Here’s a link to a song by the stars of UK punk’s first graduating class, Manchester’s Buzzcocks – “What Do I Get?” from 1978.
There are a lot of misconceptions about punk. One is that punks didn’t care about melody or songwriting. Another is that they were uninterested in making pop music. Where a lot of bands may follow this approach, it can’t be said of the whole genre. It certainly can’t be said of early punk champions, Buzzcocks. This group put across just as much of both as they did the signature buzzsaw-guitar sound. If one thing can be said of early punk rock, it was that there was an importance placed on the basics. And this doesn’t mean that they were not competent musicians, which is another annoying misconception.
It does mean that the directness found in the singles of 60s girl groups and early beat group sides, and the equally direct communication to teenaged record buyers, was an important aspect of the punk modus operandi. Take a look at this song, “What Do I Get?” – full of energy, with a rhythm section that races to the next bar as if its tail is on fire, and a guitar which sounds like a drill through a wall. Add to that lead singer Pete Shelley’s almost feminine delivery. This is the voice of the frustrated would be lover that speaks for all frustrated would-be lovers everywhere. This band created a tune which is a shining example of what a pop single should be – direct, energetic, and speaking to an audience by being empathetic in its subject matter.
The group put out an impressive body of work which captured the spirit of the times, and did so independently starting with their landmark 1976 EP, Spiral Scratch. And most of what are now the clichés of punk are nowhere to be seen. These are not songs about anarchy and bodily fluids. OK. Maybe the band’s first single “Orgasm Addict” might be a bit of an exception to the rule. But, the point is that all of the songs from the band’s early period, collected on the excellent and essential Singles Going Steady compilation from 1979, were relevant to their teen fans. Love gone wrong, feelings of awkwardness, and the joys of infatuation all play into the mix in Buzzcocks’ songwriting output. In this, they weren’t really embarking on a revolutionary path that had never before been explored. This is not punk-year-zero stuff here (another misconception, in my opinion, that punks at the time tried to sell, and did sell to many a naïve fan…). This is classic pop writing in new packaging. For all of the bluster many bands at the time portrayed about punk being a new beginning, it was more like an old beginning.
Of course I mean this in the best sense. This is the reason I love punk; not because punk saved the world from Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin (yet another misconception…), but because it sticks to what rock music does best – it speaks to an audience in terms that the audience understands best. And Buzzcocks singles are a prime example of how viscerally explosive music hasn’t really changed in terms of approach since pop records were first made to speak directly to teenagers. The influence this band has had over current pop-punk is immeasurable, proving that the basics are still the basics.
Buzzcocks have broken up and re-grouped a few times, but the guys are currently active and touring. Check out the official Buzzcocks website for more news about dates and record releases.
Also, it might be worth your while to visit the Buzzcocks MySpace page to hear streamed music if you want to find out where Green Day cultivated its musical mojo.