The Impossibility of Being Original

The Buzzcocks’ Complete UA Singles 1977-1980

Next to the Sex Pistols and the Clash, the Buzzcocks were probably the most important British punk band. And, although they never attained the international notoriety of those other groups, they were in many ways the most influential of all.

The Buzzcocks. Zaragosa, April 2006.

In the more than four decades that have passed since the band first performed, vast numbers of young people have been inspired to follow their example, crafting compact, edgy songs that never forget the pleasures of pop. The  Buzzcocks remember to make fun of themselves. And they communicate sentiments that feel true because they refuse to shy away from complexity.

Consider their first major-label single, “Orgasm Addict”. It might make you uncomfortable, but that’s because it captures the reality of a teenage boy’s life with a clarity that exposes the mass-cultural romance that the music industry sells as a colossal lie.

While the BBC immediately banned the song for its inappropriate content, it seemed that the real reason was deeper. Few songs have so expertly disrupted the fantasies that prop up the entire social order.

The overreaching of which both the Sex Pistols and the Clash were often guilty – though in different ways – is almost entirely absent in the Buzzcocks, who have consistently demonstrated a rare understanding for the boundaries of popular music, recognising that pushing too far beyond them usually leads to diminishing returns. Above all else, they were modest in the best sense of the term.

Even more than their big-time brethren, then, not to mention American precursors such as Television and the Patti Smith Group, the Buzzcocks appeared to signal a decisive break with excesses of rock music during the late 1960s and early 1970s, what would eventually be considered its “classic” era.

That’s a legacy worth celebrating. At a time when practically every band with a meaningful career feels it appropriate to reissue their best work, it makes perfect sense that The Buzzcocks have been following suit.

After releasing new editions of their first three albums over the past few years, Domino will soon put out a box set of the twelve singles they originally released on United Artists between 1977 and 1980.

Remastered directly from the original tapes, encased in facsimiles of their original Malcolm Garrett designed sleeves — widely praised for their bright colors and bold designs —  The Complete UA Singles 1977-1980 box set will sure to be a collector’s item, in which those fans who can afford it will take great pride.

How many of them will actually listen to the music on those 45s is another matter. Like most of the high-end box sets that have come to occupy an outsize role in the dwindling market for physical media, it will be much easier to admire than to use.

Chances are good that owners will mostly leave it on the shelf, hearing the songs they already love on a streaming service or, if they still prefer physical media, on a compact disc. The recent vinyl reissue of the remarkable collection Singles Going Steady is more likely to see regular rotation as well because it’s still the case that getting to hear a bunch of songs before turning the record over is easier than having to keep swapping 45s out one by one.

This may not seem like a significant concern. Yet when you consider the history of the Buzzcocks the question of how their music actually gets noticed looms particularly large. After all, this is a band who, for all of their fame, have reached far more people through television spots for McDonald’s, Toyota, and the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) than they ever did on the radio during their heyday.

In making this point, I do not mean to mock the band. Since the advent of file-sharing in the Napster days of the late 1990s, popular musicians who actually want to get paid a reasonable amount for their hard work have had to compensate for the precipitous drop in record sales with a two-pronged strategy: reissuing their back catalogues in expanded editions and box sets targeted at their biggest fans, who probably already owned most of the material they are buying; and licensing their hits for soundtracks and advertising, so that many new people will discover their music and want to hear it on streaming services that only start to pay meaningful fees to artists when songs are selected a great many times.

Nevertheless, there is something particularly discomfiting about the fact that the Buzzcocks, of all bands, have had to pursue this course of action. Not because they were self-consciously political, in the way that The Clash was, or confrontational, as the Sex Pistols were. But because they seemed more pure as a consequence.

The more you reflect on the history of the band, however, the less strange it seems that they ended up there. The Buzzcocks understood the limitations of punk sooner and, in some ways, better than anyone else. The purity of their aesthetic went hand in hand with a realization that no aesthetics are pure.

No matter how much they pared away aspects of rock and roll inherited from the blues, country, or folk; no matter how decisive their intervention in the history of rock and roll was, the band could never fully extricate itself from a culture in which copying comes first.

The Manchester from which the Buzzcocks emerged – and Joy Division, The Fall, and The Smiths in their wake – was one of the most depressing cities in a Northern England that could provide the dictionary definition of “depressing.” But a music scene had taken root amid the glowering greys of everyday life, one suffused with blood and spit, not to mention a bit of London’s fading cosmopolitan splendour.

A series of shows the previous years had established the Buzzcocks as the scene’s leaders. It was they who brought the Sex Pistols to Manchester for the infamous gig that is said to have inspired all fifty members of the audience to form a band. It was they who showed that the music of England’s second city didn’t have to be provincial or mired in the past.

So when they began making their first record, it was a big deal. Four songs, put to tape in a single session during the lull between Christmas and New Year’s. But this was no ordinary record release. The Buzzcocks hadn’t signed to one of the big labels. Instead, they had decided to put out this record themselves, on a label they had invented for the purpose. New Hormones, it was called. And the EP was titled Spiral Scratch.

“Breakdown”, the first track, inaugurates what would become the band’s formula. Drummer John Maher sounds like he’s playing a little too fast, as if he were fleeing some menace. Steven Diggle’s bass punctuates this sense of reckless abandon, playing only the notes that are absolutely necessary.

Pete Shelley’s guitar slices through the rhythm section like a rusty saw, further accentuating the sense of urgency, as if the band didn’t have time to stop for beauty. And Howard Devoto caps it off with the sort of breathless ranting that another Mancunian, The Fall’s Mark E. Smith, would soon make his calling card.

Although Devoto would soon leave the band to form Magazine – not out of rancour, but because he was already losing interest in the music scene that the band had helped to create – Shelley did a remarkable job of continuing in the same vein. Despite signing to United Artists, the records that followed felt like a logical extension of “Breakdown” and the other three songs on Spiral Scratch, most notably the concert favourite “Boredom”.

While the purity-obsessed American punks who made Maximum Rocknroll their bible in the 1980s loved to denounce bands for “selling out” to major labels, it is hard to discern a meaningful difference between the Buzzcocks’ brief independent-label phase and their time at United Artists. That they were able to make so much great music while following the basic template of Spiral Scratch is a testament to the coherence of their vision and their commitment to sustaining it.

The closer we examine that consistency, however, their capacity for copying themselves, the more confusing it becomes. As Simon Reynolds writes in his wonderful book Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, “Boredom” indicates a remarkable degree of self-reflexivity, not only about where the impulse to start a band like the Buzzcocks had come from, but also where it was destined to lead.

Devoto’s wryly acidic lyrics discern boredom in the past and boredom in the future, suggesting that the “now” of punk was very narrow indeed. As Reynolds put it in an unpublished interview, from the perspective of someone like Devoto, “the moment of punk music was incredibly brief.” What followed was bound to be more of the same, yet adding up to less.

Discussing the sleeve for that EP in Jon Savage’s magisterial book England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond, the Buzzcocks’ first manager Richard Boon made a curious admission. “I took the cover picture on the steps of some statue in Manchester Picadilly with a polaroid, which was a joke: a very Walter Benjamin, art-in-the-age of mechanical reproduction sort of joke. It was instant replay.”

The most salient qualities of the image itself are that it is black-and-white and seemingly lacking in resolution, characteristics which, even today, in the era of low-cost digital imaging, are still recognised as a sign of poverty. Simply put, the sleeve’s appearance seems to be the product of financial necessity rather than aesthetic freedom. And, if the Buzzcocks’ own account of their impecunious origins is to be trusted – they had to borrow 500 quid from friends and family to release Spiral Scratch  it may well have been. Yet that is not the story he chooses to tell.

Was Boon thinking of those colourful and compelling sleeves for the United Artists singles that followed Spiral Scratch? We all know examples of artists making a virtue of necessity. At first glance, the sleeve for Spiral Scratch seems to fit the bill. Yet Boon goes out of his way to suggest that it was every bit as much “by design” as the professional sleeves to follow.

Particularly in light of the Buzzcocks’ reputation as paragons of musical economy, it seems curious that the presentation of Spiral Scratch would merit such an abstract explanation. The discrepancy between what the situation seemed to require of Boon – a simple reminder of the Buzzcocks’ low-budget beginnings – and what he actually provided – a statement of his artistic intentions grounded in cultural theory – invites a closer look.

England’s Dreaming is an unusual book. Pieced together from exhaustive interviews with key players in the development of punk, it qualifies as oral history. But Savage isn’t just collecting the statements of people who were there. He is also commenting on them, often in subtle yet significant ways.

Take Boon’s statement about Walter Benjamin, for example. It takes up most of the paragraph in which it appears. But Savage prefaces it with a sentence describing the photograph. “The picture sleeve of Spiral Scratch shows the four youths crowding to get into the picture, as if it were their last.”

The analysis is so brief that we barely have time to register it. Yet it powerfully shapes our reception of the quotation to follow. By themselves, Boon’s words convey a sense of control. He wants us to think that he and, by extensions, his charges knew exactly what they were doing. But Savage’s phrase “as if it were their last” calls this clarity of purpose into question.

Would a band that might never release another record really want to give the impression that their labour constitutes “instant replay?”

Last photographs are a big deal. We hold onto the final record of a loved one – parent, lover, building – with peculiar tenacity. In most cases, though, we do not realise that a photograph is the last of its kind until after it has been taken. Photographs of the dead are intended to serve a memorialising function. But the photographs that precede them, when the dead are still living, acquire their significance retroactively. Indeed, their force derives from this accidental quality.

Because no one knew that these images would one day be last photographs, they are a testament to the fact that any photograph can metamorphose into a last photograph. To acknowledge this is to acknowledge our mortality.

In some people, this realisation inspires manic heedlessness. Since they have no way of knowing when the end will come, they refuse to worry about it. Others take the lesson to heart, constantly reminding themselves of the potential gravity in any situation. For them, the present is burdened, not only with the weight of the past but the weight of a possible future. It becomes historical.

Read in isolation, Savage’s “as if it were their last” implies that the Buzzcocks fell into the latter category. Taken together with their manager’s comments, however, its meaning becomes harder to decipher. Boon’s notion that the record sleeve represents a kind of “instant replay” suggests, at the very least, a doubling of this last photograph.

Once the spectre of a copy enters the scenario, the picture becomes less special. Although it may be the only photograph of the band, the image is not alone. This is, of course, what Boon has in mind when he calls it “a very Walter Benjamin, art-in-the-age-of-mechanical-reproduction sort of joke”. If we place Boon’s statement in context, then, we perceive that the tension between Savage’s “last photograph” and Boon’s “instant replay” makes for a temporal conundrum.

What may initially seem like a baffling reference to Walter Benjamin’s most famous essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, turns out, with the benefit of close reading, to be the site of a struggle over how the history of punk gets told. If the first photograph of the Buzzcocks also appears to be a last photograph, as Savage suggests, then the narrative in which punk was an ever-so-narrow historical moment gets powerfully reinforced.

This approach builds on the paradoxical notion that punk was “over before it began”, one which Howard Devoto has helped to reinforce while explaining why he left the Buzzcocks after Spiral Scratch.

But if that first and possibly last photograph is represented as a copy, as Boon’s statement indicates, then the radical break that punk had often been said to constitute starts looking a lot less clean. The cut that separates the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Buzzcocks and their peers from the bloated prog rock and burgeoning disco that was dominating mainstream music of the mid-1970s starts to sprout roots.

Indeed, one of the main functions that Boon’s reference serves is to connect punk with a heterodox leftist tradition that precedes the emergence of rock music by several decades. If the image on the Buzzcocks’ first EP has something to do with Walter Benjamin, then punk presumably does as well.

While punk may not be theoretical in the way that academics typically understand that term, it was brought into existence by people who were painfully aware of how difficult it is to produce something truly new in a consumer society devoted to copying.

Some responded to this realisation by trying to make music that sounded like nothing that had come before. Others, the Buzzcocks among them, responded by making music that turned out to be a lot more novel than it initially seemed.

When you listen to the band’s early singles now, you can’t help but hear them through the work of thousands of subsequent artists who used them as inspiration. If you could somehow transport yourself back to 1976, however, you would soon realise that nothing else sounded like them, just as nothing else sounded like the Ramones.

In a sense, the special genius of punk was to create music that seemed to hearken back to an essence of rock and roll that had never existed.

To be sure, students of musical history can check off a list of precursors to punk, from the sparest blues records through garage rock. But the only reason we are able to hear them as precursors is because bands like the Buzzcocks demonstrated what rock and roll would sound like if it could be stripped down to its most basic form, the three-chord approach famously illustrated in an early issue of Punk Magazine.

Music that – to play off Nietzsche’s notorious statement – announced itself by declaring that classic rock was dead ended up seeming more “classic” than anything that had come before. In specifying those few traits that constitute rock and roll’s sine qua non, punk created the very class it was meant to deconstruct.

If Buzzcocks fans end up buying an expensive box set of their singles so that it can sit on their shelves as a kind of perverse objet d’art, it will not represent a betrayal of everything the band stands for. Because what they stood for, from the very beginning, was a self-reflexivity about what it means to be in a band, making popular music for the masses.

What makes the Buzzcocks most original, paradoxically, is their nuanced appreciation of the impossibility of ever being original.

That’s why they titled their first full-length album Another Music in a Different Kitchen. And also why the first twenty-odd seconds of the opening track “Fast Cars” repeat the opening bars of the song “Boredom” from Spiral Scratch. Even then, they were conscious of their participation in a culture of the copy that perpetually blurs the distinction between issues and reissues. Now more than ever, as we find ourselves deluged by poorly conceived remakes, we would do well to heed the Buzzcocks example. Maybe the best way to break with the past is to be mindful of the ways in which we are always already repeating ourselves.

Photograph courtesy of jd (A). Published under a Creative Commons license.