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Friday, November 6, 2015

Buzzcocks: Singles Going Steady


1) Orgasm Addict; 2) What Do I Get; 3) I Don't Mind; 4) Love You More; 5) Ever Fallen In Love; 6) Promises; 7) Everybody's Happy Nowadays; 8) Harmony In My Head; 9*) You Say You Don't Love Me; 10*) Are Everything; 11*) Strange Thing; 12*) Running Free; 13) What Ever Happened To; 14) Oh Shit!; 15) Autonomy; 16) Noise Annoys; 17) Just Lust; 18) Lipstick; 19) Why Can't I Touch It; 20) Something's Gone Wrong Again; 21*) Raison D'Etre; 22*) Why She's The Girl From The Chainstore; 23*) Airwaves Dream; 24*) What Do You Know.

This compilation of singles was America's (rather belated, as it often happens) introduction to the noisy pop magic of the Buzzcocks, and it has since acquired such a legendary status that I can hardly add any interesting thoughts or observations to what you all already know — other than, perhaps, the curious note that I arrived at this chronologically, and this means that on a sub­con­scious level, the Buzzcocks are as much an «album band» for me as they are a «singles band»: in any case, it is certainly not true that all of their singles are pop genius, or that all of their albums are stuffed with thoughtless filler.

For one thing, the band's first single, ʽOrgasm Addictʼ, once its oh-so-shocking nature quickly wore down, is a really stupid song whose only point seems to be «telling it as it is», rather than coyly hiding behind innuendos, and hardly has any instrumental or vocal appeal — it just intends to strike a common chords with, you know, those of us who do have the problem upon reaching puberty. Which is, well, probably most of us, you know, but even if you never grow out of the problem, you will eventually grow out of the song at least, as it's really no great shakes. In fact, its B-side, ʽWhat Ever Happened To...ʼ, with its first appearance of the band's pop harmonies and its ironic-nostalgic mood, reminding you of the Kinks (think ʽWhere Have All The Good Times Gone?ʼ), is already vastly superior.

Already the second single, ʽWhat Do I Get?ʼ, however, establishes a largely unbreakable pattern: the Buzzocks are a loud pop band rather than a punk band, with a knack for simple, instantly ef­ficient hooks, second to none but the Ramones — nobody could that effectively wedge a slice of weepy sadness ("what do I get, whoah-whoah, what do I get?", with that inimitably plaintive accent on I) into a fast-moving, chainsaw-buzz-driven tune. Also, this time, they are smarter and they place the «offensive» track in B-side position: I have no idea if ʽOh Shitʼ marked the first ever appearance of the word "shit" in a song title, but it certainly must have held the local record for the number of times the word was pronounced, and yes, it does serve as the song's primary hook, which is inventive, but eventually gets a little tiresome.

Some of the songs inevitably overlap with tracks that were already included on previous LPs (re­member, though, that the Americans hadn't heard any of those, so this was probably their first meeting with gems like ʽI Don't Mindʼ or ʽEver Fallen In Loveʼ), but considering the overall wealth of material, that is no big tragedy, and all these songs certainly deserve additional listens. That said, in terms of diversity of approach and subtlety of hooks I would say that the Buzzcocks do not become true «monsters of sound» until 1979 comes along, by which time excellent songs just roll off the conveyer belt, but each one in its individual packaging.

ʽEverybody's Happy Nowadaysʼ combines a cozy folksy verse melody (amusingly similar to the one on Dylan's ʽBuckets Of Rainʼ: compare "life is sad, life is a bust" and "life's an illusion, love is a dream") with a tongue-in-cheek falsetto chorus and a ringing four-note riff that give the song an aura of frailty and fluffiness, clashing with Shelley's sly glam-vocal delivery of the verse. And then you have its B-side, ʽWhy Can't I Touch Itʼ (non-spoiler: you never get to really understand what the "it" is in question, and no, it's not the "it" you're probably thinking of at the moment), stretched out to more than six minutes despite really only having one verse and an embryonic bit of a chorus — but they probably understood that they hit upon such a fine groove, with two gui­tars and a persistent bassline conversing with each other, that they were reluctant to let it go, and it just keeps on pulsating like some enigmatic mantra — I can't properly explain the appeal, but there is definitely something trance-inducing here.

Finally, the Diggle-written and Diggle-sung ʽHarmony In My Headʼ happens to be Henry Rol­lins' favorite Buzzcocks song — probably not because it has the audacity to substitute the required guitar solo for a revised version of Black Sabbath's ʽParanoidʼ riff, but because of Diggle's «visi­onary» lyrics and the song's paradoxical nature, where the lyrical and musical confusion of the verses are stated to be the equivalent of the softly sung, melodically played "harmony in my head" bit of the chorus. Normally, you'd expect the chorus to explode after the already explosive verse — instead, it calms and softens things down, implying that noise is silence, confusion is stability, chaos is order, and the Buzzcocks are really the ghost of Nick Drake in disguise. But no, in reality they still take queues from the Stooges, as you can see from the B-side, ʽSomething's Gone Wrong Againʼ: doesn't that nagging one-note piano line remind you of John Cale's mini­malistic addition to ʽI Wanna Be Your Dogʼ ten years ago? They should have dedicated this one to the Stooges and the Velvets, particularly since I can so imagine Lou Reed grumbling "Tried to find my sock, no good it's lost, something's gone wrong again" on any of the 1967-69 albums.

The 2001 CD reissue of the record has significantly expanded it, trying to preserve the original principle (A-sides on side A, B-sides on side B) by adding one more contemporary single (to no special purpose, since both of its sides would be included on A Different Kind Of Tension) and six more A- and B-sides from their last three singles from the early 1980s, which were originally made available on the EP Parts 1, 2, 3 already in 1981. Unfortunately, those six songs are clearly inferior — not only was the band already disintegrating, suffering from a lack of focus and a sur­plus of heroin, but they were also piss-poorly produced, with an awfully tinny drum sound, plas­tic guitars, and occasional cheesy synth overdubs. There are still some hooks (ʽWhat Do You Knowʼ) and some humor (ʽWhy, She's The Girl From The Chainstoreʼ is worth it for the title alone), but overall, I'd at least suggest re-programming the album in such a way that these tracks do not rupture the near-perfect flow of the original. (You could also try to reprogram the original, for that matter, so that each A-side is paired with its B-side, but that is not crucial, you just get two chronological channels instead of one).

So, is this the best possible Buzzcocks album? in other words, were they a proverbial «singles band»? Honestly, I don't know — their LPs weren't all that «conceptual» in the first place, either. Singles Going Steady does have the benefit of being a compilation, even if nobody selected the material for them, and the B-sides are important, because stuff like ʽWhy Can't I Touch Itʼ and ʽSomething's Gone Wrong Againʼ goes beyond the standard pop-punk formula. Who really cares, though? Those early albums and singles all reflected the same musical philosophy, and all of this stuff is indispensable not just for those interested in the punk fashions of late 1970s Britain, but for all those interested in good music, period. Thumbs up even if you're no longer a sexually frustrated teenager, because there's no better way for even a 70-year old veteran to feel like a sexually frustrated teenager than to dig in to some of these Buzzcock singles.

1 comment:

  1. Now this is interesting; not for what's on the album but for what's missing. The DKOT and 80s singles might have been added, but the tracks from Spiral Scratch - their REAL first single and an item inextricably tied up with the story of punk and new wave - hasn't been, presumably because different parties own the recordings. It's not that it's particularly good. The tracks are similar in style to Orgasm Addict and I remember seeing them play it on a local television program (I'm from Manchester) thinking what a load of rubbish. Stupid two-note guitar solo. The point is they recorded it, pressed the singles and distributed it all by themselves. Thus they showed that you didn't need a record company behind you to do this kind of thing.
    George has a bit of a downer on punk, looking through the old pages and I can see why you wouldn't think it up to much if you were only born in 1976. Those of us who lived through it find it very hard to describe how it affected the outlook of anyone connected with music, both positively and negatively. It really was a case of 'You had to be there'. Spiral Scratch and the Buzzcocks were a part of the legend that grew up around New Wave and why we thought it was a sea change. I think possibly the only comparable change was that which where recent technology has allowed people to make saleable music in their own bedrooms. I'm sure those that are living through it think it to be a similar revolution. I'm too old to appreciate it properly. Not that I would swap :)