Manchester United

Buzzcocks, the Fall and the perils of life as an influential' post-punk band"

In the 2002 film 24 Hour Party People, director Michael Winterbottom paid tribute to the astoundingly fertile music scene of the Northern England working-class town of Manchester. But if you buy into Winterbottom's view, the industrial city's sphere of influence is limited to early 1980s bands the Smiths and Joy Division, and those outfits (New Order, Stone Roses, Happy Mondays) connected to the rave culture of the late '80s-early '90s. This overlooks the critical cultural contributions of two extremely significant groups — the Buzzcocks and the Fall — whose tendrils extend much further, providing a direct link from the Sex Pistols to the clashing playlists of present-day college and modern-rock radio. (Coincidentally, both bands perform in Atlanta within a week of each other.)

The Buzzcocks formed in 1976, inspired by the Sex Pistols, whom vocalist Pete Shelley saw in concert twice that year. But Shelley, who's been the band's mainstay since the departure of original leader Howard Devoto in 1978, didn't ape the Pistols' sneering arrogance and political bomb-throwing; under his guidance, the Buzzcocks perfected a tighter, more accessible sound that fused pop melodicism onto punk's serrated attitude, an approach that bands like Green Day and Blink-182 have spun into chart-topping alt-rock gold. The Fall, fronted by ex-dockworker Mark E. Smith, began in 1977. Smith's original attempt to emulate the Beatles soon withered in the face of his domineering, caustic persona and a penchant for the noisy, experimental side of punk, a direct influence on Pavement, the reigning king of latter-day indie-rock.

In keeping with the creaky maxim that pioneers are never recognized in their own time, both bands' contributions to popular culture come at a slight remove. More to the point, both the Buzzcocks and the Fall fit into the category of "influential" artists, which in music critic terms is shorthand for acts that are endlessly copied by others, with very little to show for their troubles in the way of commercial success or household name status.

It's a reality to which Shelley, founding member of Buzzcocks, has long since resigned himself. "Yes, that's one of nature's ironies," he muses by phone from a Michigan hotel room, the day after the close of Buzzcocks' successful opening stint on Pearl Jam's massive summer tour. Given that the music he wrote or co-wrote between 1975 and 1981 can be heard all over the concise, guitar-driven ditties of scores of charting "punk-pop" outfits, Shelley is remarkably sanguine about his band's place in the scheme of things. Asked if he ever hears a song from Green Day, or even Wire, the Smiths or the Ramones, and feels partly responsible, he chuckles good-naturedly. "Yes, occasionally," he says, "but it doesn't happen all the time. That would tend to drive you mad. I don't think much about direct influences. The music we do just touches a lot of the fundamentals of music, universal themes that people have used and probably can connect with."

Ben Pritchard, current guitarist for the Fall, professes a similar outlook when asked about the disparity between that band's influence and its commercial fortunes. "I would much rather be in a group [like this]," he says, chatting before a gig at Chicago's Empty Bottle. "If you go into the music business, you're going into it for one of two reasons. Most of the time, bands just want loads of money and to be in the newspaper. Not one member of this group's interested in doing that. The Fall, although they may not be 'successful,' are one of the most respected bands around, one of the most bootlegged and copied bands in the world, and to me, that's far more important."

Pritchard doesn't see the Fall's influence extending quite so far as the current commercial marketplace. "Not so many bands commercially, but definitely a lot of bands that we get supporting us in the clubs, you can hear it all the time. If someone was blatantly ripping off the Fall, Mark would have something to say about it," he continues, either not counting or unaware of bands like Sonic Youth, or Smith's much-publicized slagging of Pavement.

Pritchard enjoys a peculiar double distinction in relation to the Fall: At 24, he's younger than the band itself, and, having been with the band for all of three years, he's also one of its most enduring veterans. Notoriously mercurial frontman Smith (who backed out of a scheduled phone interview five minutes beforehand) has been the only constant in the band since about 1978; his penchant for firing band members is a running joke in post-punk music circles. Given the Fall's often abrasive sound (jagged, repetitive riffs punctuated with Smith's acidic, often indecipherable rants), its longevity and constantly amorphous lineup, its hold over much of today's indie-rock landscape (Stephen Malkmus of Pavement has cited 1986's Bend Sinister as a huge influence) is all the more remarkable.

Relative newcomer that he is, Pritchard nonetheless sums up the band's relevance succinctly. "I think one of the reasons the Fall's gone on as long as it has is that it's never, ever just come out and played the old hits. That's a cop-out, once you start doing that. It's always putting out new material ... always playing new stuff. Mark's very adamant about that. He'll never say, 'Oh, we can't use that idea, that sounds nothing like the Fall.' He's always looking for fresh ideas."

Both acts, in fact, have recently exhibited signs of creative freshness, and attendant upsurges in concert attendance, all the more surprising for the bands' extended expiration dates. Buzzcocks' self-titled 2003 effort on the Merge label rips along with a saw-toothed intensity, thanks to sharp songwriting and sharper production from bassist Tony Barber; if not exactly vital, it's certainly more insistent and engaging than, say, the last two Pearl Jam releases. "Since we started [the most recent tour] in January, we've noticed a big difference from the past few years," Shelley says. "The audience was almost static before; we were getting used to seeing the same old people at the shows. Now there's a whole new generation that's emerged that's listened to other bands [who like us] and checked us out."

Among those "other bands" who've endorsed Buzzcocks over the years, few are bigger than Pearl Jam, and Shelley is exceedingly complimentary toward the modern-rock monolith. "[The experience of opening for them] was very good, I was extremely surprised and happy," he says, with no visible trace of irony. "Yesterday, before we went on stage, we were told that Eddie [Vedder] wanted to go on stage and introduce us, so he went out on his own with a guitar and did 'The Kids are Alright' to get the audience's attention. [The band was] at the side of the stage, watching us, every night — far from the elusive superstars that the more cynical amongst us would think they were."

Shelley's quick to acknowledge Vedder and company's role in bringing his band before new audiences. But he's just as quick to point out that Buzzcocks have done quite well for themselves in gaining new fans. "Yes, opening for Pearl Jam, we've got a lot more people who wouldn't have seen us [otherwise]," he says. "But at the same time, it's been four years since our last major tour, and we've got lots of young people coming who started listening to Buzzcocks when they were about 14. Also, there's a whole lot of new second-generation fans" — the descendants of original followers — "that have emerged on the scene." In fact, on the whole, Shelley says, people seem to like the band better these days.

The Fall, meanwhile, is still shopping for a label and distributor to release its completed Country on the Click by September, but its recent live shows (including a well-received performance in Los Angeles in late June) have garnered steady crowds and steadier buzz as well. "These bands now that are taking their influences from the Fall, through them, fans get turned on to Mark, and we get a lot of young people coming, which is great," Pritchard says. "And women as well, which is good; I've been in this band for three years and this is the first time I've seen women turning up at the show!" he says with a laugh.

All of which may sound like cold comfort, given the number of much more successful acts carrying on in Smith's and Shelley's wake. But Shelley, for one, is content for now to keep slogging away on tour, releasing albums on smaller labels with no prospect of commercial airplay. "I think it's more frustrating for fans, for people who know what we've done and how integral we've become in pop music," he says. "We've carried on through thick and thin — more thin than thick — but if [recent shows] are anything to go by, we should be able to go on for many more years."