ARTS

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March 11, 2003

Buzzcocks fall in love with someone they shouldn't have

Are we all angrier when we're younger? I think that we probably are, and I've reached this conclusion from historical precedents. British playwrights in the early 1960s created an entire genre of Angry Young Man plays that consisted of two-hour rants about the economic collapse of the Midlands. Elvis Costello was once given the epithetical angry young man title, and now, in his middle years, he normally has "mellowed with age" tacked on to his name. It seems, if our common expressions are capable of offering us insights into deeper understandings, that to be young is to be angry, and to grow older is either to mellow or to grow bitter (which, when you think about it, is just anger without the desperate edge). We either reach a point at which we stop being angry, or we complain long enough and loud enough and to so little effect that it ceases to matter to us anymore. Whatever happens, young people who derive a lot of cachet from their anger are going to be in trouble later on in life.

The members of the Buzzcocks aren't all that old--I doubt a single one of them is within 15 years of retirement age--but they've been around since the first wave of the English punk movement, and that makes them elder statesmen within their precocious field. And back in the day, nobody was angrier (or more annoyed, or more frustrated) than the Buzzcocks. While they never had the affected rebellion of the Sex Pistols, or the ideological shadings of the Clash, they did write perfect two-minute complaints about their girlfriends, their dead-end jobs, the insufficient maintenance of cigarette vending machines, and, in the case of 1977's "Whatever Happened To," the general crappy state of everything currently extant. They were never political, which was damn near a requirement for punk bands after the first wave, and instead picked up on the Ramones' conceit that punk rock was accelerated bubblegum rock; the Buzzcocks were a bubblegum band that just happened to be really, really pissed off. Since their reunion in 1989--minus original members Steve Garvey and John Maher--they've released four disenchanted, muscular, wide-ranging, "mature" albums that haven't attracted the attention of their early work, but many critics noted them for the mere fact of being Buzzcocks albums.

Two things surprised me about their new self-titled album. The first, to pick up on a previously discussed theme, is that original members and chief songwriters Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle appear to have mellowed. Shelley opens the album with "Jerk," which sounds like a promising tell-off (a la Maroon Sports' use of the word); but no, Shelley is in fact apologizing: "It's my fault/you're not to blame/it's me who's in the wrong." Diggle's first contribution, "Wake Up Call," lacks any kind of lyrical specificity and is just a general wake-up call: "No cause for alarm/it can't do you no harm/this is the time for a wake-up call." That sounds frighteningly close to helpful advice, which frankly I never expected to hear from the Buzzcocks. The album's sound is also problematic: instead of the noisy melodies that marked their glory days, they opt here for a Big Black-style fusion of punk and metal. Where once their songs glided on the strength of power chords and Shelley's reedy whine, their new drum-heavy blast regulates their previous energy like Maxwell's Demon. Shelley and Diggle's inability to hit the vocal range they used to also adds to the feeling that, despite the droning guitar work, this album is pretty subdued.

The song structures are also puzzling. While they always relied on the verse-chorus-verse standard, they take it to new extremes on this album. "Jerk" repeats the same two stanzas three times in the final minute. "Friends" repeats its chorus at least five times, including the dreaded double repetition at the end. "Morning After" fades out with the same line, "Wake up and face the morning after," 12 times. While they were never shy about using the conventions of pop songwriting, the endlessly repeated chorus is the trademark of the power ballad, which couldn't be more anathema to both their predecessors and followers. Borrowing from bubblegum rock is one thing, but borrowing from Barry Manilow is another.

For all of the problems I may have noticed, part of me still likes this album; perhaps I'm just thinking that it's unfair to hold any band to the standards of the Buzzcocks, even the later Buzzcocks themselves. Perhaps it's because their place in rock 'n' roll history is secure, and so listening to this album doesn't need to involve a lot of critical scrutiny. Perhaps it's because, even with all the faults, it's still a hell of a lot better than the so-called punk music being played by the woebegone likes of AFI and Sum-41 (but that's a backhanded compliment if I've ever heard one). Perhaps it's because it has at least one profoundly good song--Diggle's "Sick City Sometimes"--which rocked me like a cradle the first time I heard it. I suppose that the real reason, however, is that I'm hopeful that this album, and its release on indie prestige label Merge, might inspire renewed sales of Singles Going Steady and show the current crop of the young and angry--myself included--that you can still accomplish something when your fury subsides.