Buzzcocks on the line: preview one of Sled Island’s featured bands
A conversation with guitarist/songwriter Steve Diggle of The Buzzcocks
By Aysim Parkan
The Buzzcocks are one of the original punk rock bands of the early ‘70s having spawned from the same circles as The Clash and The Sex Pistols. Originally from Manchester, England, and with enduring albums like Another Music in a Different Kitchen or Love Bites, The Buzzcocks are sure to create a raucous live experience for Calgarians at this year’s Sled Island festivities. The Reflector’s Aysim Parkan had the great honor of speaking with the legendary punk veteran, guitarist and songwriter, Steve Diggle, via a somewhat fuzzy telephone conversation, while he was in London sipping a coffee at Bar Italia.
This year The Buzzcocks are one of the headlining acts and will be bolstered by an amazing lineup including Sleep, C’mon, Bison, and The Sword, on Friday June 24 at Olympic Plaza. Talk about live energy. This will be one for the books.
Parkan and Diggle discuss the enduring and not so enduring qualities of the business and art of being punk, touring with Nirvana, cocaine, festivals, and much more. So, snuggle up with your favourite can of cheap beer and read on.
TR: I was just reading about the 100 Club where they held the first punk festivals in London.
SD: Yeah, it’s one of the last central places right in the center of London. It’s one of the main places to play in terms of a venue. It’s a good location, on Oxford Street; it’s got a very long tradition, so I did my album launch there. It was going to close down and they saved it with different sponsors and stuff. It was 35 years ago we played there at a punk festival, and I made a return to launch my solo album Air Conditioning there. It’s like a full circle. So I’ve been busy doing that, and we’ve been doing a lot of festivals over here in Britain and France with The Buzzcocks. The tour’s been busy, and then we’re going over to LA to do Long Beach; we come back to Plymouth; outside of London, and then we come to Calgary.
TR: That’s exciting. It’s going to be fabulous!
SD: It’s a rockin’ show right now, ain’t it? It’s going to be cool.
TR: Well, The Buzzcocks are great live! I haven’t seen you, but I’ve seen videos and the sound looks powerful.
SD: It’s a pretty exciting show. There’s not many people like us around now from when we started.
TR: Yes, that’s true. There’s a lot of newer bands.
SD: And of course no body compares like The Buzzcocks.
TR: How was the festival (Paris Extreme Fest #2) in France, and who’d you play with?
SD: We were headlining there, and there were a lot of French bands on (laughs). We just got there in time for our show I’m afraid. We did one in Manchester last week called The Friends of Mine Festival, named after one of our songs, and that was a really big show, and they had Manchester bands like The Charlatans, The Fall, people like that, Badly Drawn Boy, a lot of Manchester people, but it was kind of like the size of the Reading Festival, it was good. We headlined on the Saturday night.
TR: Do you feel like you are selling a lot of albums through these festivals?
SD: Yeah, I think people know The Buzzcocks, but we are still picking up new fans along the way all the time because when they see us they are very surprised, and younger fans are discovering the music for the first time. We’re better than ever now, I think.
TR: Yes, The Buzzcocks really have longevity, I think.
SD: Exactly, I mean we had good songs in the beginning and still do now, and that’s seen through all the generations, and that was one of our strengths really.
TR: And how do you feel the live sound has changed over the years from the past?
SD: Well, recently over the last few years we’ve extended some of the songs, and we have some crazy experimental bits in the songs a bit more, and, you know, the whole band weaves, and there’s different sorts of things you learn when you are on the road for a while. So, [the songs are] sort of played differently from when we started playing them. We are a lot more experienced and a there’s a lot more different vibe to [the songs], you know? A vibe felt now really, and a lot of energy, and a lot of rock, because music is so boring at the moment, so corporate and boring that, with us, it keeps very exciting.
TR: Well, there’s some exciting stuff happening with music, but it seems like the mainstream is really boring.
SD: Absolutely. Yeah.
TR: That just brings back the concepts that The Buzzcocks started with back in the ‘70s with the punk festivals and things being really spontaneous. Do you think that’s partly why?
SD: We did it then because it was the most un-commercial form of music, so that’s why we did it because we put out the first indie single out over here, and yeah you know major record companies don’t sign anything that’s interesting or experimental or anything it’s just a flat profile thing. It’s for people with no brains… fucking people asleep with somnambulance, or that’s the way of the record companies, but I know there are talented bands out there that just ain’t getting the proper chance these days. That kind of bugs me and makes me angry, really. For new bands anyway it’s really difficult, they won’t sign anything up unless it’s going to sell millions and millions. It’s nothing to do with art.
TR: So, with respect to do it yourself, that tradition of D.I.Y. is still really important right?
SD: Absolutely. Yeah. It’s the only way a lot of people can get heard. I mean people know The Buzzcocks now, but I’m still rooting for new bands. We had to do it ourselves, and we had to put two fingers up to the record companies at first. [We] just go, “Look we made our own record now. We don’t need you” (laughs). So it needs more of that now because they’re in a comfortable corporate position where [record companies are] telling people they know what music should be heard and what shouldn’t. Plus they have all these talent shows and all this now on the television stuck in people’s brains.
TR: Yeah, exactly, and that is why these festivals are so important right?
SD: Absolutely. Yeah. That’s right.
TR: They generate more output from people creatively?
SD: Well, that’s why we’re still around because we’re the real deal and the genuine article, and we’re in a position to still deliver the goods. So, we don’t need record companies now ( laughs). It’s a good position to be in, but that’s how we stick to our guns, and I think people respect that.
TR: So tell me what makes a “hit song”?
SD: Sorry..(phone static).. a hit?
TR: Yes, because The Buzzcocks really had a magical touch with songwriting.
SD: Yeah, we had many hits that made it in the charts, and the main reason for that is mainly by word of mouth; the audience bought the record by choice. It wasn’t rammed down their throat every two minutes on big billboards saying, “You should buy this.” They rate in the charts because we had played a few shows and people liked it through that. It wasn’t anything to do with record companies trying to tell you still. So, if you’re any good then the word of mouth travels as well, and plus the fact people can see that it was a kind of honest thing that touched the nerves of people that are really listening. I mean no songs were written to be hits. They were written because we believed in them, and people can tell that. That’s why they still stand. They became hits, because, you know, people realized that they were good songs. Do you see what I mean?
TR: Yes, thank you. That’s great! So, I wanted to ask you: Are The Buzzcocks punk rock or new wave would you say?
SD: Well, it was punk in the beginning and then we became The Buzzcocks. The whole idea was to be yourself; not just to be like some clone; a stereotype punk; that’s not us, you know? We always had our own styles and that’s what everyone should have. We still like punk rock with The Clash and the Pistols. We started two days before The Clash, but you know each band develops into their own thing, and if you don’t you just follow the leader, so that’s a bit simple, you know, that’s a bit dumb. I mean many seem to settle to the banner of punk, which, you know, it’s like individuality, not just “be like everybody the same as being a punk.” That’s lack of imagination to me, but it’s good to be inspired by the punk things; the attitude and that.
TR: Were you a guitar player first or a bass player first?
SD: Guitar player. I wasn’t really a bass player. I only played six shows with the bass in the beginning, I was looking to form a band, and we met each other as The Buzzcocks, and I played the bass for six shows on Spiral Scratch, and I moved over to guitar. I love guitar really. You know I wasn’t really a bass player (laughs).
TR: You were described in some articles as looking tough on bass a bit like Johnny Ramone.
SD: (Laughs) That must have been a very early article; 35 years ago.
TR: Yeah, that was a long time ago wasn’t it?
SD: Absolutely. For the six shows I’ve done, I’ve done about like, God now, about ten thousand shows on the guitar, so it doesn’t mean a lot, that period, to me. You know Jimmy Page started with the Yardbirds on bass as well (laughs).
TR: Is there some music that you enjoy listening to these days?
SD: I don’t know. I saw a local band called The Box that just started out. They were good, so I enjoyed that. I haven’t heard too much recently. I’ve been listening to The Kinks a lot because I was meant to play with The Kinks. They’re doing this thing called The Meltdown (festival), but because I am going to be in LA I won’t be able to make it now (chuckles).
TR: Oh dear, oh wow. Well, maybe another time later on in the year?
SD: I live in London, in Highgate Village, and Ray Davies (lead singer for The Kinks) lives there… I’m not going to be able to make it now, so I had to turn that down. So, I’ve been listening to old Kinks; half of that reason just to learn a couple of songs, and, also, after I started to listen to it all again it sounded great.
TR: Yes, they’re a really excellent band as well!
TR: I wanted to ask you about your tour with Nirvana back in 1994. I know it’s going back a bit, but I was just curious what made the greatest impression on you at that time touring with them, because The Buzzcocks were quite inspirational to them as well, isn’t that right?
SD: Yeah, absolutely they came to see us in Boston, when “(Smells Like) Teen Spirit” and all that was number one and the album was number one, and they invited us to do some shows with them, and when they came to Europe we did their last 11 shows, and then he shot himself, but we got on very well with them during that time. They were big fans of the band, and we were a fan of them. We hung out a lot on that tour. You know, I didn’t know he was going to shoot himself at the end of it.
TR: Yes, that was very tragic, but at the time the tour must have been quite busy. Huge turn outs.
SD: Yeah, they got on the stadiums in Europe. So, I remember…that it was massive; there was a lot of interest in Nirvana at that point. You know, they were like the biggest band in the world for that moment, and so there was amazing tours; it was fantastic… so we got on well with them all, it was good. Tragic he killed himself.
TR: Yes it is very tragic, and hard to understand.
SD: Yeah. I know. I don’t know the reason for doing it. We’d talked guns and stuff, but I didn’t know he was going to use one on himself. You just can’t predict those things.
TR: No you can’t. Well, that was serious. I am really amazed at that experience, all the places, and what it was like backstage being a part of that whole thing.
SD: After 35 years I’ve had many experiences… many new experiences; some crazy things; that’s rock ‘n’ roll for you. Everybody was trying to get backstage on that Nirvana tour; very difficult. We’ve had many rock ‘n’ roll things like that over the years.
TR: Is there something that really stands out in your mind as a very memorable experience?
SD: Yeah, when I got on the tour bus I asked Kurt has he got any cocaine and he gave me two grams and he went upstairs on the bus and I chopped it all out for the other guys in the band and none of them wanted any, so I did it all line by line and when Kurt came down he said, “Where’s the coke?” I said, “Fuck Kurt it’s all gone. When we get to London I’ll pay it all back.” He shot himself before that. So when I die I’ll put two grams in my coffee and make sure Jimi Hendrix or John Lennon or somebody doesn’t get it (laughs).
SD: So, it looks like it’s going to be a really good festival doesn’t it?
TR: Sled Island has been happening for five years, and there are hundreds of bands. It’s a really great festival for Calgary, the streets come alive. All the local venues host the events. It’s really interactive and we need this festival.
SD: That’s fantastic, we’re really looking forwards to doing that, and we haven’t done a lot of festivals in Canada. We have gotten a lot of requests to play Canada, and I don’t think we get there often enough.
TR: No, I don’t think so either, for a small city we have had a lot of bands here.
SD: Well it’s a rock ‘n’ roll place, Canada. It’s one thing I like about when we play there, and they like rock ‘n’ roll there.
TR: Who are some of your top favorite guitar players?
SD: Oh, there’s probably loads, Pete Townsend, Dave Davies from The Kinks, John Lennon, a lot of people you see, Jimmy Page even…Keith Richards …you know. I grew up with all them kind of people…imprints my playing a bit; the ones I said really. But then you kind of find your own thing when sitting on the stage every night. Back in the early punk days you came to find your own way around the guitar, which is weird, things you kind of learn on the way after playing every day. [You] keep finding new things out, and develop your own thing, which is amazing really since you don’t know that you’re going to do that ‘til you, you know, get into that experience mode of playing every night. So, you know, like I say, it gets that way; the older we’ve got the better it’s got. Sometimes it works the other way, but from the road we’ve developed a lot more. It’s still punk and raw and loose and all that as well.
TR: It’s like you guys are magicians to be around still and be doing what you love doing.
SD: Yes. It’s been an amazing journey; in this world we’re known, you know? We’re looking to record a new album soon.
TR: Do you have plans to tour with your Solo project?
SD: Yes, I’ve done a couple more shows in the summer; it’s just trying to find space in between The Buzzcocks’ shows at the moments. Somebody said to me to go to Canada with the solo thing as well, and maybe I will.
TR: We’d love to see you!
SD: Yeah, I’ll look into that.
TR: What is the mindset that helped get you where you are today?
SD: Yeah well, when we was younger … it was really boring and we wanted to make some exciting music. There was a lot of progressive bands around in the early ‘70s and they had kind of run their course as well. Some of them were good, but it was one song took the whole side of an album and that kind of thing, and so we wanted to create something exciting, and do three minute songs and things like that … so that was the basic mindset we held. Plus the fact, you know, the poetry of the words; kind of existentialist writing and stuff like that, so we had good words as well, and I’d say it was a newer sound, you know? New as in The Buzzcocks nobody had heard something quite like that, you know? The Ramones were a bit similar, but I think we took it to far more places.
TR: With your attitude as a guitar player in a touring band how do you keep level-headed, and how do you keep doing it?
SD: Well, it’s because, you know, I mean you took after all the experiences you get in a band, but you go so bleedin’ crazy you got to come down to earth a bit and realize who you are and the reasons you did it. I mean the reasons we did it was not particularly for fame; it’s to do with the art and the song. It’s not just like to be famous. People that want to be famous go crazy because they crave that like a drug, and that could be very frustrating inside of people’s minds. You know songs like “Harmony in my Head,” you know, I sing a lot of the songs as well like, “Autonomy,” “Why She’s the Girl from the Chainstore,” “Sick City Sometimes.” They’re all like social songs to me with a bit of anger about society, so that keeps me driven. It’s that kind of frustration, and question of things, and the excitement of it because we’re kind outside that mainstream thing really.
TR: I would say definitely still outside of the mainstream, yet very influential.
SD: Yeah, because it’s very real, people know, when they hear those records, that there’s a kind of realism that the media doesn’t like too much sometimes. They want to play that music that sends people to sleep. There’s a few words in our songs and things like that are quite alive, to bring people’s mind alive, and you know it’s different from regular music.
TR: What do you mean by quite alive?
SD: To feel alive within yourself, within your soul, and your mind. A lot of music—It doesn’t do that. You can tap your foot to it, but it doesn’t really creep your consciousness into anything, but I think The Buzzcocks do. It’s like hmmmmm.
TR: And how do you come up with a set list? How do you decide which songs to play?
SD: It’s always very difficult…and people are like, “Why didn’t you play this one, aren’t you going to play this one?” I think there’s a choice of about 120 songs or something. It is difficult but we hold it down to get like a mixture; a broad span of the whole career; of everything, you know? Play something like “Boredom,” then we’ll play “Sick City Sometimes,”…and a lot of other well known ones in the middle…so, it’s quite a variety really, but…well, it’s hard sometimes to know which ones to leave out. They’re all good in their way…
TR: The more you played together over the years you have this relationship where you can almost read each other’s minds while you’re playing right?
SD: Yeah that’s amazing…same with “Harmony in My Head,” they don’t know when I’m going to come back in…it keeps them on their toes…it makes it really exciting.
TR: That’s the unrehearsed; that’s the artistic quality, and that only comes from the years of experience of playing together.
SD: The magic and power of the band when we’re working together using all the dynamics one might say reading each other…And just kind of throwing yourself into the unknown as well, and we generate these other things that makes living a bit dangerously with it. When you don’t know what’s going to happen it just generates a lot of excitement, and a lot of new things come out of the songs like that.
TR: Oh definitely, that’s what makes it so fun to watch. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.
SD: You’re very welcome. It’s a pleasure and we’re looking forward to coming over to seeing you all and it’s going to be a good rockin’ show out there.
TR: It’s going to be an excellent show!!
Sled Island is an annual four-day independent music and arts festival in Calgary. From June 22 to 25 it will be bringing together over 200 artists and bands in more than 25 venues in Calgary, and it was recently voted one of the top 10 music festivals in Canada by listeners of CBC Radio 3.