Shows that the Buzzcocks had more than one trick up their sleeve.
The world lost a titan when Pete Shelley, for years the songwriting mastermind behind the seminal punks Buzzcocks, passed away in December 2018. Shelley was easily one of the finest songwriters from the early explosions of punk rock, and his work shone all the more brightly in contrast to his contemporaries in how untethered it is to the zeitgeist of punk. While playing the likes of the Sex Pistols for younger ears may be a fruitless endeavor without the relevant context, no such context is needed to understand the Buzzcocks. Shelley and co-writer/co-vocalist Steve Diggle didn’t so much write punk as they wrote pop songs that fit in a punk framework. Their work deserves to be celebrated, and Domino have done just that with these reissues of two vastly different parts of the Buzzcocks catalogue: one off-beat album that deserves a second look and quite possibly the greatest singles collection of all time.
It’s often said that punk is a singles medium and that most of the bands of the era pressed their best work on 7-inch vinyl, one or two songs at a time. That may be an unfair assessment to level at the Buzzcocks, whose discography certainly merits further exploration than most people allow, but Singles Going Steady is most definitely their finest work as a band. Simply put, Singles Going Steady is one of the greatest compilations ever released, a punk classic that stands alongside London Calling as one of the most acclaimed albums ever in the genre, and deservedly so. From the initial fuzzy, primal bursts of “Orgasm Addict” to the looping, extended jam of “Why Can’t I Touch It?,” each song is an unimpeachable classic. Moreover, aside from the pretty obvious joke of “Orgasm Addict,” the band never rely on novelty to get their point across, choosing instead to tap into romantic longing and frustration as the fuel behind each of their songs. This wasn’t particularly new at the time; after all, songs about romantic longing and sexual insecurities have been the backbone of pop music since the ‘50s. However, Singles Going Steady showed that those themes could seamlessly fit into the aggressive, breakneck speed of punk while also expressing them in a different way. That these songs have retained their power in the 40 years since their release only confirms that Singles Going Steady is an absolutely essential listen.
That having been said, Steady often gets elevated at the expense of the Buzzcocks’ early albums, all of which showed a different side of the band that couldn’t necessarily be gleaned from the tight, punchy songs they often released as singles. This is especially true of A Different Kind of Tension, the most adventurous of their initial trio of albums. While not all of the band’s twists and experimentations on Tension necessarily work, the album as a whole holds up surprisingly well on a second listen. Steve Diggle’s songs, in particular, act as a purposeful contrast to the band’s fairly well-established sound, with the likes of “Sitting ‘round at Home” and “Mad Mad Judy” pushing the band in wildly different directions. Shelley sticks to the formula a bit at first (“You Say You Don’t Love Me” could have easily slotted in alongside any of the songs on Singles or previous album Love Bites), but by the second half of the album, all bets are off and Shelley ends up creating a sort of prototype for post-punk with “Hollow Inside” and the title track. Arguably, if one’s familiarity with the Buzzcocks begins and ends with Steady, then Tension could be a jarring and off-putting listen. Even so, it’s well worth the time, and it shows that the Buzzcocks had more than one trick up their sleeve.
The legacy of the Buzzcocks was likely never in danger of slipping away, but the fact that they continued to tour and produce records right up until Shelley’s passing did mean that people got worryingly comfortable with the idea of them always being there, which led to the band and their work largely being taken for granted rather than truly appreciated. In that sense, it’s nice to see the band’s work get such a loving treatment so that new listeners can discover one of the most important punk bands of all time, both at the ideal starting point and with one of their more rewarding detours.