Punk history on the installment plan…part one
The Buzzcocks had to be quick because they didn’t know how long they would last. That’s what Pete Shelley told Tony Wilson over tea and cigarettes in this documentary B’dum B’dum from 1978.
Made as part of Granada TV’s What’s On series, B’dum B’dum follows the tale of the band Buzzcocks from formation to first split and the creation of splinter group Howard Devoto’s Magazine.
Shelley met Devoto at Bolton Institute of Technology in 1975. Shelley responded to an ad Devoto had placed on the student notice board looking for musicians to form a band. The pair clicked and started writing songs together. Then they wanted to perform their songs, so they sought out other musicians to play them (Steve Diggle, bass, and John Maher, drums), and hey presto, Buzzcocks.
The influence had been punk and The Sex Pistols, but Devoto found punk “very limiting” as “in terms of music there was a whole gamut of other stuff”:
“...Leonard Cohen, Dylan, David Bowie. With the Pistols and Iggy Pop, it was the anger and poetry which hooked me in really…
“I think that punk rock was a new version of trouble-shooting modern forms of unhappiness, and I think that a lot of our cultural activity is concerned with the process, particularly in our more privileged world, with time on our hands—in a world, most probably after religion.
“My life changed at the point I saw the Sex Pistols, and became involved in trying to set up those concerts for them. Suddenly I was drawn into something which really engaged me. Punk was nihilistic anger, not overtly political anger. Political anger could have been the radical Sixties.”
Pete Shelley, Tony Wilson, Howard Devoto during the making of ‘B’dum B’dum’ 1978.
The Buzzcocks recorded and released the “massively influential” Spiral Scratch a four track EP, which contained the Shelley/Devoto songs “Breakdown,” “Time’s Up,” “Boredom,” and “Friends of Mine.”
Devoto quit the Buzzcocks after the release of Spiral Scratch. In a statement issued in February 1977 he wrote:
“I don’t like most of this new wave music. I don’t like music. I don’t like movements.
“Despite all that, things have to be said.
“But I am not confident of Buzzcocks’ intention to get to the dry land of new waveness to a place from which these things could be said. What was once unhealthily fresh is now a clean old hat.”
Pete Shelley became the lead singer and songwriter with the Buzzcocks. The band signed to United Artists and under Shelley’s guidance they released a series of perfect post-punk pop hits: “What Do I Get?” “Love You More” “Ever Fallen In Love With (Someone You Shouldn’t've)” “Promises” “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays”.
Devoto was dissatisfied with music. His disaffection caused him to question the very passions that had inspired his music. Punk had fallen into parody, and the alternatives to it looked empty. A new direction had to be taken.
Devoto formed Magazine with Barry Adamson, John McGeoch, Martin Jackson and Dave Formula.
“Magazine was its own particular blend of trying to contain a certain sort of intelligence in that sort of music.”
Devoto was a strange mix of pride and insecurity that made him question and analyze everything far too much. After early success with Magazine, Devoto also quit that band and moved on. He eventually “retired” from music in 1990.
Shelley continued with The Buzzcocks. He developed as a talented songwriter and musician, and produced a clutch of solo albums.
If Devoto was the “Orson Welles of Punk,” then Shelley was Punk’s Michael Powell, writing quirky, luscious, original, passionate, and often unforgettable songs.
Buzzcocks in concert 1981.