NEW YORK (Reuters) - “And I’m surfing on a wave of nostalgia/For an age that’s yet to come.” Pete Shelley, the lead singer of the Buzzcocks, wrote those wistful words 32 years ago, during the short-lived punk revolution that unleashed bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash on the musical landscape in the late 1970s.
Fast-forward to 2010, and Shelley is happily surfing that wave, singing the aforementioned “Nostalgia” as well as older songs such as “Boredom” and “Orgasm Addict” for youngsters raised on the likes of Green Day. Now, those kids can see for themselves how much the fast-paced power-punk melodies of contemporary chart-toppers owe to the Buzzcocks.
On stage recently at The Fillmore in New York, Shelley had conceded only some thinning gray hair and a few extra pounds to the passing years. To his left was guitarist Steve Diggle in a stylish baggy polka dot shirt, demonstrating one archetypal punk-rock pose after another.
“It’s hard to imagine doing anything for 30 years,” Shelley, 55, told Reuters at a downtown Manhattan pub over a Sam Adams lager. “Punk was always more of a state of mind. It’s just one of those strange things that happen. That’s why I always say to people, ‘Go on and do it.’”
And many people did after hearing the Buzzcocks do it. In addition to Green Day, R.E.M. and Nirvana both cited the band as a central influence. And more recent bands like The White Stripes and Arcade Fire owe the Buzzcocks a debt of gratitude.
Shelley is both flattered and baffled by the wealth of bands that claim to be influenced by the Buzzcocks. “There’s been lots of quite famous bands who’ve said, ‘If it wasn’t for you...’ which is good in a way.”
He feels similarly about Iggy Pop. “I bought him a drink once. I said, ‘I’ll buy you a drink because I’ve nicked so much off of you,” he chuckled. He found himself in the opposite spot when Alan McGee, founder of Creation Records — home to The Jesus And Mary Chain and Oasis — cornered Shelley in a pub.
“Alan said exactly the same thing to me that I said to Iggy and he bought me a drink,” he said.
Some have even argued that the Buzzcocks are not punk at all and, rather, are just a pop band. But one need only cycle through their first three albums — “Another Music From A Different Kitchen,” “Love Bites,” and “A Different Kind Of Tension,” all just reissued in the United States on Mute Records — to dispel that notion.
Although they will be best known for their singles, including “What Do I Get” and “Ever Fallen In Love,” album tracks like “Fast Cars” and “I Need” are as frenetic as anything their peers recorded in the late 1970s.
The Buzzcocks date back to February 1976 when Shelley and guitarist Howard Devoto came across an article about a band called the Sex Pistols who had just played in London.
“It was a realization of someone else doing what we already wanted to do,” Shelley said.
Shelley and Devoto borrowed a car and drove nearly four hours from Manchester down to London to seek out the Sex Pistols.
“We bought a copy of Time Out, which had no mention of them at all. But in the magazine was a preview for a TV series called the rock follies. The headline was, ‘It’s the buzz, cock.” And that’s how we got the name.”
When they arrived in London, they managed to track down the Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren who invited the two men to tag along when the Pistols played two colleges outside London.
Devoto and Shelley returned the favor by inviting the Sex Pistols to play in Manchester. Only about 40 people showed, but among them was a who’s who of the future Manchester scene: Steven Morrissey, who would co-found The Smiths; Ian Curtis, who formed Joy Division; and The Fall founder Mark E. Smith.
Six months later, the Buzzcocks recorded their debut single, a four-track EP, which they released on their own label, New Hormones, with a loan from Shelley’s father.
“It was practical more than anything else,” Shelley said. “Outside of London, there were no record labels. Plus we were doing the most uncommercial music. But we found out that for 500 pounds, we could make our own record.”
The record was called “Spiral Scratch,” and it included the anthem “Boredom.”
“We wanted to wake people up,” Shelley said. “It was like Dada. We wanted to make something that would provoke people - to shock them, almost like Zen Buddhism where they’d come and hit you with a stick (keisaku). You think, ‘No, no, this cannot be.’ Then all of a sudden you see all the possibilities.”
The possibilities weren’t just musical. While independent labels have been at the vanguard of popular music for decades, New Hormones represented something of a strike against the hegemony of the British music business in London.
But it also inspired a generation of musicians and entrepreneurs to build the infrastructure for independent music. Labels such as Mute Records (Depeche Mode), Fast Product (Mekons, Gang Of Four) and Rough Trade’s independent distribution network all sprung out of the Buzzcocks’ do-it-yourself ethos.
Not that the group remained independent for long. They were invited to play with the Clash on their White Riot Tour in May 1977, which led to a deal with United Artists. (Devoto left the band three months before the tour.)
By 1978, after their second album came out, Shelley was feeling the strain of nonstop touring and recording. Its follow-up the next year, “A Different Kind Of Tension,” reflected Shelley’s mental state.
The band split up in 1981, but reunited to great fanfare in 1989. Since 1990, only Shelley and Diggle remain of the original lineup, but they continue to tour and release new albums. After their current North American club series ends later this month, they will play European festivals and then head down to South America in November.
Shelley has every intention of returning to the studio for another Buzzcocks album when this year’s touring is done.
Asked what his legacy to punk rock is, he said, “I think if people are trying to do punk, they’re missing the point of what punk really was. It was about thinking outside the box. It was a liberating movement because it was an idea. That’s a dangerous thing because ideas can jump from person to person. And they mutate as they do.”
Editing by Dean Goodman and Bob Tourtellotte