Three albums and nearly a dozen singles after turning London on its jaded ear in 1976, the Summer of Punk, the Buzzcocks continue to wrestle with the problem of reconciling leader Pete Shelley’s incurable romanticism with the cathartic attack of staccato guitars and Gatling-gun drums that marks the best New Wave records, the Buzzcocks’ included.
Singles Going Steady, the band’s first American release, crystallizes Shelley’s dilemma by pitting the A sides of the first eight Buzzcocks 45s against the B sides. Thus, the stoic musings on unfulfilled love (“What Do I Get?” “Love You More”) on side one of the LP contrast side two’s petulant outbursts about unfulfilled lust (“Oh Shit!” “Why Can’t I Touch It?”). The initial impression is that of acute lyrical schizophrenia. Shelley will rhetorically ask an age-old lover’s question like “Ever Fallen in Love?” (“with someone you shouldn’t have”), posing the query above a haunting melody set against guitarist Steve Diggle’s buzz-saw backdrop. Then he’ll remove his dreamy romantic mask (“Just Lust”), point an accusing finger and state his complaints in a sneering monotone appropriate to the tune’s minimalist drone.
The chronological sequencing also documents Shelley’s development not only as a lyricist but as a songwriter with a remarkable grasp of how a simply constructed melody or riff can drive his point home. The A side of the first single, “Orgasm Addict” (October 1977, predated by the Spiral Scratch EP with former vocalist Howard Devoto), is as melodically crude as Shelley’s invective against his girl. Five months later, in “What Do I Get?,” he tones down the arrogance, asking almost politely for “a lover just like any other,” while the band plants a collective punch in the gut with a punishing riff that threatens to overwhelm the singer’s plaintive wail.
In fact, it’s Diggle, bass guitarist Steve Garvey and drummer John Maher who keep Shelley from drowning in his own emotional vortex. Garvey and Maher set the manic rhythmic pace (stiff competition for Dee Dee and Marky Ramone) but never succumb to speed tripping. They run with the tune and not ahead of it. Indeed, Diggle’s right hand is a blur that bangs relentlessly on rhythm guitar, a steady harmonic anchor without which Shelley’s songs would lose much of their physical impact.
Yet without those songs, the Buzzcocks would be just more dole-queue bamalama in tight black pants and skinny ties. The complacency of Steve Diggle’s lackluster lyrics in “Harmony in My Head” pales beside the war of temperament that Pete Shelley wages with himself in his compositions. It may be a private battle, but on Singles Going Steady, it’s the stuff of high rock & roll drama.