Let other punk rock bands sing about anarchy and nuclear destruction. The Buzzcocks specialize in affairs of the heart, and singer-guitarists Steve Diggle and, especially, Pete Shelley have penned an endless series of love songs that distill all of the euphoria and misery of romantic attraction into perfectly hooky three-minute pop masterpieces.
Putting a twist on the recent trend where bands perform an old album in its entirety, the Buzzcocks slammed through full-length renditions of their first two albums, Another Music in a Different Kitchen and Love Bites, on Saturday night. That meant that the British quartet could perform longtime favorites like "I Don't Mind" and "Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)" while also breaking into rarely played album tracks like "Get on Our Own" and "Love Is Lies." It was also an opportunity to hear both "16" and "Sixteen Again" in the same set, as well as "Moving Away From the Pulsebeat" and "Late for the Train," the thunderously momentous and strangely compelling instrumentals that close each of the albums.
Shelley and Diggle are an interesting pair of mutually compatible opposites:Diggle strutted out onstage dressed completely in white, while Shelley was in black with a modish red design emblazoned on his black shirt. They both write the songs, with Shelley singing most of them, usually about his eternally broken heart. Shelley's credited with the bulk of the band's hits, but Diggle sometimes composes essential tunes like the exhilarating "Harmony in My Head," which is arguably the Buzzcocks' most iconic song.
They each play lead guitar, often simultaneously to create the band's distinctively hypnotic police-siren licks. Diggle does more showboating and clowning onstage, holding his guitar above his head and tossing it around like his obvious hero Pete Townshend, but it's the relatively placid Shelley who plays the more exacting and beguiling parts.
Framed by a large gray banner with the Buzzcocks logo, founding members Shelley and Diggle were augmented by their latest rhythm section, bassist Chris Remington and drummer Danny Farrant, who did a fine job even if neither plays with quite the verve of the old John Maher/Steve Garvey lineup. Farrant was consistently strong, and Remington was usually solid, although he didn't dig into his strings with the same attack and strength as Garvey (and latter-day bassist Tony Barber, for that matter) used to.
The concert started with the teasing, side-winding riff of the Howard Devoto-era tune "Boredom," which segued neatly into the slam-bang crash of "Fast Cars." After that it was just one memorable song after another, from the minimalist and feral "You Tear Me Up" to heavier, more rhythmically propulsive numbers like "Love Battery" and Diggle's surging "Autonomy."
The performance was so seamless, the Buzzcocks didn't even stop to note the change from one album to the next. The tangled riffs of "Moving Away from the Pulsebeat," which closes Another Music, unlocked themselves to set up "Real World," the first track on Love Bites. Previously light and poppy songs like "Just Lust" and "Operator's Manual" were delivered with much more crushing intensity than on record. A fierce rendition of the band's biggest hit, "Ever Fallen in Love," jolted the crowd's energy to an even higher level.
The mix was generally fine, although Shelley's vocals and lead guitar didn't always cut through the nonstop barrage as much as they should have. Diggle strummed an acoustic guitar on the underrated ballad "Love Is Lies," before switching back to electric guitar for the incandescent figure that launches the fuzzily engrossing "E.S.P." The latter is one of the band's most dreamlike and even mystical love songs. The way Shelley's and Diggle's guitars fused together to play the unique intro figure was beyond enchanting, even if the song seemed shorter than usual on Saturday night.
The set closed with the awesome instrumental "Late for the Train," which had all the force and momentum of a real locomotive, building intensity until it finally collapsed into Farrant's drum solo, as the rest of the group exited the stage.
The Buzzcocks returned for an extended encore, hammering out a few songs that weren't on the first two albums. "Harmony in My Head" was first, with Diggle singing new anti-war lyrics during the break. That was followed by a relentless fusillade of "Promises," "Love You More" and "What Do I Get?" By now, punks were slamming on the floor, and the excitement increased with a frantic "Orgasm Addict," with Diggle hacking at the stage with his upraised microphone stand, recalling Paul Simonon on the cover of the Clash's London Calling album.
It was an impressive performance, the two albums played in their entirety and whipping by so fast, it was almost like it didn't happen. The only drawback, however, was major. The Buzzcocks didn't play a single new song, and nothing more recent than the band's heyday in the early 1980s. This despite the fact that the group has released several excellent albums since reuniting in 1989. Just a few years ago, the Buzzcocks were doing similarly long, satisfying sets where they played a healthy mix of old classics and new tunes. Let's hope that this passion for "Nostalgia" (and not just the song) isn't permanent, especially because Shelley and Diggle still have so much to say in the "Real World."