Steve Diggle of Buzzcocks: ‘It feels like Pete Shelley’s still with me’

The Covid pandemic might have paused Steve Diggle’s plans to take the reactivated Buzzcocks on a tour of the United States but the singer and guitarist has used the months confined to home profitably.

Buzzcocks

A new, as yet untitled, album is in the bag for release – he hopes – in spring 2022, continuing the legacy of one of Manchester’s finest bands. Fans attending their gig at The Piece Hall in Halifax next weekend may even get a chance to hear a couple of the new songs in their set.

“I thought there’s no point just carrying on Buzzcocks playing all the stuff from the past,” says the 66-year-old who took up the band’s reins following the death of Pete Shelley in 2018. “I’m happy to do that, but when you want to have some relevance a new album can only do that.”

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If Diggle’s impetus to write new material stemmed partly from the fact that he found listening to the old songs “too emotional” after the loss of his long-time friend and bandmate, he strived to ensure it contains “all the classic Buzzcocks elements”, condensed into songs with a running time of no more than three and a half minutes long.

“It’s like this is part of a new phase and new style, but it’s still the Buzzcocks as well,” he says. “I didn’t particularly want to do it like the first album (Another Music in a Different Kitchen) but there’s one song on there that sounds very much like to could be on Spiral Scratch (the band’s landmark EP from 1977).

“I had these other songs that have choruses like Harmony (In My Head) and Ever Fallen in Love...they’re all very catchy, you don’t have to work out whether you like it or not, they’ve all got the classic Buzzcocks’ tug, but then halfway through this song came to me, Senses Out of Control, and all of a sudden I got transported back to the first rehearsal we had with Howard Devoto, Pete Shelley, myself and John Maher.

“It must have been a moment where I was remembering where I’d come from. It was all a bit reflective in lockdown, so this song came out like that. In the studio I made it sound like something off Spiral Scratch.”

While Shelley continues to memorialised – with a blue plaque outside his childhood home in Leigh and a well-received book of ‘lost’ interviews by Louie Shelley – Diggle finds his own grief over the death of his musical “brother” has now given way to “fond memories” of the 40 years they knew each other. “You’ve got to adjust a bit,” he says.

The song Hope Heaven Loves You, from the new album, is directly addressed to Shelley. “The lyric came to me one day and I thought ‘wow, this one’s going to be about Pete’,” Diggle says. “I thought what a lovely thing if I could write some kind of thing to his memory.

“I’ve got a couple of Eno moments on this album, backing vocals, a Here Come the Warm Jets kind of thing, and it actually sounds like Pete in a weird way as well,” he adds. “It feels like he’s still with me. I know Pete Shelley loved Eno and Bowie. It’s an unusual way for an acknowledgement, it’s not too obtrusive, but in some way it feels like he’s there, which is nice.”

Also during lockdown, Diggle re-recorded one of his best-known self-penned songs with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. “It was the 50th anniversary of the BBC Philharmonic and they asked me would I like to do Harmony in My Head with an orchestra. At first I thought I was going to be away somewhere doing some shows, we were possibly going America, but then Covid happened and they got in touch again.

“I went down to Media City (in Salford Quays) not knowing what to expect, I thought ‘I wonder if it’s like some junior orchestra or a few cellos and a couple of violins’ but there were about 50 of them there, kettle drums, the lot. I’d never envisaged when we started I’d be playing with an orchestra doing Harmony in my Head. I think we only ran through it three times, they were well versed in it, but I said to them, ‘I hate to sound old-fashioned but they used to count me in on the stage, 1-2-3-4’. Now the guys that were at the mixing desk said, ‘We like the 1-2-3-4’ bit.”

In January, it’ll be the 45th anniversary of Spiral Scratch, the only EP the band made with original singer Howard Devoto. Buzzcocks were the first punk band from outside London to release a record and its impact was considerable. Diggle recalls recording the four tracks in an afternoon with producer Martin Hannett. “We’d done what became the Time’s Up bootleg before, but that was in somebody’s loft, this was a proper studio,” he says. “As we were recording it every time the engineer made it sound good Martin Hannett would chip in and make it sound terrible, much to the frustration of the engineer who was going, ‘What’s he doing? I don’t think he knows how to work a mixing desk’. It being our first time in that situation, we weren’t sure what was going on with it.

“I’m not sure he didn’t put some amps out in the corridor where the trash cans go. We did the four tracks in an afternoon and there was one guitar overdub, probably on Boredom. On the one hand it sounded terrible, on the other it sounded beautiful. I kind of came away thinking, ‘I thought it was going to sound great in the studio, but this sounds pretty strange’. When you go into a 24-track studio, people seemed to come out with this polished thing, whereas this was almost anti-production, but as soon as we heard it we thought it kind of captured what we wanted to do in that moment. To quote Yeats, ‘a terrible beauty was born’.”

Diggle says they were aware at the time of the impact the EP had on the Manchester music scene. “When we recorded Spiral Scratch we thought, ‘this is a bit powerful’ and once we saw a few people’s reactions to it we realised it was as powerful as we thought. We did quite a lot of gigs around Manchester and John (Cooper Clarke) came along with his friends. It did inspire a lot of people, it was a bit rough but it was defiant, there were clever words and a two-note solo, it was an assault on all the senses, it was unapologetic, you’d got to react to it, this ain’t here to please you, it’s there to open your mind.”

Buzzcocks play at the Spiegeltent at Halifax Piece hall on December 11. www.buzzcocks.com