Sunday, June 28, 2020

Buzzcocks - Sell You Everything 1991-2014 box (2020, Cherry Red) - An extended review.

When the Buzzcocks (specifically the songwriting nucleus of Steve Diggle and the recently departed Pete Shelley) reconnected in 1989 after a nine year-long breakup, the band already boasted roughly 50 songs from their initial 1976-80 run.  And not just any 50 tunes, but some of the most distinctive, nervy and enduring in the history of British punk and power pop, including "What Do I Get," "Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't 've)," and "Harmony in My Head," among copious others.  If three near-perfect albums from this era (Love Bites, Another Music in a Different Kitchen and A Different Kind of Tension) alone weren't enough, The Buzzcock's legendary first blush of 45s were of such caliber and consistency the compilation they were assembled into (1979's Singles Going Steady) is often referenced/revered more than their proper LPs.  In short, when they resumed doing live gigs in '89 (upon adopting a new rhythm section) they could have sold out rooms and concert halls for years and decades to come strictly on the strength of their back catalog.  And to large extent,  Buzzcocks concerts from this era forward contained numerous, highly in-demand standards from yesteryear.  However, between 1993 and 2014 they managed to pump out six brand new studio records, literally tripling their album discography in the process.  To boot, almost all of them produced accompanying singles.  Cherry Red's leave-no-stone-unturned eight disk Sell You Everything box collects all half-a-dozen of these later records, along with every single, solitary b-side, plus outtakes and some surprisingly intimate home demos from the Diggle/Shelley archives.

With a new lineup cemented in place by 1992 entailing new bass-wrangler Tony Barber and drummer Phil Barker, the band's much belated fourth record Trade Test Transmissions followed a year later.  Before I delve into that one, I should point out the Buzzcocks began recording in earnest in late 1990, namely at Drome Studios in their native Manchester, where they laid down over a dozen demos.  Online bootlegs of these tracks have been circulating for ages, but on Sell You Everything,  Cherry Red prefaces the band's proper mach II albums with The 1991 Demo Album (also available separately on vinyl).  Perhaps not as rambunctious or even as sassy as their first incarnation, the Buzzcocks were still plenty spry with a more expansive sonic aptitude to boot.  A handful of songs from the 1991 sessions were soon re-cut for an ep, Alive Tonight, that followed later in '91, while others would be-recorded for future albums, but there's approximately half a dozen tunes from the Drone Studios sessions that were accounted for exclusively here, including the groove-laden, proto Brit-pop experiment "Tranquilizer," and Steve Diggle's immensely melodic "Searching for Your Love."  The bonus portion of the disk is comprised of the aforementioned Alive Tonight ep, and some preview demos for Trade Test.

The Drone Studio sessions weren't as representative of the Buzzcocks' comeback LP, Trade Test Transmissions as one might expect.  Instead, the plenty-good and almost return-to-form reunion album slots the band ever so close to their distinctive chainsaw-pop aesthetic of yore, wherein the quartet is rarely encouraged to pump the brakes.  Swift slammers like "Energy," "Innocent" and "Last to Know" have the telltale tincture of classic Buzzcocks, and Diggle's comparatively subdued "Isolation" and lusciously catchy "When Love Turns Around" work wonders amidst the band's slightly modified doctrine.  TTT is one of those rare reunion ventures that's actually worth the decade-and-a-half long wait.   As if fifteen album tracks weren't enough, this reissue tacks on all the contemporary b-sides, and some wholly unreleased titles courtesy of Steve Diggle's clutch of home demos.

All Set followed a comparatively mere three years later in '96, and didn't futz much with the prior album's overarching tenets.  True, Shelley's prose isn't as biting or provocative as it was in say, 1978, but the energy quotient remains sufficiently intact on "Totally From the Heart" and "Your Love," while "Kiss 'n Tell" makes some subtle but gradual concessions to '90s sonic proprieties without encroaching into anything grungy.  1999's Modern on the other hand, if not an entirely different kind of tension was a certainly a different kind of album, wherein the Buzzcocks cautiously partook in some experimentation. They vaguely channel their inner Gary Numan on the synth-tweaked "Soul On a Rock" and "Stranger in Your Town."  Despite demonstrating they're ready to graduate to the twenty-first century there's still your daily allotment of power chords to be imbibed on Modern - just don't expect anything as inspired as the band's two preceding records.  A fairly straightforward spin on the Small Faces "Here Comes the Nice," and a chilled out acoustic piece, "Autumn Stone" (the latter credited to Steve's Buzz, are bonus-ized.

I'm not sure if it was in response to mixed reactions to Modern or if the band was try to compete with all the competition they had spawned over the ensuing decades, but 2003's self-titled effort is the most obvious attempt the Buzzcocks ever made to sound punk, save perhaps for the band's initial 1976 recordings (Spiral Scratch anyone?) when original co-frontman Howard Devoto was still part and parcel of the lineup.  Vigorous isn't merely a watchword here's it's the band's full throated modus operandi on the positively rampaging "Jerk," and "Driving You Insane," among others.  Speaking of Mr. Devoto, a song he co-wrote with Pete Shelley way back when, "Lester Sands" is revisited to appropriate effect here (you can hear the original version on the Buzzcock's Time's Up compilation of pre-record deal demos.  As with Modern, only a handful of bonus tracks on this one, the most revelatory being a live version of ...Tension's spunky "Paradise," an exceedingly scarce song to crop up on the band's setlists despite it being one of their finest.

As is frequently the case with bands who've enjoyed a lengthier than expected reunion, even veteran punk bands can sound a bit routine going into their eighth record.  Not that the Buzzcocks overstayed their welcome, but by 2006's Flat-Pack Philosophy a bit of a holding pattern had set.  No histrionic highs or crashing lows, just another steady and sturdy pallet of Shelley/Diggle compositions that were a welcome listen to fans of their more recent albums - but not exactly a godsend either.  There was a disproportionately generous portion of FPP b-sides, all eight of which are graciously appended.

When A Different Compilation came out, I automatically mistook it for yet another best-of collection.  While it is chock full of hits, this 2011 double LP length release was the Buzzcocks covering...themselves - and to outstanding effect.  They certainly weren't the first band to play this sometime cliched card, but their new paint job applied far more grit than polish.  With raw passion and renewed energy they bowl through all the standards you'd expect them to - "Fast Cars," "What Do I Get," "Whatever Happened To?," "I Don't Know What to Do With My Life," and naturally, the immortal "Orgasm Addict."  And they don't just do justice to the classics, but also inspired and more recent material like "Alive Tonight" and "When Love Turns Around You."  ...Compilation caps off with an extra deep-cut off of Love Bites, "Love is Lies" than even I almost forgot about.

When the band recorded their ninth studio LP, The Way, I'm not sure if they intended for it to be their last, but in all likelihood it is (though from what I understand Steve Diggle is carrying on under the Buzzcocks banner for the time being).  The crowd-sourced album in question came a good 35 years after the last album with their original lineup, A Different Kind of Tension, was recorded, so naturally the guys didn't sound quite the way longtime adherents remember them.  A little more grizzled, and not quite as sardonic, the crew still has teeth, and occasionally turn in a gem or three. "In the Back" features another phenomenal Diggle chorus hook, proving once again he was the Townsend to Pete Shelley's Daltrey.  And speaking of Pete, his most gratifying contribution here is technically a bonus cut, the true-to-form "Disappointment."  Not a bad way to go out, which sadly for him and the rest of the world was quite suddenly on December 6, 2018.  Rest in peace and pop.

Housed in a sturdy and handsome cardboard case, Sell You Everything is available exclusively on CD from Cherry Red Records, or in the States and elsewhere on Amazon plus the usual spate of online retailers for a remarkably reasonable price.  Buzzcocks die-hards may have a good 80% of this already, but the supplemental material and sharp packaging should accelerate this collection to the top of your want-lists.   

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Any links for this one still exist?