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.
The Buzzcocks should have been massive. They should have been one of the major bands of the 1980s. But somehow it never happened. Musically they had evolved from punk into New Wave—which Shelley described as a bit of “spring cleaning”—into their very own idiosyncratic style. But somehow the audience didn’t go with them. While the Buzzcocks matured as a band, the fans had moved on to, say, Gary Numan, electronica, and the lipstick and powder of the New Romantic groups like Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran and Culture Club.
On January 23rd 1981, the Buzzcocks played their final gig before splitting-up in Hamburg. It was a superb farewell concert that makes you wonder why the hell they didn’t continue.
Track listing: “Why She’s a Girl From the Chainstore,” “What Do I Get?” “Fast Cars,” “Fiction Romance,” “Harmony In My Head,” “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays,” “Lipstick.” “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t've),” “Something’s Gone Wrong Again,” “Airwaves Dream,” “Strange Thing,” and “Noise Annoys.”
The Buzzcocks reformed in 1989 and are currently on a 40th anniversary tour in North America and Europe, details here.