I interviewed Steve Diggle of Buzzcocks a couple of years ago, just as their most recent album, The Way, was about to be launched. The interview was originally featured on Louder Than War in October 2014. I think the interview captures the essence of Steve and Buzzcocks very well and is certainly worth another read.
Steve Diggle’s enthusiasm is infectious. He believes that Buzzcocks have just recorded one of their finest albums and is itching to get out on the road and do what he loves best, sharing his music with the people he identifies most with, the audience. Speaking to Louder Than War during a brief rest between completing a US tour and starting the UK leg, Steve’s passion for The Way was tangible.
Buzzcocks always led something of a double life with power-packed harmony soaked melodies storming the charts in one guise while albums like debut Another Music in a Different Kitchen and particularly A Different Kind of Tension demonstrated the ability to experiment in a way that was ahead of its time and would prove hugely influential. Their most recent album, 2006 Flat Pack Philosophy was a storming effort that demonstrated the band had lost none of their power or creative edge with a batch of classic tracks that sat very comfortably with the weighty back catalogue. Since then Buzzcocks have toured relentlessly with audiences left reeling by a succession of sweat-drenched performances, but always the fans have waited for news of a new release.
Those hopes were finally realised with the release of The Way to pledgers earlier this year and a planned general release in November.
Steve, the first question has to be how do you feel about The Way now it’s done and ready for release?
Steve Diggle: I think it’s a great album; it’s really turned out well. It’s classic Buzzcocks, very powerful with some nice heavy riffs on there. It’s an interesting combination too as there’s lots of light and lots of darkness too. It covers deep ground and resonates in the soul. It’s definitely our best album since we came back and I think it stands up well against any of our early albums.
The Way has been described as a possible Buzzcocks White Album. How do you react to that?
I saw that comparison that said this is our White Album and was surprised at first but the more I’ve thought about it, the more it seems to fit. We’ve been in the US for a while and a lot of people have mentioned that White Album thing to us so it’s spreading.
There’s still a lot of potential in the band in terms of experimental stuff, as much as there’s ever been. I think the album demonstrates a lot skill to be honest. We had a run in the 1970’s when we had a lot of hits, which was great, and I think we can still turn out those types of songs when we want. But our fans always knew we weren’t just a hits band and our most interesting work was always on the albums. There was always a lot more to us than appearances of Top of the Pops.
Pete and I took about ten songs each into the studio, more than planned really and it all just sparked from that. It was really hard to leave the other songs out as we liked them all but choices have to be made. I think there’s already some bootlegs lurking on YouTube. I suppose like The White Album, there’s not many obvious hits on there, and the themes go off down different avenues but as a complete package it’s a really strong album. There’s songs like Third Dimension and Saving Yourself that people can relate to. We’ve always sung about the human condition and I think this album is as strong as any in that respect.
How much was this more of an album, rather than just banging down some new songs?
I like to think of this as a proper classic album in the traditional sense. It’s about the album as a whole, not cherry-picking a couple of tracks or downloading what some critic recommends. The Way is the kind of album you can put on and really get involved in, it gets into your consciousness. We didn’t really plan it like that but listening to it, it sort of creeps up on you, it’s quite an introspective piece of work. It’s back to what making music used to be and what we’ve always stood for. There are a few songs on there that are very important in connecting with people, I like to think it’s almost like a bit of magic. Music is a very important thing in people’s lives, always has been in mine so I understand what it’s like for other people who care about what music you produce. Well we really care too and trust me, this album is the real deal. We’ve always sold a lot of physical albums but this one’s also coming out on cassette in the US and I know there were over two hundred orders in the first hour of that being announced which has fascinated me. I like the idea, cassettes are great, I still record stuff on tape sometimes.
Recent albums have contained tracks like Sick City, Credit and Sell You Everything which focus on the reality of life. Does that trend continue on The Way?
Obviously we have some more ‘poppy’ type songs on there, like Chasing Rainbows, there’s others that may have a more lasting effect on people like People Are Strange Machines. That’s about the way we seem to be becoming more and more controlled by our computers rather than the other way round. If you stop and think, for all the benefits, social media, the internet and just the time people spend on computers and phones etc can be pretty harmful. Are we human or just part of the machine now, just a cog on a fucking laptop?
I’m also really pleased with Third Dimension. This is about energy being hidden in the dark and a plane of thought where all life springs. The song has a great groove to find life and feel alive. It’s also got a great guitar sound on it and goes down really well live.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility to write about and for ordinary people?
I wrote Saving Yourself, which, as the title explains, is aimed helping people who may be struggling at the moment. There’s a lot of bad things happening out there and people are suffering. It’s got a nice heavy riff to it but I just wanted to get some emotive feel across to people, to help those who may be trying to save themselves at the moment. I’d already largely written Fast Cars before I joined Buzzcocks which is a very personal song to me and Autonomy I wrote soon after which is sort of about self-rule. Why She’s the Girl From the Chain Store is another that comes to mind, the story behind a girl’s life. I suppose I’ve always tried to write from a social perspective and the examples you’ve given are good ones that show how we as a band still try to address this. I am very much aware of the chance I’ve got to write songs that reflect people’s lives and that may also help them. I’m in a lucky position where I can maybe try to entertain people but also help them feel better.
You funded this album through Pledge. Did that give you a sense of connecting with the audience like your early days?
We’ve worked with labels over the years and there’s usually some sort of agenda going on so we just thought this time we’d try the new way. I think it’s great, it reminds me of when I was young and would go to the record shop and order the new album by someone before it was released. The Pledgers pre-order it and get it first and the reaction seems to be really positive. There is a real connection to 1976 in that it gives us that link to our audience that we’ve always been about. Our fans have always stuck with us and know we’re not bullshitters and that’s the main reason why we’re still around.
I’ve been chatting to Paul Weller who we’ve bumped into recently and he’s like me with memories of listening to music in the dark in your bedroom when you were young. It meant so much, you remember the records you bought as a kid and it was life-changing. So I’m very aware of how much our music can mean to people, it’s memories for them and brightens life up generally. Pledge helped them get more involved so from that view it’s also brilliant.
You sound fired up. Any chance of another album coming soon?
Yes, I’d love to do another one quickly, we’ve certainly got the buzz at the moment (no pun intended). The problem is it takes about two years to go around the world to promote it and that has to be taken into account. We tend to tour the Southern Hemisphere, Far East, South America and Europe as well as the UK so that can slow down the writing process but it does feel right to release a new album now and that could lead to another one quite soon hopefully. We were pretty quick with recording it as we don’t tend to mess about too much in the studio but you’re exhausted by the time you’ve finished it. There’s a few late nights and drinks etc linked in too!
You play Manchester this Friday, is that still a special moment for you?
Manchester is absolutely a special night for us, always will be. Despite living in London for many years, I’ve not lost my accent or my pride in where I come from. It’s a tough city and it made us who we are and it will always be home. I was out with Liam Gallagher a while back and he feels the same and he was kind enough to say that the Buzzcocks were the top Manchester band and the likes of Joy Division, New Order, Stone Roses and Oasis sort of continue the line. It’s good for us to feel that level of influence in the city. We’ve been playing some big cities in the US recently which has been brilliant but the UK is always special and Manchester is the big night.
Have the new songs given you added impetus in playing live?
We’re playing six new songs in the set and they’re going down great. I think Buzzcocks fans have always realised we’re a well-rounded band so they don’t stand there shouting for hits but before you play new stuff live you do wonder how it will go down. Washington was our first night and, despite all our years of experience we’re still a little nervy when playing new stuff but people seemed to love it. The new songs fit into the set really well anyway and have given a bit more excitement to the live shows. Playing these songs, alongside our others is inspirational for us and helps to energise the gig even more.
When I play live it’s all about the crowd for me; I want them to be involved. When I go out on that stage I give everything, it’s life or death out there for me, I come off dripping sweat. As I said before, I know how important music is to people and I give all I’ve got to the audience. People spend a lot of money and travel a long way and a gig is something they look forward to and really enjoy. It’s the same to me if we’re playing in front of sixty thousand in Mexico or two thousand in a club, I just want them to go home with great memories. That’s why I still do this, not for fame or money but to get the buzz of interacting with people live, seeing and feeling the reaction of a crowd to your music. It’s all about that for us, always has been.
The Sex Pistols gig at Lesser Free Trade Hall has assumed legendary status in rock history. What are your memories of it?
I prefer looking forward to looking back but this was a special time, it was like a miracle occurring and my life changed overnight. We booked the Free Trade Hall for the Pistols for the first show and there was only about ten people there. We got them back a few weeks later with us as support and the venue was about half full, not the ten thousand who claim to have been there nowadays!
I look at that as being like our ‘Bethlehem’, almost where our punk way of life was born. It was an amazing moment for us and for Manchester as all the journalists came down to see what the fuss was about the Pistols and were amazed that there was a Manchester band on the bill. It seems crazy looking back now at the influence that night had with Joy Division, The Fall, The Smiths and all the great bands that followed, all probably from that night.
Record companies didn’t know what to do, it was like the whole country was set alight, like carpet bombing. The whole thing just escalated beyond belief and for a while it was impossible to predict which way the music industry would go. It is absolutely amazing to look back now and realise that all this happened without the internet or mobile phones. We did Spiral Scratch and virtually straight away it seemed like everyone around the world knew about it. Explain that!
It just shows the power of music. That’s what we still have, the power of people and Manchester driving the band. When we play live we just feel like it’s a room full of people like us, it’s just that we’ve got guitars. We’re real people doing real music with no gimmicks and no bullshit. How have we survived? Coming from Manchester toughens you up and gives you the inner strength you need.
The genuine enthusiasm that Steve Diggle conveys for new album The Way and performing live certainly left me energised. As one of thousands of people who spend their time planning for and attending gigs, then daydreaming about them for years afterwards, it was great to hear one of the true legends speak with such passion about what his role in the music scene means to him. Fan reaction and our own review suggests that The Way is a pretty special album and the Buzzcocks live shows are always essential viewing so there’s an exciting few weeks ahead on Planet Buzzcocks.