‘History is made by those who turn up’- Buzzcocks and the birth of punk

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The single Spiral scratch by Manchester band Buzzcocks was released on January 29th 1977, meaning that the fortieth anniversary of this significant event is imminent.   In fact, ‘released’ is possibly an inappropriate word, given that it implies a nationwide publicity process on the part of the music industry.  In this case, it was four Bolton students lugging boxes of singles around the record shops of central Manchester.  I say that the release was important, even historic; I probably need to explain and justify such grand terms.

Firstly, and possibly least importantly, Spiral Scratch was the third recognised ‘punk‘ release.  It had been preceded by The Damned’s ‘New Rose’ and ‘Anarchy in the UK’ by The Sex Pistols in October and November of the previous year, but it still represented a very rare manifestation of the new musical movement.  For that reason alone it was bound to attract attention at the time and to still be a subject of note (and blogs!) decades later.

Secondly, the single was self produced– it was the first ‘independent’ punk release- and its appearance established a self-sufficient, anti-establishment element in the ethos of punk which was to prove defining.  The reasons for this were simple.  There were no record labels based in Manchester at that time and few A&R men bothered to come up to the city to see new bands playing.  That meant that the only way a new band at the time could normally get attention  was to play at certain pubs and clubs in the capital.  Four lads from Bolton Institute of Technology did not have the funds for such a venture.  Out of desperation, as much as from any revolutionary spirit, they investigated the idea of cutting a 45 rpm disk from a demo tape.  It turned out to be less daunting than they had imagined: there were the printing and pressing facilities in Manchester and, provided they were prepared to put the vinyl in the sleeves themselves, they could produce 1000 singles for a fairly modest cost.  The band established their own label, New Hormones, as the vehicle for this venture and went into a local studio in late December 1976.  The band also provided the art work and design themselves, so that nearly the entire production and distribution process stood outside conventional channels.

Although Buzzcocks were hawking the records around themselves, their initial gamble paid off and they quickly sold the first batch.  This was, of course, in large part testament to the quality of the record, but it indicated too that the independent route could succeed.  This realisation had important consequences. The London record shop, Rough Trade, saw the scope for setting up a distribution network outside the major labels and thereby provided a conduit for distributing the new music.  Many bands imitated Buzzcocks’ pioneering initiative, setting up their own labels and issuing their own singles.  Examples include The Prefects, a Birmingham band who set up Vindaloo Records to release their first single, ‘Going through the motions’;  Illegal Records was founded by Stewart Copeland, the drummer in The Police, along with his brother Miles, in order to issue ‘Fall Out’, the band’s  1977 debut.

A large number of small, independent labels were also established in response to punk, often in the British regions where there had not previously been a recording industry presence.  In Manchester there appeared Valer Records and the Rabid label, which appropriately released the work of Slaughter and the Dogs; Braik Records  was set up by Bernie Rhodes, manager of the Subway Sect, as a way of releasing their recordings and the aforementioned Illegal Records had two sub-labels, Deptford Fun City (ATV and Squeeze) and Step Forward (The Cortinas and Chelsea).

It would be possible to overemphasise the anti-capitalist, anti-establishment aspect of these initiatives.  Despite the anarchist associations of the punk movement, these new labels were not (other than Crass Records, of course) some gesture against commercialism; they were just a way of small, new bands getting themselves heard and, once the independently released single had attracted the desired attention, many of them (for example The Police, Buzzcocks and The Skids) quickly signed to major labels.   Nonetheless, as I have suggested, the ‘DIY’ ethos was quickly internalised into punk: homemade clothing, badges, jewellery, hair styles and fanzines rapidly became markers for the new genre (see too the quotes from the Museum of London punk exhibition in my previous post).

It is instructive to contrast the experience of Buzzcocks and others with the more traditional approaches to finding record deals.  I have discussed Barnsley heavy rockers Son of a Bitch/ Saxon elsewhere on this blog.  The band was formed in 1970 and they followed the established process of producing demos and circulating those to record labels over the next few years.  It was not until summer 1978, after many refusals, that they finally signed a deal with French label Carrere (as I describe in a forthcoming article in Barnsley Memories magazine).  Their first album did not appear until May 1979.  The trajectory for many punk bands was very different and very much faster: Buzzcocks had only formed in February 1977; The Damned formed in April 1976 and released their first single within six months.  Doubtless part of this acceleration was the response to the new fashion- labels and audiences wanted new bands and they wanted records urgently. Nonetheless, the new bands’ control over their own careers and the confidence, inspired by Buzzcocks’ example, that they could go it alone, was unquestionably a major factor.

The indie approach persisted throughout punk and new wave and far beyond into present day music.  I have posted elsewhere about Barnsley band Danse Society;  they released their first single, Clock, themselves on their own Society label in 1981.  My university friends The Anal Fleas recorded and released their own four track single in 1982, as much as a memento as a saleable product.  Coming right up to date,  My Space  and more recently Band Camp have enabled artists to release digital material direct to the public.  My Walthamstow friend Kate Evans records as Velodrome music and my ex-band mate in Damascus, lead guitarist Alan Singleton, does the same under the name of Half A Dozen Bandits.

Having emphasised the differences between punk and rock, I should note the similarities too.  Battles of the bands were still a way to get yourself noticed: Son of a Bitch/ Saxon helped build momentum through doing well in the US Sound Spectacular competition in autumn 1977 whilst independent labels Stiff and Chiswick organised their own Stiffwick contest around the UK about the same time, providing an early platform at the Edinburgh leg for young hopefuls The Skids.  Another constant was the drudgery of being on the road and touring from minor venue to minor venue.  John Lydon described his experience touring England in a decrepit van with Sex Pistols thus: “vile, horrible, a nightmare.”  It was a dispiriting induction to “the utter, total boredom of being in a band.”

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Returning to the release of Spiral Scratch, the third notable aspect of the event was the role played in it by a record shop.  The branch of Virgin Records in Manchester took 50 copies of the release and sold them within two days, immediately ordering 200 more.  When the initial pressing sold out, the band could not afford to pay for more copies.  The manager of the shop, Jon Webster, decided to assist them by taking money from another budget (the ticket receipts for a Status Quo gig) so that he could loan them £600 for another production run.

Music seller as music creator was not entirely new- Brian Epstein’s family owned North End Music Stores in Liverpool, which set up its own label, NEMS.  Nevertheless, in the early days of punk, record shops proved to be highly influential.  Bruce Findlay, owner of Edinburgh’s Bruce’s Records and later manager of Simple Minds, set up his own label to release local bands.  His first single was ‘Robot love’ / ‘For Adolfs only’ by The Valves, released by Zoom Records on August 30th 1977.  Amongst his other releases was a debut by PVC2, featuring the young Midge Ure.  However, Findlay passed on the chance to release the first single by The Skids and instead referred them back to Sandie Muir, owner of Muir’s Music in their hometown of Dunfermline.  Muir established No Bad Records to release their debut Charles in February 1978.  (I describe this in detail in the foreword to the second edition of my novel, Feeling Called Lovewhich is partly set in Dunfermline.)  We may note again that The Skids only got together in June of 1977 and were recording their first single within six months.  The last example of the influential role in punk’s growth of the music vendor is Small Wonder Records of Walthamstow.  Spotting a gap in the market, they too provided recording opportunities for, amongst others, The Cravats, Crass and Bauhaus.

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Lastly, I should comment upon the mythic role played by the iconic gig in the whole Buzzcocks story.  Up there in the rock annals with Hendrix at Woodstock festival or Bob Dylan’s first electrified appearances has to be the evening of June 4th 1976, when the Sex Pistols played Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall.  The gig was organised by Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto, guitarist and vocalist of Buzzcocks, as a result of the impression made upon them by seeing the Pistols playing in High Wycombe in February of that year.  The pilgrimage to the gig provoked the formation of their band and the offer to Malcolm McClaren to find a venue in the northern city.  The gig was attended by only seventy or so people, but it has gained mythic status, as amongst the sparse audience were Tony Wilson (Factory Records), future members of Joy Division, Mick Hucknall (Simply Red) and Martin Hannett (subsequently producer of Spiral Scratch and thereafter Joy Division, U2, New Order, Magazine, Happy Mondays and many others).  The legendary aura of this summer evening is underlined by David Nolan’s book, I swear I was thereand by the dramatic portrayal of the gig in Michael Winterbottom’s excellent film from 2002, Twenty Four Hour Party People.

To conclude with the words of Pete Shelley: “It shows what you can do if you’re stupid enough to believe that you can do something.  History is made by those who turn up.”

The Free Trade Hall gig is a classic example of what ‘those who turn up’ can achieve: the late John The Postman excepted, that is…

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