Friday, June 19, 2009

Buzzcocks' "Time's Up": Music Review

This was recorded for 45 quid one afternoon when I was fifteen; I heard their début LP a year later, but I always wanted these October '76 demos. At sixteen, "Another Music From a Different Kitchen" hit me perfectly; I sought it on import and unlike any other punk recording, it's stayed freshest for me. The earliest formation of the band also sounds spiky and snarly and witty and, as Greil Marcus' liner notes (cribbed from his typically over-reaching, half-intellectual, half-gushing "Lipstick Traces" that tried to place countercultural denizens within the tradition of Ranters and Levellers from Christopher Hill's Marxist revision of 17c Anabaptists and roundheads and rebels, and back to mystics and alchemists and heretics) put it well enough, "spidery" and "prickly" to boot.

This was a bootleg, although four songs appeared as the very first self-promoted DIY ep, "Spiral Scratch", sold for a pound by New Hormones label in Manchester. There's certainly the impact that, dramatized in "24-Hour Party People," can be seen at the Lesser Free Trade Hall Sex Pistols gig that supposedly galvanized the Buzzcocks into action, along with Warsaw (later Joy Division), and I suppose Mark E. Smith and The Fall, and the unlikely, given his legacy, crooner Simply Red. And, like Woodstock, probably another thousand punters claiming to have attended that concert.

Like The Fall's MES, you can hear in one of the best tracks, "Boredom," the ascending vocal "-uh" at the end of a line that made both Howard Devoto and Mark E famous-- well, semi-so vs. Simply Red or Ian Curtis-- for a Mancunian inflection. Dessicated, ripe, and arch, this tone of autodidactic students and artsy types from the North entered their edgy, febrile, bristlingly suggestive tunes. Full of cast-off but carefully learned references, the lyrics of such as The Fall and Buzzcocks may in Marcus' reading be "overdetermined," but given Mark naming the band after Camus' novel, and a fascinating interview of Devoto with Johnny Rachy in 1977 reprinted here, you cannot gainsay the smarts behind the sneers.

No, Devoto tells Rachy, not Van Morrison or Iggy Pop, but Des Essientes, Dostoevsky's underground man, and Camus' mythic Sisyphus inspire him. "Breakdown," one of the other standout cuts, for Devoto's set within "metanoia;" this "two-minute epic" encourages the listener to join the speaker's "potential for ego-expansion" within the "trials and tribulations of boredom, waiting and nascent enlightenment." Unsurprisingly, "Time's Up," inspired by standing in an endless line at Safeway to purchase bananas ("beans" does sound better in the song!), has Devoto explicating his attempt to articulate "waiting for ages like a Buddhist waiting twenty years for nirvana as an extreme." Not sure exactly what he means, but that lack of precision in turn suggests the imperative of the song and album's title: "the suspension of the self."

He adds: "But it never worked out so basically it's just a song about being pissed off at spending so much time waiting." This struggle against and within the mundane characterizes Buzzcocks; Devoto's notebook for lyrics filled with random insults while after he left to form the post-punk pioneers Magazine, Pete Shelley took over vocals with his quavering iambic delivery that gave more humor to, say "Orgasm Addict" vs. his predecessor's dryer, if equally strained, approach to singing, or more accurately, delivering the frenetic, unravelling, jittery tunes with annoyed voices over them.

The songs, given they're demos, lack of course the little polish that Martin Rushent would provide for the three studio albums. "You Tear Me Up" and "Love Battery" resemble album versions to come, while the warbling "Friends of Mine" deserves a higher status in their playlist. Unlike Marcus, who hears a raving from 1646 alluded to in its lyric, I lack as much enthusiasm (in the root sense) for "Lester Sands," although it features acerbic aspersions that match those of "Boredom's" couplet (not reproduced in the liner notes): "Who you trying to arouse?/Get your hand out of my trousers!" as one inspired pair that I doubt any other pop song's tried to convey so pithily, if at all!

The later songs that October afternoon seem to stretch out although many fail to reach even three minutes. The energy packed into tunes that rise and wail and fall and crest crazily, as if you're putting your ears through the amps, astound in what must have been very primitive recording conditions. Already, Devoto's interviews and lyrics convey the end of punk's purity and the start of its commodification; the pace of evolution and compromise among the tiny scene in '76 found very soon an end to idealism that had barely begun. Like The Fall, Joy Division, and Magazine, Buzzcocks would struggle to express their young yearnings gleaned from the detritus of decaying urban Britain, the paperbacks of Continental literature, and the conversations of passers-by and the posing of part-time punks and media caricatures.

Showing that teen punks could remember predecessors, Buzzcocks turned to those who tried to shake up rock music ten years before. The cover of the Troggs' "I Can't Control Myself" seems more an application of their guitar assault to proto-punk; it reminds me somehow of the Ramones or early Undertones who shared such influences. Captain Beefheart's "I Love You, Big Dummy" also shows inspiration, and it's more pummelling (later covered similarly by Magazine), although it's not the best song for the three artists involved. The final track, "Don't Mess Me Around," if only 2:35, feels sonically endless, foreshadowing the experimental attitude of the last original album, presciently called in the spirit that always animated the band, "A Different Kind of Tension," when Shelley and Steve Diggle and amazing deconstructing drummer John Maher (joined by Steve "Paddy" Garvey) would continue the philosophical excursions and paeans to thwarted romance that made them the pop-punk champions of the late '70s. (Posted today on Amazon US.) Cover painting of band (without Devoto, tellingly given its title) by Phil Diggle on this 2000 reissue on Mute Records.

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