The sudden passing of Buzzcocks frontman Pete Shelley at age 63 was a bitter pill to swallow for so many music fans.
While the Sex Pistols and The Clash might have soaked up much of the punk spotlight in the ’70s, Buzzcocks brought something equally influential to the table. The Buzzcocks’ influence on indie rock, power-pop, punk rock and pop-punk is hard to overemphasize. When you think of the punk-pop tag, no band embodied it or perfected it quite like Buzzcocks.
Their songs were gritty, speedy and short like a lot of other punk music, but few punk bands remained committed to pure pop songwriting like Buzzcocks. Pete Shelley’s voice was snotty and full of attitude, their lyrics pushed social boundaries and the band’s guitars were pumping and lightning fast, but their infectious melodies might have fallen more in line with the pop or New Wave acts of the day than say, The Damned or The Stooges.
While albums like Another Music in a Different Kitchen or Love Bites are still worth digging into, the general consensus is that Buzzcocks’ most essential release is their 1979 singles compilation Singles Going Steady. It contained album cuts like “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve),” non-album singles like “Orgasm Addict” and “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays” as well as B-sides like “Autonomy” and “Noise Annoys.” The album’s eight singles and eight B-sides buff out the occasionally forgettable moments of their LPs and it’s the most accurate document of Buzzcocks as a band.
The songs that make up Singles Going Steady are largely about relationships and youthful frustration, and the album leads off with “Orgasm Addict,” an explicitly sexual song about everything from masturbation to full-on sex addiction. The song, which also features Shelley’s erotic moans, was unsurprisingly banned by the BBC upon release. Continuing with themes about the universal, inevitable shortcomings of youth, “I Don’t Mind” sums many of them up in a sharp, snappy rock ’n’ roll nut shell. Shelley paints a picture of the longing for another and the highlighting of your own insecurities when you do find that person. What begins with a song about loneliness and escape transforms into a song about fear of unreciprocated romantic feelings, which stems from a lack of self-confidence.
If you happened to stumble upon the Buzzcocks from a young age, you were immediately enthralled by music from then on—not because their music is simple, but rather because their bare bones rock music and easily relatable lyrics mirrored the effect of other bands like The Ramones, Nirvana or Green Day. They had the energy and seduction of their peers, but they also brought a sensitive side that other groups sometimes lacked. Acts like Misfits or Richard Hell also ignited a fire in teens and made them feel less alone, but they didn’t exactly offer a shoulder to cry on like Buzzcocks did.
The stuttering opening guitar riff of “Love You More” foreshadows feelings of uncertainty and naive exuberance that could turn to demoralizing despair on a dime. It describes complete infatuation and the fear of losing someone who you’ve been using as an emotional crutch. This kind of unequal outpouring of love was frightening to Shelley, mainly because he was afraid of the resulting loneliness that would shift the spotlight back to his own inadequacies. The teenage universality of this record went much further than the teenybopper, bubblegum pop of the ’50s or ’60s—it was nuanced, mature and full of insight.
One important, but often overlooked footnote about this band’s music is their use of gender neutral pronouns. Though he didn’t necessarily use it as a selling point for the band, Shelley’s bisexuality meant more inclusivity when it came to lyrics about love interests. “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” chronicles Shelley’s crush on one of his male friends and he vents about the paralyzing concern that professing his love or acting on those feelings will ruin their friendship. With one of the catchiest hooks of the ’70s, Shelley distills the unfortunate, cruel reality that being in love can sometimes be more painful than being alone.
“Everybody’s Happy Nowadays,” on the other hand, spells out a more bleak reality than just heartbreak. He expels feelings of cynicism as he sings, “Life’s an illusion / Love is the dream / But I don’t know what it is.” While the surrounding world can seem monotonous, Shelley says that we’re sold this idea of love as a saving grace. However, since he’s not even sure how to define the kind of love he should be striving for, there’s a harrowing sense of dread that’s juxtaposed against happy-go-lucky pop melodies and a high-spirited chorus.
“Harmony In My Head” is the first song on the record with lead vocals from guitarist Steve Diggle. Though it was also penned by Diggle, he takes the baton from Shelley and continues on with a youth-centric rumination, but this one is actually infused with optimism. The song sets a scene of a chaotic urban landscape—one marked by clamoring sounds, neon signs and a sea of buses and humanity. Accented with a Paul Weller-like chorus, the song reflects the paradox of a disorderly, predatory world and a headstrong, unfazed inner core. Similarly dabbling in satisfaction and a broader consciousness, on “Whatever Happened To,” Shelley compares rampant consumerism to an on-and-off romance—one minute it’s everything you’ve ever wanted and the next moment you feel unfulfilled. “Autonomy,” in a way, also comes off as a rebuke of mindless conformity and it preaches independence, which doubled down on their empowerment of the younger generations.
“Noise Annoys” is perhaps the most plain example of a rebellious and romanticized youth as Shelley sings, “Pretty girls / Pretty boys / Have you ever heard your mommy say / Noise annoys.” It’s no wonder this song came out a year after Television’s Marquee Moon as those nimble, boisterous and hyper-melodic guitars definitely aren’t out of Chuck Berry’s playbook. On first listen, “Why Can’t I Touch It” is about pent-up sexual desire, but a more thorough analysis reveals something a bit muddier. Its vague lyrics can be applied to other painstaking life quests—for success, transcendence, purpose, a place to belong, etc. At the time of its release, I’m sure adults found the song to be crude or indecent—just what they thought of punks or hippies in general, but those who actually were immersed in this music knew it to be something much more profound than a brainless cultural, social and political insurrection. The record closes with “Something’s Gone Wrong Again,” and it doesn’t just outline a bad day—it encapsulates the feeling that fate has a vendetta against you and the world’s odds are rarely in your favor.
With wiry bass lines, neat guitars and sultry-yet-vulnerable lyrics, the two- and three-minute punk songs of Singles Going Steady made young listeners feel less marginalized, weird and shy and gave them a pep in their step. Shelley’s vocals burst with an eccentric, tuneful charisma rather than electing to spit or bark in a masculine, domineering and discordant fashion. Buzzcocks had a crossover appeal to fans of pop, New Wave or classic rock, but they still had an ability to connect with fans of militant punk rock. Their sound could be quickly grasped, but no other group was more compelling or irresistible in their fusion of punk-pop. In a way, with releases like Singles Going Steady, Buzzcocks broke the rules and the mold of punk, which in turn, made their sound more radical than it appeared. You could riot in the streets and cry in the corner to songs like “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays” or “What Do I Get,” and that can’t be said of most music.