It’s very sad news for Manchester with the untimely death of Pete Shelley, co-founder and mostly lead singer of Buzzcocks.
Let’s not forget that Buzzcocks (never The Buzzcocks) were pioneers. They were the first ostensibly local Manchester group in Year Zero: 1976. The Manchester area had not had a really local major group since The Hollies. 10cc were too internationalist in outlook. Van Der Graaf Generator were clearly from another planet. But Buzzcocks were clearly local. Nobody born more than 5 miles from Irlams o’ Th’ Height could understand anything they were singing about on that first wonderful, peerless, still awe-inspiring release, the Spiral Scratch EP, released early in 1977.
At first there were two leaders. Not just Pete, but the exotically-craniumed Howard Devoto. For neither was that their real name. Pete was the more prosaically Pete McNeish, Howard was Howard Trafford, and as was the fashion in punk times they changed their surnames, like John Lydon and John Mellor, Pete choosing, I always liked to think, that of his favourite radical poet forever linked with Peterloo.
Pete and Howard, students in Bolton, decided in the spring of 1976 that what Manchester needed at the Free Trade Hall was a visit from the Sex Pistols. They’d never heard them. How could they have in pre-Internet days when they had no records out and had never played in the North? All they knew is that Manchester needed a kick up itself.
The gig they put on on the 4th of June 1976 changed everything. More bands formed than people attending. Buzzcocks were too nervous to play that time. When Tony Wilson, flushed with excitement, went to his bosses at Granada TV to proclaim that history had been made he was reminded that only 42 people were present. “So what,” retorted Wilson, “How many were at the Last Supper?” “Twelve”, said the producer. “Thirteen, if you count Jesus,” Tony corrected.
At the second Pistols gig six weeks later Buzzcocks made their debut. The name came from a throwaway line in Time Out: “Get a buzz, cock.” The sound soon settled into the Beatles meets the Ramones. Magnificent melodies, breakneck playing, heartbreaking hooks. “Spiral Scratch” became one of the most influential releases in music history. It was the template for hundreds of punk singles. It pioneered the do-it-yourself philosophy of recording. Don’t wait for a contract from CBS. Do it yourself. The sleeve was a polaroid of the band at the Robert Peel statue in Piccadilly Gardens. They obviously chose that one to attract the attention of John Peel (no relation). Soon they were an alternative radio staple.
When Howard Devoto left in 1977 everyone said that would be it. They were totally wrong. Buzzcocks improved. Those singles! “What Do I Get?”, “I Don’t Mind”. Manchester held its breadth for the next. Could they better that? Yes! “Love You More”. Then came the big one, “Ever Fallen In Love?”. It’s the one everyone knows, recorded not in Manchester but in Barnes, London, where Hendrix cut “Are You Experienced?” When the quality slipped a little in ’79 and they ran out of teen anthems they turned to Can for inspiration and expanded their sound. Then like much of punk it was all over in a flash.
* As a mark of respect Metrolink should play E.S.P. on the hour for a whole day next week.