Buzzcocks are one of the definitive British punk bands. They formed in Bolton, 1976 by singer/songwriter and guitarist Pete Shelley alongside Howard Devoto. In addition to being a defining band of the Punk era, they are also a seminal band within the musical tradition of Manchester. The city has churned out pioneer after pioneer since the late ’70s, with much owed to Buzzcocks.
The band also influenced the independent record label movement, power pop, and pop-punk. Without Buzzcocks, we would not have other seminal bands such as Green Day, Rancid or The Smiths.
Devoto and Shelley took their name from a headline that read “It’s the Buzz, Cock!” from a review of TV series Rock Follies in Time Out magazine. In the end, they settled on “Buzzcocks” as it was a fitting amalgamation of the post-gig “buzz” and the northern English slang “cock” – a word used to denote a friend. They also thought the name captured the excitement of the burgeoning punk scene, whilst also carrying sexual connotations, Shelley at the time was working in a Bolton adult shop. Subsequently, there is no “the” in Buzzcocks.
Their influence is well documented. After reading an article describing The Sex Pistol’s first gig, Shelley and Devoto booked the now-iconic punks to play at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in June ’76. This show, with only 42 audience members, is now legendary. It was a petri dish, germinating key elements of Manchester, and the UK’s future musical royalty. This included members of Joy Division and subsequent New Order, Factory Records’ own Tony Wilson, and yes, Mick Hucknall. The impact of this small, yet trailblazing show, is detailed in Michael Winterbottom’s cult classic 24 Hour Party People.
Buzzcocks released only one EP with Devoto, 1977’s Spiral Scratch. It was produced by ubiquitous Mancunian producer, Martin Hannett, a mainstay of the Factory Records and Hacienda era. They released the EP on their own label. New Hormones, making them one of the first punk groups to establish an independent record label. This preceded Rough Trade, SST, Sub Pop and Dischord. However, Devoto would leave the band shortly after, and start seminal post-punk outfit, Magazine.
The band would go through numerous lineup changes, and Shelley would assume the role of frontman and principal songwriter. The band then signed to United Artists on 16th August 1977 – the day Elvis Presley died. Following on from this major record deal they achieved commercial and critical success, releasing three albums: Another Music in a Different Kitchen (1978), Love Bites (1978), and A Different Kind of Tension (1979). All three albums charted in the UK and were enveloped by Buzzcocks trademark sound, marrying catchy pop melodies with the energy of punk, supported by a tight, skilled rhythm section; unusual for the punk scene. By the time the original run of the band ended in 1981, they had reached lyrical and musical sophistication and were referencing beat writers such as Burroughs, again, highly uncharacteristic for a punk band, marking them out from their peers.
The band reunited sporadically from 1989 onwards and continued releasing albums, however, the run at the end of the ’70s is by no doubt their best. Encapsulating the breadth of their massive influence, they toured with Nirvana in 1994, on what would turn out to be one of their last tours. Since, they have played with the likes of Pearl Jam, Maximo Park and The Courteeners. Shelley and Devoto even reunited in 2002 and released the album Buzzkunst, their first musical offering as a duo since 1976.
Showing the extent of Buzzcocks’ influence, cult BBC panel show Never Mind The Buzzcocks was entitled using a mashup of their name and the Sex Pistol’s album Never Mind the Bollocks. Who, it turns out, was at that gig in ’76 — would have thought it?
Displaying their well-respected status, in 2000, TV host Mark Lamarr introduced Shelley by saying that without Buzzcocks “there’d be no Smiths or Radiohead, and this show would be called Never Mind Joan Armatrading‘.”
Sadly, Pete Shelley died at home in Estonia in December 2018 of a suspected heart attack, but his influence lives on. He and the band broke down the barriers that punk put up, and looked to the future. Consequently, there are so many great Buzzcocks tracks, so lock in as we narrow it down to their ten best.
Y’all know this is just our opinion, right?
The 10 best Buzzcocks’ songs:
10. ‘Fast Cars’ – Another Music in a Different Kitchen (1978)
The opening track from the debut album Another Music in a Different Kitchen is classic Buzzcocks. It pulls you in with that repetitive high pitched note, slows down into that cutting bassline, and then catapults you forward with the main chord progression. Clocking in at two-and-a-half minutes, it is quintessential punk.
Like the titular automobile, it feels as if you are being held hostage, with the captor driving at 120mph – reminiscent of Tarantino’s Death Proof. Funnily enough, the song is said to be about a car crash guitarist Steve Diggle endured as a child, hence, “I hate fast cars”.
Showing the lyrical density of Buzzcocks, it is the only punk song in existence to reference American attorney Ralph Nader. Nader was an activist campaigning for the reform of safety standards in the auto industry. In 1965, he wrote the book Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile, which had a revolutionary impact on the car manufacturing industry.
Additionally, the noise at the end, most likely from an echo pedal, is reminiscent of a spaceship taking off. Nodding to an interest in more sophisticated forms of music that Buzzcocks would tamper with in the not too distant future.
9. ‘Orgasm Addict’ – Orgasm Addict (1977)
Buzzcocks’ first major label single is a two minute, not-so-thinly veiled tribute to masturbation. Yes, masturbation. Whilst, it is not surprising from the snotty, punk point of view, it is surprising that major label United Artists agreed to run the record, due to its highly provocative nature.
Furthermore, as anything to do with punk was banned by the BBC at the time, concurrently they banned this particular cracker, about “beating your meat to death”. Ironic, given the vice and depravity we all know was occurring at the broadcaster during that period.
Unsurprisingly, ‘Orgasm Addict’ caused much sensation when released due to its controversial lyrical content and expletives, and perhaps because it was the ’70s, and some listeners found the line “it’s a habit that sticks” a little too close to home. Retrospectively, Shelley would say the song “is embarrassing. It’s the only one I listen to and… shudder”.
Contrastingly, the record has a beautiful, bricolage sleeve. In true DIY style, artist Linder Sterling, of esteemed Manc punk’s Ludus said: “The iron came from an Argos catalogue and the female torso came from a photographic magazine. I never cleared the copyright, but no one noticed, so it was alright.”
8. ‘Boredom’ – Spiral Scratch (1977)
‘Boredom’ is one of Buzzcocks’ most influential songs, and is the most well-known of the Spiral Scratch EP. The song is genius in the way it explains the punk movement’s boredom with the pomposity of ’70s rock, and Buzzcocks own boredom with the punk scene: “You know the scene is very humdrum, I’m already a has-been!”
On the eve of the record’s release, Devoto left Buzzcocks saying: “I get bored very easily, and that boredom can act as a catalyst for me to suddenly conceive and execute a new vocation.” No wonder he moved into the post-punk realm with Magazine, attempting to escape the restrictive and stereotyped confines of punk.
Indeed, the song is iconic, but it showed not only could anyone start a band, an idea that punk had trivialised, anyone could release their own music. It was released on Buzzcocks DIY label New Hormones. This was a trailblazing act as it dealt a regionalist sucker punch to the London-based music industry.
Furthermore, in Orange Juice’s classic hit ‘Rip It Up’, frontman Edwyn Collins proclaims “and my favourite song’s entitled ‘Boredom’” before jumping into the truncated, two-note guitar solo that was adapted straight from Shelley’s guitar on the Buzzcocks original.
7. ‘What Do I Get?’ – What Do I Get? (1978)
This single is classic Buzzcocks, utterly batshit and totally definitive. It was the band’s top 40 debut and peaked at number 37 in February ’78. It features a trademark, snappy riff, and a melodic, poppy solo that contrasts the yearning yet snarling Shelley.
The band’s pop influences can also be closely heard in the music. The chords have a sped-up likeness to a radio-friendly pop song, with the chorus progression being reminiscent of early Elton John.
The song has also been used in a McDonald’s advert, Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, and cult comedy Ghost World. Furthermore, Steve Lieberman, AKA The Gangsta Rabbi, has released an equally mental cover.
6. ‘Lipstick’ – Twice Bitten (1994)
This brilliant B-side features the same refrain as Magazine’s debut single ‘Shot By Both Sides’. It is a homage to the songwriting partnership of Devoto and Shelley, as the Magazine song was actually written by the duo. Buzzcocks’ use of the motif is tender and fleeting, whereas Magazine’s use of it is damaging and gothic.
Additionally, Shelley is credited on Magazine’s ‘The Light Pours Out of Me’, also from the band’s debut album, Real Life.
‘Lipstick’ is classic Shelley, featuring all his songwriting hallmarks, but stands out from the others due to that iconic refrain; and it is crazy to think the song was only a B-side.
5. ‘Breakdown’ – Spiral Scratch (1977)
There is not much to say about ‘Breakdown’, a track taken from the Spiral Scratch EP. It features Howard Devoto on vocals and Shelley on guitar. It is plainly a brilliant punk song, fast, but melodic. It is an all-encompassing romp that spans under two minutes.
Retrospectively, it serves as a blueprint for the burgeoning punk scene, featuring Devoto’s quick, sardonic lyrics, and with its punchy BPM, it really paved the way for the more visceral, angular styles of punk that exist today. True of the song and EP, Simon Reynolds called it: “A cultural landmark and portent of revolution”.
4. ‘Whatever Happened To…?’ – Orgasm Addict (1977)
The B-side to ‘Orgasm Addict’, ‘Whatever Happened To…?’ is better, and more Buzzcocks than its sibling. It starts with a clanking bass, tinged with the chorus, then jumps into the song, where Shelley ponders all facets of modern life. In this respect, it is another punk staple, laying out the movement’s ethos and critiquing consumerism. The mainline “your love is a cashed-in cheque” sums this up perfectly.
It is classic Shelley, using sardonic humour, and better production than its punk contemporaries, it can almost be seen as a prototype of today’s West Coast punk scene, given its chord progression, and the crazy, reverb-drenched vocals that the song ends on – invoking Oh Sees’ own batshit genius John Dwyer.
This song plainly demonstrates how and why Buzzcocks are to be separated from, and respected differently than their contemporaries.
3. ‘I Believe’ – A Different Kind of Tension (1979)
‘I Believe’ is an example of Buzzcocks augmenting their songwriting with the production of legendary producer Martin Rushent on their third studio album. This track features fuller production and marks a slightly darker turn for the punk icons. Shelley talks of backing himself. Backing his personal beliefs, and sarcastically explaining his belief in “original sin” and sarcastically “the final solution”, adding to his pain at the hands of the contemporary world.
The song is magnificently ballasted by the main vocal refrain: “There is no love in this world anymore,” encapsulating Shelley’s sentiment perfectly. He had repeatedly expressed frustration at the assumption that he could only write three-minute, three-chord fuelled punk. Of course, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, and this angular, seven-minute piece is one of the strongest supporters of this.
The song is highly existential, and was reportedly influenced by a night spent high on LSD – a drug not often associated with the punk scene. This is also indicative of the argument that there is not that big of a gap between hippiedom and punk.
2. ‘Why Can’t I Touch It?’ – Singles Going Steady (1979)
That funky bassline. That funky guitar riff. That funky rhythm. Apart from latter era Clash, these are three elements one wouldn’t normally equate with punk. However, ‘Why Can’t I Touch It?’ is one of Buzzcocks’ best. Clocking in at over six minutes, this is also a structural element one wouldn’t normally equate with punk. The song veers into the psychedelic, with its hazy chorus and drawn out ending – feeling more in touch with Linklater’s Dazed and Confused than grey, post-industrial Manchester.
Referring back to the claims that Shelley was a one-dimensional writer of solely pop-punk proportions, this song also totally refutes it. It is closer to the art-punk of Talking Heads and Gang of Four than the Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedy’s. Its effortlessly cool, laid back groove, shows that punk’s ethos is all-encompassing, and can’t be confined by brash, trivial ideals, and paper clips.
1. ‘Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve’)’ – Love Bites (1978)
Without a doubt Buzzcock’s biggest hit, and it reached number twelve on the UK singles chart in 1978. It is more synonymous with the band than any other song. Musically, the composition would be one of the main influences for pop-punk, power-punk and anything in between. It also perfectly blends pop melodies with darker, more naked lyrics, exploring Shelley’s bisexuality.
This was unlike anything other punk bands were doing at the time, showing that punk could be personally reflective whilst still maintaining its ethos. The emotional core was dominated by minor chords, and the double tom hits on the drums punctuate the honest nature of the verses. The song has influenced countless bands from Blink 182 to Fine Young Cannibals to Husker Du.
The idea for this classic was formed pre-gig in Edinburgh, where the band were half-watching the Marlon Brando musical Guys and Dolls. Shelley recalled: “We were in the Blenheim Guest House with pints of beer, sitting in the TV room half-watching Guys and Dolls. One of the characters, Adelaide, is saying to Marlon Brando’s character, ‘Wait till you fall in love with someone you shouldn’t have.’ I thought, ‘fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have?’ Hmm, that’s good.”
Allegedly, Shelley wrote the lyrics the following day in the van outside a post office, and the music came shortly after. Shelley also maintained the song was about a man named Francis Cookson, a lover of his he’d lived with for seven years – making the opening lyrics as sad as they are shocking, invoking heartbreak and emotional abuse: “You spurn my natural emotions, you make me feel like dirt and I’m hurt, and if I start a commotion, I run the risk of losing you and that’s worse.”
Furthermore, and a massive decider on why it is so legendary, is the way it utilised gender non-specific pronouns such as “you” or “me” – breathtakingly progressive for the time. Shelley later added: “I tried to be as gender neutral as possible in writing songs, because for me I could use the same song for either sex.”
The genius also lies in the way the song relates to anyone, of any age, subculture or background, as we have all been affected by the idiosyncrasies of love and relationships. The highly personal subject matter and poppy melodies that Buzzcocks utilised resulted in some elements of the punk scene rejecting them, coupled with the bands perceived lack of interest in politics. However, Shelley, hit back: “I never knew there was a law against sounding vulnerable. And anyway, personal politics are part of the human condition, so what could be more political than human relationships?”
This unparalleled pop-punk gem is so progressive in its composition and nature, there is no doubt it is Shelley – and Buzzcocks’ – greatest triumph. Absurdly, given the time, and the state of music, this song cements their iconic status. It perfectly sums up what Shelley says in ‘I Believe’ – “I believe in the shape of things to come.”