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When a bunch of punks paid tribute to Johnny Cash at a low point in his career
12:28 pm


Johnny Cash
The Fall
Pete Shelley
The Mekons

Last night I saw a concert by Billy Bragg, whose socialistic music and entire socialistic steez has taken on new ultra-relevance in an era in which Donald Trump is the President of the United States of America. Bragg was suitably fired up, and you can be sure he whipped the audience at Cleveland’s Music Box Supper Club into a righteous frenzy before the night was out.

Opening was the venerable Jon Langford of the Mekons, and he told an amusing story from the stage involving Johnny Cash. The starting point was the ‘Til Things Are Brighter project, which Langford and former Fall member and later BBC deejay Marc Riley spearheaded as a way to pay homage to Cash. This was the late 1980s—seven years after Cash was nearly killed by an ostrich in 1981—and Cash’s stock was at a relative nadir. As Langford explained, Cash was a bit dejected because it looked for all the world like his productive career was over and he had little to look forward to beyond a lengthy dotage and an inevitable slide to obscurity.

The roster of musicians is rather eye-popping. The album opens with Michelle Shocked, whose breakthrough album Short Sharp Shocked came out the same year, doing “One Piece At A Time.” Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks covered “Straight A’s In Love” while Cabaret Voltaire‘s Steven Mallinder took on “I Walk the Line.” The Triffids’ David McComb gave “Country Boy” his best while Langford’s Mekons and Riley played “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Wanted Man,” respectively.

All thirteen backing tracks were recorded by Langford and Riley and their house band in one day at RikRak Studio in Leeds, and the vocal tracks were picked up as various opportunities arose over the next several weeks. As the Guardian’s Graeme Thomson wrote in 2011,

Langford recalls that Marc Almond, the one “proper” pop star taking part, came in and “told me I’d cut “Man in Black” in the wrong key. He had a horrible fit in the studio. Sally [Timms, from the Mekons] talked him down and coaxed this fantastic performance out of him, but I think he was a bit nervous. It was maybe a bit odd for him to be doing Johnny Cash songs.”

Odd perhaps, but Timms did some good work there—Almond’s vocal track is arguably the best thing on the album.

One of Langford and Riley’s clever ideas was to have Mary Mary, the (male) singer of the Grebo band Gaye Bykers on Acid execute a cover of Cash’s classic song “A Boy Named Sue.” They were concerned that Cash might not be enthusiastic being covered by anybody associated with a band of that name, but not a bit of it, he was totally open to it and found the idea entirely amusing.

Keep reading after the jump…

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
Watch the Buzzcocks’ farewell concert before they split in 1981

The story of the Buzzcocks begins with an ad on a college notice board in 1975. The ad was placed by a young musician named Howard Trafford at the Bolton Institute of Technology. Trafford was looking for like-minded musicians to form a band. A student called Peter McNeish replied and the band that was to become the Buzzcocks was born.

McNeish changed his name to Pete Shelley. Trafford changed his to Howard Devoto. A drummer and bass player were recruited and the foursome played their first gig in February 1976.

They had ideas, they had a sense of what they wanted to do, but it didn’t really all gel until Shelley and Devoto traveled to London to see the Sex Pistols play. This was the kind of music they wanted to play—fast, furious, with purpose and edge. Being enterprising young lads, they booked the Pistols to play a gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester—the venue Bob Dylan played in 1965 when he went electric and was called a “Judas.”

The Sex Pistols first appearance at the Lesser Free Trade Hall was in June 1976. It’s been well documented and fair to say it was one of those gigs that changed musical history.  Among the 35-40 people in attendance that night were Mark E. Smith who would form The Fall, Steven Patrick Morrissey who would go on to form The Smiths, Ian Curtis who became the lead singer of Joy Division, Paul Morley who would write for the NME before becoming involved with record label ZTT and the Art of Noise, and er…Mick Hucknall….which proves that not all revolutionary events end in change.
He was there: Pete Shelley showing the poster for the Sex Pistols second appearance at the Lesser Free Trade Hall with support from the Buzzcocks.
The Buzzcocks were supposed to support the Pistols that night—but Shelley and Devoto couldn’t rally any musicians together. This led to a more professional attitude and a new more permanent line-up. Steve Diggle joined on bass guitarist with John Maher on drums. When the Pistols returned in July, the Buzzcocks did support them this time. The Buzzcocks name came from a magazine headline—a review of the Rock Follies TV show—containing the words “buzz” and “cock.” You can see how this Sex Pistols-inspired name appealed to a group of young guys.

The band formed a record label, New Hormones, to release their first EP (the third ever punk single in the UK) “Spiral Scratch.” Unexpectedly, Devoto quit the band. Shelley took over lead vocals and shared songwriting duties with Steve Diggle—who had moved from bass to guitar while Stephen Garvey eventually joined as new bass player.

Over the next four years, the Buzzcocks produced a selection of powerful, memorable and infectious songs (“What Do I Get?” “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t've),” “Harmony In My Head” and “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays” to name but four) that were sharp and clever and often lyrically as good as songs written by Ray Davies for the Kinks but with a more frenetic beat.
More after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Pete Shelley, Howard Devoto, Buzzcocks and Magazine in vintage punk doc ‘B’dum B’dum’ from 1978

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.

Part two…

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.”
Parts three to five with Shelley and Devoto, plus full Buzzcocks concert, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Anarchy in the UK (for real): British establishment’s fear of an ACTUAL punk rock revolution, 1977
10:25 am


John Peel
Pete Shelley

If you want an idea just how seriously certain sections of the British Establishment feared Punk Rock then take a look at this incredible piece of archival television from 1977. It’s an edition of the BBC’s Brass Tacks—a current affairs series in which reporter Brian Trueman (perhaps better known now for those classic kids’ TV shows Chorlton and the Wheelies and Danger Mouse) introduced a brief film on Punk and then hosted a live studio debate between some of the youngsters featured in the piece—along with Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley and Radio One DJ John Peel—arguing the toss with a selection of crusty town councillors, from London, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow. These respectable citizens were out to ban Punk from various inner city venues. Add to this incendiary mix some comment from the press and a Pastor John Cooper, who wanted everyone to come to Jesus.

Okay, this all may sound like the comic ingredients to some grand mockumentary but these fears over the political aspect of Punk Rock and the potential for anarchy on the streets of Britain were very real at the time. As Brian Trueman says in his introduction:

“Punk Rock is more feared than Russian Communism.”

Why? What were these people thinking? What were they really scared of?

Well, to start at the beginning…

Britain in the 1970s was in a mess. It had high unemployment; three-day working weeks; nationwide power cuts that left everyone in the dark; taxation at astronomic levels; food shortages; endless strikes; and a crumbling infrastructure. All of this meant the Labour government feared a revolution was imminent.

To explain why this all came about let’s rewind the tape to a mass demonstration at Grosvenor Square, London, March 1968. This was where an anti-Vietnam War rally erupted into a pitched battle between protesters and police. Outside of the American Embassy 200 people were arrested; 86 were injured; 50 were taken to hospital, half of which were police officers. The Labour government were stunned that a group of protestors could cause such anarchy and disorder,—which (they believed) could have led to a mini-revolution on the streets of London.

In fear of revolution or such anarchy ever happening again, the government decided to take action. At first, ministers considered sending troops out into the streets. But after some reassuring words from Special Branch Chief Inspector Conrad Hepworth Dixon, they were convinced that the boys in blue could handle any civic disorder. Dixon was allowed to set up a new police force: the Special Demonstration Squad.

This was no ordinary police operation, the SDS had permission to be (quite literally) a law unto itself. Its officers could operate under deep cover. Infiltrate left-wing, fringe organizations and youth groups with the sole purpose of working as spies and agents provocateurs. Harold Wilson’s government agreed to pay for this operation directly out of Treasury funds.

The SDS carried on its undercover activities against any organization that they believed threatened Britain’s social order. This included unions, animal rights, anti-Nazi and anti-racist groups.

If that wasn’t worrying enough, the SDS were allegedly involved in the planting incendiary devices at branches of department store Debenhams in Luton, Harrow and Romford in 1987. It is also alleged, one member of the SDS was so deep undercover he was involved in writing the pamphlet that led to the famous “McLibel” trial of the 1990s.

The workings of the SDS were on a “need to know basis.” Only a handful of police knew exactly what this little club were up to. But their activities fuelled genuine fears amongst the British Establishment that there were “Reds under the beds,” and revolution was a literal stone’s throw away.

This was all going on behind-the-scenes. Out front, muppets like the councillors and journalists lined-up on this program, pushed the hysteria of Punk Rock riots and civil disobedience, that reflected the very genuine fears at the heart of the UK Establishment. (Note London councillor Bernard Brook-Partridge mention of “MI5 blacklists.”)

So, that’s the background to this fascinating archive of the year that politicians (and even the BBC) thought Punk Rock was a torch-bearer for bloody revolution.

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment