In the early days, when the famed English punk rock band, Buzzcocks, wrote new music, they wanted to be finished by 5:30 PM that afternoon. Because, says early member, Steve Diggle, that’s when the local pubs opened. For the band, which helped usher in the speedy, electrified rock ‘n’ roll movement, which would soon take over the late 70s and early 80s, the daily deadline proved important, almost like a pressure cooker with its timer set to ding. The band members got in the studio, ran through the emotions of the day, and got out to line up at the bar and get their clutches on a pint of Porter or Pilsner. It was their routine and it contributed considerably to the hits the group wrote from 1977-80, including “What Do I Get” and “Why Can’t I Touch It.” These songs and others from that era will be rereleased Jan. 15th via a new boxset on Domino.
“We’d get what songs we’ve got done,” Diggle tells American Songwriter, “then we would need to get to the pub. But the hits kept rolling and rolling. When you’ve got a good band and the dynamics of the band are right, these things fall together easy, you know?”
Diggle, who met the band’s founding members, Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto, by accident one afternoon, striking up a conversation and later joining them in their rehearsal space, says that, at the time, music on the radio often consisted of softer folk songs and big, sweeping, longer tracks. As young, aspiring musicians, the newfound trio wanted to infuse new sounds, more energy and speed to the mix. Diggle, that fateful day, met the other two as they were setting up a theater for a Sex Pistols show. Once the show began, the trio, Diggle says, sat in a back row and talked music and about forming a band.
“The next day,” Diggle adds, “the three of us all plugged into the same little practice amp and began playing. It sounded terrible, but amazing—The three of us through that amp, screaming away. The music before then was slow and folky and all this kind of ethereal stuff. But suddenly it was like putting your fingers into a socket.”
Over the decades, Buzzcocks have become to be known for their infusion of energy and 90-miles-per-hour punk. But Shelley, who identified as queer, would often push societal boundaries in his lyrics, bringing to light ideas of modernity, sex and the day’s double standards. By doing so, the band became a beacon of hope and representation in an era when political fear and conservative policies could often rule the day (see: Reaganomics). Diggle says this presentation led to many fans and connections with audience members of all types.
“We brought a lot to the table,” Diggle says. “Me and Pete were complex people and misfits. We didn’t fit in. We brought art, realism, books—everything, to the table. It was a massive assault on the senses, really. We spoke to people as real people; we were going through it too. We were singing about their lives like we were singing about ours at the same time.”
When the band, which formed officially in 1976 and began to release new original songs shortly thereafter, played live, Diggle says, the crowd went wild. Audiences were moved by the energy to get up and shake their money-makers and even kick over some furniture. To let loose in an honest way—that was the name of the Buzzcocks game.
“We had a lot of energy,” he says. “We were a vibrant band. When people came into the room, it was like the holy church of punk rock. It was an hour-and-a-half for us all in that moment. In that moment, you were going to see god, the devil, all of life. We never had to say clap your hands or stand on your chair. It was a magical thing. We sang about the human condition.”
As a young person, Diggle remembers finding the music of The Beatles and Bob Dylan at seven years old. The music, in many ways even then, became his primary sources of education. Diggle even goes as far to say that Dylan and John Lennon were like “fathers” to him, though they’d never met, of course. When he was 16 years old, Diggle bought his first guitar, a cheap nylon-stringed one. It would always go out of tune, so he became used to playing single strings at a time, which would later help him when composing future Buzzcocks riffs. After joining the band, the group helped to bring the Sex Pistols to their local Manchester. Buzzcocks opened for the band on the bill that night and after receiving their first bit of positive press, the group was off and writing.
“From there,” Diggle says, “we figured we needed to hear what we sounded like in a studio. We went in one afternoon and put four songs down. We knew if we’d taken those songs to a record company, they would have laughed at us. So, we made our own EP for $500.”
That early indie release would continue the burgeoning punk movement and put Buzzcocks on the map directly in its center. After the release, Devoto left the group and Diggle, who had been playing bass, picked up a guitar and the band took off. Over the years, as Buzzcocks churned out more and more singles, the band would go on rowdy, seemingly never-ending strings of tours to support the songs. Being on the road and the lifestyle that came with that burned the band out. As a result, over the decades, Buzzcocks have broken up, gotten back together and incorporated different players. But all the while, Shelley and Diggle have been together. Until 2018, when Shelley passed away.
“That was heartbreaking, devastating,” Diggle says. “Forty-three years. We’d been together longer than we had with wives, kids. We’d been through the whole journey together.”
Now, Diggle is carrying on the Buzzcocks name, playing live, releasing old and new music. It’s a testament to his love of the group and its legacy, as well as the transformative nature of Buzzcock’s long-lasting catalogue.
“You can hear a piece of music,” Diggle says, “and you can never be the same again afterwards. Certain songs can change your life forever.”