Tramshed, Cardiff, Fri 27 Apr
It’s not quite May, but The Darling Buds are here already. 2017 saw Newport’s post-C86 veterans unveil their first new material for 25 years in the form of the Evergreen EP, released on the now Cardiff-based label Odd Box Records, and for many in the crowd their appearance is an unexpected but entirely welcome delight. While there is almost certainly a sweet spot located somewhere between The Jesus & Mary Chain and Transvision Vamp (the recorded versions of Burst and Hit The Ground, from 1989 debut LP Pop Said… suggest as much), they fumble around and fail to find it tonight, and I’m left feeling as though this was a missed opportunity to demonstrate to a bunch of ageing punk fans that the genre is alive, well and in good hands.
Admittedly, though, tonight isn’t really about the present or the future: it’s a celebration of the past, a testament to the enduring legacy and popularity of one of the most influential bands of the punk era, and for many of those assembled it’s a chance to be transported back to a youth spent hollering along to choruses and slopping beer onto sticky floors.
Buzzcocks’ significance cannot be understated. It was they who, as a group who hadn’t yet themselves played a show, booked The Sex Pistols to appear at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in their native Manchester in June 1976 – a gig that has since gone down in legend for both bringing Johnny Rotten and company to wider attention and directly inspiring some of the key figures in three of the city’s most iconic bands: Joy Division, The Fall and The Smiths. It was they who, with the Spiral Scratch EP released on their own New Hormones imprint in January 1977, effectively kickstarted DIY culture. It was they who were the progenitors of punk pop (not that they should be held personally responsible for all the crimes subsequently committed under that particular banner).
Forty-two years on from making their live debut, in support to The Sex Pistols when they returned to Manchester six weeks after the Lesser Free Trade Hall gig, Buzzcocks are still going strong. Sure, the longest Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle can last at the band’s customarily frenetic pace is about an hour, and even then you worry that there might not be a defibrillator within easy reach; sure, Shelley struggles to hit the high notes in the chorus of Why Can’t I Touch It?, giving up and delegating responsibility to the crowd; sure, there’s something mildly discomforting about simulated sex noises emanating from a man who these days resembles a kindly granddad. But Shelley’s vocal style remains instantly recognisable, as does the eyeball-rolling that accompanies the delivery of most lines, while Steve Diggle continues to talk the talk and walk the walk, a bona fide rock star whose stage manner and showmanship are worth the entrance money alone.
Above everything, though, we’re reminded of just how many cast-iron classics Buzzcocks have in their arsenal. The 1979 collection Singles Going Steady is an astonishing document of their impeccable standards, as is tonight’s set-list, which for instance kicks off with the quintessentially spirit-of-‘76 punk sentiments of Boredom and sees them nonchalantly drop Orgasm Addict, What Ever Happened To? and Autonomy in sequence well before the halfway mark. It’s a luxury you can afford when you’ve got Love You More, Promises and What Do I Get? left in the locker to close out the set.
Autonomy aside, Buzzcocks songs typically focus on the personal rather than the political, more concerned with charting affairs of the heart than with inciting riots or smashing the system. They fizz along with tense, nervous energy but also a keen sense of melodicism absent from many of the band’s contemporaries. Similarly, their instinctive impulse has always been neither confrontational nor antagonistic but populist and inclusive – which is what helps make tonight’s gig feel such a special communal experience. In the encore, Diggle touchingly dedicates Harmony In My Head to the late Alan Thompson, former BBC Radio Wales DJ and friend, before they wrap up, inevitably, with Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve). Over the past four decades, countless people have fallen in love with Buzzcocks, but I’d guarantee that not one of them has ever regretted it.
words BEN WOOLHEAD photos MORGAN DEVINE