Thirty-five years on from the height of punk, Emily Mullen gets to grips with Buzzcock’s guitarist Stephen Diggle as he vents about all manner of things, from electronic music to Justin Bieber
Buzzcocks, the seminal Manchester punk outfit, made their debut gig while supporting the Sex Pistols in 1976. They never had to carry the same weight of punk reverence as the Pistols or the Clash, but the Buzzcocks have been able to pick up the pieces from their 1981 split and hammer out a successful music career with remarkable ease.
The band have just started recording their ninth studio album to date and are currently touring the world, between recordings sessions. Although their hairstyles offer pale imitations of their former glories, their surging energy for recording and performing seems to be defying the aging process better than their follicles. Punk is no longer reserved for the disaffected youth, in guitarist Stephen Diggle’s view, but instead for the reactivated aging punks of yesteryear. Diggle speaks of the new strains of punk in a disillusioned manner, describing how modern bands replicate their predecessors rather than emulate them; “Now it seems like we all wrote the play, and they found the script and they’re re-enacting it out. It’s like, what’s their fuckin’ ideas?”
Diggle describes his surprise at his band’s longevity “When we started we never thought it would last this long. We never realised that we would become this famous.” For such an enduring band, the sheer quantity of line-up changes has been immense. Directly after their first album was released, drummer John Mayer and lead guitarist Howard Devoto left to join other bands. Numerous other musicians have filled their vacated roles in the years following, but Diggle and vocalist Pete Shelley remain the band’s omnipresent members. Diggle says of his former band mate Devoto’s departure that “he wanted to do some other things, we didn’t know what he wanted and we obviously weren’t providing. He made the record and said ‘Now I’m leaving’; we were left thinking ‘Alright, we just got going, thanks mate!’ But we carried on, it was better really; in terms of the chemistry, we became closer as a band when he left.” Though having not seen Devoto in “twenty or thirty years”, the original line-up will be performing together in London, over the summer.
The live performance is, for Diggle, the most fundamental part of a musician’s role. Regardless of the quality of deliverance, the act of playing live and communicating with the audience is of the upmost importance. “If I play something wrong, no one gives a toss; life’s not perfect, so why do you have to play perfectly? It’s in sync with the human condition; it’s flawed as well.” The energy that this flawed performance can produce cannot be replicated through headphones or stereo speakers for Diggle; “Punk was made to be performed live and to be experienced.” The emotion that can be transferred from guitar to body is central to the entire experience. “With those songs, when they came out you had to rethink your whole consciousness about how you were listening to music and what it was doing. It wasn’t just simply entertainment; it had things in there to inspire. People could take the excitement of some of the lyrics away with them; even if they were a road sweeper they could hear those songs and sweep their roads differently from that point on.” Through this great exchange between audience and band, Diggle disregards the use of so-called ‘machine music’, arguing that such a intense exchange cannot be replicated if there are no instruments involved; “The testament is that people still come to see us, as a band which is a living organism. It‘s almost as if we are organic; we come out of the ground and we can play live and through this. Magic can be created from the living thing. The clacking of guitars; it’s a whole different concept than making pure computer music.” He emphasises that “Everybody’s at that ‘get your song remixed’ lark, but you can do that with your big toe on a computer, just tap it.” The modern phenomenon of YouTube is also a bone of contention; he argues that “the internet has made music less precious really, at the touch of a button you can get a million things. It’s like eating a box of chocolates, and when you eat the box of chocolates you feel sick. In our day you had to go down to a record store and buy the thing. It might have been no good, but if you invested your time and money on the record, you appreciate the good in it, however marginal.”
Diggle seems to have distanced himself from the punk rage that was stereotypically reserved for the British government, and has redirected this anger at the modern music industry. Stating in colourful language that “I’m sure that there’s a lot of kids out there that are feeling unrest and realising that they’ve been hoodwinked by the great corporate fucking weasels that control the music business.” The products of such an industry enraged him further. “They are the dead, the living dead, some of these kids look like their mums have ironed their underpants for them on the tour bus. It’s like ‘Fuck, when did the music world ever work like that?” Diggle went on voice rather bluntly that he “fucking hates Justin Bieber.” Presumably this hatred is not directed at Bieber as a person, but as a representative of a corporate industry Diggle has come to loath. When asked has he heard any inspirational music lately, he replied, “Not really, haven’t heard any recently, and I can’t really say Westlife. That’s for weddings and funerals, that stuff.” On a softer note, he reasoned that perhaps modern punk is not dead, but just not gaining any substantial recognition. “For those musicians who are off the wall different, it’s hard for those bands to get a deal. I feel sorry in a way that things are a lot tougher now.” Yet if modern punk musicians do exist, you can’t help but think that the Buzzcocks aren’t too interested in finding out about their whereabouts.
Buzzcocks play the Academy on May 11th. Tickets are priced at €26.50.