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Buzzcocks, of course, were all about speed. The Manchester punk quartet may not have shaken the world as savagely as such London contemporaries as the Sex Pistols and the Clash, but it created a style that’s endlessly adaptable and imitable—from the Undertones to the Smiths to the Wonder Stuff and beyond. And the essence of that style is its cadence, chattering and propulsive. If Pete Shelley’s lyrics divulged poignant disappointment with life and love, Steve Diggle’s guitar simply expressed the desire to get outta here. From their clean, modern graphics—no messy bricolage for them—to their crisp, driving music, Buzzcocks were streamlined. It’s a heritage the reunited band means to uphold: The only graphic on the cover of its new All Set is a detail of an auto-racing flag.
So what is it that Shelley sings on French, the band’s recent live-in-Paris album? “I hate/Fast cars”?
That line is not from the new material the band has composed since realigning in 1989 after a nearly decadelong layoff. In fact, “Fast Cars” is so old that it’s credited in part to former lead singer Howard DeVoto, who left the group before it even recorded its first album, Another Music in a Different Kitchen, in 1978. It’s just that the song seemed merely playful at the time. How could hurtling Buzzcocks hate fast cars?
The answer, it now seems clear, is that Buzzcocks were wimps—in the very best sense of the word. If punk unleashed the usual quota of regular guys (Mick Jones) and troublemakers (Johnny Rotten), it also liberated misfits and geeks, boys (and girls) who spent their spare time in the library and avoided fast cars. No wonder the distinctive yet classic Buzzcocks sound was later adopted by nice guys, sissies, and wallflowers such as the Undertones, the Smiths, and the Wedding Present: The A- and B-sides collected on the classic Singles Going Steady are heady but not head-banging, assertive but not aggressive, horny but not macho.
This is music that pumps as much adrenaline as heavy metal, yet is fueled by rue, irony, and comic self-awareness. “What Do I Get?” could never be mistaken for the sort of question asked by a guy who’s about to kick your face in. After all, what roughneck would deliver this threat: “Sooner or later/You’re gonna listen to Ralph Nader.”
The queries that defined Shelley’s late-’70s work—notably “ever fallen in love/with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with?,” which demonstrated just how universal gay adolescent anxiety can be—are not those of middle-aged men, which Shelley and Diggle now are. (The band’s 1978-1980 rhythm section, which joined the reunited quartet at first, is long gone, replaced by drummer Phil Barker and bassist Tony Barber.) So it’s just as crucial for Buzzcocks to signify urgently as for them to play vigorously.
They’ve got the latter requirement covered. When rockers reach their 40s, the customary jeer is that they’re slowing down. There’s little evidence of that on French, which offers 75 minutes of Buzzcocks at escape velocity. (The band actually sounds speedier than its original incarnation did in its only D.C. appearance, in 1979, when it was upstaged by the then-unknown Gang of Four.)
Nor do Shelley and fellow guitarist/songwriter Diggle show any inclination to pay the rent with their golden oldies. French is mostly a showcase for tunes they’ve recorded in the last six years; of the album’s 23 songs, only six overlap with Operator’s Manual, a 1991 package of 25 greatest “hits” recorded in 1978-80—and two of those six are bonus tracks added for the nostalgia-minded U.S. market.
Still, nostalgia is a justifiable response to All Set, Buzzcocks’ second full album of new material since reuniting. The album is an improvement over 1993’s Trade Test Transmissions, but it lacks certain essentials, both musical and emotional. The dual-guitar stride of the Shelley-penned opener, “Totally From the Heart,” is brisk and bright, but the song slights the necessary yearning; its satisfied lyric makes romantic fulfillment sound a lot less interesting than fruitless longing. Perhaps even more shockingly, the album’s most sparkling melody, Diggle’s “What Am I Supposed to Do,” is swamped by organ bleats.
Buzzcocks once needed keyboards as much as they needed borrowed tunes, but All Set relies on both: The bridge of Shelley’s “Without You” shares a melody with the Stones’ “Paint It Black,” while Diggle’s “Playing for Time” bears a certain resemblance to “Goin’ Back,” the Goffin-King Byrdsong. Buzzcocks’ breathless, stripped-down punk was never unprecedented, of course, but it was always theirs. Some of these songs sound like they’re overdue at the classic-rock library.
As in the final days of Buzzcocks’ first epoch, Diggle’s songs are worthy companions for Shelley’s. His “Isolation,” perhaps the catchiest tune produced during the band’s second phase, is but one of nine French songs for which he takes full or partial credit. He wrote only three All Set tracks, however, and of those “What Am I Supposed to Do” is the sole standout.
Melodically, Shelley proves more consistent this time. His paeans to grown-up love, however, sound like the testimonials of a born-again chump. “Don’t you know that you should never doubt love,” he sings in “Give It to Me,” as if the adolescent disillusionments he immortalized in songs like “You Say You Don’t Love Me” were the fantasy, and romantic contentment the norm; for the man who once chanted “there is no love in this world anymore,” love is now all around. “Please don’t deny me your love/Your love’s as precious as the desert rain,” he implores in “Your Love,” indulging the sort of earnestness that even colors his guitar playing during “Hold Me Close,” utterly becalming the song.
“Some Kind of Wonderful” has an equally blissful disposition, although it does feature some of the Morse-code guitar counterpoint that makes the best Buzzcocks songs sound like critical communiqués from another planet. And while its funky thump seems a bit contrived, the cranky “Pariah” provides a bracing contrast to the album’s insipid good spirits. The last of Shelley’s numbers on the album, it finds the singer “burning” with rancor, although not nearly so cogently alienated as on the older songs on French, which reaches all the way back to the band’s debut EP for the elegantly rudimentary “Breakdown” and “Boredom.”
“You make mistakes when you’re 21,” admits Diggle on “What Am I Supposed to Do,” but such early songs were anything but mistakes. Indeed, they’ve set Buzzcocks an impossible standard. French’s energy and All Set’s craft are a formidable combination, but together they don’t add up to Singles Going Steady. Aptly, the live album ends with a version of “Fast Cars.” It’s a statement of teenage timidity that’s bolder than anything the reconstituted Buzzcocks have attempted.CP