Going to see a band that hit its
prime over twenty-five years ago is always a dicey venture. No matter how good
they were once upon a time, you can't help but wonder whether you should just
spend your hard-earned money on a few re-issued LPs instead of shelling out
for tickets to a show that very well might forever ruin your enjoyment of said
band. As I entered Irving Plaza to see the Buzzcocks, I worried that I might
never be able to play Singles Going Steady again.
The first two bands, The Choke and The Adored, highlighted the contrast
between what punk music meant in the late seventies and what it means now.
Though both bands could be described as competent, I'm confident that they
could also have been restyled and repackaged as pop or metal bands, depending
on the preferences of focus groups and record executives. I missed most of The
Choke's set, and aside from the lead singer's throaty, powerful voice, the
band didn't make much of an impression. They seemed like they'd be at home in
a second-stage slot on the Warped Tour.
The Adored were no musical revelation either, but I've got to admit that their
set was fun, complete with harmonizing vocals, jubilant microphone twirling,
and hand claps. These guys were clearly living out their pretty boy punk rock
fantasies, but they were just so goddamn catchy and high energy that they
managed to win over even little, old, cold-hearted me. I don't think I'd
bother to pick up their album, but their set certainly kept my attention and
even made me dance. I was kind of sad for them when some frat party refugee
behind me yelled, "You suck!" as they walked off the stage.
After 20 minutes of listening to the same guy periodically scream, "Let's go
Buzzcocks!" as though we were at a high school football game, the band came
on. Though it was touching to watch how genuinely thrilled Pete Shelley and
Steve Diggle looked to be on stage, performing for a whole new generation of
fans, I just couldn't get into the first few songs. They opened with the title
track from their new album, Flat-Pack Philosophy (Cooking Vinyl), and
played about seven new songs in a row. While this new music is unmistakably
Buzzcocks and therefore not completely devoid of value, it just isn't perfect
the way the old stuff is. I blame the lyrics, which seem pilfered from vintage
Gang of Four: modern relationships are mechanical and consumerism is turning
us soulless – full of references to Marx on worker alienation. Twenty-five
years later, this stuff just feels trite, and besides, the Buzzcocks were
always at their best singing about the little indignities of romance and the
lack thereof. It seemed like even the band themselves were half-assing these
I was starting to despair when, finally, I heard the opening riffs of "I Don't
Mind." The band immediately seemed to hit its stride, as the old-timers and
teenage skate punks alike went wild, and the first few songs began to feel
like nothing but warm up. These were the Buzzcocks we had all come to see, and
we were overjoyed to find that they could still rock. They treated the
audience to about ten more of their favorite songs, among them "Fiction
Romance," "Ever Fallen in Love?," "Autonomy," and the sublime "What Do I Get?"
All of Irving Plaza sang along to "Why Can't I Touch It?," a phenomenon that
seemed to delight Steve Diggle. Often overshadowed in the band's mythology by
Shelley and Howard Devoto, Diggle was undeniably the star of this show. While
I sometimes felt like Shelley was rushing through his vocals (perhaps his lung
capacity isn't what it used to be), Diggle was just completely in his element,
bopping around the stage, oozing even more energy than those plucky kids in
the opening bands.
Though they'd already played for an hour, the Buzzcocks returned to the stage
after only a short break to play a generous, six-song encore. The highlight of
this last group was what I like to refer to as everyone's freshman year of
college anthem, "Orgasm Addict." Strangely, during this song and no other, the
entire audience began either pogo-ing or moshing. I could only guess that the
sexual intensity of the song was unconsciously encouraging complete strangers
to rub up against one another.
By the time the show was over, the band had played at least three-quarters of
Singles Going Steady and I had forgiven them for making us sit through
the new material first. It's obvious that the Buzzcocks know their best albums
are behind them, and if Flat-Pack Philosophy is nothing more than an
excuse for them to get out and perform their late-'70s classics, that's good
enough for me.