Next month Buzzcocks play the Rebellion festival in Blackpool. Now 39 years on from their first gig – supporting the Sex Pistols in Manchester – MALCOLM WYATT talks with guitar hero Steve Diggle
I love to find a little footage or play a song that best sets the tone for an interview. And with Steve Diggle I’m spoiled for choice.
Will it be rare footage of the first Buzzcocks gig, supporting Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976, or any number of hit singles or album tracks that set this highly-influential Manchester outfit up as punk’s Beatles?
As it turned out, I chose Love is Lies from 1978’s Love Bites, one of the first songs that made me realise this guitarist could deliver songs as memorable as front-man Pete Shelley. And he’s impressed by my choice.
“That’s a hidden little gem, that, and our first acoustic song, really. Funnily enough, we played that in Dublin as we were playing the first three albums again.
“Someone said to me that was the pivotal track of the album. I’d never really thought of it like that. I wrote more on the first album, Fast Cars, Autonomy, and all that.
I was there at the beginning! All the time! I blame Wikipedia!
“But then I met my girlfriend and wasn’t writing much.”
Steve laughs, his tone suggesting he was a little too busy at the time.
“I started picking up again on the next one, then later. But with Love is Lies, I think that’s in people’s hearts as much as the other ones.”
I let on to Steve, now 60, that I was only 10 when that second album came out, having got into the band via my older brother, learning the words via Smash Hits to defining hits like Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve) and Promises, the latter a joint Shelley/Diggle effort.
“Promises was my song, but I left the verses at home! There’s a demo where I’m making the verse up as I go along. Pete was by the mixing desk, so it was just me, John (Maher, drums) and Steve (Garvey, bass).
“He said, ‘I think I’ve got some verses for that melody’. It was going to be a socio-political song about promises made by the Government.
“I said, ‘You’ve turned it into a ******* love song!’ Having said that, it worked out well all round. That’s the thing with lots of the songwriting. We complement each other.
“On the new album, The Way, we alternate songs. It’s a similar thing with the live set, opening with two or three classics, putting in a new one, another older one and so on.
“I think the new songs are the highlight now. We went to Germany, Holland and Spain and everywhere we played they were singing along, which amazed me. You’d have thought they’d known them for years.”
The latest album is trademark Buzzcocks without being retrogressive, while the old songs played live sound just as fresh today. And they certainly play a lot live.
“It’s what we do really, and we’ve got such a back-catalogue. There’s a lot to choose from.”
It’s not just the Shelley/Diggle show, Chris Remmington – who has also played on Steve’s solo work – having played bass for the last seven years with them, while Danny Farrant has managed nine on drums.
“Chris and Danny have blended in really well. We get on great. Personality-wise and everything, it flows really well. The classic line-up was great as well.”
Does Steve think the initial 1981 split (the ‘classic line-up’ also featuring fellow-founder John Maher, drums, and Steve Garvey, bass) was inevitable and they needed time apart?
“I think we did, looking back. The wheels fell off the wagon. For around five years it was quite intense. We had singles out every two months and were a hard-touring band.
“We toured everywhere between being in the studio and writing. We embraced all that, and it was fantastic, but you reach a point where you have to take a step back.
“The idea was just to have a year off. At the time we found it a bit devastating, but I went off and did Flag of Convenience and Pete had his solo career.
“Working with other people made it a great time. It was something new, I enjoyed all that. Then it came full circle. We realised we had a good thing at the beginning.
“I was playing as Buzzcocks FOC, and we were asked by an agent to do an American tour. Since then it’s been a never-ending tour.
“We didn’t plan to get back. We said we’d do that US tour and see what we had.”
Next year it’ll be 40 years all told – 30 or so as a fully-functioning outfit, given the initial break and the fact that Steve wasn’t there at the beginning. Or so I understood, until he put me right.
“I’ve been there all the time!”
Wasn’t it just Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto first, something to do with their spell at the Bolton Institute of Technology?
“I was there at the beginning! I blame Wikipedia! It says on there about some bassist and drummer. They just did a gig at a college. It’s a bit of a misnomer, that!
“They weren’t playing Boredom or anything like that. It was covers like White Light White Heat. I was going to form another band, then met them – by mistake really.
“We had just a few weeks to open for the Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall.”
Ah, that fabled event no-one seems to agree on the finer details of, the first of two Sex Pistols shows in Manchester six weeks apart in the summer of ’76.
It was an inspirational period that led to the birth of Factory Records, Joy Division, and later New Order and The Smiths.
“At that first gig I met Pete and Howard (Devoto), and they said they were putting this band together,
“Buzzcocks. I said I was meeting with this other guy to form my own band.
“It’s got a bit misconstrued. Malcolm McLaren introduced us, saying, “Here’s your bass player!
“The guy I was set to meet and the person they were set to meet were still outside. So we met instead, had a rehearsal the next day, and our first real gig was at the Lesser Free Trade Hall.
“They’d only just met as well. Howard had put a note up in college, about playing Velvet Underground songs. Pete answered it.
“Someone at the college joined them for a gig, which apparently was a bit disastrous, the drummer playing All Right Now through the whole set!
“For me, the real Buzzcocks started when me and John Maher, who turned up a couple of days later, joined.
“That was the Buzzcocks on Spiral Scratch and that opened for the Pistols a few weeks later.”
Apparently, Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto spotted a live review of Sex Pistols in the NME and decided to check out this subversive outfit with similar influences.
They drove down to the capital to seek out the band’s manager, Malcolm McLaren, at his shop, Sex, going on to see the Pistols twice that weekend.
They were so impressed they offered to put them on back home, with McLaren’s blessing. And while their college said no (thus missing its place in history), Devoto and Shelley hired the Lesser Free Trade Hall for around £35.
I would add that the rest is history, but because of all the differing versions, it’s all a bit confusing as to who was there and what happened.
Among around 30-plus attendees at that first gig were many future leading lights, not least Joy Division/New Order pair Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner, The Smiths’ Morrissey, The Fall’s Mark E. Smith, and Factory Records boss/influential TV presenter Tony Wilson.
“I sat at the back talking to Pete about what we were going to do. I had these ideas about this band, he had his ideas, and then we met Howard, working the lights.”
That initial Pistols visit went down so well that McLaren told Devoto, ‘Let’s do it again’, hence a second show on July 20, 1976, also involving Slaughter and the Dogs, and with a full house of around 150 at £1 a time.
Yet for all the power of the main act, writer Paul Morley saw the Buzzcocks set as the highlight. And Steve Diggle won’t argue with that.
“That’s how it started. As for all this about Bolton College – I’m from Manchester, not Bolton!”
While clearly proud of his roots, and still with an unmistakable Mancunian accent, Steve’s been in London for around 20 years.
He frequently returns though, and Buzzcocks play Chester Live Rooms this Friday, July 24, then Blackpool’s Rebellion event at the Winter Gardens next month.
“We’ve done Rebellion a couple of times. It’s the polar opposite to the X-Factor really. It’s people voting with their feet, invading Blackpool, making it all colourful for a week or two.
“We’ve just done Glastonbury, and that’s becoming a bit more corporate. This is more heartfelt, I feel.”
Buzzcocks also return to Manchester in November for the Academy venue’s 25th anniversary celebrations.
“We were first to open there, and between those shows have a big festival in Portland, Oregon, and another massive one in Canada. We’re playing huge places.
”They love us! We’ve been there a few times, with our own show in Toronto then this Amnesia Festival in Quebec, another crazy thing.
“We did the Riot Festival last year in America too, bigger than Glastonbury, moving between Toronto, Chicago and Denver, with around a week between shows.
“You can’t get anywhere without one of those little buggies. We do a lot of shows like that, which maybe people don’t realise here, thinking we’ve just disappeared.”
The Way was Buzzcocks’ ninth studio album, and a first crowd-funding venture, via Pledge Music, for a band whose initial Spiral Scratch EP was put together DIY-style with £1,000 borrowed from family and friends.
“These days it seems one big corporate animal sucks up another. We were on EMI for years and they owned the early catalogue, which is now with Warner Brothers.
“With crowd-funding, it’s almost like the old days where you’d go to a record shop for pre-orders, giving them money for something not in for another three weeks or so.
“We just thought it would allow us to make the album we wanted and make it quick. When you’re dealing with a record company it can take months and months.”
The band signed for their first major, United Artists, the day Elvis Presley died, in August, 1977.
“We signed the contract on the bar at the legendary Electric Circus in Manchester, rather than at a big hotel or corporate office.
“There was an old cinema there. It was somewhere the Sex Pistols and The Clash’s White Riot tour visited.”
Manchester still has a special place in Steve’s heart, despite having moved away so long ago.
“You can take the boy out of Manchester, but… Actually, Liam Gallagher lives near me. He’s been down here years as well.”
Where’s Pete Shelley based these days?
“He’s gone even further afield, in Tallinn, Estonia, having married a girl from out there, moving out around two years ago.
“When we travel, we often have to meet in London or some airport elsewhere. We left for various reasons, and I met a girl down here. I wasn’t planning on leaving.”
Will there be any 40th anniversary dates for Buzzcocks next year?
“We’re just talking about that, trying to figure out what. It’ll be something special. It could be our last major tour, just doing specialised gigs after that.”
Perhaps he could get John Lydon and co. down to mark the occasion, seeing as they were there for his first gig. He could get them to sit at the back this time.
“Well, Morrissey used to sit at the back taking notes years ago, in his old trenchcoat. He had long hair then.
“Yeah, we’ve come all this way on the journey, so let’s jsee what happens. The great thing is I think the band’s got better over the years.
“It just seems to go from strength to strength. There’s a broader perspective to the shows now, particularly with some of the newer stuff. It’s still growing, you know!”
That can’t be bad, not least for a band whose first three albums were among my favourite of any era.
“Well, even Liam (Gallagher) said to me, ‘Forget Oasis, forget The Stone Roses, and all that – Buzzcocks are the best band out of Manchester!’
“Not a bad compliment, is it? Of course, I said, “Oh, I don’t know about that. We’re all good from Manchester!”
l Malcolm Wyatt is a freelance writer, with his own website at writewyattuk.com.
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