Over the past few years, Domino Records has put welcome effort into the continued canonization of UK pop/punk quartet Buzzcocks. The label has lovingly reissued the group’s studio output from its inception in 1976 to its initial split in 1981, including a formerly bootlegged collection of demos, the self-released debut EP, Spiral Scratch (both featuring original vocalist Howard Devoto), and three studio albums.
To kick off 2021, Domino returns to the well with Complete UA Singles 1977-1980, a set of 12 7″s—all the singles that the group released on United Artists—packaged in a handsome red box. It’s an archival effort redolent of a period in which booming vinyl sales have led labels big and small to mine the past for deluxe reissues in formats that are often as inconvenient as they are attractive.
The aesthetic appeal of this collection is easy to grasp. Each disc is a recreation of the original 7″ release, including reproductions of the eye-catching sleeves created by graphic designer Malcolm Garrett. Whether anybody actually needs this set is another matter entirely. Domino Records’ 2019 reissue of the 1979 anthology Singles Going Steady is still readily available, with nearly all the same material on one LP. And in the playlist era, is anyone going to be happy hurrying to the turntable every three minutes to flip over the record or swap in the next disc?
Contextually, though, Complete UA Singles is a perfect document of the band’s dizzying creative output and rapid evolution. During the short span of time that the set covers, Buzzcocks released these dozen singles as well as their three full-lengths (Love Bites and Another Music in a Different Kitchen, both from 1978, and 1979’s A Different Kind of Tension). When they weren’t in the studio, they promoted each release heavily, touring and making multiple appearances on Top of the Pops as their singles stormed the UK charts.
During that stretch, Buzzcocks went from the horny agit-punk of debut UA single “Orgasm Addict” to the power pop (complete with brass section!) of “What Do You Know?,” their final release for the label. What happened in between those bookending singles is where the band made its most lasting mark. The quartet—singer/guitarists Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle, bassist Steve Garvey, and drummer John Maher—harnessed the energy of punk and applied it to the pure pop and glitter rock they loved. Their irresistibly catchy music slashed, spurted, and jangled—and provided a suitably squirmy backdrop for Shelley and Diggle’s lyrics, which picked through personal and societal frustrations.
Buzzcocks’ UA tenure produced indelible classics of punk’s first era. “What Do I Get?” perfectly embodies the restless sensations of loneliness and jealousy with each pleading line (“I’m not on the make/I just need a break”) and shaky drum fill. “Promises” and its B-side, “Lipstick,” are paired laments about a relationship gone sour, taken to hysteric levels by their fleet tempos. “Autonomy,” written by Diggle, sets a tumbling guitar melody against anthemic lyrics of self-reliance. And the band’s creative and commercial peak, “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve?)” pairs the jagged and sweet of romantic torment like rock candy.
Keep in mind: All of those singles mentioned in the previous paragraph came out in 1978, the same year Buzzcocks recorded and released their first two albums. Everyone involved with the band knew they were on a creative hot streak, and capitalized on it. They reaped the benefits, too, as all the ’78 singles charted, with “Ever Fallen in Love” getting as high as No. 12.
This also gave Buzzcocks the leeway to stretch themselves creatively during the next two years. Their first single of 1979, “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays,” felt more lyrically and musically open, with Shelley wondering aloud about his lack of personal contentment. The B-side, “Why Can’t I Touch It?,” was an even bolder departure. Apparently inspired by the liquid groove of the Rolling Stones’ “Fingerprint File,” the band settled into a similar mode, with Maher and Garvey locking into a slippery yet firm rhythm and Diggle and Shelley sawing through it with each guitar chord.
By 1980, Buzzcocks seemed hungry to upend everything they had built up to that point. As Shelley told an interviewer a few years later, “We… took a lot more risks that we’d done before. I was beyond concern about the commercial side of things.” That meant deciding to link their final three UA singles by labeling them “Part 1,” “Part 2,” and “Part 3,” as well as using random symbols to differentiate the sides rather than using A and B. “We’d… leave it up to the radio DJs to play the side they liked the best,” Diggle wrote in his 2003 memoir Harmony in the Head. “Looking back, I realize it was fucking commercial suicide.”
Buzzcocks didn’t help their sales much by choosing Martin Hannett as the producer for their final sessions. Until then, they had recorded everything with Martin Rushent, who perfectly captured the clean, urgent snap of the band’s sound. Hannett, best known for his work with Joy Division, stained the music with a thin layer of reverb that seemed to approximate the feel of the acid that both he and the band were gobbling at the time. Synths began to creep into the mix of “Airwaves Dream” and “Running Free”—a precursor, perhaps, of the synth-pop turn that Shelley would take in his early solo work.
Beneath the fevered tension of the previous three years, exhaustion was audibly setting in, as borne out by lyrics like “I’ve had enough of the day job/I can see farther than that,” from “Running Free.” Little wonder, then, that the band decided to part ways in 1981. (The original lineup would reunite for a tour in 1989 and three shows in 2012; Shelley and Diggle played off and on with different rhythm sections as Buzzcocks until Shelley’s passing in 2018.)
The possible annoyance at having to wrestle with so many individual singles with this set may end up being a net positive. Like many bands of this period, Buzzcocks had its greatest impact in short, controlled bursts. As good as the band’s studio albums from this period were, they didn’t pack the same wallop in a half hour as they did in the 2:19 of “I Don’t Mind” or even the generous six and a half minutes of “Why Can’t I Touch It?” These 24 tracks are like concentrated elixirs—sometimes one shot is all you need.
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