As he approaches the first Buzzcocks tour without his lifelong friend and bandmate Pete Shelley, Steve Diggle is in the mood for reflection.
When we speak it’s almost a year to the day since Shelley’s sudden death from a heart attack at the age of 63, and Diggle is still coming to terms with the singer, guitarist and songwriter with whom he worked for 42 years.
“Pete Shelley’s death came out of the blue, really. I didn’t know he was ill or anything like that,” he says, recalling how the pair had been discussing new material shortly beforehand.
“I know he didn’t particularly want to do a new album in some ways, but I’d done some demos and I was trying to get him to do some. I was going to send him some stuff to work on to get it going. During the last year we spoke twice about [how] he was thinking of leaving anyway and said, ‘Carry on with my blessing’, but I was saying to him, ‘Don’t be silly, you’re here for the duration of it’.
“We were chatting over a drink on the balcony and he did mention [leaving the band] twice last year, which, looking back, was kind of weird. I was kind of thinking, ‘Oh, he’s a bit tired tonight’. You’re never thinking that’s going to happen.”
In the aftermath of Shelley’s death, Diggle, 64, contemplated returning to his solo career before being persuaded by fans and his current bandmates Chris Remington and Danny Farrant to continue the group that he had first joined in 1976, a few months after their formation by Shelley and Howard Devoto.
“The fans said, ‘Carry on, Steve, keep it going, keep the songs alive’ and all that stuff, and of course you’ve got the other band members as well. I realised I’d written 50 songs for Buzzcocks and about 80 or 90 on my solo albums, so there are a lot of lyrics there, some you can’t remember from your history, but the fact is I thought there’s 50 songs there of mine as well, it’s my band as well as Pete Shelley’s. Fast Cars was the first song I wrote for Buzzcocks, Pete put the verse on it because he was the singer at the time but I wrote the music and the chords; the same with Promises – Pete sang a verse because I’d left my lyrics at home. Why Can’t I Touch it was mine too, then there’s Harmony in my Head.
“So when you add all them up there’s a lot of my songs in there as well as the great Peter Shelley’s songs. That was another reason for carrying on. Essentially I’ll be playing a lot of my songs. It’s not like we’re going to do a whole tour of Pete Shelley’s songs, we will do a lot of his to remember him, keep him alive, that’s my brother musically. For now anyway it seemed a good idea to carry on. If we don’t carry on then Buzzcocks is completely dead, so we’ll see where we go from here.”
To coincide with the December tour, Buzzcocks have announced a new single. Diggle says: “It’s called Gotta Get Better, which is ironic, really. The B-side is called Destination Zero, which I like as well – that’s a bit heavier. Gotta Get Better is a bit more like Promises and What Do I Get.
“We’re having a box set out of the later stuff. We’ve had the first three or four albums out on Domino but the other ones tend to be forgotten, only the classic people know them. Things like Modern [from 1999] and the black album, just called Buzzcocks [from 2003], and The Way [from 2014]. It’s great in a way because they tend to get overshadowed by the earlier albums. We’ve just signed them all to Cherry Red and they want to do a box set, which is nice.
“We’ve done these two new songs in that vein of classic Buzzcocks single thing, which gives the band relevance for now. It’s like the manager said to me, ‘Well, Howard Devoto was the singer then Pete Shelley and now you are’. It’s a long tradition, if you look at it like that.”
Buzzcocks play at Sheffield Foundry on December 20 and The Key Club, Leeds on December 21. ww.buzzcocks.com