Steve Diggle has just returned from Florida when the The Guide catches up with the Buzzcocks guitarist and vocalist. “It was a few shows on a punk ocean liner,” he happily reports.
“I’ve never played on a boat before but it was really good. It was like Blackpool Rebellion on a boat full of 3,000 or so punks. We sailed from Key West and went to the Bahamas, rocking the boat all the way.”
Next week the band, who formed in Manchester in 1976, will be playing rather closer to their origins – in Millennium Square, Leeds. Buzzcocks are one of four groups on a bill fusing original punk and ska. Also due to perform are Stiff Little Fingers, The Beat and The Selecter.
Diggle says they’re all acts that Buzzcocks have “run into here and there” over the last 40 years. “At various festivals we bump into each other and we know each other’s music. There’s a mutual love and understanding between us all, and also playing together there’s going to be a great mix.
“I drew upon ska as much as rock ’n’ roll and everything else in the past, so putting that all together will be a good combination. Put that all in a big square in Leeds – it’s going to be magical.”
The punk movement – of which Buzzcocks were a significant part – was a major influence on the fledgling 2 Tone ska scene in the Midlands in the late 1970s – yet Diggle says it wasn’t something he was particularly aware of at the time. “Making a record was like sending a postcard in the old days. There were no computers, no email, no [mobile] phones, so that was your means of communication. When we made the records we didn’t realise the longevity or effect it was going to have on people apart from the moment.
“Particularly with Buzzcocks, the amount of people that they were inspired by us to form bands or it changed their lives, that comes as a great compliment after. Hopefully we’ve influenced people for the good.”
Alongside the Pistols, The Clash and The Jam – “that was the nucleus of it” – Diggle sees Buzzcocks’ distinctive contribution to punk as “putting a proposition forward and saying ‘We haven’t got the answers but make of that what you will’. It gave people something to think about – a bit more than Showaddywaddy.”
Diggle had been trying to form a band inspired by The Who “with two kids down the road” when he first encountered future Buzzcocks bandmates Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto. The pair had invited the Sex Pistols to perform at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester and Diggle happened to be passing the venue en route to a nearby pub to discuss his own band when he was collared by the Pistols’ manager. “Malcolm McLaren, being into that Situationist thing, said ‘They’re inside here’. I thought, ‘I don’t remember anything about this’. It was like a Brian Rix farce. Pete Shelley was collecting the tickets and Howard was doing something with the lights. I said to Pete Shelley I’d have a talk in the bar. They were expecting somebody else and conversations got mixed up.
“The next day we had a rehearsal. Howard singing, Pete on guitar, me on the bass and away we went from there. To quote Yeats, ‘a terrible beauty was born’. I’d written a song called Fast Cars and they had Boredom and Orgasm Addict so we blasted through them and a few other. We had about three weeks then until the Sex Pistols came back to get the band together.”
They’d just built the Arndale Centre and it was like a Kafka-esque nightmare walking down the street, all the noise and wailing sounds down the high street. It was a percolation of all that and going ‘Well, it’s a harmony in my head’.Steve Diggle
At that fateful gig, Diggle remembers journalists who’d been sent to review the Pistols were “amazed that there was this local band Buzzcocks...It put the provinces on the map then; it wasn’t all London-based.”
Buzzcocks’ self-released first EP, Spiral Scratch, forged the way for the DIY scene. “It’s now seen as a stroke of genius, but it was also a stroke of necessity,” Diggle says. “That realisation that for £500 you could make this EP. We thought if we make a few we could give it to the audience when we played in Manchester. We made 1,000 of those and they went within a couple of days.”
The record itself was made in an afternoon with Martin Hannett. “It was the first time we’d been in a proper studio and the engineer said ‘That doesn’t sound right, Martin Hannett’s messing with all the knobs and making it sound awful’. But it was the sound that became Spiral Scratch so it was kind of a work of genius.
“The idea of going ‘Well, we can just make our own [record]’ there wasn’t really anybody else doing that, that’s a legendary thing, looking back. That inspired a lot of people too, with Buzzcocks: apart from the music it was do-it-yourself.”
Devoto left the band but after signing to United Artists they went on to have a string of top 40 hits. Diggle remembers a stark contrast between their live gigs where “people would come alive” and miming songs on Top of the Pops. “It was great to do, having watched it as a kid you think you’d made it, but also there was that disregard for it as well. The Clash didn’t go on there; I didn’t want to go on there either. It was only because the others wanted to go on [that we did]. You were miming and you thought you were not really playing to the people. You might have been in Middlesbrough Town Hall the night before and saw the real people compared to sanitised things such as Top of the Pops.
“But having said that, the way I justified it was watching Top of the Pops as a kid you’d see one or two acts that really meant something to you then the rest was all the comedy records and the jokey things. I suppose looking at it that way it was good when we were on and The Jam and people like that, they might as well watch us than something else.”
Reflecting on the content of his band’s output, Diggle once said Buzzcocks had always sung about the human condition. He believes that’s why they continue to resonate today. “There’s kind of realism about it. You get certain songs are beautiful but don’t mean anything really. They sound wonderful, this dreamland somewhere, but there was a lot of reality in our songs and it was like the Shakespearean human condition. I know we said ‘have you ever fallen in love?’ but when I wrote Promises I’d left the verses at home and Pete had some [instead]. It was supposed to be promises about the government and he turned it into a bloody love song.
“Harmony in My Head was inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses’ cinematic imagery and alienation in your town. They’d just built the Arndale Centre [in Manchester] and it was like a Kafka-esque nightmare walking down the street, all the noise and wailing sounds down the high street. It was a percolation of all that and going ‘Well, it’s a harmony in my head’ because there was the harmony of the crowd of people and all the problems but it’s still a beautiful thing to be alive. I read a bit later Plato was thinking of harmony as well but I wasn’t thinking of him at the time, I was thinking about James Joyce’s Ulysses, that cinematic thing, rather than it being a linear song.
“Why She’s a Girl from the Chainstore, which was way before Morrissey, was like a long sociological question and I used the chainstore girl as the vehicle. I read this book saying about underachievers and overachievers and how the language spoken in the classroom at the time to a working class kid could be different to what’s spoken at home. You might hear a load of swear words at home then someone says ‘ubiquitous’ or something in the classroom and it spellbound people, and people who’d underachieved could understand the language. So that’s why [the line] ‘Facing Bernstein’s barrier/Waiting for someone to marry her’ is in Why She’s a Girl from the Chainstore. I just wanted someone to go ‘What’s Bernstein’s language barrier?’
“It’s all those things going on. It wasn’t just love songs, it’s all the complications you get in life. Sometimes you get bogged down with Ever Fallen in Love but Autonomy, Joe Strummer’s favourite song, wasn’t a love song, it was about self-rule; Sick City Sometimes, a later song, was about the alienation and the gentrification of places which as each day happens that song’s become more of a prophecy, more than I ever thought.
“So the songs are full of complications. There’s tragedy, comedy and everything else – like Shakespeare. We’ve tried to encompass a lot. It’s not a conscious thing, it’s just who we are, really. You’d wake up in the morning and write these songs because you had to, that’s what came out. Stockhausen said ‘We’ve all got antennas’ – what you pick up that goes inside you and then what comes out is the other bit. It wasn’t calculated pop writing particularly like they do now with teams of professional songwriters. They came from the heart and the soul so I think that’s resonated over the years. People know you’re not bull****ing them, we’re just reflecting a bit of real life back, the same as the audience. We’re not singing about things that people haven’t experienced.”
Buzzcocks’ last album, The Way, was released four years ago but it seems fans may have to wait for a follow-up. “Pete lives in Tallinn in Estonia now and we haven’t really been writing [for Buzzcocks],” Diggle says. “We’ve been on the road for the last two years. We did 80 shows last year and 90 shows the year before and I’m not sure whether he is ready to write another album.”
In the meantime Diggle has released his fourth solo record, Inner Space Times. “That was a more heavy journey,” he says. There’s also a box set of his solo material from over the years available via stevediggle.uk.com.
“Hopefully somewhere along the line there might be a Buzzcocks album as well eventually,” he says.
Not that they have any shortage of material to play live. With a back catalogue of more than 150 songs, the problem is refining it down for a set list, Diggle says.
“At the moment it’s trying to cover stuff of each album. There’s a lot of great singles there and album tracks.
“The great thing about Buzzcocks is live performance, the magic of it. We’ve never asked anybody to get up off their chair and clap their hands, they do it, and that energy and that relationship between the band and audience has always been pretty electric. That’s the reason for doing it live. When they sing ‘There’s a harmony in my head’ you think ‘What a great communication between us’ and the other songs. Take it down there and let them sing it. By that time I’ve probably forgotten it anyway,” he laughs.
“The crowd love it and we love it and it justifies us carrying on. People say ‘After all these years doesn’t it get boring?’ but each audience is different. You only get an hour and 15 minutes in a room together and that’s the moment you see God and the devil and everything else in your life. That thing between the band and the crowd that’s where the magic and the incredible things happen. It does bring people alive, that’s the main thing. The moment of realisation that sometimes a band and the right gig can be an amazing thing. Take it away in your mind, like looking at a great painting.”
Buzzcocks, Stiff Little Fingers, The Beat and The Selecter play in Millennium Square, Leeds on Friday May 25. www.millsqleeds.com