28 January 2006

Ever Fallen In ...?

Jim Jersey Beat relays this rather amazing story of a BBC Passion Play featuring the music of, among others, the Smiths and the Buzzcocks.

As a Buzzcocks fan from way back, my interest was immediately piqued, but at the same time I was reminded of my unfortunate encounters with Pete Shelley on a couple nights when the Buzzcocks lead singer was not, shall we say, at his best. Or maybe it was me...

Actually, the first time, it was me. I was hanging out with the Spazzys on their first visit to London, and Pete, who's a friend of theirs, came down to the pub to meet up with us. Although I've met my share of pop stars, I have to admit I was more intimidated by Pete Shelley than I've been by most others. Not that he was difficult or haughty in any way; in fact, he was just the opposite, very genial and down-to-earth. I wanted to talk to him, but couldn't think of anything to say until the evening was nearly over.

"I've never seen the Buzzcocks," I admitted to him as we were walking down to the Dublin Castle. "In fact, one of my biggest regrets was missing the Buzzcocks/Gang of Four/Dils show in San Francisco in 1979. It was only a couple blocks away and I was too bored and jaded (and high on drugs, I didn't mention) that night to bother walking over."

Pete seemed about as impressed by this as I would be if somebody was telling me they couldn't be bothered to walk across the street to see my band. Somehow, I thought, that didn't come out quite right. Still, he offered, you could come see us on one of our tours now...

"Yeah," I acknowledged, "but I've never been big on reunion shows."

Looking rather pained, he said, "We've been back together since 1986." (This was in 2004, I believe.)

"But it's not quite the same as 1979, is it?" I awkwardly back pedalled, digging myself in deeper.

"It never is," he shrugged.

We walked a while in silence, and he seemed sad, so I tried to brighten his spirits by reminding him of what a huge influence his music had been on several generations of punk rockers. "Why, just the other week I saw Green Day cover a Buzzcocks song in front of 50,000 kids at Reading."

"Green Day," he intoned, looking considerably more pained than before. It seemed to be a sore subject with him. His old bandmate Steve Diggle would later get into the news claiming that he'd never heard of Green Day, but Pete surely had. Perhaps, I thought, he took seriously all those claims that Green Day had gotten fabulously rich and successful by ripping off the Buzzcocks sound, so I hastened to assure him: "Actually, Green Day had never even heard of the Buzzcocks when they were coming up as a band. They'd already developed their sound before they ever heard your band, but they definitely became fans later on."

This wasn't helping, either. It was like one of those bad dreams where everything you do or say comes out wrong, and every attempt to fix it makes things worse. But Pete finally brightened up enough to say, "Which song did they cover?"

"Who? Oh, Green Day. Well, um..." I had been standing on the stage with Green Day when they played it; I've had Singles Going Steady since it came out, and my mind had gone completely blank. Was it "Ever Fallen In Love?" "What Do I Get?" "Um, I can't remember," I finally had to admit.

And that was the end of my encounter with one of my original punk rock heroes. I tried to redeem myself by arranging a ride home for him with Sebby Zatopek, but I didn't expect it to help much, and the best slant I could put on things by that point was that I would probably never see him again.

But that was not the case. Come Christmas time, the Spazzys were back in London, and so was Pete, this time much the worse for wear. (Why do people use that as a euphemism for being drunk? I don't know. But he was.) I didn't go out of my way to talk to him, figuring I'd tortured the poor man enough, and he and Sammy Zatopek huddled over in a corner, deep in conversation about God knows what. But was I imagining it, or did they keep looking over at me, pointing and gesturing? After about an hour of this, Pete separated himself from Sammy, slouched over to the table where I was sitting, and heaved himself onto the bench alongside me, where he sat staring at me while what looked like the beginnings of an evil grin played across his face.

"I know you, don't I?" he finally said.

"Um, yeah, we met last time..."

"You're a fooking coont, aren't you?"

"Sorry?" (Britspeak for "excuse me" or "please don't start a fight with me.")

"You're a fooking coont. I'm not saying it in a bad way, yer just a fooking coont. You know what I mean?"

"Um, not exactly. Is this some sort of Northern thing?" (In Britain all sorts of aberrant behaviour can be explained or even justified by calling it Northern, and Pete was, after all, from Manchester, hence my attempt to transliterate his "u's" into "oo's.")

"Nothing Northern, yer just a coont, aren't you?"

This went on for some time, and I could tell from the way Pete was slurring his words that he was far drunker than I'd originally realised. If it had been anyone else, I would have gotten up and walked away, but there was a morbid fascination, I guess, to being called rude names by one of your favourite all-time singers, so I let him go on. I wasn't really afraid it would turn physically nasty, since he's about half my size and decidely out of shape, and besides, I was genuinely curious about the reason for his antipathy. Could he still be nursing a grudge from my foot-in-mouth outbreak some months earlier? I would have been surprised if he'd even remembered it beyond the night.

"But is there some particular reason you feel I'm a cunt?" I asked for about the tenth time. Until now he'd just repeated his charge, but this time he says, "I met you before."

"Um, yes, and I'm sorry if..."

"And you didn't tell me who you were."

"Who I was? I'm nobody, I'm just a guy who loves the Buzzcocks."

"But now I know. I found out who you are. And you kept it secret. I find that very dis..." He laboured mightily to bring forth the next word: "...disingenuous."

Considering he'd been barely managing words of one or two syllables, I found that astounding, and said so. Well, astounding that he could pronounce it, yes, but what I said was that I was astounded he could think such a thing about an innocuous little Buzzcocks fan who felt awkward around one of his heroes.

But all I got for my pains was another barrage of "coont" punctuated by "fooking," and repeated claims that I had been keeping my identity a secret for the sake of putting something over on him. A couple other people had sat down at our table, at first amused, and then trying to smooth things over, but the ritual abuse continued until last orders, and when the pub shut, we left Pete there on his own, still muttering with dogged satisfaction about what a coont I was.

I've never seen him again, which is probably just as well, and never completely solved the mystery of what had so roused his ire, but as near as we can tell, it was Sammy Zatopek who had stirred him up by telling him I had something to do with Green Day. Either Sammy inflated my credentials or something got lost in beer and translation, because by the time he was done, it seemed as though Pete had got the idea that I had somehow played a much more important role in Green Day's success than I actually had. For all I know, Pete may have been nursing the rather sodden impression that I was the eminence grise who'd single-handedly stolen the Buzzcocks sound and handed it over to Green Day to exploit.

Well, just in case Pete should read this, no, I didn't; I always kept my Buzzcocks records safely locked away whenever Green Day were around. And the last time I tried to give them musical advice was probably around 1993, advice which they treated much the same way they did most other musical advice I ever offered them, i.e., ignored it.

(I think it was while they were recording Dookie, and I suggested to Tre that they make their first video for "Welcome To Paradise," because, "You guys could bring some social comment into it, show some pictures of the Oakland ghetto, talk about the polarisation in American society," etc. etc.

"Yeah, that would be cool," said Tre. Long pause. "Nah, we wanna drive a car into a swimming pool.")


Wesley said...

I was there at the second encounter. I didn't recognize him (as you say, he probably wasn't his usual self) and it was Pete himself who leaned over to me and said, "You ever heard of a band called the Buzzcocks?" At which I finally made the connection that everyone else there knew already, and I had been too accent-deaf and/or tipsy to pick up. "Oh," I said, "You're that guy."

A bit later, when I think you and he had declared a bit of an implied truce, I spent some time trying to get him to further illuminate why you were a fooking coont. It's a bit hard to tell for sure, seeing as the explanation came through bursts of stuttering, swearing, drink-spilling, and gawking at the ladies who were alternately sitting in his lap and revealing their intimate piercings, but I think it came down to the fact that you had done rather well financially off the "sound", which he didn't consider punk rock justice.

I bought him a drink and told him I'd seen the Buzzcocks play in 1996. With a little luck, next time we meet, he'll remember me for that. And while I was a little sodden myself, I stand by the assertion that A Different Kind of Tension is one of the great albums of the age.

Holly said...

I'm intersted in what other advice you gave Green Day that went un-heeded. I once read an article that said Green Day had followed a lot of your advice, but it must of been wrong since you said otherwise. Right?

Chuck said...

This comment is a bit off topic, but while we're talking about pop punk bands I noticed on Ben Weasel's blog today that iTunes now has the SST catalog. He went on to mention a lot of bands he likes from SST (Husker Du, Black Flag, etc.), but I noticed one band that was glaringly missing from the list. The Descendents. Definitely a Buzzcocks influenced band if ever there was one. If you wouldn't mind addressing the topic, what was the perception of the Descendents back in the 80s? Whenever I hear people talk about the days when SST was king, I never hear any mention of them, yet to my ears they had some of the catchiest pop punk I've heard.

Larry Livermore said...

Holly: I think it's safe to say that nearly every musical suggestion I ever gave Green Day was ignored, but I could be wrong. I just don't remember them using any of my brilliant ideas, which, come to think of it, probably weren't that brilliant, either. I also told them not to change their name from Sweet Children to Green Day, mostly because I didn't want to have to make new record covers, but fortunately they ignored me there, too. If they learned anything from me, I think it would be that they could do things themselves rather than waiting to get "discovered" by some big record company, but I think John Kiffmeyer probably had more to do with helping them learn that, based on his experiences with Isocracy.

Chuck: I don't know if the Descendents were directly influenced by the Buzzcocks or not; you'd have to ask them. How they were perceived (by me, anyway) in the mid-80s: they were one of the only bands at the time doing what would later come to be known as pop-punk, and they got played a lot on KALX by the triumvirate of Dr Frank, Jon Von, and Kenny Kaos, the best DJs KALX had a that time, and as such, I think helped lay the groundwork for the East Bay pop-punk sound that was also pioneered by Frank and Jon's band, the Mr T Experience, and of course by Sweet Baby Jesus (original drummer, let us not forget: Dr Frank).

dallas said...

I love this story Larry. But it does support a lesson I once learned the hard way. Never meet the people you admire -- they can only let you down.

And by the by, Richie and Sergie were Descendent fanatics...