Punk’s not quite dead — but these days its followers tend to look like Phil Mitchell.
So says Pete Shelley, guitarist and vocalist with The Buzzcocks. The fast, frantic four-piece from Manchester were the first punk band to form outside of London and, along with the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned, were one of the most influential of their generation.
More than 30 years later and the band is still rocking — though it’s probably fair to say that their pogoing days are behind them.
Their concerts now attract a broad section of fans — the old punks who followed them from the late 1970s — and their children. But the mohawks and piercings that defined the anarchic cult are long gone and, in their place, bald heads and leather jackets.
“Yeah, we get a lot of old punks coming to the shows and they bring their kids along too,” says Pete.
“But these days they don’t look like punks, they’re more like Phil Mitchell from Eastenders.
“Punk as a dressing-up box event has probably seen better days but I think people should still be encouraged to get out there and to do things, to make things happen. Too many people sit there and bemoan their situation, it’s all about taking responsibility.
“The Sex Pistols would never have played Manchester if it hadn’t been for us and look at all the bands who say we influenced their music. We made things happen.”
Back in the early days of the punk revolution Shelley and his former band mate Howard Devoto read a review of a new band in NME.
This band, like Shelley and Devoto, were fans of Iggy Pop and the Stooges and the two lads decided to travel to London to see them play.
“It was February 1976 when we first saw the Sex Pistols,” Pete recalls.
“They were fantastic. We wanted to get them a gig in Manchester so we could support them so we arranged for them to come and play at the Free Trade Hall.
“That was one amazing gig. Among the audience were Morrisey and Mick Hucknall. Hucknall was a punk back then.”
Due to line-up problems the Buzzcocks were unable to support the Sex Pistols on that occasion, although they later made up for it after recruiting bass guitarist Steve Diggle and drummer John Maher.
But according to Pete, there were no wild tales of drunken excesses and drug-fuelled orgies to recount from those gigs.
“Everybody had this idea that the Sex Pistols were totally outrageous, but they were just full of laughter,” he says.
Following their tour with the Sex Pistols the Buzzcocks released their debut EP, Spiral Scratch. And once again the band made it happen, releasing it on their own label — the first independent record of the punk era.
That do-it-yourself attitude, says Pete, was what the punk movement was all about.
“It was about encouraging active participation rather than passive consumerism,” he says.
“When the punk explosion happened, people were making music, writing fanzines, designing clothes, it was about being creative and standing out from the crowd.
“Manchester was a good place to be. It was far enough away from London to avoid being influenced too much by the fashion. We had our own independent streak.”
The Buzzcocks have seen a few line-up changes over the years, including the departure of Devoto, who quit the group after the EP release and went on to form Magazine. But Shelley and Diggle are still the backbone of the
band and together produced some of their best and biggest hits.
And it’s these hits from their first two albums Another Music In A Different Kitchen and Love Bites, both released in 1978, that provide the basis for the band’s current tour.
Pete says: “Over the course of one year we released two albums and a load of singles.
“All those songs are clearly related and it’s good to play them in order. In these days of iPod shuffles, you never really get to hear a whole album in that way.”
Perhaps their best-known — and best-loved hit — is the much-covered classic Ever Fallen In Love?.
Pete says that song is very much the “calling card” for the Buzzcocks, but there are other songs which mean a lot to him. One of those is Late For the Train, the final single on the Love Bites album. It started life as a track for the John Peel Show and the band never intended to play it live.
“Now it’s one of the highlights of our live set,” says John, “though it’s completely different from Ever Fallen In Love?”
He’s a big fan of Downpatrick’s own Ash, who covered two of their tracks, Everybody’s Happy Nowadays and I Don’t Mind.
“Yeah, they’re a great band,” he says.
“We met them backstage at a festival we both did in Skye a few years ago. There was a bit of a party.”
Other bands who have namechecked the Buzzcocks as being a major influence on their music include The Kaiser Chiefs, REM and Green Day.
“We’ll be at an awards do and some band will come up and tell us that they wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for us,” he says. “But it’s weird to think we might have inspired Mick Hucknall.”
The current tour takes them as far away as Beijing — then it’s back to Belfast for a date at the Mandela Hall on October 24.
The Buzzcocks are no strangers to these shores — and Pete has many memories of their Belfast concerts.
“I remember our van breaking down one time on the way to the ferry,” he says. “But we’ve been to quite a few good parties there.”
Next up for the Buzzcocks is a trip to Australia and New Zealand and more shows in North and South America.
“We love playing Argentina and Brazil, we’ve been playing there for about 15 years now and it’s all mainly kids coming to the shows,” he says.
The one drawback of being in a rock band is the touring, though Pete says it’s not really a reason to complain.
“The travelling is the hardest part, especially now that we’re older, but I can nod off easily on a long journey,” he says.
“Mind you, I can’t complain. It’s such an exciting thing to do and there are plenty of millionaires out there who would give anything to be able to get up on stage and play in a band.
“We’re lucky to still be around and still doing our music. It’s a pretty good life, all in all.”
The Buzzcocks play Mandela Hall on Saturday, October 24. For further information, tel: 028 9097 1197