Punk rock, for all its rebellious rancor and snotty attitude, was really all about a good hook. It was rock and roll getting back to its roots, doing away with the excess of prog and stadium rock and returning the fattened genre to a simple, slender three-chord standard. The US had their frontrunners with The Ramones, issuing high volumes of singles and albums with the snappiest hooks in the Bowery. Yet, in the UK, many of the bands, such as The Sex Pistols, were a little more on the abrasive side. Yet, shortly after The Pistols had debuted on the scene, The Buzzcocks followed, issuing their debut single Spiral Scratch. Soon after, they released “Orgasm Addict,” a humorous, though somewhat unnerving diatribe on excessive self-gratification. Unlike the Pistols, The Buzzcocks were a high speed pop band with distortion. With enough hooks to catch General Sherman, Pete Shelley, Steve Garvey, John Maher and Steve Diggle were the UK’s most competent singles band that happened to be mislabeled “punk.”
Appropriate, then, that the band’s strongest work is their 1979 seven-inch collection, Singles Going Steady. Beginning with “Orgasm Addict,” the only song on here that bears a writing credit by original member Howard Devoto, the compilation collects the band’s singles (sans Spiral Scratch) and b-sides up through the more musically complex pairing of “Harmony in My Head” and “Something’s Gone Wrong Again.” Each song, however, is as or more infectious than anything on Top 40 radio today, but still retains the snottiness that came with punk rock.
“Promises,” “What Do I Get?” and “Ever Fallen In Love?” show that a punk can still put out a love song, even if it isn’t necessarily a conventional one. Long before making censors nervous with his description of “Homo superior” in his interior, Pete Shelley was declaring his lonely plea “I just want a lover like any other/what do I get?” Though on “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays,” the melody and rhythm of which was burglarized by The Strokes on “Someday,” Shelley tells us that “life’s an illusion/ love is the dream.”
The closing selection of the first side is Steve Diggle’s “Harmony in My Head,” a decidedly more fierce track than Shelley’s more upbeat tunes. It almost sounds more like Magazine, the band that Devoto formed after leaving The Buzzcocks, which was far more dark and sinister in both their lyrical and musical tone. The Buzzcocks, however, borrowed the melody from Magazine’s “Shot by Both Sides” during the chorus of their “Lipstick,” included on the B-side half of the album.
The Buzzcocks are also living proof that B-sides can be every bit as satisfying or even better, at times, than A-sides. From the raw “What Ever Happened To?” and the snarling “Oh Shit!” to the “I Wanna Be Your Dog” homage “Something’s Gone Wrong Again,” the band’s cast-offs make for some of the best listening of the era. Just listen to the fierce riffage of “Autonomy,” the loose groove of “Why Can’t I Touch It?” or the hyper-speed power pop of “Just Lust.” They almost made it look too easy.
While the rest of The Buzzcocks’ discography is not without its high points, Singles Going Steady, ironically, is the most cohesive and definitive collection of songs they ever released. They recently re-formed, including original guitarist/songwriter Howard Devoto, though with any reunion comes expectations of revisiting or topping the classics. Their 2003 self-titled album wasn’t bad, but it certainly didn’t have the appeal or the freshness of their earlier work. And for anyone who hasn’t, by some odd chance, discovered The Buzzcocks yet, look no further than Singles Going Steady. A better introduction to any band couldn’t possibly exist.
Similar Albums/Albums Influenced:
The Clash – The Clash
Stiff Little Fingers – Inflammable Material
Magazine – Where The Power Is
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.