What kind of punk-rock band is this? The booklet to Product, a terrific box-set retrospective, tells of the Buzzcocks taking LSD in the recording studio, and some of the songs clock in at six and seven minutes. If this is the kind of behavior Johnny Rotten would have called “hippie-ish” and Joe Strummer would have denounced as “counterrevolutionary,” maybe that’s the point The Buzzcocks are one of England’s most enduring punk bands because they abided by punk conventions only selectively.
Pete Shelley had been in a few “sub-heavy-metal” bands in Manchester when he saw the Pistols in London and became a punk acolyte. But Shelley was also a sentimentalist, a self-described “fiction romantic” whose lyrics had more in common with Roy Orbison or Eric Clapton than with Rotten or Strummer. Never mind revolution or anarchy, Shelley just wanted a steady date; “Fast Cars,” which frets about auto safety, is as close as the buzzcocks came to a political statement.
Thanks to John Maher, one of the rare punk drummers who could thrash and swing, the Buzzcocks modernized pop music with an unnervingly rapid beat. The overall effect was a sonic and emotional extension of the Beatles’ dizzy performances on At the Hollywood Bowl. Like the early Beatles, the Buzzcocks had a nearly endless supply of dazzling two-chord hooks. Shelley’s and Steve Diggle’s traded terse solos on “Why Can’t I Touch It” are a New Wave salute to the Beatles’ rave-up at the end of “Carry That Weight.”
More than half of the music in this set has never been released in the U.S. On three cassettes or CDs, Product includes that band’s three albums (Another Music in a Different Kitchen, from 1977, Love Bites, 1978, and the magnetically grim A Different Kind of Tension, 1980); an American collection of A and B sides, Singles Going Steady; a live recording of a typical twenty-four-minute set from a 1978 concert; an EP from 1980, Parts One, Two, Three; and a crowning track, “I Look Alone,” which was released only on a compilation cassette. The package has problems: Although the booklet wisely reproduces many of Malcolm Garett’s stunning sleeve and poster designs, Jon Savage’s insular notes don’t even mention the date of the live recording. And his repeated discussions of Spiral Scratch, the Buzzcocks’ scarce debut EP, amount to a taunt, since that recording, sadly, is not included.
To latecomers, the most recognizable song may be “Ever Fallen in Love,” which was covered by Fine Young Cannibals. If you can get past Shelley’s nasal, adolescent tenor, there are other songs waiting to be covered: Imagine Madonna singing “Autonomy,” Sonic Youth deconstructing “Noise Annoys,” Frank Sinatra transforming “Why Can’t I Touch It.” Offering sixty-one tracks recorded in a mere four years, Product is one of those rare box sets that can guarantee genuine revelations; it makes a convincing argument for the Buzzcocks as one of England’s great pop bands, regardless of era.