In Tribute To The Late Pete Shelley We Repost: The Buzzcocks And Titus Andronicus At Webster Hall, Saturday, September 6th, 2014 Reviewed
The Buzzcocks biggest problem in 2014 is also one of the reasons they are still going strong: Steve Diggle. An original Buzzcock, Malcolm McLaren introduced Steve to Pete Shelley at the Pistols legendary 76 Manchester gig and Steve played bass on Spiral Scratch, when Howard Devoto quit, Steve switched to guitar, he is, of course, a Buzzcocks Buzzcock. The problem is, Diggle isn’t much of a songwriter, or, if that is unfair, he doesn’t compare too well to Shelley who all but invented not just pop punk but also emo. This means there are parts of the Buzzcocks shows where the songs, Diggles songs, aren’t up to par, in the heart of the set there are a handful of iffy moments starting with “When Love Turns Around” and ending with “Third Dimension” and all off the fan funded waiting for release new album The Way.
This should be a blight on the entire set and it isn’t a blight because the flip side is, Diggle is a dynamic strange presence and a swift and tasty guitar player and he physically carries the band. On “Third Dimension” Steve and Pete performed electrified white noise notes that effortlessly segued into “Noise Annoys”. No, neither you nor I want to hear “Third Dimension” or “People Are Strange Machines”, especially when we are not getting “Sixteen” or baffling enough “I Believe” or “Paradise” for that matter but if we have to hear Diggle songs, the Buzzcocks made them stand up.
With a long break in the 80s, the Buzzcocks are the last band standing from the class of 1977 who still have their core in tact and anybody is gonna be honored to listen to them perform, especially when they give every single song a spit shine and a polish so even two note drones like “Autonomy” stand up as well as “Get On Our Own” -one of the best songs ever written. The band is so alive, Pete all shy gestures and sweet smiles and sighs under a Santa Claus beard, they’re as fresh as a daisy.
The Buzzcocks are one of our great bands, they introduced me to punk back in Manchester in 1977 and for me were always a signature band of the time, always the third in the class but my secret favorite (my other secret faves were X-Ray Specs, Poly Styrene is seriously missed). Patrick Stickles of Titus Andronicus paid his respect as well, “a great honor and privilege to be here in support of the Buzzcocks” he claimed, and Patrick doesn’t say what he doesn’t mean, then he launched into “Upon Viewing Brueghel’s ‘Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus'”. For me, there is a huge connection between the two bands. I saw the Buzzcocks for the first time in 1977 and was a professional rock critic by 1978, I saw Titus Andronicus in February of 2009 and I was a rock critic again by April of 2009. In February 2009, I was at the tail end of a three month bender and so drunk I’d lost all sense of time when I stumbled into the Bowery Ballroom way way way too early for the Los Campesinos-Titus Andronicus concert and so I found myself at the front of the stage. That evening changed my life again, I wanted to write about it but I had nowhere to write about it,
But like any great loves it couldn’t last. Peaking with one of the greatest albums of the 21st century, The Monitor, they OD’d on Fucked Up and mistook themselves for a punk rock band when they are, in fact, a classic rock band. The last two times I saw Titus opening for a band they seemed to have a chip on their shoulder, Stickles feigned indifference opening for Vampire Weekend was just the start, his fuming bristling outrage at the Pogues was capped by Stickles warning the rowdy Irish St. Patrick’s Day audience to drink responsibly. An iffy headlining performance also at Webster Hall in support of Local Business in late December 2012 lead to a nearly two year break for me. Maybe the break did me good, maybe I stopped taking Titus Andronicus so much for granted, Or maybe it was the heavy duty three guitars bass and sometimes keyboards boys only club who were shining. In a way too brief 30 minute set, Patrick didn’t just warm up the audience for Buzzcocks, he also made convert after convert after convert. The last fifteen minutes were both breathtaking and somewhat subdued. Patrick knew how to do his job without overshadowing the Buzzcocks. You show me a set with an ending as power as the 1-2-3 of “A More Perfect Union”, “My Eating Disorder” and “Titus Andronicus” and I’ll show you… actually, I don’t know what I’ll show, I’m not even a big fan of the middle song, but for sure I will show you middle aged Buzzcocks fans being told they’re gonna burn in the fires and loving. I will show a roomful of people who had never heard of Titus Andronicus getting some of the buzz I did in 2009. In 2010, Titus Andronicus were the greatest band in the world, in 2014 they aren’t, but if they aren’t the greatest band in the world, who is? Patrick was wearing a Voodoo Lounge tee-shirt… maybe the Stones are.
It isn’t the Buzzcocks, they were never in the greatest rock band conversation and still aren’t. While the Clash were singing “White riot white riot I wanna white riot”, Shelley, at the apex of punk rock UK 1977, was singing “I just wanna lover like any other” and so it was and so it is. The years have changed the 59 year old cutie pie: he is overweight, his beard white and gray, his movements stoic and he leaves the heavy lifting to Diggle, who revels in it. But seeing him from the front row, his voice sounds the same, always the schoolboy with a touch of whinge and his playing has if anything improved. When you think Buzzcocks you think pop punk Godfathers, tuneful masters with drone rockers thrown in for taste. But their other secret is the lick, and on song after song the duo trade off awesome addictive repetitive licks. The rhythm section has an easy job of it, all four on the floor, but the licks are what anchor the band and that’s why they are pop punk not punk rock. An extended coda to “Why She’s the Girl From the Chainstore” suggest a prog rock the band doesn’t have its heart in.
Plus, I was in the front row and watching Shelley sing “Sometimes we go out and I wish we stayed at home” his body language is so expressive, he wiggles his nose and shrugs his shoulder, it is wonderful that 35 years later he can still put on the Pete Shelley mantle and it still fits and he knows it.
I’ve met both Patrick and Pete a number of times over the years and it is great to see both leaders on top of their game. After Gene Simmons recent comment that rock and roll is dead (again -rock is the Lazarus of popular music) if you were at Webster Hall last night you might not believe him.