THE world and his dog claim to have been at that famous gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall, in 1976, when the Sex Pistols burst into British culture.
But few actually were. And even fewer can claim to have set it up and played at the show as the support act.
Except the Buzzcocks.
After reading about the Sex Pistols in the NME the band’s Howard Trafford – who changed his name to Howard Devoto after a London bus driver – and Pete McNeish, now known as Pete Shelly, travelled to London, watched them perform and persuaded the wretched rockers to play in Manchester.
The gig became a pillar of rock history while putting the Buzzcocks on the punk map. Not only had the Buzzcocks brought the Sex Pistols up North, they introduced the idea of ‘indie’ music. Not as we understand it – i.e. wishy washy bands playing nondescript sounds – but music produced independently of a major label.
Steve Diggle explains. “We had a distinctive sound and put out what we did on our own label, New Hormones. We knew we couldn’t get a record deal at first so we did it ourselves. Then about six or seven companies contacted us!”
Their music was raw, ballsy, lyrically naked and shrewd, but now, Diggle says, most bands are producing a sound that’s lacking in oomph but meeting corporate criteria.
“You can smell it a mile off in bands,” he says. “You know they’ve had the marketing team at them. But when we started we had to really think about our music. We weren’t just entertainment – we were singing with extreme emotion and never holding back.
“People could see right through us because they were looking at a band that was real. When Turner painted the sea he tied himself to the mast and held his breath – he experienced the sea himself.”
And, like a rough sea crossing, The Buzzcocks’ history is one marked by break-ups and reunions. Now the band are back on the road, writing, recording and performing.
“We are experimenting with free-form music and our gigs are now covering a lot of ground. We played in Holmfirth recently and it was really rocking. People see that what we are playing is real.”
Their latest album, the aptly-entitled Air Conditioning, is a record about political brainwashing in Britain. “It’s about political annihilation – there’s a song on there called Plastic Titties, about the X Factor,” says Diggle, singing a lyric from the song to illustrate his point ‘I saw you on TV…”.
The Buzzcocks have witnessed several of the most pivotal and saddest moments of rock and roll’s history, not only the ascension of the Sex Pistols but the rise and fall of Joy Division, who supported The Buzzcocks in the late 70s, and latterly, the demise of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain.
“We toured with Nirvana on 12 of the European dates on their 1994 European tour. We were big friends with Nirvana and the band came to see us in Boston. I didn’t know Kurt would shoot himself. He was a really humble man – like somebody who had just stepped out of the door and stumbled upon all this fame.
“He was really sensitive and nice but on stage Nirvana was intense – I remember thinking they were very Led Zeppelin-like in that way, especially with Dave Grohl’s drumming.”
Kurt Cobain wasn’t the only artist to have worked with the Buzzcocks and taken his own life. Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis hanged himself in 1980 – barely a year after supporting the Buzzcocks on a 24-venue tour.
“Then we appeared on Marc Bolan’s TV show and he died in a car crash. Even when we signed our first record deal we turned on the telly to discover that Elvis had died.”
Fingers crossed, there won’t be any such tragedies following the Sheffield show. But one thing is guaranteed, a set that spans the band’s career with plenty of cutting-edge new material to throw at the crowd.
The Buzzcocks play as part of a punk all-dayer at Corporation, Milton Street, alongside Angelic Upstarts, Subhumans, King Kurt, English on the Bus, Poundaflesh, The Hyenas, The Fxxwits, Sickpig, Cryo-Genics, Dogs, Drongos For Europe on Saturday from 1pm onwards.