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Artist: Buzzcocks

Album: Buzzcocks

Label: Merge

Review date: Apr. 20, 2003

Noise Annoys

It's been over a quarter century since the first bleak winter of punk and, despite a hiatus that lasted most of the '80s, Buzzcocks are still at it.

They're not alone, of course. Several first generation punk bands have continued to muddle along in one form or another, while others have reconvened sporadically for the odd record or tour over the years.

Speaking as a first generation punk rocker, I can't help wishing that the majority of them hadn't bothered. Pete Shelley and the only other surviving original Buzzcock, Steve Diggle, are undoubtedly in a different league from most old punks who continue to do the rounds. But although they haven't yet turned into a cabaret act for sad 40-somethings like most of their peers, they're starting to come perilously close.

Although punk and longevity were anathema to each other that doesn't necessarily mean that punk rockers had built-in obsolescence. It was simply a question of staying relevant by doing new things. Buzzcocks were certainly one of the most influential and exciting of the first wave of British punk bands, but they haven't really done much to justify their continued existence.

They've neither matched their past glories nor moved significantly beyond punk's original one-dimensional script, and they appear content to settle for a formulaic, anachronistic sound. These days, it almost seems quaint.

Arguably, the only still-functioning punk outfit that merits attention now is Wire. From the outset the group reinvented itself from album to album and its shifting identities became all the more intriguing (although not always entirely successful) as the band members brought ideas from their solo endeavors to bear on Wire projects. The case of Buzzcocks is puzzling. Pete Shelley's occasional solo ventures have been engaging enough and his collaboration with ex-Buzzcock Howard Devoto (Buzzkunst) was one of 2002's more interesting releases. With Buzzcocks, however, he seems to regress.

The cover of this CD sets the terms quite clearly. It's got nostalgia written all over it, a seeming admission that Shelley and Diggle have pretty much given up trying to have any contemporary relevance. Not only is this an artfully(?) low-quality black-and-white photo of the band that looks as if it dates to circa '77, it also bears a curious resemblance to one of punk's iconic record sleeves: it's hard not to think of the cover of the first Clash album when you look at the street-cred pose, the apparent DIY Union Jack adornment on the white boiler-suit, and the slashed Buzzcocks logo.

It's as if they're trying too hard to remind listeners that they're the real McCoy, original punk rockers. And given that they set those terms, then we can only judge accordingly. Can this record somehow recapture the power and excitement of those heady early days?

Everyone loves a bit of nostalgia and I'd be the first to admit that it would be great to hear a set of contemporary Buzzcocks songs that have the power of their early work. Unfortunately, though, this record only confirms that nostalgia ain't what it used to be.

Granted, Buzzcocks sounds very '77/'78, albeit with better production, but it's largely devoid of the hooks, the melodies, and the anxious, deconstructed bubblegum pop feel that made the band's early material so memorable. Pete Shelley numbers such as "Jerk," with its vintage police-siren-cum-buzz-saw guitar, and the poppier "Friends" do make a valiant effort. But they're not a patch on classics like "I Don't Mind," "Sixteen," "What Do I Get?" or "Ever Fallen in Love?"

As on the band's last studio outing, 1999's Modern, Steve Diggle's contributions are weaker than those of Shelley, often sounding tired and derivative. Like many of their peers, Buzzcocks borrowed from the Ramones' high-speed pop-punk aesthetic but Shelley and co. gave it their own twist. Now, however, on Diggle's "Up for the Crack," Buzzcocks simply sound like the Ramones. And while punk-revivalist upstarts such as Green Day were clearly influenced by Buzzcocks, Diggle's "Sick City Sometimes" comes off as an imitation of, well, Green Day. That said, Diggle's "Wake Up Call" isn't too bad, but only inasmuch as its big, crunchy guitars and sing-along feel put listeners in mind of Social Distortion.

To be fair, a couple of tracks (both written by Shelley and Devoto) do stand out from the generally unremarkable proceedings. The old-school thrash "Stars" is reprised from Buzzkunst and given rawer treatment; the equally raucous "Lester Sands," a Buzzcocks track dating from 1976, is a fine piece of noisy, sub-three minute character assassination.

At the end of 35 minutes, it has to be said that Buzzcocks haven't made a particularly strong case for their continued existence in 2003. "Your time's up," sang Howard Devoto back in 1976 on one of the group's earliest recordings. Twenty-seven years later, sadly, that's never been more true for this band.

By Wilson Neate

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