Music History

How Legendary British Punk Band Buzzcocks Almost Never Existed

Steve Diggle didn’t really intend to be in Buzzcocks, a band that, along with the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Jam and the Damned, formed the nucleus of England’s punk explosion four decades ago. In fact, Diggle might have ended up in a different band altogether. In the summer of 1976, after having answered an ad in a local paper, he was standing outside of a music venue in Manchester where the Sex Pistols were scheduled to play, and Malcolm McLaren, the Pistols’ manager, told Diggle that there were some guys inside who were waiting to meet someone to form a band. Diggle stepped inside, where he met Pete Shelley, who was collecting tickets at the door, and Howard Devoto, who he thinks might have been working the lights. Upon talking to Shelley and Devoto, though, Diggle became a bit confused. Some things he had discussed over the phone with the guy who had placed the ad didn’t jibe with what Shelley and Devoto were talking about.

Much of what they said did make sense to him, like “‘Let’s start a band’ and stuff,” he remembers. “But I thought, this is a bit of a misunderstanding. [It turns out] the guy I was supposed to meet and the guy they were supposed to meet were still outside; they never met him. They’re probably still there now.”

The whole project started with a mixup, but the following day, Diggle, Shelley and Devoto plugged into a cheap practice amp, and away they went. The three played one of Diggle’s songs, “Fast Cars” (which he originally intended to play with the other guy), and Buzzcocks were born.

“Three things were going into one little speaker,” Diggle recalls. “Terrible noise, really. It wasn’t all nice and stereo or anything. It was just this thing, [but] you could hear and figure out, ‘Wow, this is something really exciting.’ It was like, ‘Wow, this is really powerful,’ right away — just like that. It just shows that you don’t need all the equipment and all that, really — [just] a $20 practice amp. But you’ve got to have a few ideas. That’s what it’s about. You’ve got to know what you’re doing with it.”

Three weeks later, in July 1976, Buzzcocks, armed with a brief set of short and fast pop-punk songs, opened for the Sex Pistols — who were still relatively unknown — when the band returned to Manchester.

“All the press came down to review the Pistols and were blown away because there was this band from Manchester,” Diggle says. “That put us on the map — the press and everything. It’s like, ‘Wow, there’s a band in the provinces. It’s not all about the center of London.’ It blew people’s minds what we did there. It’s like, ‘Wow, the Buzzcocks. From Manchester?’ From down the road. It was kind of like, ‘Wow, where did these guys come from?’

“That was amazing, because it was our first show,” he continues. “I was little bit nervous, a little bit excited. I didn’t know how people were going to react to this. The set was only like 25 minutes. Amazing. At the end they all cheered and went crazy. It was like, ‘Wow, this thing works.’”

Indeed. Although Devoto would go on to form post-punk act Magazine shortly after helping start Buzzcocks, Shelley and Diggle have endured over the past four decades, with a few lineup changes, breakups and reunions along the way.

When punk music blew up in 1976, “punk” was used as an umbrella term, Diggle notes, and in the beginning, nobody knew what the difference between bands was. “They just knew it was this powerful explosion. But then it was, ‘You have to get an identity.’ It wasn’t a conscious thing, but it was like, ‘Well, this is what we do with it.’ It’s a very distinctive sound we’ve got, really. Same as the Clash and people like that. They became what they became — their own identity, too. It was about, ‘Okay, we’ve kicked the doors down, we’ve made the noise, now we’re going to make some records on this journey.’”

Buzzcocks’ first three albums (Another Music in a Different Kitchen, Love Bites and A Different Kind of Tension, all released in the late ’70s), as well as later material released in the ’90s and 2014’s The Way, overflowed with, as Diggle puts it, “catchy tunes and great riffs. People can remember all that, you know? It’s a very direct and definite thing. Like, there’s only one Buzzcocks like there’s only one Ramones. Ramones were big fans of ours. There’s only Buzzcocks. So when people come to the shows, they know what they’re getting.”

These days, the Buzzcocks fan base reaches far and wide, with younger fans who weren’t even born when the band started. “It’s kind of like we span three generations, at least,” Diggle says. “The music lives on. The earliest stuff, some of it even sounds like it was made last week.... Songs live on through all different things. That’s a great thing — younger people picking up on it over the years.”

Diggle, who’s releasing a new solo album later this month, says both the older material and the newer songs from The Way have been received well on the band’s fortieth-anniversary tour, which has taken the foursome through Europe and North America so far. The tour includes dates at the Punk Rock Bowling music festival in Las Vegas, where it was begun in 1999 by BYO Records/Youth Brigade founders Shawn and Mark Stern, and at the fest’s Denver debut, which also includes FLAG, D.O.A., Millencolin and Anti-Nowhere League.

“We have to keep to a certain framework of what we know,” Diggle says of the newer songs. “But also we have gone into different places along the way. That’s what makes it great and interesting, really, and good.”      
Diggle says that “People Are Strange Machines,” from The Way, couldn’t have been written four decades ago, “because there were no computers and mobile phones in those days. It wasn’t that kind of world years ago, I couldn’t have related.... A machine controlling us or are we controlling the machine, which is a big part of our lives. In 1977, it wasn’t.

Punk Rock Bowling festival featuring Buzzcocks, 7 p.m., Thursday, June 2, Summit Music Hall, 1902 Blake Street, $22-$25, with the Briefs, D.O.A. and the Pitch Invasion.