Although it is a compilation album, Buzzcocks‘ 1979 release, Singles Going Steady, makes a strong case for being the best punk record of all time. Before the purists get all flustered, we’re not definitively saying it is; rather that it makes an excellent account of itself. Rocket to Russia, Never Mind the Bollocks or The Clash, but Singles Going Steady can in many ways be hailed as the artistic combination of the three aforementioned records.
Lyrically humourous, serious and introspective all at different points, political and brimming with Buzzcocks’ playful attitude, much like that year’s London Calling, it took punk and infused it with something a bit different. Nowhere to be found is the futile, faux-nihilism of the Sex Pistols, and musically, the album is much more than stereotypical three chords of punk.
Obviously, Buzzcocks are highly rated, but Singles Going Steady is the clearest reflection that they deserve more plaudits. Late frontman Pete Shelley’s lyrical style and vocal delivery remain unmatched, and given the time, they were nothing short of pioneering. Marking the band out from the majority of their British punk peers, Shelley’s discussion of sexuality, gender and love gave the first punk wave what it needed, some humanity.
Taking the sugary melodies of the early Beatles and The Kinks, Buzzcocks infused them with the raucous punk spirit, and in many ways, this can be hailed as one of the main reasons why the Manchester band’s records have endeared themselves to so many, for so long.
Expertly perfecting the blend of pop and punk, there can be no surprise that the modern master of blending the two disparate genres, Kurt Cobain, was a massive fan of the band and record. Buzzcocks would famously tour with Nirvana on their final run of dates in 1994 before Cobain tragically passed away in April that year.
Earworm after earworm, and stuffed with no end of shifting dynamics, Singles Going Steady is a pure delight. There are countless hooky-riffs, anthemic choruses, funky basslines, that are all held up by the band’s severely underrated drummer, John Maher. In a way, the album can be taken as the band at their zenith.
16 tracks featuring takes from Shelley, guitarist and sometimes vocalist Steve Diggle, who cuts an eerily similar figure to Paul Weller on ‘Harmony In My Head’, and even former frontman Howard Devoto of Magazine fame, Singles Going Steady, is a culmination of the band’s history. That year, the band would also release their experimental third album, A Different Kind of Tension, to a mixed response, before parting ways in 1981.
In no way a greatest hits record, although it feels like one, the album serves to delineate the band’s two distinct epochs. In short, this is the band at their most sonically iconic. Along with their contemporaries The Clash, on the record, Buzzcocks helped to show that punk is an ethos and not just an overdone aesthetic or sneering outlook.
They showed that punk could be augmented by veering off from the scene’s unwritten manifesto. It encompasses power-pop, pop-punk and new wave, in a way that none of their contemporaries really did. You could perhaps posit that Buzzcocks paved the way, in terms of room in the collective conscious for that type of very British, arty strain of punk that boasted the likes of XTC and Squeeze.
Listening to the record, you are reminded of just how great Shelley and Diggle’s knack for penning dovetailing, catchy riffs really was. The album is also smattered with Steve Garvey’s grooving and punchy basslines, another very understated bass player.
‘Orgasm Addict’, ‘What Do I Get?’, ‘Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)’, ‘What Ever Happened To?’ and ‘Why Can’t I Touch It?’ are just some of the album’s classic highlights. In fact, the latter ranks among the best punk songs ever written. Its iconic bassline, syncopated guitar lines, Shelley’s catchy vocal melody and the anthemic chorus, establish the song as one of the most apparent indicators that a new era had risen. The ’80s were at the door.
It’s about time Singles Going Steady made a proper resurgence. In 2021, it is remarkable that the album still holds a deeply refreshing quality, and this tells us a lot about music’s current juncture. The album does the basics of music brilliantly, and that is its true majesty.
Austere yet experimental, punk but containing other spices, introspective and vengeful, it’s a wicked sonic delight that’s always worth a revisit. Just think, without it, there would be no Nirvana, Fugazi or even At The Drive In. Let that sink in.
Listen to Singles Going Steady below.