10 minutes. 10 short, electrifying minutes were all that was needed for Buzzcocks to make their very first and very rudest statement. That statement was ‘Spiral Scratch’ – four tracks of some of the nastiest, most exciting and vitriolic rock ever made at the time. ‘Spiral Scratch’ was officially released on 29th January 1977 – a time when punk as a genre was so new that, depending on who you ask, it might not have had a name. It’s widely accepted that ‘Spiral Scratch’ was the third ever UK punk release, preceded only by The Damned’s ‘New Rose’ and The Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy In The UK’; making it an absolutely vital moment in the evolution of punk.
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Listening to ‘Spiral Scratch’ almost exactly 40 years on from its release, perhaps the most startling thing about the EP is how fresh and vital it sounds. In fact, it’s almost shocking just how contemporary it feels. So many decades-old albums, influential or otherwise, sound like products of their era, unmistakably tied into the time in which they were made. While that’s no bad thing, it does mean that it’s rare to hear a 40-year old release that honestly sounds modern – which makes ‘Spiral Scratch’ all the more impressive.
Perhaps it’s simply a testament to the quality of remastering on the newly released Domino reissue of the EP, but ‘Spiral Scratch’ has all the attitude, energy and grit of any of a number of modern punk bands – and then some.
‘Spiral Scratch’s’ brevity is a huge part of its enduring quality. With only four short songs, the antagonistic attitude of the band just has time to perfectly crystallize, tell you to fuck off and then get the hell out of there. There’s an almost playful attitude throughout the EP – it feels as the though the band, pissed-off as they are, are at least having a great time and there’s a sense of glee in Howard Devoto’s often tongue-in-cheek delivery. The now famous two note guitar solo on ‘Boredom’ is a another example of this humour; it works well musically, but also it’s undeniably silly – it almost feels like a joke inclusion.
Another way in which ‘Spiral Scratch’ has weathered the years well is in its use of noise. The guitar work on ‘Friends Of Mine’ is visceral, brash and utterly intense. Screeches of borderline atonal guitar wail over the ridiculously tight rhythm section of Steve Diggle on bass and John Maher on drums. Listening now, it’s hard not to see the clear influence ‘Spiral Scratch’s’ nosier moments have had on contemporary scuzz-punk groups like Metz. In fact, ‘Spiral Scratch’ still casts a pretty big shadow on modern indie and punk generally. The taught, relentless rhythm and tight guitar work are a clear influence on bands like Parquet Courts and Ought, while the delivery and attitude is echoed in bands like Fat White Family and Cabbage.
‘Spiral Scratch’ was influential in ways other than its music, too. It was one of the first ever privately funded and pressed records to sell well. A thousand copies were pressed initially and sold out through Manchester’s Virgin records and via mail-order within weeks. A further 16,000 would be pressed, all without help from a label of any sorts. ‘Spiral Scratch’s’ DIY success story prompted a wave of bedroom indie labels to pop up throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s, no doubt inspired by the independence and autonomy that self releasing ‘Spiral Scratch’ gave Buzzcocks.
After ‘Spiral Scratch’ Howard Devoto would leave the band to form Magazine. Steve Diggle moved from bass to guitar and arguably the classic Buzzcocks sound was born. This new sound was more melodic and upbeat than Buzzcocks of ‘Spiral Scratch’; with the sneering menace of the band’s early days largely traded for a powerpop-influenced sound that, although different, was a brilliant direction for the band go in and saw them produce some of their best work.
‘Spiral Scratch’, however, remains a pivotal moment for both Buzzcocks and punk as a whole. It’s helped forge a sound still resonating today and that in itself is an achievement. Perhaps more impressively though is the fact that is still feels exciting, fresh and very, very alive 40 years on from its release.