musical themes, the Buzzcocks “brought (punk’s) intense, brilliant energy to the three-minute pop song (with) alternately funny and anguished lyrics about adolescence and love” (Erlewine). Similarly, the band’ refusal to trend toward the larger urban punk centers and release major label-backed albums early in their career enhanced their image as original trailblazers during the time period. Despite the group’s anti-capitalist methods, their seminal first EP, Spiral Scratch, quickly generated a buzz throughout Britain, and according to Rolling Stone, is “widely credited as Britain's first independent-label punk recording” (RollingStone.com). Moreover, in their hometown of Manchester, the Buzzcocks’ reinvigoration of the music scene cultivated the breeding grounds for future legendary Post-Punk acts Joy Division, The Smiths, and The Stone Roses, thus making them the founding fathers of now-legendary Manchester Music Scene. These reverberating impacts on rock and roll both in Britain and the United States cemented the band’s legacy despite its brief twilight which ended with the 1970s; by daring to go further than any of their punk contemporaries, the Buzzcocks and rock and roll itself reaped several of the most unique and enduring benefits of the movement.

Legacy

Historians view the Buzzcocks’ legacy, especially their early career, with near-universal praise, with many lumping the band alongside the Sex Pistols and The Clash as being the most important bands to emerge from the British Punk Rock Movement. In his book Rip It Up and Start Again, Simon Reynolds even gives some credence to the argument that Spiral Scratch trumped “Anarchy in the U.K.” as the movement’s defining call to arms, noting that the band’s decision to release the EP on its own label was, at the time, “fantastically novel and revolutionary” (Reynolds 27). Described as “playful,” by the band’s manager Richard Boon (Reynolds 26), the EP proves consistent with future tracks such as the aforementioned “Love You More,” remaining true to the punk’s primitive melodies even as it veered away from the angry lyrical content and vocal styling of the genre. The record’s “polemic point about independence,” according to Simon, transformed both the EP and the band into representatives of a new era, granting a “status as a cultural landmark and a portent of change” (Reynolds 26-27). Furthermore, Simon argues, the record represented “a regionalist blow against the capital” (Reynolds 26), making it possibly the first important record not only of the British Punk Rock Movement, but of the Manchester Music Scene as well. Even in a non-artist role, the Buzzcocks still receive credit for their instrumental role in bringing the Sex Pistols to Manchester and inciting the city’s musical fervor in the first place, with David Nolan referring to the gig as “the precise moment when everything took a left turn. And that is the music that we’re listening to now, the clubs we have in Manchester, the way we buy records, the independent music scene” (BBC.Co.Uk). Thus, as both studio producers and music entrepreneurs, the Buzzcocks still garner a tremendous amount of respect from modern music historians.

Despite the constant praise of music critics, certain aspects of the Buzzcocks’ legacy still remain overlooked by the majority of music journalists and the general public. Foremost among these are the band’s uncanny grasps of the punk spirit and irony, two of the band’s greatest strengths not only as punk artists, but as contributors to the punk culture itself. First, regarding the band’s understanding of the punk spirit, few journalists were able to move past championing the band’s knack for pop sensibilities and understand the deeper purpose for embracing emotional expression and romantic love in their song. In heaping mounds of praise upon the band’s decision to embrace anti-punk subject matter, critics fail to appreciate the fact that the pop sensibilities, in a sense, make the Buzzcocks even more punk within the genre itself, since their songs reject traditionally “safe” punk themes for ones that are almost shocking in the extent of their departures from the norm. Shock, rejection of tradition, and general obnoxiousness were calling cards of the British Punk Rock Movement, thus making the band’s seemingly inexplicable love affair with anti-punk themes as much the result of the band’s ahead-of-the-curve mentality as its determined individualism.

Furthermore, the Buzzcocks also receive too little credit for their own self-awareness and refusal to take themselves seriously, which is another core punk ethos; the over-the-top nature of the Sex Pistols, in some ways, was meant to mock the excess of rock music in the 1970s, to name one example. The Buzzcocks, more so than the Sex Pistols, The Clash, or other British punk artists, embodied the aversion to self-importance that helped jumpstart the movement, evidenced in the lack of political messages and attempts at “high-art” in their music. For example, lead singer Pete Shelley’s claim that “‘punk was a response to the boredom of (the) twenty-minute guitar solos” (Bennett and Dawe 53) reflects the band’s dedicated focus toward punk’s origins. Aware of punk’s own drawbacks as a genre, the Buzzcocks used irony to avoid certain pitfalls of the genre. Reactionary and devoid of pretense in their origins and most influential time as artists, the Buzzcocks remained faithful to the true spirit of punk, an attribute that is unfortunately overlooked often in favor of the genre’s political messages.

When considering the true extent of The Buzzcocks’ legacy not only within the context of the British Punk Rock Movement but over the last thirty years as well, one must consider the the band’s unique, differentiating attributes as well as the influence of these attributes in the generations of punk and all rock music that would follow. The band’s innovative accomplishments have made them an enduring influence in modern rock music, and many would argue that of all the legendary bands that ascended during punk’s peak in the late 1970s, the Buzzcocks have had the largest impact on important bands ranging from Nirvana to Green Day due to their conceptualization of pop-punk, which, by being mainstream, still maintained an ironically punk background. According to the Buzzcocks, the rules of punk allowed it to be redefined in ways no one else at the time considered; thus, if punk itself is about being radical, than what could be more radical than a punk rock band with extensive romantic lyrical content? From a regional punk standpoint, the Buzzcocks also warrant praise due to the fact that, while nearly every other British punk rock outfit was flocking to London in hopes of producing the next Never Mind the Bollocks, they remained entrenched in Manchester, during which time they unleashed a slew of singles that would eventually be compiled in 1979’s Singles Going Steady. Overall, one could consider the first two years of the band’s existence to be, quite simply, the flawless execution of punk ethos, an amazing feat to this day considering the members were more or less rewriting the rules of the record industry at the same time.

Perhaps the only semblance of a threat to the group’s long-term legacy occurred at the climax of 1976, when, as Simon Reynolds writes, “Even Buzzcocks buckled under” to the pressures of joining a major record label and going on a worldwide tour (Reynolds 28). The group’s gradual drift from its independent operations hallmark at the climax of the 1970s sounded the group’s death knell, as the band, despite having consistently favorable record reviews and extended media exposure, faced growing skepticism amongst its followers amidst charges of selling-out for the rock and roll lifestyle the group first set out to destroy as part of the burgeoning punk movement. To many music fans, this maneuver severely jeopardized the band’s credentials as indie innovators, and the punk movement’s general deviation toward even less mainstream, more hardcore subject matter in the 1980s further distanced the group from the very genre it helped pioneer. Despite these charges, the consensus remains that the Buzzcocks only jumped ship for a major record label due to a mixture of extenuating financial circumstances and the band’s continued willingness to take major career shifts and risks. According to member Richard Boon, “(Producing records and touring) independently wasn’t supportable at that point, you couldn’t just get enough revenue selling through mail order and a few sympathetic retailers” (Reynolds 28). Finally, the rise of punk-pop artists such as Green Day in the 1990s helped further solidify the Buzzcocks legacy and reaffirm the unique timeliness of their merger of punk melody and emotional lyrical content.

Conclusion

All in all, the Buzzcocks still garner acclaim as one of punk rock’s most innovative bands, having made more long-term contributions to rock and roll in a shorter period of time than all but a few fellow elite bands. For three years from 1975 to 1979, the Buzzcocks joined the Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Damned as the faces of the British Punk Rock Movement while cultivating their own unique brand of pop-punk and independent approach to the music industry. Since the band’s inception, every rock band or artist that has released a record on its own label, emerged from the Manchester Music Scene, or combined punk’s melodic snarl with pop lyrics owes a debt of gratitude to the Buzzcocks. The band’s dedication to music has continued into the twenty-first century with the release of several original new records and compilations, but the true legacy of the Buzzcocks remains centralized in the British Punk Rock Movement of the 1970s. Almost without fail, the group’s origins and intentions are among the purest of any punk band, making the Buzzcocks’ formation naturally occurring as an almost involuntary response to the rise of the truly exciting, revolutionary music and movement in Great Britain that could come to be known as punk.

Bibliography

Bennett, Andy and Kevin Dawe. Guitar Cultures. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2001.
“Buzzcocks.” RollingStone.com 2001. 03 March 2008 <http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/buzzcocks/biography>;.

Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. “Buzzcocks Biography.” AllMusic.com. 03 March 2008 <http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=11:wifpxqw5ldfe~T1>;.

Reynolds, Simon. Rip It Up and Start Again. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
“Sex Pistols Gig: The Truth.” BBC.Co.Uk. 27 June 2006. 07 March 2008 <http://www.bbc.co.uk/manchester/content/articles/2006/05/11/110506_sex_pistols_gig_feature.shtml>;.

Tarnow, Noah. “Performance: Buzzcocks.” RollingStone.com 22 October 1999. 07 March 2008 < http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/5922743/performance_buzzcocks>;.

Buzzcocks

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