Buzzcocks at Royal Albert Hall: a holy celebration of music, memories and Pete Shelley

Royal Albert Hall, London, June 21st, 2019

This was supposed to be a regular Buzzcocks show. A celebration of the Manchester band’s remarkable songwriting prowess these last forty-plus years, at the capital’s most distinguished live music space. Booked almost a year ago, and around six months before Pete Shelley – the band’s principal songwriter and arguably the finest tunesmith of his generation – died of a suspected heart attack in an Estonian hospital. What transpires is still a celebration, only one now very much focused on Shelley’s memory.

That said, it’s clear that surviving guitarist Steve Diggle sees the evening as an opportunity to reveal what Buzzcocks might look like going forward. After a video message from sometime Magazine man Howard Devoto, who formed Buzzcocks with Shelley at the Bolton Institute of Technology, leaving in 1977 after the band’s seminal ‘Spiral Scratch’ EP, Diggle and the band’s contemporary lineup use the first quarter of the show to race through a flourish of impeccably melodic numbers. ‘Fast Cars’. ‘Promises’. ‘Why She’s A Girl From the Chainstore’. ‘Autonomy’. Behind the band a selection of images pertinent to the band’s career to this point – press shots, flyers, artwork – flash behind them. They – and Diggle’s gutsy rasp – don’t fail to remind us of what we’ve lost.

Shelley and Diggle’s pairing contributed hugely to what made Buzzcocks unique. Oil and water. Fire and skill. Diggle was there from the off, there-or-thereabouts, originally playing bass. And yet his move to guitar in the wake of Devoto’s formation of Magazine resulted in a pairing that shaped decades of the band’s future. To describe the duo as punk’s answer to Lennon and McCartney would be trite, but it’s fair to say that one provided the fury, the other tried (and mostly succeeded) to turn otherwise straight-ahead punk rock into fey and arty love songs. Post-Shelley, Diggle has announced his intention to keep Buzzcocks active, as is his right. He was given Shelley’s blessing before his passing. But it should be noted that the lion’s share of the band’s best songs don’t suit his rock‘n’roll bark.

Steve Diggle and friends (Photo credit: Simon Balaam)

In truth, it’s a problem that most of tonight’s guest vocalists suffer from. Captain Sensible – from Buzzcocks old skool buddies The Damned – gets away with belting out ‘Boredom’ on behalf of him being the most charismatic man in all of south Kensington tonight. Penetration’s Pauline Murray delivers a sterling take on ‘Love You More’ by taking the song closer to what it is ultimately beneath the fuzz and distortion; the sort of song much closer to the XX chromosome than the XY.

Amongst all this, the band fluctuate between the new Buzzcocks and a version of the classic line-up, with drummer John Maher and bassist Steve Garvey tagging in and out with the new members. Sometimes they all play together; two drummers side-by-side, sometimes two bassists also. Former NME thinker Paul Morley – part MC, part historian – bridges the transition from one song to the next. He wears a lovely jumper.

The Damned
Captain Sensible of The Damned (Photo credit: Simon Balaam)

Peter Perrett from The Only Ones is up next. His awkward drawl also suits the angular reggae of ‘Why Can’t I Touch It?’ Like a punk rock take on Benjamin Button, Perrett is dressed like a teenager but looks around a hundred-years-old. Then The Skids‘ Richard Jobson – who earlier, during his band’s support slot, managed to lead the entirety of the RAH in a singalong of “Boris Johnson is a wanker” – belts out ‘Fiction Romance’. The Damned’s Dave Vanian, who looks more and more like a vampire as every year passes, takes on ‘What Do I Get?’ and ‘Something’s Gone Wrong Again’. His distinguished roar, while being perfect for his own band, further highlights the unique cadence of a voice lost just over six months ago.

Thurston Moore keeps his guitar while he sings, possibly the first time the former Sonic Youth beanpole has played in a regular tuning in all his days. His version of ‘Time’s Up’ is decent. His version of ‘Noise Annoys’ answers the unasked question, ‘What would Buzzcocks have sounded like if they’d been signed to Sup-Pop?’ But it’s Tim Burgess, on account of being a bit fey and a bit Mancunian – and thereby very Pete Shelley – whose vocals best replace the absence of Shelley. ‘Sixteen Again’ is good, but his version of ‘You Say You Don’t Love Me’ is simply wonderful.

Peter Perrett
Peter Perrett (Photo credit: Simon Balaam)

Diggle takes the microphone again for a run of three songs – his signature piece, ‘Harmony In My Head’, ‘Orgasm Addict’ (which is, to further illustrate a perhaps laboured point, more Fiesta than it is Knave), ‘I Don’t Mind’ – and it’s during this segment that the collision of sentiment and excitement collides to create something almost holy.

When cherished figures in public life pass, people grieve, silently, humbly. When cherished figures in punk rock die, people grieve by going absolutely fucking bananas. If you want to truly understand what Pete Shelley meant to the people who loved his songs, then the front ten rows of the pogoing crowd tonight provide ample material to hang the defence’s case around.

The evening ends with a run-through of the band’s greatest song – and perhaps that of the era in which it was written – ‘Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)’. The evening’s guests flood to the stage, leading to the quite brilliant sight of Tim Burgess and Thurston Moore dancing together like Danny and Sandy at the end of Grease. It is joyous. It is sad. It is exciting. It is weird. It is everything a four-piece from Manchester called Buzzcocks ever were.

This was supposed to be a regular Buzzcocks show. What transpired was anything but.

Buzzcocks at Royal Albert Hall setlist:

‘Fast Cars’
‘Why She’s a Girl From the Chainstore’
‘Boredom’ (w/ Captain Sensible)
‘Love You More’ (w/ John Maher, Steve Garvey & Pauline Murray)
‘Why Can’t I Touch It?’ (w/ John Maher, Steve Garvey & Peter Perrett)
‘Fiction Romance’ (w/ John Maher, Steve Garvey & Richard Jobson)
‘What Do I Get?’ (w/ John Maher, Steve Garvey & Dave Vanian)
‘Something’s Gone Wrong Again’ (w/ John Maher, Steve Garvey & Dave Vanian)
‘Time’s Up’ (w/ John Maher, Steve Garvey & Thurston Moore)
‘Noise Annoys’ (w/ Thurston Moore)
‘Sixteen Again’ (w/ John Maher, Steve Garvey & Tim Burgess)
‘You Say You Don’t Love Me’ (w/ John Maher, Steve Garvey & Tim Burgess)
‘Harmony in My Head’
‘Orgasm Addict’
‘I Don’t Mind’ (w/ John Maher, Steve Garvey)
‘Ever Fallen in Love’ (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)