Buzzcocks: The inventors of do-it-yourself discography
By Jeff Ayers — / Death Wish Coffee Blog
Back in the 1970s, the world didn't quite know what to do with the emerging punk rock scene. The Sex Pistols and The Clash were spearheading the sound in Britain at the time, and shortly after, Buzzcocks came along. When Steve Diggle joined the band in 1976, they had already played a few shows at college and started opening up for The Sex Pistols.
The most surprising thing was that major labels and record producers during the time had no idea what punk rock was, or how to properly produce and market it. So Steve, along with John Maher, Howard Devoto, and Pete Shelly, decided to record their own record with the help of producer Martin Hannett, paving the way for do-it-yourself recording that punk rock would embrace. This eventually led to a major label signing the band, and the rest is history.
Recently, Steve Diggle appeared on Fueled By Death Cast to talk about those early years and what it was like to record their own stuff and then keep the same attitude once they signed.
Was it tough to navigate the music industry at that point because there was all of this progressive rock at the time? You guys were coming out there and being as real as possible. Was it tough to navigate?
Steve Diggle: A little bit, yeah. We made our first demo, and really we set out to make the most un-commercial music possible, you know? We come from Manchester originally, which is two hours away from London. Two hours on the train, two hundred miles. It was like, "If we go with these tapes, they'll probably laugh us out of the building or something."
So we came up with the idea of making our own record. Now I know back in the 50s, you used to do it in the states, but everybody's kind of like, "If I do a nice song, I'll get a deal from this big kind A&R man." And you gotta suck dick and do everything else, right? What the fuck? Somehow we come up with this idea for, like, five hundred pounds that we could make a thousand records to the people we're playing to in Manchester. It seems like a stroke of genius now, but at the same time it was also a stroke of necessity. If we make our own record, we don't have to beg records companies, because that would shorten our interest. As soon as we did that, that inspired a lot of other bands to do it.
So nobody was DIY at the time?
Steve Diggle: No, we kind of invented that.
Wow, no shit! So how did you go about recording that album? You just did it in your basement with a four-track?
Steve Diggle: A four-track EP! We got some money and bagged some studio time. We did those songs live with a couple of overdubs. Very quickly, it was just an afternoon, maybe four hours? We had this guy, Martin Hannett, who said he was a producer, and I don't think he'd been.
When the engineer was making us sound good, he started pulling all the things and making us sound good. But we got this great, unique sound. It was a sound that was like... To quote Yeats, the Irish poet, it sounded like a terrible beauty was born — except that's about the Irish troubles.
I don't think he knew what he was doing, but between all that, he was kinda working like a dog but he had this spirit of like, "Let's just break the fucking rules and get on with it like this."
So we put that out and that kinda set the whole place on fire; the whole country was like "Buzzcocks have made their own record!" We got all the major record companies, CBS, all these people — they wanna sign you up.
And how did that go? Did you say, "F--k you?"
Steve Diggle: We took about a year to sign up. Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols' manager, said, "You should sign soon before this thing goes." We go, "We ain't signing to anybody." Because then you're told what to do. The Clash had just signed with CBS, then they're singing songs that the record company wanted. So we took a little time with it. We had put our own record out, we had the audience that was there. What we had done was pull the carpet out from the record companies' feet so they didn't know what that punk rock thing was.
You can't plan these things, but that was how it all started to evolve.
Almost seems like a perfect storm.
Steve Diggle: Yeah, yeah, but we never envisioned all this. It was like, "If we can't get a deal, funny enough, we can make our own record." Now it seems so easy, but back in that day, it was just like, "Well, if we do that, at least some of the fans can hear us on record." So it went like that.
Was that the moment when you guys as a band were like, "OK, we can do this as a career?"
Steve Diggle: We never thought it would be like that, really. It was kinda like, just go for the day-to-day thing, really. You know, now you hear these people say, "My music career," and all this. It was just like, "Well, if we've got a gig next week and maybe one the week after, we'll see how we go." We never sat down at a table, marketing and planning things, and all that fucking bull crap they do now. It's like, you don't know what's coming; you could be dead tomorrow, so...
But also, the main thing about our first EP is it touched a nerve with people. It touched their souls and their minds were going, "I feel like that, too." That EP — our thousand sold within, minutes, days. It was faster than an email. Like, "How do people in Scotland and America, and Mexico and all that stuff, how do they know this record's out?" I don't know how. In those days, if you wrote a letter it could take three or four days... So certainly, people relate to all that. And you can't beat that; that's more powerful than any marketing.
Steve Diggle: We didn't have billboards, we had nothing. It was just like, "I got it. I heard that record," and away it went from there.
I attribute that to a lot of — the success of Buzzcocks — of what you guys are. Because you're authentic, you've always been authentic. I think that is an incredible and inspiring way to look at what you do.
Steve Diggle: We never tried to sell or plan things. Who do you think we are, Green Day? [Laughs]. I'm sorry, I know they love us but some people say to me that they're not the real deal, they're manufactured. I'm not gonna say that but... [Laughs].
I love them, but we have heard it said. The difference is that we made the music, we didn't want to be seen going out to all these flashy nightclubs, and all this kind of stuff. Making a mess with chicks hanging off of you.
But let me just say this: when we eventually signed this deal, this guy Andrew Lauder used to come to the gigs with a lot of these A&R men — and to be honest, after that first record, we had people taking them out the sleeves, the plain sleeves and putting it in the picture sleeves. Me and Pete did a couple of them and then we'd go to the bar around the corner and hand them out.
So, we realized we had gigs and couldn't carry on making the records. So, eventually we signed this deal and one of the reasons being we wanted to have artistic control of what we do. You don't want to sign the deal and then they go, "Here's how to walk and talk." "Don't tell anyone you're married" — that's what they used to do in the 60s. Not that we were, but all that stuff. "Don't do this and that." You know, record companies.
Then we said that the first record on the major was going to be called "Orgasm Addict." [Laughs]. So they got the release day. Now the A&R guy, Andrew Lauder, who signed us, said "That's cool with me," but the pressing plant wouldn't press it and it got delayed three weeks while they negotiated. They go, "We're not printing this filth!" And now we've got the rappers calling people "hoes." But at that time, it wasn't like that. So, "Orgasm Addict? You gotta be kidding me! Your first release on a major label?"
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