Formed in Manchester, England, in 1975, the Buzzcocks were one of the most influential bands to emerge in the initial wave of punk rock. With their crisp melodies, driving guitars, and guitarist Pete Shelley's biting lyrics, the Buzzcocks were one of the best, most influential punk bands. The Buzzcocks were inspired by the Sex Pistols' energy, yet they didn't copy the Pistols' angry political stance. Instead, they brought that intense, brilliant energy to the three-minute pop song. Shelley's alternately funny and anguished lyrics about adolescence and love were some of the best and smartest of his era; similarly, the Buzzcocks' melodies and hooks were concise and memorable. Over the years, their powerful punk-pop has proven enormously influential, with echoes of their music being apparent in everyone from Hüsker Dü to Nirvana.
Before the Buzzcocks, the teenaged Pete Shelley had played guitar in various heavy metal bands. In 1975, he enrolled in the Bolton Institute of Technology. While he was at school, Shelley joined an electronic music society, which is where he met Howard Devoto, who had enrolled at BIT in 1972. Both Shelley and Devoto shared an affection for the Velvet Underground, while Devoto was also fascinated by the Stooges. While they were still in school, Shelley and Devoto began rehearsing with a drummer, covering everything from the Stooges to Brian Eno. The trio never performed live and soon fell apart. Shelley and Devoto remained friends and several months after their initial musical venture dissolved, the pair read the first live review of the Sex Pistols in NME and decided to see the band in London. After witnessing the band twice in February 1976, the pair decided to form their own band, with the intent of replicating the Pistols' London impact in Manchester.
Both musicians decided to change their last names -- Peter McNeish became Pete Shelley and Howard Traford became Howard Devoto -- and took their group's name from a review of Rock Follies, which ended with the quotation "get a buzz, cock." The Buzzcocks began rehearsing, picking up a local drummer and bassist Garth Smith. Shortly after their formation, Shelley and Devoto booked a local club, the Lesser Free Trade Hall, with the intent of persuading the Sex Pistols to play in Manchester. They succeeded in bringing the Pistols to Manchester, but the Buzzcocks had to pull out of their own gig when both the bassist and drummer left the group before the concert. At the Pistols show, Shelley and Devoto met Steve Diggle, who joined the Buzzcocks as their bassist, and the group found their drummer John Maher through an advertisement in Melody Maker. Within a few months, the band played its first concert, opening for the second Sex Pistols show at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in July of 1976. By the end of the year, the Buzzcocks had played a handful of gigs and helped establish Manchester as the second biggest punk rock city in England, ranking just behind London.
In October of 1976, the Buzzcocks recorded their first demo tape, which remained unreleased. At the end of 1976, the group joined the Sex Pistols on their Anarchy Tour. After the tour was completed, Shelley borrowed a couple hundred pounds from his father and the band used the money to record their debut EP, Spiral Scratch. The record was the first do-it-yourself, independently released record of the punk era. Spiral Scratch appeared on the band's New Hormones record label in January 1977; there were initially only 1,000 copies pressed. Shortly after the release of the EP, Devoto quit the group and returned to college; later in the year, he formed Magazine. Following Devoto's departure, Pete Shelley assumed the role as lead vocalist, Steve Diggle moved to guitar, and Garth Smith became the band's bassist. By June of 1977, the Buzzcocks were attracting the attention of major record labels. By September, they had signed with United Artists Records, who gave the band complete artistic control.
The Buzzcocks certainly tested the limits of that artistic control with their debut single, "Orgasm Addict." Released in October of 1977, the single didn't become a hit because its subject matter was too explicit for BBC radio, but it generated good word of mouth. Following its release, Garth Smith was kicked out of the group and was replaced by Steve Garvey. The Buzzcocks' second single, "What Do I Get?," became their first charting single, scraping the bottom of the Top 40. In March, the band released its first album, Another Music in a Different Kitchen. In September of 1978 the Buzzcocks released their second full-length record, Love Bites.
The rapid pace of the band's recording and performing schedules quickly had its effects on the group. Not only were the concerts and recordings wearing the band down, the members were consuming alcohol and drugs in high numbers. Early in 1979 they recorded their third album, A Different Kind of Tension, which displayed some signs of wear and tear. Following the album's release in August, they embarked on their first American tour, which wasn't successful. Nevertheless, the band was enjoying the peak of its popularity at home in Britain. Later in 1979, the singles collection Singles Going Steady was released in America.
All of the inner and outer tensions on the band culminated in 1980, when they drastically cut back their performance schedule, but they persevered with recording, cutting the EP Parts 1, 2, 3, which was released as three separate singles over the course of the year. During 1980, United Artists was bought out by EMI, who cut back support of the Buzzcocks. The group began working on its fourth album in early 1981, but was prevented from recording by EMI. The label wanted to release Singles Going Steady in the U.K. before the band delivered its fourth album. The Buzzcocks refused. Consequently, EMI didn't give the band an advance to cover the recording costs of the fourth album. Shelley decided to break up the band instead of fight the label. The Buzzcocks broke up in 1981.
Immediately after the split, Shelley pursued a solo career that initially produced the hit single "Homosapien" but soon went dry. Steve Diggle formed Flag of Convenience with John Maher, who quit the band shortly after its formation. Steve Garvey moved to New York, where he played with Motivation for a few years. In 1989, the group re-formed and toured the United States. The following year, Maher left the band and former Smiths drummer Mike Joyce joined the band on tour. By 1990, the reunion had become permanent; after Joyce's brief tenure with the band, the final lineup of the reunited Buzzcocks featured Shelley, Diggle, bassist Tony Barber, and drummer Phil Barker. The new version of the band released its first album, Trade Test Transmissions, in 1993. After its release, the band toured frequently. In spring of 1996, the Buzzcocks released their fifth studio album, All Set. Modern followed three years later, and a self-titled record for Merge appeared in 2003. Flat-Pack Philosophy arrived in 2006 on the Cooking Vinyl label. An anniversary set simply called 30 was released in 2008 on Cooking Vinyl.
- Stephen Thomas Erlewine, AMG