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Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks: “We never expected 40 years”

buzzcocks pete shelley

WITH a forty-year career and string of bonafide punk-pop classics under his belt, Buzzcocks frontman Pete Shelley could be forgiven for wanting to slow down and take stock. In true punk fashion, however, that’s exactly what the 60 year-old is not doing.

The frontman and songwriter of ‘Orgasm Addict’ and ‘Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)’ is taking his band on a world tour to celebrate four decades in the business. Just don’t expect the understated and softly-spoken Shelley to do anything but take it all in his stride.

“We’re naming all our shows this year our 40th anniversary shows,” he says. “But it’s something which has snuck up on us really. We never expected 40 years; even 40 minutes would have been stretching it when we started. We started off with small expectations and didn’t know how long we could carry on before someone stopped us. [Punk was] the most un-commercial form of music we could imagine. It was completely the antithesis of what popular or critically-acclaimed music was at the time, and that’s probably why it worked, because it wasn’t the same old, same old. I tend to see how it actually was, to keep myself from slipping into nostalgia. I think nostalgia is for other people, but it does occur to you sometimes; I think ‘Oh, there are quite a lot of good songs we’ve got’.”

The quartet, also including long-serving guitarist Steve Diggle, are bringing their glorious punk-pop anthems to Australia to play Golden Plains Festival and a string of state capital shows. Preparations have begun in earnest.

“We started rehearsals on Wednesday and have a list that is 48 songs long,” Shelley says. “There’s no way we’re going to be able to play all 48 at one gig. We’re trying to get up to speed on enough songs so, during the year, we can chop and change to keep it fresh, instead of having the same 20 songs being played all the time. I think I’ve written about 120-130 songs, or maybe up to 150. Even choosing 48 out of those; there are still lots of ones I’d forgotten I’d written, so I suppose we’ve got an expansive piece of cloth to cut our modest garments on.”

While the vast majority of bands from the original wave of punk are long gone, Buzzcocks have endured line-up changes, break-ups, and the stress of putting together nine studio albums and countless tours. The secret to the band’s longevity is simple, Shelley insists.

“I think the obvious reason is we couldn’t take a hint,” he laughs. “We’re almost like brothers now. I’ve probably spent more time with Steve in the past 40 years than with my own brother. We still disagree on most things, but we agree to disagree. It’s an important step in life to be able to do that [laughs].”

In an interesting twist of fate, the DIY aesthetic of ’70s punk is once again an element of Buzzcocks’ recording, with 2014’s The Way being made with the help of online crowd-funding.

“We went back and made our own album again, so we were right back to the DIY principle,” Shelley says. “It gives you the control and you have a relationship with the people who are buying your records and appreciating it. I’d rather that than getting someone else to sell it to complete strangers. You’re making music for your friends. Making an album can be quite daunting because normally it’s done in complete secrecy and nobody knows you’re doing anything, but with this, it’s a bit more transparent and people’s enthusiasm that you’re doing it is something that gets relayed to you.”

buzzcocks

The chances of Shelley adding to his 150 tracks written isn’t exactly helped by his song-writing style. The suggestion he makes it hard for himself is laughed off in his typically understated manner.

“I’m not actively writing at the moment,” he says. “The way I write songs is, if I have an idea, I give myself the luxury of being able to forget it. When it comes back I’ll think about it some more, then forget it again. I work on the assumption if it’s such a great idea and even I forget it, it’s not all that good an idea [laughs]. I’d rather have things I can remember. When it comes down to record the music is when I crystallise the song.”

As veterans of multiple world tours, Buzzcocks know Australia well, and it’s always a good place for the band to get into tour-mode.

“I remember driving through country roads and avoiding cane toads,” Shelley says. “It’s so much different to the UK; there’s no escaping it. It’s always good to go; the people are friendly and we’ve always had a good time. I remember the first time I was in Adelaide and it was about 40 degrees and was like being in front of a blast furnace. The trip to Australia is the first of the world tour trip. Then it’s the west coast of America, France, Italy and Holland. In the UK we’re doing some festivals; the Isle of Wight Festival is one of them. It’s going to be a full year.”

BUZZCOCKS PLAY:

Thursday, March 10 – The Triffid, Brisbane
Friday, March 11 – The Factory, Sydney
Saturday, March 12 – Golden Plains Festival, Meredith
Sunday, March 13 – Corner Hotel, Melbourne
Tuedsay, March 22 – The Gov, Adelaide
Wednesday 23 March – Rosemount Hotel, Perth

For The Brag

Steve Diggle of Buzzcocks: “I nailed my colours to the mast and went out into the seas and experienced it all”

steve diggle

SEMINAL PUNK VETERANS Buzzcocks may have been around for nearly forty years, but guitarist Steve Diggle won’t be tiring of playing live any time soon.

“You would think we might get tired of playing those songs,” he says, “but the nature of Buzzcocks songs is that they’re so catchy and well crafted in their own weird way, and they’re always such a pleasure to play. It just feels like you are playing a classic all the time. What I’ve learned over the years, is that a live show is about communicating with the audience; it’s about the atmosphere and the vibe. It doesn’t matter whether I play a bum note or the wrong chord; we can all be in this together, and in that way you never get bored of playing them. We can put a different life into a song each night because of the nature of the audience, as we’re feeding off the crowd every night, and I think that’s where the magic is, human beings connecting, you know? But fortunately they’re all pretty good songs as well.”

Coming to Australia to play the Hoodoo Gurus’ Dig It Up festival and headline their own shows is a double bonus for the band.

“They asked us to play there,” he says. “I think they’ve been big Buzzcocks fans over the years, and it’s nice to be asked to do it. I think it’s a good combination for us to do that. Obviously they’re fans, and we have mutual respect for each other, and I think it’ll be a great day. I’ve never met them, so it’ll be great to meet and connect. A lot of bands don’t get to meet, so being on the same bill is a great chance to do that.”

Whatever the size of the gig, Diggle is clear about what to expect from a Buzzcocks show.

“A selection of great classic songs, and a lot of excitement on the stage – that’s the nature of Buzzcocks music. Seeing it live is even better than the record, really. The bigger crowds bring that big sense of occasion, which is a great thing, but then the smaller crowds are more focussed intensely on the music. So it’s great to see a band in a small place as well; you can really get the essence of what they are. You can get more of a sense of a band and what they are about. But they all work, they all have their different merits. When I’m on-stage nowadays, it’s not what I’m playing, it’s about relating to the crowd. I’m more concerned about what the crowd are doing and feeling, and that’s always interesting.”

Buzzcocks are one of the few original punk bands to still be together since their formation in Manchester in 1976.

“When you’re living with each other all the time, on the road together, in the hotel together, it’s in some ways like being married to four people, and it’s bad enough being married to one sometimes! This is why a lot of bands split up. We split up for a while in the ’80s; we had a lot of success, we were on tour all the time, and all of those things take their toll. But when we got back together again we learned a lot from the break-up; to keep things in focus and in check, and now 35 years down the line we know how to deal with all that, and it helps us survive. By the time I was 30 I realised it’s really exciting to be in a band, because you do go through this period of “what’s it all mean?” or “how am I dealing with all this?” We started when I was 20, and a lot of success came to us quickly, but then I realised that rock ‘n’ roll is in my blood and I embraced it. Like Turner, I nailed my colours to the mast and went out into the seas and experienced it all. Some people start taking it all personally and cracking up, you know? We got over those things quite early on, and that helped us survive. It’s been a great journey.”

At first success came quickly for the band, but the thought of still doing it all these years later didn’t once cross their minds.

“At the time everything was just for the moment,” he says. “We thought it was great if we had a gig that week, and maybe one the week after – we never thought further that that. Like James Joyce’s Ulysses, we were Mr. Bloom for a day, but the day went on and on for about the last 37 years!”

Planning the trip Down Under is easy for the experienced and well-travelled band.

“I just bring two guitars and that’s it,” he says. “We always hire the back line. In the early days when we went to America, we took the whole of the back line with us, and racks of guitars on the planes; flying cases of equipment everywhere. Now we just turn up and plug in. The great thing about Buzzcocks is that we don’t need rows of effects pedals, it’s just a couple of guys with guitars, and that’s enough to make it work. We were in Bratislava a couple of days ago; we just flew in there, plugged in with no sound check, and away we went. It was fantastic – it was our first time there. We did some Buzzcocks songs on piano, and people loved it; it was a different look at our songs.”

“We’ve played China, Rio, but we’ve never played Russia yet. It’s always nice to go to new countries. Coming back to Australia is a little like coming home to us, in a sense, because we’re always well received; it’s like a great understanding we have. We know what to expect a little bit, and Australia knows what to expect a little bit, so let’s all get down to it.”

While a Buzzcocks show may be rooted in music from the band’s long career, Diggle is also very much looking to the future.

“I’m working on my solo record,” he says. “Pete lives in Estonia now, so it’s hard not being in the same country. It’s easy for me to do a solo record as I’m in London and the studio’s just down the road. I was rehearsing with my solo band just yesterday, so I just keep going with everything, you know? We will get a new Buzzcocks record at some point. In the mean time we’ve got about 150 songs which are great to play live. We’ve got a lot of die-hard fans who’ve been with us all the way, which is great, and there a lot of new kids that pick up on our stuff – our fans span three generations now. Our live experience has always been the best.”

BUZZCOCKS PLAY THE ZOO ON SATURDAY 20th APRIL.