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Music

45 years of 'Spiral Scratch': Buzzcocks perfect and destroy punk in ten minutes

@TylerGolsen

It only took ten minutes for four Manchester kids to perfect a nascent genre, legitimise a cultural phenomenon, and then completely destroy it. Things moved pretty fast in the world of Buzzcocks.

The band hadn’t even been together for a year. Their first release, which was one of the first-ever punk releases and one of the first true DIY efforts, was only a four song EP. And yet, Buzzcocks made a compelling argument that punk rock was always going to be on a downward slide after Spiral Scratch hit the shelves.

By this point, punk rock in the UK had almost no physical representation. Bands had been kicking around, but very few had released a record or even seen the inside of a recording studio. The Damned were the first to the party with the release of their single ‘New Rose’ in October of 1976, and the Sex Pistols weren’t far behind when they released ‘Anarchy in the UK’ a month later. Apart from a few singles by the Vibrators and Australian punk act The Saints, Spiral Scratch was one of the first punk releases ever, and certainly the first definitive British punk release that was more than two songs long.

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And yet, Spiral Scratch has an unmistakable message: time’s up. From the opening blast of ‘Breakdown’, Buzzcocks make the case for punk hitting its immediate expiration date. “Oh mum can I grow out of what’s too big for me? / I’ll give up that ghost before it gives up me.” Lead singer Howard Devoto practiced what he preached: before Spiral Scratch was even released, Devoto had already left Buzzcocks, soon to form one of the earliest post-punk bands, Magazine. Before most of the world even knew what punk rock was, one of its most important bands had already taken the piss out of it.

This is most clearly detailed in the EP’s standout track, ‘Boredom’. Directly dealing with the subculture that already looked stale to Devoto, the singer crowns himself a has-been and labels the still-thriving scene “very humdrum”. Just to lay the mockery on thick, Pete Shelley doesn’t even attempt a solo – he just plays two notes over and over, as if adding in any more will automatically be too histrionic.

By the time you catch your breath, it’s already time for the EP’s final song, ‘Friends of Mine’. A surreal look into the cast of characters that surrounded the band at the time, Devoto’s disdain and resentment is on full display: “There’s all these a-friends of mine / They’ve got me suffering / They don’t take a line / They keep me pissing adrenalin”. Even though Buzzcocks were moving at a faster speed than anyone, it was still too slow for their restless leaders.

Between Devoto’s incisive lyricism and Shelley’s ear for melodies, Buzzcocks were positioned to be punk’s most exciting band. Instead, the band immediately turned their back on a genre that was close to exploding into the mainstream consciousness. With Devoto’s departure, Shelley took over and almost instantly began a makeover of the band’s sound to allow a greater incorporation of hooks and pop sensibilities. As a straightforward punk band, Buzzcocks lasted only ten minutes.

It’s a whirlwind so intense that you’d be forgiven for blinking and missing it. As it turned out, Buzzcocks probably should have had more faith in their peers: classic releases from the Ramones, The Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Heartbreakers, and Television meant that punk rock didn’t have the extremely short shelf life that Devoto might have predicted. But it didn’t take long for the British scene to fragment and devolve, and by 1978 most of the original remnants had splintered or evolved towards new sounds.

When all the fat is trimmed, Spiral Scratch still looks and sounds like the definitive punk release. Not a second is wasted, and it almost presciently predicts the downfall of the genre in real time. Punk would survive, in one form or another, for the next five decades and still continues today, but the pure impact of the genre never seemed more powerful or fleeting than in the ten minutes it took for Buzzcocks to burn it all to the ground.

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