Air Conditioning, Boredom, Buzzcocks, Fast Cars, Harmony in my head, Malcolm McLaren, Mark Fisher, People are strange machines, Pledgemusic, Promises, Serious Contender, Sex Pistols, Some Reality, Steve Diggle, technoanism, Virtually Real
Steve Diggle is co-founder of seminal Manchester punks Buzzcocks, progenitors of ‘alternative indie culture’ and between 1976 – 1981 he authored hits of theirs such as ‘Promises’ and Harmony in my head’ before forming Flag of Convenience with ‘Cocks drummer John Maher. In 1989 Buzzcocks reconvened and became aware of the huge impact they had on bands across the globe with their influence permeating the sphere to this day. They have released nine studio albums, most recently 2014’s The Way.
Steve, never one to slow down, has also released three solo albums and is tapping into the zeitgeist by crowd-sourcing his new LP via Pledgemusic, offering numerous personal mementoes and artefacts as booty. The idiosyncratic debonair and raconteur opens up on punk lore and his role in it, the quirks of fate, boredom and its effects, gentrification as spiritual degeneration, music as transcendence, uses and abuse of technology, David Bowie, the state of music and more.
July 20th 2016 makes it 40 years since opening for Sex Pistols following the seminal first Free Trade Hall gig a month earlier. What are your recollections?
All those journalists went down to review the 2nd one, saw us and also put Pistols on the map in a big way, punk wasn’t just a London thing, also put the provinces on the map, other towns started to follow suit. The gig changed Manchester, kick-started what would happen later on.
You can’t plan that kind of stuff, but, our hearts and our souls were in the right place, we were thinking about a lot of the artistic things, the excitement and the rock and roll, and to wrap all that energy up in a song and by saying things in a certain way, it became a powerful package, it was very direct and instant. We were dealing with the human condition and touched a nerve with people, wasn’t just simply to be famous or to entertain people, we never thought about that.
You tapped into something that was bubbling under across the country and probably the world …
Absolutely, I had those feelings way before I met the others, and like the Sex Pistols, there was definitely something in the air and I was looking for something myself thinking ‘Fuck, something’s got to happen’ but you didn’t know what it was going to be. It takes a while to search for things in the dark, but, if you point yourselves in the right direction, which we did somehow … at the time the music business was all sewn up, you couldn’t really question it or do anything, particularly in Manchester, you had to go and beg for deals.
This simply pulled the carpet from under the record companies and said ‘Fuck you, you fuckers, we’re having it here and we’re having it now, out on the streets’ and people related to that really quickly and the songs we had. Our first song ‘Boredom’ that was like a call to arms, people just identified with that right away and thought ‘Fuck, yeah we are fucking BORED’
Is it true or apocryphal that Malcom McLaren bumped into you at the Free Trade Hall 1 and told you the people you were looking for were upstairs (Devoto/Shelley)?
Yeah, I’d been playing with some other guys round the corner from me, they were kind of good players, so I went down to meet a guy at the Free Trade Hall, Malcolm McLaren was stood outside, he said ‘they’re inside here’ and I said I was supposed to meet someone outside and he said ‘No, they’re inside here’ and I thought ‘I don’t remember saying anything like that to this guy on the phone’ It was a proper Malcolm McLaren Situationist thing really and he said ‘Come on, they’re in here’ and he introduced me to Pete who was collecting tickets on the door, I said to Pete ‘I’ll see you in the bar in a minute’ Pete came over and they were expecting somebody else.
It was a really farcical set of circumstances, some things tallied with what I’d said on the phone other things didn’t, I thought ‘I don’t remember saying that’ and I’m sure he (Pete) felt the same. We kind of connected really and then from there we watched the Pistols and then the next day we all went to Howard’s house and all plugged into one amp and did the first rehearsal.
I’d forgotten about that for years in a sense, yeah, that was true … I’d forgotten, I remember him outside trying to ‘sell’ me the Sex Pistols, I’d heard of them, but, I was more interested in meeting this guy first. I wanted to do a group with 3 minute songs and smash guitars.
A chance to vent some anger?
Yeah, I wrote a song called ‘Fast Cars’ a little bit slower than the one you’ve heard and after we ‘Buzzcocked’ it up it was much different. I’d written that and a few others and thought ‘I need to look for a band’ and so I thought I’m rehearsing with these guys but I thought ‘they ain’t gonna make it, they ain’t got the right mindset, it’s a bit sad really, they had jobs, I put myself on the line as I thought you can’t really have a job if you’re gonna do this music thing because you’re never gonna have the time really, I thought I’ve got to get out there and meet other people, I knew LOTS of people, but more on the Manchester drinking scene!
A quirk of fate?
Yeah, it was kind of like, attracting to some magnet, we all gravitate towards each other in a way, and the person I was supposed to meet called me up and I said ‘Look, I’m going down to rehearse with these other guys I’ve met’ which became the Buzzcocks.
With ‘Fast Cars’ it’s one of the oldest eco-wary songs (cars and pollution), with the line ‘sooner or later you’re gonna listen to Ralph Nader’ or is it about Formula 1 and it’s depressing because what’s the point (‘they’re so depressing, going round and round, ooh they make me dizzy’)?
Ralph Nader talked about the ecological stuff and their safety. I’d had this line and I said to Howard ‘how in Russia do you go by car’ because I’d read that something like 1:1,000,000 people had a car, and also on many levels of what it stands for, particularly in the 70s, if someone had an E-Type Jag they were a bit of a cunt! The symbol of some kind of wealth, there was all that kind of focus, you were kind of trained to see it as some kind of success, get a nice house and a car. It was symbolism for a lot of things for me. A lot of those people were dickheads, initially it started like that, the ‘hating’ of fast cars was a bit of a shock because everyone’s supposed to ‘like’ fast cars. The antithesis of hero-worship of that kind of thing.
And now you’ve got Clarkson and all those fucking people on that programme they drive all those ridiculous cars 100s of thousands of pounds, what fucking world’s that?!
It’s another sign of the divide in this country, between the rich and the poor and the distribution of wealth. Any cunt that can spend 250 grand on a car could be buying a house for someone. You never see a family car on there, something of ‘value’
Boredom used to be something you’d feed off and be inspired to create. The cultural theorist Mark Fisher has posited that ‘In today’s techno-netted society, is ‘boredom’ a thing of the past and been replaced by anxiety’. How much would you agree with that?
It is a big philosophical question ‘boredom’ … almost goes back to the question ‘why are we here?’ like ‘what’s the point’, an existentialist question, how valid is anything; everything could be seen as boring if you take it to its logical conclusion. Is it all really a complete waste of time, is there any validity or importance in any of this, because like we see now people running around killing each other, this planet’s floating round in space and there’s people like this. He (Fisher) has got a point.
I suppose boredom is something you try to alleviate by doing something, anxiety is a condition that is treated by prescription drugs which results in not doing anything?
It does seem a symptom of the modern society, ‘I’m bored, I’m depressed, I’ve got anxiety, here’s the tablets’ … in another way with the song, we were simply saying, ‘We’re fucking bored of the status quo, we’re bored of the situation’ that’s where it becomes a bit more philosophical in terms of what everything means, it becomes more universal than just anxiety, on every level. That record, it instantly connected with people, it just told you everything in that one word, people were bored with things and with themselves.
The space in between ‘Boredom ber dum’ encapsulates ‘boredom’ and the humdrum’ with a guitar solo that’s so throwaway, basically says that guitar solos are boring, in two notes.
A musical painting of boredom, and the solo … at that time you had people like Deep Purple doing 5 million guitar notes. On the one hand it’s funny and on the other it’s very heavy, the way it hits the spot, it’s so ridiculous yet had a massive impact. All these local DJs, the Smashie and Niceys, all playing nice West Coast music on the Manchester stations, then they heard that which took them all by surprise.
On Manchester Piccadilly they had a round table, where they’d pick the new records, I remember ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and the DJ threw it across the room saying ‘We won’t be playing that again!’ I’m sure the following week they had ‘Boredom’ and did exactly the same, you don’t realise how valuable it was somebody saying it was a load of shit or a waste of time. They didn’t realise how much they were creating an industry by doing this.
Ironically about two years later you’d go into Piccadilly Radio you’d be treated like Kings and Gods because you were a local band … that 2 minute solo caused some reaction. We were making those songs for the importance of it somehow, who we are as people came out in the songs, weren’t just songs to be successful, to make us famous, it connected with people, the 2 note riff got people right away. The kids got it, took a while for the media to get it.
I do remember a DJ when ‘Harmony in my head’ came out on the local radio and he said ‘That’s their best one yet!’ I’d tried to make things a bit heavier, this was 3 or 4 years later, I was driving along in my car funnily enough, doing 40, and the local DJ said that’s the best thing they’ve done to date. How times had changed from Boredom to Harmony …, with its Little Richard and Beatles ‘Twist and Shout’ type shouting vocals. We’d had a few hits by then and I thought ‘Better make this one a heavier one’, Pete had done ‘Ever Fallen …’, I’d done ‘Promises’, they were kind of nicer ones and then I thought we need to kick Top of the Pops in the face. I thought ‘I need to make it angrier’.
‘Harmony in my head’ is a classic example of social observation.
When you look at a busy high street it’s quite chaotic and all I was saying ‘all this mess, look at life, look at the high streets where we all gather and its full of tragedy as much as happiness, that’s the music of life, no matter how down you are, how complicated life is there’s always tragedies, if you’re ever in doubt look at all these people. It’s just a chaotic cacophony of sound, there’s people dying every day, they can’t pay the bills, always something wrong, what do you expect, ‘this is life’, no one expects a perfect life or hopefully not a bad life. Looking at the herd and masses and going ‘That’s what it’s about’.
Saying things could be worse?
Some days you feel good, others you feel terrible. About a year before I was reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, which has this cinematic imagery and when you walk into a room you get input from everything; a lightbulb, from the floor, someone’s face, all these things at once, that’s what he was trying to do, he didn’t write linear lines, that starts with somebody walks down the street telling a straightforward story. The notion was ingenious to write all this fragmented stuff which we experience every moment, which has become more prevalent over the years. There’s even more input everywhere we go now, you’re hit by an million things at once everywhere. I was trying to cram a lot of images and things like that rather than a straightforward story which is a personal thing, I thought it was interesting to write like that.
1996’s Modern had your ‘Speed of Life’ and ‘Don’t let the car crash’, both Bowie-esque titles, were they inspired by him?
I’d forgotten ‘Speed of Life’, it was a little in-joke to me because I was taking a lot of speed at the time!
It was drug informed, Britpop was underway, lots of crazy parties, hedonistic times, always that notion of living your life, too busy to notice what you’re doing, don’t always stop and think ‘Who the fuck am I?’
‘Don’t let the car crash’ dates from when I was 17, I was in a car crash, my best mate died, he was 21, we were all a bit drunk going down the road, we’d been thrown out of a club for dancing with each other, sure they were playing ‘Starman’! We got in a Hillman Imp and the car careered off the road, missed the oncoming traffic and I thought ‘Fuck, I’m gonna die’, was thrown about everywhere. We ended up in a garage and demolished the petrol pump, we could have all gone up in flames. When I got out my mate was on the floor, I thought he was ok, it seemed to take forever, he’d died. That changed my life a lot.
When you’re 17 you’re programmed that your Aunties and Grannies die at some point, but, not one of your best mates, life and soul of the party. Partly to do with that. When we started touring you’d meet people, people talking about being depressed, because we sang ‘human’ songs we kind of became like agony aunts, I’ve never come across that myself, working class lad, come from the streets, keep yourself strong, then you’d meet people with problems and the car could crash. I suppose it’ll happen to me one day and I’ll have a complete nervous breakdown …
For me if you can walk down the street and you can see the sun then it’s all not that bad. I was seeing a lot, like the Wild West in Camden at the time, a few around that time, that song came through running into those people, seeing casualties, lot of people moving down thinking they were going to make it, their dreams becoming a nightmare.
‘People are strange machines’ and Virtually Real’ (with its Scary Monsters … opening) off The Way. Is it your way of saying there’s an overreliance on technology or something more sinister?
A nice jokey way of analysing people as machines, when you start to think about it we’re all on our phones, computers, we are almost machines, part of the machine, the machine is us as well as … they’re making machines more human …
An analysis of a human as a machine … the phrase just came out. When we came to record it we did a demo and I did add the ‘uh-oh’ Bowie bit, the title is kind of areas he covered too, he did have an influence.
I saw Bowie on the Ziggy tour in 1972, I loved the 60s (Beatles/Stones etc), by 70s Bowie appeared, he was incredible, every album was different, but, so was The Beatles. I grew up with all that stuff, by the 70s it was the ‘art’ way of thinking about stuff, Warhol et al, Bowie kind of turned us onto it all, helped get others across (Pop/Reed). Made them artists. You have to be inspired by his whole musical landscape. It was a time when great changes could happen.
I always thought at school, ‘the magic in the grooves is something your Mum and Dad can’t teach you, something a college lecturer can’t tell you’ you put those records on as a kid, something in those dark grooves on the vinyl took you to another world’ now it feels that sometimes there’s so much music that just washes over you, that doesn’t resonate, even if it’s a good fucking tune, but, it doesn’t have any effect on you. I hear stuff and think ‘It doesn’t mean anything’ whereas they are others that are so profound, knock you sideways you think you can never go back, your life’s changed.
Punk changed the consciousness of how you listened to music at that time, (this) sounds completely different to all that’s been before; you had to rethink what music was. If records or music can do that it’s a magical thing, it doesn’t happen every day and that’s probably a good thing, makes when it does a very special moment.
Personally Buzzcocks are more than a ‘punk’ band, which is ever more a limiting and stratifying label, you are inspiring as autodidacts and worthy of an academic study.
It’s only because of all the things we’ve learnt in life, we didn’t have books in the house when I was a kid so books came of interest, that’s part of my mission to get the books across with the music to people that are listening, to do that educational exchange, I haven’t got the answers or the cleverness, but, there’s something there that you can pass on to people, the art of it all.
There’s a simplicity inherent in your songs that if you dig deeper there’s so much more to be gained.
We get pigeon-holed for the ‘Ever Fallen in love … thing, which is a great song, but, it becomes ‘Oh, you guys made some love songs … they need to know ‘exactly’ who you are, if you look on a computer now there’s all kinds of suggestions as well.
As a band you’d straddled punk, post-punk, more experimental scapes with ‘Moving away from the pulsebeat’, ‘Why she’s a girl from the chainstore’ and ‘Running Free’?
Before we split up (in 1981), I’d wanted to introduce electronics. Pete then went off and did ‘Homosapien’ which put paid to that. By the time we got to Modern we thought let’s do this now. Of course then you had people wanting the ‘Buzzcocks sound’
(In 1979) we had problems with EMI because they couldn’t hear a single or a hit, well, the others were only hits because our fans bought them, we never sat down and wrote a ‘hit’ they just came out. With ‘Running Free’ I was experimenting at home, recording vacuum cleaners and stuff, I’ve got demos of me singing like a German, I’d been listening to Can; an Englishman pretending to be a German trying to sing in English. I was in a funny place when I was 20!
Your antennae were up?
Absolutely, people like Stockhausen as well. With ‘… Chainstore’ it was supposed to be a sociological question, I enjoyed it in school, it mentions Bernstein’s Language Barrier, ‘the language spoken at home is different from the language in the classroom’, for working class people, not everybody, but, when you go to the classroom and the teacher says a word like ‘ubiquitous’ you’d think you’d underachieved. Close knit working class communities weren’t really allowed to step outside that, a Saturday Night, Sunday Morning kind of thinking.
Kurt Cobain: Memories?
Playing the Trade Test Transmissions tour, we had all these second hand TVs behind me and I’d smash them up with my mike stand. We went on tour in US and when we got off stage Nirvana wanted to meet us, Kurt said ‘I loved the way you smashed the TVs, man’, they were Number 1 at the time and asked us to go on tour. We couldn’t do it as we had commitments. I told him of the time we were in Germany, I always have a straight mike stand, I put it through the TV and couldn’t let go, only the adrenaline kept me alive. Any other day I’d have been dead. It took me about 1000 TVs to master the technique, I told him that if you’re getting smoke from it then you’ve got it.
There’s a lot US groups who are fans, Eddie Vedder, Blondie, Pixies, Bob Mould, it’s never really mentioned over here. Probably influenced more over there than the Pistols.
Pledgemusic. Democratisation of culture or an indictment of art as business?
Both really. There’s no record companies, really, well, not companies that are going to sign anything that sells below 15 million, everybody knows that’s the way it works now, your Beyonces and the sausage machine stuff. We did the last Buzzcocks album this way so we thought let’s give it as go, I think EMI offered us a deal and it was better to do it this way. It’s like the 70s again, years ago you’d go in to a record shop and you’d order a record and you’d wait 3 weeks, people voting with their feet, hopefully the good thing about it is it is the fans who are interested, pre-ordering then receiving the record.
Yeah, a lot of waiting for it! At least the people who are ordering are the real deal, it’s not someone taking a punt, slightly out of necessity. Good to do stuff outside Buzzcocks, come up with stuff, I had a few songs lying around and wondered what to do with them, next minute I’m in the Pledge office. It is an indictment of the situation in the music business, but a lot of people are doing it that way.
You seem to be giving everything away apart from the kitchen sink! Has it been cathartic looking at your past?
With Buzzcocks I don’t think we gave that much away, but I found a few rare posters, like only 4 of those in the world so I thought it’d be nice for some fans to have those. I found some singles and some records and also the shirts, some of those shirts have travelled the world and have played to a lot people.
And you’re synonymous with those shirts.
They must have some magic, charged energy, that’s what you’re buying.
Is it easy getting rid of them then?
In some ways I don’t want to now! I want to do a Buzzcocks exhibition at some point and they do feel very personal, these are like old friends to me, I could look back in years’ time and go ‘Fuck, this shirt’s played everywhere’ once they’ve been sweated out they become something else. We’ve always had a good following, stayed with us over the years which is great. The stuff I’m offering is for people who know about us and have stuck with us, that’s the magic of it all.
With Pledgemusic, I thought to have the first three albums as a trilogy and also put a new album in, a trilogy of four! If people do get that boxset of the three albums then the whole would make a lot sense, they are all interconnected; the internal one Some Reality (2000), the existential one Serious Contender (2005) the political one Air Conditioning (2010). There is a thread.
Your solo stuff serves to highlight your input and influence to Buzzcocks, illuminates what you bring. How does the solo process differ?
If you’re gonna step outside the Buzzcocks you don’t want to sound like the Buzzcocks. I like to bring in some of the influences I’ve mentioned, blues, rock and roll, 60s stuff, one of the reasons is whenever I read books by artists they talk about their childhood or biography, bringing some of those influences out, on my first album I wanted it to be more internal, I wanted it to ‘sound’ like a first album, a bit spartan and naked, so you could look back and think ‘that was an early one’.
What I do on my solo albums is I do one song then have something almost completely different on the next one, almost like a roller-coaster. Air Conditioning is a political one, how at certain times you feel like writing a certain song, the input we get from society, the feelings, this political inhalation we breathe in at the time … about the week that came out all the students went on strike, I thought’ Fucking hell, I was in the right place, in my mind’ it was time for something to boil over and it was kind of heartening to see that in some way because people thought that that rebellious thing had gone for bit, in society and with students.
With every aspect of the past seemingly accessible, do you agree it’s impossible for youth to reject, refuse the past in order to create something ‘new’ and unprecedented? With your generation you railed against the fossilisation of prog and kicked back. Is it hard to do now?
Well it always seems hard until somebody does it and you think ‘Oh, yeah, it’s obvious’ with hindsight but somewhere along the line there’s probably some kid somewhere that’ll come up with something, well, you always have to live in that hope and I’m sure at some point it will.
Even with punk the years before it was barren for 5 or 6 years, it just went dead for years, it does seem a bit longer now to be honest, but … then that came along and we thought ‘We’re gonna have this!’ you’ve got to believe it is possible, it has got to regenerate, even if people say ‘that’s shit, that’s out of date now’ I would understand that as a natural progression of how youth culture evolves, we’ve kind of gone like that, but, a few years after you kind of think ‘some of those bands were really good’. There was that ‘rip it up, Year Zero’ then and let’s see what we’ve got from there, but, it’s like any party it doesn’t last forever, but, it did put a full stop on things and start a new chapter in the rock and roll world, every now and again that SHOULD happen.
Part of me that thinks because you ‘can’ access pretty much anything and everything from the 50s onwards (films etc), the notion of a past, that looking at a past and thinking ‘that was then this is now’, seems hard to capture ‘now’ when there’s still so much of the past always around …
It is difficult, it’s very difficult to start off in a band now and do all these things, nearly impossible in a way, we caught that back end of when it was possible to make money from records which allows you to function and do things, now if you put a record out it’s on the internet in days, nobody makes money out of it, if you haven’t got a proper audience you can’t make money that way.
You also need the breaks, there’s not really any television programmes that put any new young bands on really, (Later with Jools Holland’s) more like geriatric home most of the time, all these old people, it’s s full broad length looking at an encyclopaedia of music, it’s not like a cutting edge thing, not like Ready Steady Go in the 60s, or even TOTP, The Tube, going ‘This is something that’s happening now.
You’ve got that TFI Friday which is a waste of time, you look ridiculous on there trying to play to those people, all that silliness, for years there hasn’t been a programme for years that’s gone ‘Here’s a few bands with something to say and do and let’s show that’ it’s not about the television presenter’s cock! Which it usually is these days, the vanity of what they’re up to.
The rebellion will probably be in other ways from computers or something else, it is difficult, one of the things, what everyone knows, we’ve all got these phones, they’re so addictive, they’re worse than heroin. If you took somebody’s phone away they’d have to go into rehab for a while.
If people leave their phone or they’re without it for a day, an afternoon or a few hours they feel lost and stranded. It takes you mind off so many things, back to the 1984 thing, a distraction, it stops rebellion, one of the ultimate opium of the masses, it pacifies.
It amazes me when I see people playing those little dot things on the tube, those bead things (Candy Crush). I don’t get it, if you’re travelling to town why do you need headphones to listen to music, unless it’s a long journey every day. Get on the bus and hear the ambience of the bus and your surroundings, seeing people come on, look out the window and dream and think about things and SEE things instead of looking in your phone or having headphones on for 20 minutes.
You can observe people and observe life, even that’s gone now, it makes you unaware of your surroundings and how people are and how to interact with each other in the long term. If you just get on a bus and put your head into something you’re traveling in a community on your own, you’re cutting the community out.
Isolating, atomising and alienating?
It is, in that way it’s snuffing a lot rebellion. Plus it’s hard to rebel against these big corporate companies now, they’re knocking a lot of places down, Soho’s going which is very sad.
Do you think the rampant gentrification of once industrial hubs can still product great art? E.g The Free Trade Hall in Manchester is now a Radisson. Is the energy still present to thrive off? Can the social conditions incite rage and antagonism?
Yeah, even going to other towns you can see everything’s gone or boarded up, nothing’s of any community use or inspiration. On the one hand they’ve got you thinking ‘Oh, you’ve got to move on’ and we have progressed a lot over the years, from the 50s, a load of changes and you can’t stop the progress, but, this corporate thing now, they’ve taken the heart out of Soho and lots of other places. The Notting Hill Market, they’re nibbling away at that now.
In Soho, all the bits that used to be seedy, the sex shops are all boarded up. I spent years there so I was in Soho every night, the pub where I used to drink right opposite there used to be a rasta club, full of all kinds of people, you’d knock on the door, buy a Red Stripe, leave at 8 in the morning.
That has become a Holiday Inn Express hotel, it’s like why would you want to come to Soho, all the things you’d want to see in Soho, that seediness and all the rest of it are gone, replaced by the where you’re staying. You can go for a coffee! If you walk down Tottenham Court Road to Warren Street, we’ve just become a nation of grazers, Mexican, Chinese, Costa, all this corporate thing. Now it’s just people eating everywhere, all unconscious farm animals eating, the lot of them.
This Crosslink thing’s also ripped the heart out, you’re gonna get to the centre to do what … go to Primark and that’s about it? All that character which creates a lot of things …
Yeah, although I think they have got plans to build a new something relating to music, my argument was, they knocked the Marquee down or changed it, but, they don’t do that with the Tower of London, why don’t they turn that into a fucking McDonalds?! Denmark Street’s just as historic and powerful as the jewels and the crown, why is that so sacred? People do come for this kind of history and heritage, the Royal Family might bring in tourists and income, but so does the rock and roll stuff.
The amazing thing is everybody’s kind of up in arms, but, it just seems powerless, you send these petitions in and somewhere along the line it’s the finance, the money that’s speaking loudly, finance and money over creativity and art, it’s a difficult new world we’re going into, a very bland world. Again, ‘People are strange machines’ is relevant.
In places you sense history and you sense energy, now there’s a void in places, you can’t feel anything, all that energy has been trampled over and built on, soulless spaces. Putting a plaque up as a memento is not the same, that’s not going to retain ‘life’. I went to Manchester the other week, first time in a while and I couldn’t believe the ‘progress’ there, it was like Blade Runner in parts.
Rarely go to Manchester nowadays, but, when I do I’m always amazed, this is the city I was never gonna leave, when I go back I think ‘this had heart and soul and now it’s got nothing’, it so soulless, that’s heart-breaking as well. That they’ve changed that, building that building in Piccadilly Gardens, that was a wonderful Victorian garden there, designed for that square and then they just go and stick a building up at the end, and then stick some amusements in, ruined it, it was a beautiful park to sit in and relax.
If every where’s becoming a giant shopping centre you’re being told to ‘consume’, you’re not being encouraged to ‘think’ differently? Privatised space.
You’re being trained how to behave in one of those, no fresh air in there for a start, a security guard, and them soulless shops and all the rest of it. All them little streets were built with amazing things, them little streets had magic about them, they’re not concerned with that anymore. Property used to be about the building, the design, now they’re just a funny shape and glass. More to do with how much it’s worth, how tall it is, it’s only tall cos you can make more money milking each floor. The Shard, well, it’s a tall building, but, it’s just a thing that goes straight up … you don’t think that’s really beautiful you just think ‘Wow, it’s tall’ and then there’s the other one by, it, the phone or something?
The Walkie talkie?
They all dwarf St Paul’s, but St Paul’s is more powerful to look at than those others, it’s all been designed from a distance so it blends in with the landscape, but, it’s meaningless. You can’t look at them for too long because it’s ‘Oh yeah it’s just glass and a load of steel’, but, it’s just there to make money that’s what it’s saying.
I used to do a thing on the stage in-between ‘Harmony in my head’, a big ‘Punk Rock Soliloquy’ I used to say ‘tall glass corporate buildings make me feel that small’, I just bashed a load of things out. In Texas I said ‘take your feet off the table, take your library books back’ if there is a library! I used to do all this kind of stuff about living in the modern world, I stopped it because it used to piss Pete off, he don’t like me getting too heavy, and I suppose that’s the thing going back to the solo thing, if I want to get political I can do that. I think it frightens him sometimes, he’s trying to rationalise things out in a different way. If I want to sing about revolution outside Buzzcocks then I can do.
With the Pledge thing, I thought to have the first three as trilogy and also put a new album in, a trilogy of four! If people do get that boxset of the 3 albums then the whole would make a lot sense, they are all interconnected; the internal one, the existential one the political one. There is a thread.
Suggestive of your state of mind at the time?
Yeah, I started to become a lot more political around these times, the Buzzcocks albums seemed to be taking longer, part of the reason is Pete Shelley’s getting too fucking lazy! It takes him ages, even The Way took him a while to get going, but, I always have loads of songs, still got loads of cassettes, each year for about 3 years there’s about 5 or 6 of those songs to put on Buzzcocks albums.
It’s good that it’s been a prolific time, had to put them out in between the Buzzcocks ones, you kind of put a different hat on for that, with the other it’s a bit more open for myself to have that freedom. Which is a weird one because the Buzzcocks is a very distinctive style. It’s nice to do something different. Some people prefer it. It’s not just something you do just to fill in a bit of time.
Sometimes we get lost in things, both of us, this time I suggested on The Way that we alternate the songs so they don’t get bored of any of us. What I do on my solo albums is I do one song then have something almost completely different on the next one, almost like a roller-coaster.
We did one album, I was supposed to go back and help him mix it, All Set, and it had about 7 Pete Shelley songs and then about 5 of mine at the end and I thought ‘He’s formatted that wrong’, … You had 7 things of the same story and then five of mine. With the solo stuff it’s like a collage or it’s been cut up in different ways. It’s not going like ‘Oh, I’ve heard that one …’ which The Ramones can be in danger of, I mean Buzzcocks can get a little close sometimes, but, The Ramones, the first album’s great, but, once you get to the 2nd and 3rd you’ve got the form, they’re all a bit similar. That’s why I wanted to make my solo albums different every song, drastically different in a way, enough
Corbyn: the return of socialism or the end of meaningful opposition to elite rule?
Yeah … a difficult one, it seemed like that at first, funny enough I did see him in the Houses of Parliament at 4 o’clock this morning, and he was giving Cameron a good run for his money, when he first got in I thought ‘His politics might be old, but, he seems a bit polite’ but he was putting direct questions to him. It was about knocking that block of flats down in London saying that the people haven’t been offered homes or the children schools. I believed in the trade unions, but do a lot of people these days? A lot of people think they’re (unions) middle-class because they own their own house. A lot of people don’t like to be associated with it, so I think if you’re on the front line half of these fuckers wouldn’t back you up. People would rather save their own skin
Interesting the way members of his own party have reacted, and papers like the Guardian and Independent have gone to war on him when the ‘choice’ was between Burnham, Cooper et al, who stood for the old regime which we all know wasn’t working.
At least with him he does come over as real and talking a bit more earthy than the usual spiel they get told to say, it’s the show business act with all of them, trying to get votes. I think that’s what unnerves the papers, he does look like a postman and he is asking real questions. It will be interesting to see what he can do. The thing is you think out of all these people there isn’t that much choice for leaders, Gordon Brown was a waste of time, there’s got to be someone out there who can lead the Labour party.
Well this one sounds hopeful with his principles, things like disarmament. He’s only just getting into his stride and last night his questions were very good, Cameron was playing to the crowd and Corbyn was asking very direct questions, usually they’re both taught to get a laugh or a cheer, not like that with him, he’s using quotes from people off the housing estate. Which is kind of more real rather than usual flannel, party line stuff. You’ve got to live in hope with him. He’s the best the Labour party have got at the moment. He should be given a chance.
Do you vape nowadays or do you still cling to the demon weed?
I’ve never really vaped, I have had that thing from Tesco’s that looks like a cigarette. I’ve chain-smoked for 40 years, really badly. There was a Granada documentary and my Dad said to me ‘You’re smoking in every scene!’ I can go into a pub and polish off five cigarettes outside within seconds, I have been a bit rundown the last few weeks, so maybe it’s all catching up with me the drinking and the smoking. Funnily enough I haven’t had one in about 2 ½ weeks, only because I was caning it which is the first time in years, I feel very weird, very ill, it’s weird not having one. I feel very weak and strange.
A few weeks leading up to it I was in the pub too much and the smoking and some other excesses that go with it …
Drugs: help or hindrance?
I wouldn’t want to advocate anything, in one way they are a hindrance, but, if you can use them rather than them use you then they are a help. I’ve always enjoyed and never had a problem, been close to the edge a few times. If you can do without them then … I have had some amazing things through them, but, they can have terrible consequences, just depends how much you want to dice with death. There’s a song on Air Conditioning, ‘Hey Maria’ ‘in all the books we went through just to grasp a line nearly went over the edge just got back in time’ that was a double thing, on the one hand it was about reading a book to give you some answers, but, also sometimes on the top of the book you do the line! It also mentions the car crash.
The profound thing for me (car crash) when I saw my mate die, it was ‘to know the meaning of death is to know the meaning of life’, after that I thought ‘I’m gonna live now’, see the whole world different, I kind of lived by that after it happened.
Certainly stuck to it!
Yeah, I’ve had a good run with it.
Steve’s Pledgemusic site is at