How Buzzcocks fabricated indie( with help from the Sex Pistols, a Renault and the Quo)

Its 40 years since the Manchester bands first release reshaped pop music. With no industry supporting, they pressed and sold the EP themselves, and kickstarted a revolution

In January 1977 a young punk band called Buzzcocks strolled into the Manchester branch of Virgin with a box of singles they wanted to sell. They had set up a label called New Hormones and pay money the records themselves with an early sort of crowdfunding borrowing 500 from a couple of friends and the guitarists dad and their only aspiration was to sell enough of the 1,000 copies they had pressed to be able to repay the loans. The Spiral Scratch EP objective up selling 16,000 copies and reaching the top 40 there was no problem with the loans. More importantly, though, it proved that it was possible for artists to be in complete control of their music, from production to distribution, and in the process fabricated indie.

These days, theres nothing unusual about bypassing the record industry. Chance the Rapper self-released his music and has become a breakout starring and Barack Obamas guest at the White House. In 1977, though, Spiral Scratch was game-changing. In its aftermath went a wave of British independent labels and a distribution network that meant that, as Rough Trade founder Geoff Travis sets it, anyone could compete with the big sons, but that simply happened because it was an undeniably great record.

Few who considered the first Buzzcocks demonstrate on 1 April 1976 would have felt they were in the presence of people who were about to reshape pop. Peter McNeish and Howard Trafford( who would become Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto) fronted a makeshift version of the band at Bolton Institute of Technologys students union they were studying there and managed to rile not only the venue, but their bandmates, too.

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After the venue pulled the plug, their drummer who had never rehearsed with them before laid into Shelley and Devoto. He told: Im at this level and held his hands the highest, Shelley, recollects, and youre down there.

Shelley and Devoto had been inspired to form Buzzcocks seven weeks earlier, when they read a live review in NME that would transform their lives. The headline, Dont look over your shoulder, but the Sex Pistols are arriving !, was enough to convince them to borrow a little Renault and drive 200 miles to High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire to consider the Pistols support Screaming Lord Sutch on 21 February.

Seeing the Pistols changed everything, Devoto says. We started to realise what songs we ourselves could write.

Spiral
Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

At this phase, the Pistols were some style from becoming the band who outraged a nation. They were so short of bookings that their director, Malcolm McLaren, agreed to the offer Shelley and Devoto put to him: they would define his charges on in Manchester, if they could be the supporting band.

The problem was, the pair didnt have a band. And when the night of the gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall arrived 4 June 1976, with Shelley and Devoto having paid 32 to rent the room they are continuing absence a permanent bassist and drummer and had to drop off the bill. But they rapidly recruited bassist Steve Diggle and drummer John Maher, who joined while doing his O-levels as a style of avoiding aggro from his neighbours, and when the Pistols returned to the Lesser Free Trade Hall on 20 July, Buzzcocks were ready.

I believed if I could join a band, I could get the drum kit out of the house, Maher tells. How was I to know that my first gig would be supporting the Sex Pistols?

Shelley, who was 22, recollects the demonstrate for its complete lack of adult supervising. We were literally doing it ourselves. McLaren told: If Buzzcocks arent onstage in 10 minutes, youre not going on. But he was shrewd enough to bring music journalists. When the journalists reviews seemed, Buzzcocks were propelled to national attention.

Initially, they had no plans to make a record, but after the Pistols appearance on Thames TVs Today demonstrate swearing at the host, Bill Grundy landed them on tabloid front pages and major labels started signing punk bands, Buzzcocks realised they had to making such a mark or risk being passed by.

Record company scouts simply didnt venture up to Manchester, tells Richard Boon, their director. The place felt like the tide had gone out. But what other options were there? To Shelley, the idea of manufacturing a record themselves felt as unfeasible as making a computer in your front room.

There were already British independents: the Damneds New Rose had been released on Stiff, but that label had the advantage of being run by people with lots of experience in the music business, and the contacts that went with that experience. It was a somewhat different matter for a pair of students whose only experience of records was buying them and listening to them. The Droning told us: Dont do it! Shelley tells. Because theyd run the vanity publishing road in a previous incarnation and objective up with boxes of records in the garage.

However, the bands new booking agent, Martin Hannett, wanted to become a producer and considered an opportunity in Buzzcocks. Boon started investigating pressing plants, to see whether they genuinely could make a record, and as things started moving, Shelley began to think: We can actually do this.

It helped that by now they had a decide of anthems that matched those of any London punk band, led by Boredom( You know me Im acting dumb/ The scene is very monotony/ Boredom! Boredom! Devoto sings, while Shelley picks out a two-note solo ). Devoto wrote the lyrics during night shifts at a tile mill, and Shelley wrote the tunes on his Woolworths guitar.

Buzzcocks
Buzzcocks in 1976 …( from left ) Howard Devoto, Steve Diggle, Pete Shelley and John Maher. Photo: Phil Mason

We were chalks and cheese, Shelley recollects. I said to him, I never get around to things. I live in a straight line, That finished in Boredom. Shellyss famous guitar solo seen as the epitome of punks rejection of musicianship, and later resurrected by Edwyn Collins for Orange Juices Rent It Up came out of the blue and seemed to fit. After wedded finished it, we fell about laughing.

Boredom, Breakdown, Times Up and Friends of Mine were are available in 30 minutes just before Christmas 1976, with Hannett at the controls. Spiral Scratch launched his career, too, and he would go on to produce Joy Division and New Order, the Psychedelic Furs, U2, Happy Mondays and many more including Buzzcocks after Devoto left, and Devotos next group, Magazine.

My impression was that Martin didnt know what he was doing, Maher tells. But neither did we. Devoto says of Spiral Scratchs ramshackle, lo-fi audio: As amateurs even we find it a bit amateurish sounding.

Boon thinks the amateurishness is all part of the EPs charm: Buzzcocks were the anti-Fleetwood Mac, the antithesis of big-budget music. He took Spiral Scratchs encompas photo of the band on a Polaroid instant camera and the band assembled at Devotos shared flat in Lower Broughton to slide 1,000 singles into their budget scene sleeves.

The first shop to take copies was Virgin in Manchester, which accepted 25 copies and sold them for 99 p each( of which 60 p went to the band ). In London, Travis had just opened his Rough Trade shop. He took an initial 50, then ordered 200 more just two days later. I knew I could sell them, he tells. It was a sensational record.

Boon didnt have the money to press more copies, so Jon Webster, the manager of the Manchester branch of Virgin, lent him 600 from the stores sales of coach-and-four tickets to a Status Quo gig. So indirectly, the first British independent success narrative was financed by the Quo, Boon tells, giggling. Webster recollects those pioneering punk days as the right time of my life, and notes that, back then, a record store could be a catalyst for spreading new music. Because there was no distribution, virtually no stores had these records, he tells. When we handed out a photocopied listing of all our punk singles at the[ venue] Electric Circus, we were spate with people from all over the north.

Soon enough, a transcript of Spiral Scratch reached John Peel, who duly played it; it became single of the week in the music papers, and sales explosion via mail order. After Mancunian photographer Kevin Cummins devoted Marc Bolan a transcript and photographed him holding it, Boons landline started ringing off the hook.

Spiral Scratch has proven that punk was having an effect nationwide, that it wasnt simply confined to a small coterie in London. The cultural historian Jon Savage had just started his first fanzine when it was released, and it reached him believe Manchester punk seemed more interesting than London punk, which was full of people with leather jackets and cocaine habits. Just as important, the the ways and the ways and means of Spiral Scratchs release epitomised freeing through DIY. Abruptly the gap between was intended to do something and actually doing it seemed small, Savage says.

Devotos idea of recording details on the sleeve Breakdown, third take , no overdubs and so on further demystified the process of inducing records, inducing it seem available to ratings of young groups. Two months after Spiral Scratch was released, the Desperate Bicycles formed, and released a first single with a sleevenote that read: The Desperate Bicycles were formed in March 1977 specifically to the needs of record and releasing a single on their own label. That note inspired Green Gartside of Scritti Politti to form his own band and release a debut single on which he itemised the costs of production and manufacturing. Buzzcocks had started something that couldnt be stopped

Indie labels began to spring up nationwide: in 1978, ZigZag magazine published a listing of 120 labels that had punk acts on their roster; the vast majority of them were from outside London. Alongside the labels went a new breed of band: Webster recollects Ian Curtis coming into Virgin and declaring: Ive formed a band! Then Rough Trade set up the indie distribution network that devoted these new labels and bands some of the muscle their counterparts on the major labels has hitherto monopolised. You could have a No 1 record and have nothing to do with the record industry, he tells. It was tremendously empowering.

Buzzcocks
Buzzcocks in 1976. Photo: Phil Mason

Buzzcocks Mk 1 didnt survive their own earthquake. Devoto returned to college, and later formed Magazine. The new lineup of Buzzcocks, with Shelley singing, signed to United Artists and rendered some of the best loved-music of the punk epoch. Forty years on, although there have been transgress along the way, Shelley and Diggle continue to lead Buzzcocks, and celebrated the bands 40 th anniversary with a world tour.

And all these years on, there are young bands doing exactly what Buzzcocks did. I lately satisfied the grime act Tough Squad, who told me how they press up 200 records, take them to shops and then go back for the money, Boon tells. Just like we did.

It simply shows what can happen if youre stupid enough to believe that you can do something, Shelley adds. History is made by those who turn up.

Spiral Scratch( 40 th anniversary reissue) is released on Domino on 27 January. Times Up, an album of 1976 demos, is being reissued on 24 February.

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