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Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Buzzcocks at the Black Cat (Washington DC) May 11, 2010

The Buzzcocks are one of those bands that I never in a billion years expected to see perform live. Then came word they'd be flying in from across the pond to the Black Cat- a great choice given the club's punk roots and aesthetic (club owner Dante walks the talk)! They'd be playing their first two albums in their entirety plus tacking on a few contemporaneous sides eventually assembled for one of the great Greatest "Hits" out there ("Singles Going Steady"). When you haven't heard anything the band has done in the past 30 years or even looked at a picture much less seen a youtube video you go into it not knowing what to expect. Perhaps you are even a bit worried: can they hack it or is this a "take the money and run" affair?. For me the Buzzcocks are the third greatest punk band (1 & 2 have to go to the Clash and Sex Pistols not in that order) that came out of the UK in the heady days of 1976. They were a bit different from pretty much all the others I've heard (no expert) except perhaps Ireland's Undertones: less political, poppier with lyrics concentrating on being a teenager and growing up. They were from Manchester before Manchester had so much to answer for and Madchester, touring extensively with other local bands like Joy Division... Well of course hearing Pete Shelley who wrote most of the tunes singing Sixteen Again, written and originally sung from the perspective of a 21 year old, as a 50 something -from five feet away- is pretty bizzare. I found myself being able to more fully appreciate the performance- at times earlier in the show- by simply closing my eyes because Pete Shelley Version 2010 looks a bit like that relative thats kind of let himself go, put on some weight, used to wear the cool clothes but now wears something resembling a bad Tommy Hilfinger knockoff from Walmart. A bit into the show as tends to happen in these cases you grow up in a hurry, accept the reality that even rock gods age, forget about such silly things, and join the fiesta which after all is being given in your honor. In any case, that distinctive Shelley voice with its strange pitch and intonation is still quite there. Thankfully next to the water bottle sipping rather staid Shelley we had the other original Buzzcock the frenetic Steven Diggle who did more windmills than Pete Townsend and chugged champagne between songs all the while managing to look about 15 years younger than Shelley! His songs unsurprisingly also tended to more closely resemble the classic anti-establishment English punk ("Autonomy" and my personal favorite "Harmony in my Head" which he rocked all the way to Tibet). This was the tour opener and it was clear Diggle was there to party like a rock star and could you blame him at a sold out tour opener in front of a happy raucous crowd of all ages? One could sense certain tension between Diggle and Shelley (ying and yang) and it really was a case of the true Punker with the Pop songwriter that happened to get going when Punk was the only game that mattered. The originals were complemented by two capable kids (including a Prince Harry look alike on bass) who one hopes are having the time of their lives. Buzzcocks songs are short and sweet and the live performance was no different flying by surprisingly quickly for two and a half albums. The songs compiled on "Singles Going Steady" from the two albums and on the five song encore were the one that got the crowd moving and excited but they were all excellent to some degree and if you didn't particularly care for one it was over pretty soon (no jam out of hell to worry about here). If you closed your eyes you could kind of imagine yourself being at punk show in 1977 but not at the punk show focused on the outside world ("White Riot", "Anarchy in the UK", etc.) with spit flying around you. A punk show more a la Ramones if you will, that is to say focused on the same things and issues that young kids have focused since time began ("Orgasm Addict", "Ever Fallen in Love (with someone you shouldn't have)", etc.). Getting Shelley and Diggle to autograph my LP from the stage as they said goodnight was the icing on the cake for what was a privileged glimpse at a bygone era but by a band still firing on all cylinders and very relevant. No less a band than Green Day has cited them as their biggest influence. 

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