Steve Diggle was in a car crash at the age of 17. Tragically, his best friend died aged just 21. This disclosure takes me unawares during my conversation with the legendary Buzzcocks guitarist. “I know the meaning of death now, so I know the meaning of life,” says Steve. The event had a profound effect on him, and from our chat it seems it still influences his world view. Diggle is a very philosophical man – a quality that the best punk bands bring to the biting lyricism of the genre.
You probably have heard the Buzzcocks, if only from the Shrek 2 soundtrack – ‘Ever Fallen in Love with Someone’ is their timeless classic. Diggle has been the band’s bassist, guitarist and vocalist at various points since their formation in 1975, and although he has never seen Shrek 2, the Buzzcocks have always championed ordinary kids, making music for everyone. This even extends to their tendency for non-gendered lyrics. There are very few ‘she’s or ‘he’s used in their songs: “We were doing the non-gender lyrics before Morrissey or The Smiths” Steve tells me. Bored of the semi-sexist ‘baby baby baby’s of Motown, Buzzcocks provide a “fusion of stories about guys and girls that anyone can relate to”.
Besides rummaging through their parents’ record collection, most people get to know the Buzzcocks nowadays through their touring. Their new album The Way is a flexing of their muscles. Steve tells me that The Way wasn’t intended to please the fans of the old stuff, but that doesn’t stop the crowd’s yells for ‘Orgasm Addict’, ‘Boredom’ and all the classics. Buzzcocks made it big on the release of their debut EP Spiral Scratch in the late Seventies, with the aim to produce (in Steve’s words) “the most uncommercial music possible”. The title is taken from the term for personalised etchings scratched onto records by the engineers. It was a reminder of the human involvement in music production. I ask Diggle if he is nostalgic for that physicality of music. He declares that it was a “magical time” when you had to save up for the longed-for vinyl, go out, buy it and handle the sleeve and needle with tender care. Diggle deems today’s internet a “box of chocolates” but one that can make you sick. Too much means less for Diggle, and not just musically.
Strolling around London, Diggle feels great alienation, with little beyond towering glass buildings reflecting in his eyes. As a proud Mancunian, he laments the same trend in his home city: “The bigger the buildings get, the smaller the people get.” His rich accent prompts me to ask how pivotal the regional focus to the punk scene was, but he answers more personally. “I never felt London was any better off…I wouldn’t be the same…I was so glad I was born in Manchester.”
Immensely grateful for that “lovely homegrown working class spirit”, Diggle insists that “there’s a warmth in the North” as well as “a lot of beauty and struggle.” He remembers the steel works and coal mines and tells me of his love of D.H. Lawrence. The song ‘You Know You Can’t Help It’ is actually taken from a line of Lawrence’s poetry. Sex is a silly thing to do, states the song; it’s a ridiculous physical act, but people do it anyway.
Punk sprang from rebellion; early punk, in particular, was a very intense time. The nation was shocked by the screaming guitars, gutsy lyrics and radical sounds. According to Diggle, punk “swept the country like a carpet bomb”, forcing people to change how they thought about music. I’m interested to know what the Buzzcocks song ‘Boredom’ is really about. Is it just a general attack on the status quo, or did it reveal a boredom with the punk scene itself? Diggle says the “musical climate” was poor, nothing happened for quite a few years, there was nothing exciting for younger people. And so their famous track was produced.
When I see the punk royalty play in sleepy home-county Harpenden, they open their set with ‘Boredom’. A sea of balding men with moobs went crazy (I lowered the average age in the town hall considerably). Having chatted to Diggle previously, I was really proud of him; his energy knew no end, the sinews in his neck strained and I’ve still never seen anyone handle a guitar like him. He told me that in the last couple of years he has got more involved in the audience; he wants to know what they’re doing, breaking down barriers, promoting the ultimate punk sentiment.
In the early Nineties, Kurt Cobain asked Diggle how he had survived so long. He replied, “A sense of humour”, and Cobain shot himself a few days later (no, Courtney did not do it. Sorry, but no). I think the (northern) humour is why the fans remain. As Diggle says, “we can rock out with the best of them” but also, “we can be heavy and serious and philosophical.” I tentatively use the word ‘legend’ and Diggle acknowledges it is complimentary but insists it’s just a synonym for longevity: “No one’s given us an award or anything…it’s not like we’re the rock gods and untouchable…it’s just about the songs really…I don’t get on stage to be loved, or for fame, or anything. You wanted to reflect a bit of society and put two fingers up to the world too”