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Friars Interviews

Steve Diggle
Buzzcocks

friars appearances 06/05/78  28/03/79  08/10/10

 

Buzzcocks are new wave legends and a fantastic way to kick off Friars Aylesbury Phase Four. They made two sold out appearances at Friars Phase Three in the 'classic' period and produced some damn fine songs. If you don't own a Buzzcocks album and want just one, get Singles Going Steady, a perfect album of supreme songs.

We spoke to Steve in October 2010 on the eve of their long awaited Friars return.

Steve, Friars Aylesbury, 28/09/79.  photo - Don Stone

Friars Aylesbury Website: Steve, welcome to the Friars Aylesbury website! We're all terribly excited as you can imagine, the long awaited return of the Buzzcocks to Aylesbury after all this time. I bet you're looking forward to it as much as we are!

Yes! It's been a while! It was always an electric place. I remember those early tours and Aylesbury Friars was always a place on the map [to look forward to]. It is a legendary place.

You did two sold out shows in 1978/1979 - great times - you must see the photos from that 1979 gig, you weren't supposed to take cameras in, but we're glad he did!

It's hard to take in then, the concept of the internet and YouTube!

These days, all around the world, everyone has a mobile phone and your mates are watching while we are playing!

Funny thing is tonight right now, I have a 350 page thing from the Times newspaper - about "Where have all the legends gone?" and Simon Cowell's in it! Obviously just as legendary are places like Aylesbury Friars and the Buzzcocks and I wonder now where the next legends are.

We're excited about the gig next week as it's the first gig of Friars Phase Four and the first gig at the new Waterside Theatre - your previous gigs were at the Civic which closed this year. Which leads me on to....talking of legendary venues, I read David Nolan's book I Swear I Was There about the Sex Pistols gig at Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976 (I couldn't put the book down).....and you were there at that gig that Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto put on....

That's actually where we all met.

It's not an understatement is it to say that gig proved to be such a pivotal moment in the Manchester music scene?

Absolutely! Actually I was on the radio last Saturday saying that they have put a plaque outside the hall where they played. There isn't one for the Buzzcocks, so I will put my own one up!

I think you should!

Well, we kick started the Manchester scene and proved there was a hell of a lot of life in Manchester. We started the band at that gig and stood at the back with all the rows of empty seats wondering what we were going to do with the Buzzcocks.

And all these years later, the Buzzcocks are still going strong. The legend is that Manchester gig in 1976 gave birth to not only the Buzzcocks, but Joy Division, The Fall, The Smiths....

Some of them were at the first gig. There was another Pistols gig three weeks later where we opened up for them and there was a lot more people at that one. It was life changing for everybody in Manchester who was there, it inspired those bands like Joy Division and the Fall.

It's hard to imagine that in this day and age, a gig having such impact....

Yeah, it came from nowhere. It wasn't London where it all happened. The Pistols came from London though, and we started two days before The Clash and they all came to Manchester. Of all the places! The punk rock atom was split open in Manchester, a lot of it started there. All the journalists who came to review the Pistols reviewed the Buzzcocks as well and helped put the province on the map. Then from that the Liverpool scene started, the Sheffield scene...everybody thought why can't we do something like that in our town? It was great. The thinking before that was that you had to go to London on your hands and knees with your tongue sticking out begging for a record deal. After that gig, the fact we were a local band, people started putting on events in their own town and suddenly the country was alive.

The A&R people suddenly had to go round the towns to find all this new talent.

Now they wouldn't dream of getting out of their offices! If they still have one left!

These days, A&R is MySpace isn't?!

Yes. The corporate world and the corporateness of the record company have strangled their own flower and shot themselves [in the foot]. They have let it be over-run by accountants. They should have had sociologists in there as well to say why don't we invest in the cultural art of music which is now slowly starting to get noticed. They just throw money into obvious acts and want them to sell 12 million records. There's no interest in the rest of it.

What happened with us changed people's lives.

You can take a four piece band like the Buzzcocks today and sign them and if they don't have that hit single after a couple of attempts, it's goodnight...

That's right. The accountants look at the figures and say they haven't sold 12 million records so we'd better get rid of them. In the old days, by the third album, the record might be great and a good audience, you had a chance to develop. Even the Rolling Stones and The Who only came into their stride later on.

Looking back at that Manchester scene, I guess today you can appreciate how influential it was and how influential the Buzzcocks were on other bands.

Absolutely. What's amazing is the direct things the Buzzcocks could do at the time. The landscape was barren and the progressive rock bands had run out of steam. Three minute songs and smash the equipment and getting a reaction. But it turned out that we became good songwriters out of it and we had a distinctive sound...me and Pete and those two distinctive guitars. You hear echoes of that now but at the time, we didn't realise it, looking back, we realise now how unique it was.

It was...and record companies were finally waking up to the fact that bands like yourselves could be really big. You ended up on United Artists along with The Stranglers...a major label.

Yes, we were the first to make an independent record with Spiral Scratch. I know the Americans did this too, but we thought that if we went with the devil to a record company in those days, they'd laugh us out the building, no-one would be interested in it. Spiral Scratch was the most un-commercial sound possible. We went to a label in the end as we were having to print and sort the sleeves out ourselves, so we went to UA and sold lots of records.

That first one, the legendary Spiral Scratch EP with Howard Devoto still in the band, that ended up, after deletion, selling for small fortunes didn't it?

Yeah, and I think it is going to be released on CD. It became a collector's item. It became a testament and monument to your own ideas. The sleeve on it, we used a covert camera with two shots. Someone had their eyes closed on the first shot, we had one shot left and that became the picture on the sleeve.

Talking of sleeves, particularly in the UA years, each seven inch vinyl had a different two tone on each label. Was that an artistic decision the band took or was that the record company?

We used an art student, Malcolm Garrett, who came into the office and wanted to do some artwork, so it kind of came from him. But on the first album, Another Music In A Different Kitchen, he wanted to put a collage of things like a cabbage with eyes and teeth in and I ended up arguing till six in the morning that we had to have a photograph on it as the cabbage didn't really represent the band! (laughs) There's a fine difference between an artist using a record sleeve as an advertising billboard for himself and art that's rock and roll art.

And you've got a record to sell!

Absolutely!

But the final cover, the silver with the orange writing was incredibly distinctive

Yes, it was, it was very unusual. Malcolm was very responsible for the two colours. Thank God we got a picture on the album cover!

I remember one single label would be blue and yellow and the next would be pink and red and so on.

The two tone idea was a great one...which The Smiths kind of borrowed afterwards! (laughs)

Borrowing from their spiritual cousins!

After we split, our manager went to Rough Trade and they were asking him how we did it! I was looking at a Smiths record thinking this is familiar! But a great concept. The sleeves developed as we did musically.

I particularly love things like Why Can't I Touch It? and stuff like that and we went underground with a few tunes as well, We did TOTP seven or eight times with classic pop songs.

Why Can't I Touch It which was a B side was absolutely brilliant.

It was another string to our bow in a kind of way. It had a different groove which we didn't have before. Autonomy was experimental, also we had those kind of songs as well. I think there was a lot of depth to our songs. People were thinking we just had classic pop songs, which we did, but there were some other avenues along the way. It was rounded.

It was rounded - your B sides at the time weren't just an obscurity or a throwaway that didn't make it on to an album. I remember those singles and the B sides were always top quality.

It was always a dilemma - we used to go and record a single and we would do two songs and it was always very difficult to decide which was the A and B side.

That's a testament to the quality....

We never went in (to the studio) thinking this is the B side - we had the two songs and had to decide. By the end of that era, there were no A and B sides. EMI, who had taken over UA, let the radio stations decide and it worked out even at the end.

That classic period when you made the three albums and called it quits in 1981....after that you did Flag of Convenience and got back together in 1989. You've been back a few times and back more permanently now for some time.

We've been together longer now than originally. We were in each other's pockets, hotels, planes and vans for six years and that sort of stuff and we went and did our own thing. We needed a break and the break got longer. Doing other things was great and Pete was doing his own thing and by 1989 we came full circle. In the intervening seven or eight years, everyone was asking when we would get back together. The New Romantic scene was still going so it was timely when we came back, although it wasn't meant to be that way. We came back when Nirvana had just discovered us [Nirvana, along with bands like Green Day cite Buzzcocks as an influence - Ed]. They wanted us to open for them at their American shows, but we were busy with our own US tour, but we did some shows in Europe on Nirvana's last tour before Kurt Cobain died. We went on from there and since then we have done some great albums. The last two albums are really good.

And you have your new solo album out around now as well?

Yes, even though we are talking historically about the Buzzcocks, it feels like I am starting out again! My new album is called Air Conditioning and the single Something in the Air is out any day now. It's great to do that as well. For me, the songwriting part is flowing really well at the moment. Whilst you can still do it, I am excited about it all again. I think this album is my best solo album. I know it's a bit of cliché, but I think this is the best of the three solo albums. I kind of always wanted a trilogy you could put in a box. Listening to it recently with fresh ears (after finishing the latest round of Buzzcocks gigs), I thought it was really good. It's had good reviews in the press.

Without giving too much away, what classics can we expect to hear at Friars on Friday?

There'll be all the classics, one of my favourites to do is Sick City Sometimes (from Buzzcocks Black Album 2003). Some people have said to me since the band's reformation that's one of the Buzzcocks classics. We enjoy doing that one. As a song in general it's pretty good. All the major classics we're known for we'll be doing. It's a good set which we have worked in round the world recently. It's a very lively set which is what you'd expect from us.

Whilst you won't be doing that this time, last year and early this year, you played gigs playing the first two albums in their entirety? How well was this received seeing the albums played back to back?

It was successful, more than I thought. The dynamics were different - when you're picking a live set from making a record which is more for listening and you wonder how it will translate, it could be fast then take it down and then fast again. So many memories and some of the songs we had never played before or at least only rarely played them.  A song like I Need (from the first album) went down a storm, I really enjoyed playing that and we hadn't done that since the Roundhouse in 1977. That worked as as set. Some of the other songs as well, which had been put aside for no particular reason got played again. It was great doing them and great doing the albums as it took you back to the time when you made them.

To finish, a couple of 'fan' questions -  Never Mind The Buzzcocks - flattery or irritation?

Somewhere in between. It's more for comedians on the way up or one hit wonders like Right Said Fred on the way down and who've had a taste of fame - you never saw Joe Strummer or Bob Dylan on there. And you won't see me on there either as people believed in what we did and you won't see me selling soap powder on there (laughs). Will I be on there anytime soon? No. I like a laugh like anyone else, but I have my limits. People who know my lyrics from Autonomy and the like know I have a lot more depth and resonance than to go on there and whistle something out. I hope, one day, people will respect what you did for the right reasons and not this corporate and mundane society that's been foisted upon us. It's not personal respect I am after, it's the respect of the actions that you do. This is what I stand for and a lot of fans relate to that and that's harder to get that than going on and getting the money and the adulation.

I know many people have covered Buzzcocks songs over time, some better than others, what do you think of Fine Young Cannibals version of Ever Fallen In Love? Probably the best known cover in the UK at least.

I've not heard a good Buzzcocks cover version yet. FYC version? A load of crap! I don't think anything of it, I don't own a copy or listen to it.

I was just wondering what an artist thinks of a successful cover version, although we'll hear the proper version on Friday!

John Peel's family asked us to record Ever Fallen in Love for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame album and on that we had David Gilmour and Jeff Beck on guitars, Robert Plant on backing vocals and many more and with all those people you think it's going to sound amazing......but it's not as good as the Buzzcocks one, that's why I say these things about covers. There's a whole album of Buzzcocks covers released in the US and the trouble is they all sound like the Buzzcocks! Someday someone will blow me away with a cover of one of our songs!

Probably the first time I heard a cover was Orange Juice's tasteful snippet and homage to Boredom (from Spiral Scratch) in their hit Rip It Up......

That's pretty tasteful and pretty good. It's quite imaginative. I can go with that. But one day someone will do a full blown cover! Camper van Beethoven did Harmony In My Head and that was OK. The Offspring did Autonomy but it's not far removed from what we're doing, although the publishing money's nice! I'd like to hear something that you think 'wow, I never thought of it like that' which would do the band and the song justice I think. A bit of flair and imagination rather than an obvious copy. I guess it's all a compliment in the end.

Steve, thanks for your time.

Join the campaign (on Facebook/MySpace/Steve's website etc) for my new single to get played on the radio! Some stations are playing it. We've all had enough of Take That and the rest of it - we want real music back. Hopefully we can start the revolution again with real music. Not this X Factor crap! It's such a powerful position, it's needs turning.

That's why the Rage Against The Machine campaign last Christmas was so successful!

I want to do the same again - with my single. The change hopefully will come universally. I'm still a punk at heart!

Looking forward to Friday, it was great in the past and we will be rocking on Friday - it's going to be brilliant!

Buzzcocks official site

This interview and its content are © 2010 Mike O'Connor/www.aylesburyfriars.co.uk and may not be used in whole or in part without permission.

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