The debut of Buzzcocks, one of the first self-released records in British rock history, and their previous concert promotion efforts, fueled the ferment of record independence.
40 years of “Spiral Scratch”: the punk boredom that gave indie a letter of nature
To say that the Buzzcocks invented indie is perhaps a clever and eloquent ruse that serves to attract the attention of the reader, making any article multiply its clickbait practices. But what is surely not far-fetched is to emphasize once again that, without the self-managed example that Howard Devoto, Pete Shelley, Steve Diggle and John Maher gave on January 27, 1977, the contours of everything we understand as indie rock they would have taken considerably longer to define themselves. Or they wouldn’t have done it the same way. This Friday marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of “Spiral Scratch” (New Hormones, 1976), the debut EP by a quartet that had been released less than a year earlier. The record company Domino reissues it, also this Friday, to commemorate its seminal role, its role as an incentive for a good handful of bands to become aware not only that instrumental virtuosity should not be a toll to compose and perform songs (that already The Sex Pistols had tried it a little before), but that they could even dispense with the support of conventional record companies when it came to putting their own music into circulation.
Indie, that genre of genres (or directly, that non-genre), so battered by those who simplify the story and only keep some of the external features of its complex evolution (full of ramifications) over almost four decades, You can encrypt the zero kilometer of your inception at precisely that point. At “Spiral Scratch” of the Buzzcocks. Because although the Manchester quartet has gone down to posterity – with good reason – as an essential part of the punk genealogy (you only have to look at the arc of their influence: from Hüsker Dü or Nirvana to the Californian punk rock revival), they rarely wear the accent that, apart from that self-managed outbreak, his lyrical inventiveness, encrypted in that post-adolescent unease of unrequited love affairs, had more to do with the dialectic that emanated from British indie throughout the 80s than with nihilism , the sociopolitical activism or the joking irreverence of the majority of gangs of their own generation. “I think Morrissey borrowed the idea of lyrics from me without a specific gender”Pete Shelley told journalist Paul Lester in an interview dated 2002.
However, that was not exactly the case of the four songs that swelled “Spiral Scratch”, still championed by the generational boredom typical of the punk rash, concisely summed up in “Boredom”, their star song. The band had given its first concert on April 1, 1976, spurred by the irruption of the Sex Pistols. The four songs that made it up were recorded on a single night in December of that same year, shortly before Christmas. To distribute them, they raised 500 pounds (in loans from family and friends), took the name of their own label (New Hormones) from their sleeves and agreed to distribute their initial 1,000 copies on their own to different stores around the country, starting January 27, 1977. They ended up selling 16,000, which gives an idea that the business was more than perfect. In a few months they would end up signing for the multi United Artists, just as the Pistols (EMI) or The Clash (CBS) had already done before, but the do-it-yourself example that they had preached before would later spread in bands like The Desperate Bycicles, Scritti Politti, Swell Maps or The Television Personalities, who also began self-publishing their first singles. And more importantly, on fledgling labels such as Fast Product (created in December 1977), Factory (created in 1978), Cherry Red (created in 1978), Rough Trade (created as a label in 1978, after two years as chain of stores), Postcard (created in 1979), 4AD (created in 1980), Mute (created in 1982) or Creation (created in 1983).
Buzzcocks’ was the first self-released album from a punk era in which there was already precedent for deliveries on independent labels: The Damned’s first single, “New Rose,” released by Stiff almost a year earlier (along with Chiswick, two of the labels that we could consider indies avant la lettre, founded in 1976 and 1975 respectively, from budgets more in line with the new wave). Geoff Travis, the capo of London’s Rough Trade (who would later have The Smiths as a franchise band), recalled its seminal character in recent statements to The Guardian newspaper, describing it as “A great album, sensational”. His counterpart Bob Last, founder of Edinburgh’s Fast Product label, remembers it as something that “Blew his head off”, as the main incentive to approach his Bank of Scotland office to request a loan and thus set up his own label, as he confessed to Simon Reynolds in his book “Rip It Up and Start Again: Post Punk 1978-1984” (2006).
The catalytic role of the Manchester quartet as an indispensable agent for the ferment that gave rise to indie does not, however, end in “Spiral Scratch”. Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley, the pairing that launched the Buzzcocks brand, was commissioned to travel in the spring of 1976 to the store that Malcolm McLaren ran on King’s Road to ask him to have his Sex Pistols perform in Manchester. They were running as their opening act. Johnny Rotten’s concert at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall on June 4, 1976, organized by the hard core of a few Buzzcocks who finally couldn’t perform (the lack of a stable drummer and bassist was to blame, and they were replaced by none other than the neo hippies Solstice, who scored a 20-minute version of Mountain’s “Nantucket Sleighride”) has gone down in history as one of those legendary initiatory appointments for a whole generation, the one that would mark the designs of the British indie pop throughout the 80s.
Initially, its attendance was limited to around 40 people. Over the years, if we had to add the names of all those who say they were there that night – as Bernard Sumner said when we had the opportunity to interview him – they would fill the Old Trafford stadium. In any case, among the scarce four dozen mortals who attended that concert were a very young Morrissey, Tony Wilson (Factory Records), Ian Curtis (Joy Division), Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook (Joy Division, New Order), Mark E. Smith (The Fall), producer Martin Hannett (who would later shape “Spiral Scratch”, his first job at the helm), journalist Paul Morley and zine writer Paul Welsh, author of the only three or four photos from that night. All of them, including Mick Hucknall (Simply Red), would end up forming their own bands, spurred on by a concert in which the Sex Pistols, still a few months before their television scandal on the Bill Grundy program or the release of their first single (“Anarchy In The UK”), still devoted most of their repertoire to covers of other people’s songs.
Just a month and a half later, on July 20, 1976, the Pistols would return to the same stage, this time already, with the Buzzcocks as the opening act. Howard Devoto would leave the training in March 1977, after the publication of “Spiral Scratch”. He would do it to turn to his Magazines, the first name of a plethora of bands (Joy Division, New Order, The Fall, The Smiths) whose epic might not have been the same without the encouragement that promotional and self-managed dabbling represented for all of them. Taken by those very young Buzzcocks, forty years ago.
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40 years have passed since Buzzcocks’ debut album “Spiral Scratch”