Steve Diggle hasn’t spent this long away from a stage in 40-odd years. For the Buzzcocks guitarist, like everyone else, 2020 was a year of thwarted plans. Instead of touring Britain and America, Diggle spent the year in ‘self-analysis’ and writing a new album. What else for an aging punk to do? Except, of course, curate your legacy, grapple with the past.
When Diggle joined Buzzcocks in 1976, originally as the bass player, he didn’t imagine he would still be flying the flag 45 years later. It’s both a blessing and a curse. Though his band remains a going concern, the songs that shift tickets were written half a lifetime ago. ‘Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)’, ‘What Do I Get?’, ‘Everybody’s Happy Nowadays’, ‘Oh Shit’, ‘Promises’, ‘I Don’t Mind’. Sharp, sussed, poppy, playful, emotionally open and sexually daring, Buzzcocks made the best singles of the punk era. A new box set recycles these songs for the umpteenth time — and why not? As Diggle says: ‘They still sound like they were made last week. Ninety mph, with existential lyrics. Very direct and in your face.’
When original Buzzcocks singer Howard Devoto left the band only a few months into its existence, Diggle and guitarist Pete Shelley instantly resolved to carry on. ‘We had no choice,’ he says, Manchester accent still thick as smog. ‘We were conscientious objectors to work.’
Diggle switched to guitar, Shelley became lead vocalist, and they were off. They wrote together occasionally, but not often. ‘It’s like we knew each other too well,’ says Diggle, who was the alpha male in the partnership: gruffer, tougher, more overtly rock ’n’ roll. Shelley, by contrast, came over as wounded, arty, fey, frank. ‘We complemented each other. If it had all been one way it would have been too much. We realized that it worked.’
Shelley identified as bisexual, and his early songs played with fluidity of gender and sexual attraction in a way that now feels very on-trend but which at the time was rather brave. Before the New Romantics, Shelley called himself a modern romantic. His love songs were unguarded, fueled by the self-destructive realities and banal emotional violence of work a day longings. Far more radical, really, than the chin-out sloganeering of most punk.
‘We were open to anything at the time,’ says Diggle. ‘We were 20 years old and singing about orgasms and boredom. Bring anything to the party! Bowie had said he was gay years before; it wasn’t a big deal. It did help people, I think, Pete singing about sexuality, but he was singing about being a human more than the sexual thing. We sang about the human condition, and people related to that. These songs went straight to your heart and soul. I think Pete and I both felt that. And the music was very fast and made you feel alive. It made you question yourself.’
Buzzcocks’ run of classic singles, from‘ Orgasm Addict’ in 1977 to ‘Harmony in My Head’ in 1979, came easily. The dynamic between Shelley, Diggle, bassist Steve Garvey and drummer John Maher was such, says Diggle, that ‘it didn’t need explaining. We weren’t over-analyzing anything’. The music was an extension of their personalities. ‘When we went in the rehearsal room, one of us would say we had a new song and it goes like this, and by the time we’d finished it was put together. We didn’t have to struggle. We were aware we had a very distinctive sound. We knew we had good lyrics and melodies. We realized they were a lot different from most songs, that there was some greatness about them.’
Thoughts of posterity were given short shrift. The primary aim was to get a song recorded before the pubs reopened in the evenings. ‘That was the inspiration! We were on tour all the time and if we weren’t, we were jumping in and doing singles in an afternoon, in the pub by 5:30 and on Top of the Pops a couple of weeks later. At the time it was moving so fast, you don’t really know what you’ve got. We surfed on the ebb and flow of the tide, really.’
Buzzcocks split up in 1981. Each member had different ambitions. A&R men were dropping like flies, accountants were taking over, and the band’s increasingly experimental tendencies confused the record label. And another cliché: the lifestyle had them by the balls. ‘We were touring all the time,’ says Diggle. ‘I thought it was fantastic. Like Turner: tie yourself to the mast and experience all the elements. Sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, you name it, it was on. But it takes its toll and the wheels start to fall off the wagon. That’s kind of what happened. We needed a break.’
Diggle embarked on a solo career. So did Shelley. ‘He sounded lonely,’ reckons the guitarist. ‘He needed a band.’ Diggle and Shelley reformed Buzzcocks in 1989 and spent another 29 years together — touring regularly and releasing six more studio albums — until Shelley’s sudden death from a heart attack on December 6, 2018. The impact, ‘of course, was devastating. We’d shared a lot together, and we learned a lot off each other. Even the arguments were intellectual fencing. I didn’t know what the hell to do. I didn’t pick up a guitar for a few months.’
The Royal Albert Hall was already booked for a Buzzcocks show in June 2019. It turned into a memorial concert for Shelley. As the sole original member, Diggle resolved to keep the band going.
‘It was a weird thing. We did a festival in Newcastle just weeks before Pete died. He came to my room and said, “I think I want to retire, you can carry on with my blessing.”He did that twice on that tour. I said, “You’re going nowhere, we’ve got a lot more to do.” When he died, which nobody expected, I remembered that. I thought, I’ll go down if I don’t keep continuing.’
Buzzcocks played nine shows in December 2019, the first ever without Shelley. ‘I said to the fans, “You know the deal. Don’t buy a ticket if you have a negative attitude, only come with a positive attitude.”’ As with any band that spans more than four decades, their history is a patchwork of many phases.
‘Like the Ming dynasty,’ says Diggle. ‘I can’t bring Pete Shelley back, much as I’d love to. I have to move on. I’ve been through the pain, and we have to move forward. The fans can still hear Pete’s songs, I’m keeping them alive as well as the Buzzcocks.’
Buzzcocks: Complete UA Singles 1977-80 is out now. This article was originally published in The Spectator’s April 2021 US edition.