It’s a sad state of affairs that the word “Buzzcocks” is probably now more associated with the long-running TV pop quiz show Never Mind The Buzzcocks than the Manchester pop-punk band after which it is partly named. Formed in 1976, the band was known for its sharp, catchy singles like Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve) and Promises, which combined punk’s edgy attitude with strong melodies. After releasing three albums they broke up, only to re-form in the late ’80s, since when they have continued to tour and make records, albeit with a changing line-up and at irregular intervals.
Their ninth album The Way – the first for eight years – has been funded via PledgeMusic by their loyal fan base, who will no doubt be pleased that the band has stayed true to its punk roots. Although all the original members (including first lead singer Howard Devoto, who went on to form Magazine) reassembled for a few gigs in 2012, this album once again revolves around the two long-term survivors Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle.
Until now Shelley has been the main singer/songwriter, though lead guitarist Diggle has always contributed songs to the albums. This time it is exactly 50/50, with each of them singing their own songs on alternate tracks. Rather than the classic collaborative model of the singer focusing on the lyrics and the guitarist on the music, they have always written separately. The end result does not differ that much between one or the other, but the higher-pitched, off-kilter Shelley is a more interesting singer.
The Way opens with a burst of energy, with Keep On Believing’s positive message of keeping the faith and not giving up. Presumably referring to the band’s struggle to carry on making music, Shelley makes an impassioned plea: “Let’s give it up for rock and roll / If you feel it in your heart, your soul.” In People Are Strange Machines Diggle’s robotic vocal delivery in the chorus reflects the song’s sentiment, enlivened by some fiery guitar work. The title track reflects unsentimentally on how time changes people: “The way you are’s not the way you were.”
In The Back evokes a half-repressed sense of desperation, while Virtually Real’s sideways swipe at social media – “Profile updated, it’s complicated / So tell me, how do you feel? / Virtually real!” – is complemented by a slightly disoriented sound. Third Dimension’s steady upbeat tempo is followed by the more discordant Out Of The Blue, where Shelley’s strangulated vocals suggest a mood of uncertainty, even paranoia: “The voices in my mind / They contradict me all the time.”
Chasing Rainbows Modern Times wears the influence of The Ramones on its sleeve. The standout single It’s Not You is a classic Buzzcocks-style post-break-up song, with Shelley’s anguished cry: “It’s not you, so I close my eyes / It’s not you, so I fantasize / It’s not you, so I’m on my own now / What am I living for?” And, finally, Saving Yourself ends the album with a soaring guitar solo.
Like their fellow first-wave English punk-rock bands The Damned and The Stranglers, Buzzcocks are grizzled veterans keeping the flame alight, even if it flares more dimly than at their youthful peak. Though The Way is unlikely to attract many new fans, those who contributed to the project to make the album should be pretty happy with the results.