BOXSET REVIEW: Buzzcocks – Sell You Everything (Cherry Red Records)
Buzzcocks are a band who should need no introduction to anyone who knows their punk rock history.
Formed in Bolton, Greater Manchester, in 1976, they were one of the first wave of bands that followed in the Sex Pistols’ wake, making their mark with an untouchable run of singles and three essential albums (the latter released in the space of 18 months!) before splitting in 1981.
The classic line-up of founding frontman Pete Shelley, long-time collaborator Steve Diggle, bassist Steve Garvey and drummer John Maher regrouped in 1989 for live work, but by the time it came to record some new songs, the rhythm section had been replaced, with Tony Barber on bass and Phil Barker on drums.
This handsome box set brings together the eight albums Buzzcocks produced after reforming, plus singles, B-sides, and a bunch of previously unreleased demos.
It kicks off with a hard-to-find set of 1991 demos which was only available as a promo cassette, including early versions of some tracks which would appear on later albums, and others which didn’t make it that far.
They’re obviously not the finished thing, but the decision not to take them any further was a good one. It’s an interesting artefact, but lacks the energy of the band’s earlier material. Buzzcocks completists will note that the album has been a seperate vinyl release by Cherry Red.
The second disc is 1993’s comeback Trade Test Transmissions, their first album in 14 years, and within a couple of tracks it’s clear the boys are back, with the likes of Innocent, Who’ll Help Me To Forget, Unthinkable and Palm Of Your Hand sparkling with the vitality of old.
The 1996 album All Set is next, and it’s an under-rated work, with opener Totally From the Heart, Your Love and Pariah showing bags of typical ‘Cocks swagger, What You Mean To Me has a harder rock edge, while the standout from Diggle’s meagre three tracks is the Paul Weller-esque What Am I Supposed To Do.
Although Buzzcocks had the benefit of opening for the Sex Pistols’ Filthy Lucre reunion tour, the record didn’t make a big impact, as the label folded within two months of its release and they were unable to tour it properly
1999’s Modern, which is disc four here, divided fans as the band tried to be more contemporary, using electronic instruments and drum machines.
It shows a band unafraid to try something different, rather than sticking to the tried and trusted template of what they know works. It’s a bit of a curate’s egg; some of it is good, but other parts are forgettable.
Diggle’s Speed Of Life is powered by a delicious bassline, and sounds like The Who, while Runaround and Under the Sun are typical Shelley love songs. One for the diehards, probably, though the cover of the Small Faces’ Here Come The Nice as a bonus track is welcome.
The punchy, fast-paced Jerk, which catapults us into 2003’s Buzzcocks, underlines the fact that the experimentation is over, and it’s back to business as normal. I like this album a lot, in fact I’d put it up there with the first three as a ‘Cocks classic.
Wake Up Call, Morning After, the excellent single Sick City Sometimes, Stars and Lester Sands (a Shelley co-write with fellow founder member Howard Devoto, who left to form Magazine) show a re-invigorated band at the top of their game. Yes, it’s that good.
Flat-Pack Philosophy, released in 2006, is more of the same, but lacks a little of the urgency of its predecessor. Highlights include the title track and Sell You Everything, the track which gives this box set its name.
Drummer Phil Barker, who had played on all four Buzzcocks studio albums since their reformation, left after this album, to be replaced by Danny Farrant, while bassist Tony Barber departed in 2008, with Chris Remmington coming in.
Presumably to help the new boys bed in (and learn a typical live set), the band went into the studio, and re-recorded many of their classics, with the results released as A Different Compilation in 2011.
Songs like I Don’t Mind, What Do I Get, Why Can’t I Touch It? and Breakdown are much harder-hitting than the versions we know so well, benefiting from modern equipment and being played live for more than 30 years. They even manage to improve upon the original of my favourite Buzzcocks song, What Do I Get?, which I didn’t think possible.
Little did they know it, but the PledgeMusic-funded The Way (2014), the last disc here, was to be the last Buzzcocks album featuring Pete Shelley, as the songwriting genius at the heart of the band died suddenly in 2018.
As an epitaph it’s a fine one, showing that even as he approached 60, he still had the knack of penning a pithy pop-punk ditty.
The line-up changes had again brought new energy to the songwriting process, with Farrant getting a co-writing credit with Shelley for It’s Not You, and Out Of The Blue featuring some of their heaviest riffs.
If you stopped listening to the Buzzcocks after Singles Going Steady, you’ve got a bit of catching up to do. It’s well worth it. 8/10.