Steve Diggle is a legendary name in Punk Rock. Guitarist and songwriter for the Buzzcocks; his influence has reached countless bands since they formed over four decades ago. GIGsoup recently had a chance to talk with him about everything from his first guitar to his new solo album.
First off I want to ask you about your solo work. I know you brought out a new solo album – late last year, I think? What are your plans right now?
The album’s actually just coming out now. I started the album last year, and people are actually receiving it now. There’s still not a proper release date but I did it through Pledgemusic so they make sure [buyers] get their pledge first, before it goes anywhere else.
I’m very pleased with it; it’s a lot different from the Buzzcocks stuff. I took myself out of the comfort zone really – you’ve gotta go somewhere with stuff. It’s my fourth solo album under the name Steve Diggle – I did Flag of Convenience before that – but there’s now also a 4CD boxset; it kind of makes sense of the solo years. I put those four albums out and the solid fans will know [them] but other people won’t even know I’ve done anything like that. [laughs]
Does the boxset contain all your solo albums up until now?
Yes. Like I say, back in the ’80’s I had a band, Flag Of Convenience, and I had a lot of output there really – people keep asking about that, so I might have to relook at all that – eventually! But, yes, this [box set contains] the four solo albums. I think I started the first in 1990 or something like that, so there are four here and the new album, which I’m really pleased with. This one’s a little bit different; it’s an internal journey, titled ‘Inner Space Times’. I see it as a whole journey; it’s interconnected in a way.
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I wanted to ask you about the title, ‘Inner Space Times’ – was there anything special that inspired the title?
Yes – the first song is called ‘Wake Up the Dream’ and I was always going to call it that [but] I was speaking to a friend of mine, Pat Gilbert, who writes for ‘MOJO’ and he said “you wanna make it a bit more personal” and I thought he was probably right there. A lot of Punk music was about your social surroundings, which I write a lot about, particularly with my songs in Buzzcocks, so a lot of it was much more external. I thought it was time to look inside – if you can’t control the outside world, you can have an internal revolution! And to be very present, you can be your own President. [‘Inner Space Times’] is a bit Psychedelic, as well, a bit drug influenced.
So is the album a move away from the Punk Rock of Buzzcocks, or is there a bit of that too?
There’s a little bit of that, yeah, but it’s very much the Steve Diggle sound. All my four CDs have got the Steve Diggle sound and it does say in the booklet in the box set that “in the year of punk, it would be too obvious for me to do a punk album” – it would be like lemmings going over the white cliffs over Dover! It wouldn’t be what punk was about for me and also as an artist I’m moving on – we’ve done a lot of punk records and I’m happy to do another one, but for this one I wanted to do something completely different. Hopefully [my solo records] will be different every time. I wanted the first album, ‘Some Reality’ to sound like a first album. When I was making it, I thought “it sounds so simple“; I wanted to be able to look back at it and think “wow that definitely sounds like my first solo album”. The second one, ‘Serious Contenders’ is more confident; and ‘Air Conditioning’ is a political one. When that came out, the students were revolting – not revolting as people! [laughs] Dave Gilmore’s son was on the cenotaph – it was all [going on at] that time; and I thought “wow, that’s amazing” because that’s how I felt at the time. [The album] had a very ordinary, universal title. I kept seeing air conditioning everywhere and when you look at it as the machine – you know, it’s everywhere. It’s Orwellian.
Was the formation of the Buzzcocks politically motivated for you?
Yes, to a certain extent. I mean, it’s very hard to do finger pointing, that’s too obvious. In the Buzzcocks we’re philosophers in our own way and we realise the world is a fragmented place. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. We didn’t want to be too obvious and say “oh, it’s the Government that’s wrong” – it’s too dumb a statement, really. It’s fine to question and have a go at the Government, or anything in control. I was frustrated in that way, when I was starting out. I wasn’t there to be an entertainer – I just wanted to get up there and tell the world to fuck off, really! [laughs] It wasn’t about going to stage school, or going “oh look, I can sing and play the guitar”.
So that thread has always been there and back around [the time we formed], it created The Sex Pistols and The Clash and all that. It was like, “wow, we all kinda think alike“, there was a common bond between us.
So you felt a sense of community with those bands?
Absolutely, yeah. We brought the Sex Pistols to town and opened [for] them, then we did the White Ride tour with The Clash, and we became brothers with them. I love The Clash because they’re Rock ‘n’ Roll, Punk Rock and Political. And then we had The Jam and The Damned, as well – that was the nucleus, back in ’76’, so we all knew each other very well. We all fundamentally had a similar attitude – breaking down the barriers of the old guard. You had to rethink your whole consciousness of what music was doing at that point. When those records came on you had to think “this is not entertainment, this is an assault on my senses”
So this music wasn’t designed to be fun, easy listening – it was created with a purpose?
Absolutely, yeah. It [was meant to] wake people up, make them feel alive. It wasn’t just political, though; it was art, poetry, the lot. [It was also meant to] make things great, and exciting and wonderful. So it all developed from there, and in the Buzzcocks we went on to have more musical hits. The idea really wasn’t to get on Top Of the Pops, but people voted with their feet and bought those records.
It’s interesting you mention Top of the Pops, because I wanted to ask you about that. Watching clips of the Buzzcocks on that show now, the excitement still comes through. Was it surreal to be on TV?
Well, the gigs were more exciting than Top of the Pops. Particularly in the early days, the gigs were very exciting – there was chaos at some of the gigs. Hammersmith couldn’t keep people under control; the atmosphere was electric. Top of the Pops was a bit stale really; I know it does sound powerful in comparison to some of the other stuff that was on there. It was strange because we’d play a gig in Middlesbrough, or Glasgow and then [go to Top of the Pops and] be herded around in front of a camera by a load of people who really didn’t know who you were. To be honest, we only did it so we could drink a load in the bar [before hand] because we knew we’d be miming. When I did ‘Harmony In My Head’, I deliberately sang out of synch, I just wanted to make it obvious.
That reminds me of when Nirvana played ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ on Top Of The Pops and Kurt Cobain deliberately sang all the wrong lyrics.
Yeah, [on Top of the Pops] I’m not even playing any of the right chords or anything – I wasn’t even plugged in! I used to be quite lively on the stage, I still am, but on [Top of the Pops] I looked pretty disinterested a lot of the time. We used to be quite drunk on there, too. I’d had a few drinks and I thought “there’s not much I can do here“, it was unreal, not believable. I thought “the Clash didn’t go on” and I said to Pete [Shelley] “I’m not sure if we should go on here”, but I did have a dilemma, because as a kid watching that program, you’d see one or two artists on there amidst all the joke stuff. If I saw The Who or someone else [good] on there, it made a big impact. So that did sway my decision, but initially I thought “[we] don’t need this program” I had mixed feelings about it, but at the end of the day it wasn’t that serious whether we went on or not.
You mentioned watching Top of the Pops as a kid, and that leads me on to something else I wanted to ask you. Did you grow up in a musical household?
There were no musical instruments in the house. My Dad wasn’t involved in music, [but] there was a big radiogram [in the house] and I remember we had Nat King Cole 78’s and the booming of his voice was wonderful. I also remember my dad playing Johnny Cash ‘Live at Folsom Prison’ and I used to know it word for word. When I got a record player, I got one of those ’60’s models but it never worked! I had to listen to my first album, which was The Beatles’ ‘Help!’ through the noise of stylus for about a year [laughs]
It was 1962, I was about seven years old and my friend’s sister had a record player. She had the first Beatles album and the first Bob Dylan album; and I only had ‘Twist And Shout’, the first Beatles EP, because I couldn’t afford albums when I was seven years old, really, even my folks wouldn’t buy me [albums] like they would later on. So I heard the first Beatles album and the first Dylan album, which had a massive impact on me.
So were you a big Beatles and Dylan fan growing up?
Well, yeah, because that’s what hit me. But yeah, I loved The Beatles as soon as I heard them. I had a transistor radio that I used to listen to each night and one day The Beatles came on with ‘Love Me Do’ – it doesn’t sound drastic now but it was massively different then.
Did you have any guitar lessons as a child?
I had a couple of classical guitar lessons, thinking I’d be able to play rock ‘n’ roll! [laughs] I learnt a couple of pieces but it was really hard work and I met this guy who was doing classical stuff for the BBC and he had reams and reams of pages of sheet music and I eventually learnt to read sheet music to grade 5. So, I learnt a couple of classical pieces and the guy across the road had an acoustic guitar, so he showed me a few chords – so I stopped studying classical guitar. The next thing I know, when I was sixteen, I got a scooter; so I didn’t do much on the guitar until I was seventeen, because I was busy driving around on my scooter for a year.
So, after you’d been shown those chords, and after you’d moved on from the scooter, did it become clear that guitar was going to be your main pursuit?
Yeah, [my] acoustic guitar was about five quid, or something, and it was absolutely terrible. I’d finally get it in tune, or as near to tuned as you could in those days – you had to use a pitch pipe back then – you’d strike a chord and then it would be almost out of tune again before you could play anything else; that’s how cheap this guitar was.
I’d play tunes and riffs on a couple of the strings and what I realised was that a lot of the guitar motifs I’d come up with on Buzzcocks songs, were because of that. It took me years to realise, but it was because I couldn’t play chords because they’d be out of tune that I started doing things on a couple of strings instead, so it just shows that in the face of adversity that got me coming up with all these lovely little guitar motifs that eventually turned up on Buzzcocks songs.
Speaking of the Buzzcocks, what’s the creative process like in the band? Does one band member come in with a fully formed song or is it more organic than that?
We agreed in the beginning, me and Pete, that whoever had the chords – that was their song. So if Pete came in with some chords and a few words so that was kind-of his song. If I came in with chords and some words, it was my song- but we did contribute to each other’s songs and enhance them. That worked to a certain extent, but [on a song like] ‘Everybody’s Happy Nowadays’, that four note riff – that was mine and I said [to Pete] if you take those four notes away, you only have half a song – it don’t work! The simplest notes in the world, those, but those are mine, not his. I always said to him, I should be credited for that really, and I’m not. But in those days [it didn’t matter] because I had my own songs, like ‘Autonomy’.
One of my first [songs] was ‘Fast Cars’, and I was writing that before I met Pete and Howard [Devoto]. Before I met them, it was a bit slower but it was definitely there, and they ended up writing the verse. I had a verse at home but I’d just joined and at that time I was on the bass and I thought “one of them’s gotta sing it, so they might as well write their own new verse to it” but I had the music and chords to the song. So we credited it to the three of us, but essentially I see that as my song. It was the same with our second biggest hit, ‘Promises’, we were doing a demo in the studio and I had all the music and the chorus; but I did a bit of scat singing on the verses and as I’m doing that Pete’s in the control room and he goes “oh, I’ve got some words for that“. I said “I’ve got some but I’ve left them at home”, so I said, “OK, then, let’s try to put some verses on there“. The songs that have both me and him on there are usually my song that he’s put something on. Of course, you had the great drummer John Maher; and Steve Garvey – great on the bass – and everybody put the vibe in and we worked from there. It was great taking songs to a band like [Buzzcocks].
So has that process changed much over the years or is it still the same as it was then?
I’ve always said to Pete, “we should sit down and write something” but it’s almost a bit impossible. Over the late years, it’s been like “I’ll do mine and you do yours”. Also, with a song likes ‘Promises’, it turned into a fucking love song! It was a song about promises from the Government for me, and he was singing about love. [chuckles] Like, what the fuck? After that, I said “look, you do yours, I’ll do mine.” I’d really like to write together, we’d probably do some good stuff, but we kind of do, in a way. The last [Buzzcocks] album, ‘The Way’, we worked on each other’s songs a lot. I came in with finished songs and I rehearsed them with the band, and during rehearsals I didn’t play [on Pete’s songs] and he didn’t play on mine. Once we’d worked out the backing tracks, though, I’d put guitar on his and he’d put guitar on mine, and we’d also do backing vocals [on each other’s songs].
‘The Way’ and your most recent solo work have all been released through Pledgemusic. What is it that draws you the Pledgemusic format? I assume the whole crowdfunding thing brings a lot of freedom?
Absolutely, yeah. We funded our first single, ‘Spiral Scratch’, and when that came out, it inspired and ignited a lot of things. Almost like full circle, we’re doing it ourselves again – ironically. One minute we’re signed to United Artists and we were on EMI for years but there’s no EMI now – it’s nothing, it’s a shoebox in Warner Brothers office. There’s not really that many record labels left and a lot of the major ones; I don’t know if they’re interested in our stuff or not, anymore. They’re interested in X-Factor people who are going to sell 15 million and then disappear the year after. It’s essentially run by accountants – they don’t really care who you are. It’s a bit of titillation for them when they go “Oh well, I’ve still got my job next year“. [This attitude] was coming in during the ’80’s, as I remember. With other bands, [major labels] would go “Look, we’ve signed you up, we’ve spent millions of pounds on you but you haven’t made that money this year, so we’re gonna have to let you go.”
In the ’70’s did it feel as though labels were more in it for the music, perhaps?
Absolutely – it was a great decade, the ’70’s. Even before Punk, as well. I mean, there was money there because people were buying records and money to allow crazier, more artistic things. EMI could sign up things they were actually into; it could be a bit wacky. That could lead to all sorts of things – The Who lost money for years, it took them about three albums before they started making any money. In this day and age, they’d let a band like that go after one album and you’re not going to get classic great bands, that are allowed to develop. There were people like John Peel playing wacky stuff [too] – people would put money into off-the-wall, creative ideas. Now, it’s just run by accountants wanting to know how many units you’re going to sell to keep their Company going. So, the art side of it goes out of the windows and [it becomes] a more callus, calculated money-thing.
So, a few years ago, somebody just said to us – and I was against it at first – “why don’t you try Pledgemusic? Buzzcocks have got an audience and the fans will want to buy the records, so why not?” But having said that, we were signed to EMI for years and they didn’t really want to do anything and they weren’t in a position to do anything half the time, [because] they were busy signing X Factor people, not realising that we sell-out everywhere we go around the world. We went to Russia this year, we’ve been all around America, and Europe… we get big crowds. So [EMI] think “those guys are older now – they’re not the latest thing”; but that’s not been our business anyway, our business is about the human condition and what we do. We have been lucky enough to be able to survive and write the songs – not writing hits but writings songs we think are important. I think that’s put us in good stead in terms of how people relate to us and come to see us.
I think also that kind of thing gives longevity to a band.
Yeah. We’ve not had any hits since the ’80’s but I’ve never woken up thinking “I’m going to write this song, it’ll be a hit in the top 20” – that’s never crossed my mind and every time I’ve tried to write a song that’s never come into it. I think if it did I’d have to put the bloody guitar down, you know?
So when you wrote songs that ended up being hits, did you not have it in the back of your mind that the song might have the potential to be really popular?
There were some, yeah, but we use to go in [to the studio] with batches of songs and never knew [which would be hits.] They all seemed so good to us that we never knew what should be the A side and what should be the B side. Many singles we did weren’t on the albums, that’s why ‘Singles Going Steady’ came about – most singles are not on our albums because we wanted to give people value for money. Anyway, at the time of writing these things, they all seemed [like they could have been singles] in a way. When we rehearsed and recorded them, we never thought “you know what? that could be a single.” I never heard anyone [in the band] say it until we had to go “OK, [the label] wants us to choose a single”. I don’t remember opening any bottles of champagne and going “woah, [our single] is number whatever in the charts”, we never did any of that. We would get the chart information – and we’d kind-of go “oh really? That’s cool, yeah, alright. Err, that pub’s open over there, let’s go and get a pint. You know what I mean?” [laughs] You sort of took it in your stride. We were very pragmatic, really.
In the really early days of the Buzzcocks, before you had any hits, did it feel like a challenge to break through and find your fan base?
When we started up, we had this van with all the equipment in the back bouncing about, [hitting you] in the back, cabinets flying about. Freezing cold and not being able to afford a hotel, right at the beginning, [the van] breaking down outside of Scotland in the cold…
Did you ever have to sleep in the van?
We didn’t sleep in the van but we have slept on a few people’s floors back in the early days – all in a row, like sardines! [When] someone begrudgingly let you stay in their house. I don’t know how that came about but it was in the very early days of it, and it was like “we’ve just done a gig, now you want us to sleep in somebody’s fucking house with mice running across the floor?” There was this one place where a woman said “this guy will take you next door” and he took us to up to the loft of this house and there cement everywhere and he went “one of you can sleep here“. There was no light or anything and I’m like “I’m not sleeping here, mate!” It got really bad, but we only did that a few times, to be honest – probably about three or four times. Whatever money [we] made, first things first, we’ll waste it on hotels if we have to.
When we first went to London, we stayed in a guest house. We’d been out drinking and the woman who opened the door said “my husband’s in bed, it’s two o’clock in the morning!” and we just thought “oh my god…” So after that we stepped it up to the bigger, posher hotels – we just wanted to be able to come and go, without having to put up with some woman telling us her husband’s been on nights and to keep the noise down! [chuckles]
There were a lot of tough times at the beginning but we kept our spirits up by saying “don’t worry, things’ll happen one day, it’s all going good.” And then we started doing colleges, and then theatres and all that stuff. We didn’t mention it much, looking back. When we started doing college gigs, you took it all in your stride. We weren’t desperate, thinking “if only we could have a hit single, if only we could sell out this or that!” There wasn’t that kind of thing going on – it was the importance of Punk happening and we [were] doing it for the moment. None of us had seen anything like it; it was like the rebirth of rock ‘n’ roll. It was how it must have been when Little Richard, Bill Haley and all those people started; people came alive, it was exciting, and the gigs were chaos. No one had seen this kind of thing for years! It was fantastic, amazing.
At the time, did it feel like something that was going to last? Did you ever think that Punk might still be going strong 40 years on?
I remember watching The Clash thinking “is this history being made, or is it just for the moment?” I didn’t know what was going to happen with it, really. Looking back, it became legendary and it was a powerful thing at the time but you don’t know how it’s going to resonate in society. I was thinking “wow, people might look back on this in a few years and think this was incredible.” Including me, because I was thinking “is this history being made?” It kind of felt like that, but in another way it didn’t because these were our humble beginnings, we and The Clash used to play at old theatres [like] The Electric Circus. It just shows you that with people’s imagination, power and spirit, these things can become incredible. It swept the country like a carpet bomb, it ignited everybody’s imagination. Every kid that heard the music and saw the scene was like “wow, I’m in for that! I can relate to that on lots of levels,” especially with [Buzzcocks], because we were singing about the human condition. Plus the fact that we had the strength of the songs as well – we had the catchy tunes and some weirdness as well. It was quite angular; Buzzcocks wasn’t straight rock ‘n’ roll. There was influences of Stockhausen, German bands like Can and Neu!, there was kind of an experimental side to it that would find its way into [our] Pop songs, as well. If you listen to the albums, there’s always been experimental bits – [songs like] ‘Why Can’t I Touch It?’, ‘Late For The Train’ and ‘The Third Dimension’ from ‘The Way’. And ‘Noise Annoys’, as well; they’re not the linear, straight ahead pop songs we’re also known for.
When was it that you first started to hear the influence of your music in other bands?
I think really [it was] when we split up, in the ’80’s. I started Flag Of Convenience, and the same with Pete, who was doing his solo thing, I thought “the last thing I want to do is the Buzzcocks [again], why would you without the others?” I was doing lots of different stuff but then you’d hear other people with these songs and you’d think “fucking hell, that sounds like the Buzzcocks!” Either the backing vocals, or the simple guitar riffs, or the nature of the rhythm guitar, but it was more once we’d stepped away from the eye of the hurricane of that initial five years we had. It had probably resonated over the years, people who’d come to see us when they started their bands probably took the influence of the Buzzcocks into the things they did.
James [Dean Bradfield] from the Manic Street Preachers came up to me and said “when we first started, we used to rehearse ‘Autonomy’ before we started writing our own songs.” So there are a lot of bands like that that I’ve met over the years – loads from America and all over the place, really. I think Buzzcocks became a band’s band as well, a lot of people in bands like the Buzzcocks. It was a very unique sound, looking back. Once Howard [Devoto] left and I moved over to the guitar we had the two guitars, then, so there was a lot of in-and-out phased harmonics flying about between me and Pete, which gave it that buzz-saw sound – it took me a few years to realise it but when you listen to ‘Spiral Scratch’, that’s got one definite, amazing sound – ‘a terrible, terrible beauty’ as Yeats called it [laughs] But, then, when we had the two guitars, I started to realise we had this buzz-saw sound – we were playing a lot of the rhythms together but they’d slide out with each other, which gives it an amazing [sound], really. We’ve never sat down and rehearsed anything with each other, there’s chemistry between me and Pete, that’s the thing. I’ve always said that if we were at school [together], I probably wouldn’t have hung out with the guy; not my thing at all [chuckles] but there is a massive connection as well. As Pete’s always said, we’re like the brothers we never had.
Do you think the internet has helped your fan base grow in size?
I think it has, it’s made the band change with the times. Right from the beginning we had fans in Australia but we never really knew about it, now I can get a message from someone in Australia on Facebook within minutes. Years ago, when we were on Virgin Publishing, we did a radio interview [with an Australian station] but it took us years to go to [Australia], it was like going to the moon. Somehow the records did get there, though.
I came to the Facebook thing kicking and screaming but the guy that was managing my solo stuff said “you should say hello to people [on Facebook]”, I said “I ain’t got time for all that” but we do put stuff up there – news about the records and what’s going on, rather than pictures of your dinner and stuff [laughs]. With my solo work, I’ve managed to get stuff out there that I couldn’t, really [without the internet]. Touring with the Buzzcocks, my solo stuff tends to get a bit lost- but now, with the internet, people know a bit more so it is good.
Like a lot of people of my generation, I was gutted when the record industry started disappearing – that was pretty traumatic. I even like the CD now, but I still have all my hundreds of cassettes, from other bands and also my demos. I still do demos on ghetto blasters, [I’d get them] from junk shops. I would demo songs, particularly my solo stuff, by putting one in a room, saying “the song goes like this” and start recording. Some of the tapes sounded amazing, it was a sound you couldn’t get even if you went in the studio – if it was placed right in the room, it was like “wow that sounds amazing!” So, I’ve still got all these cassettes, and then of course it was the CD, and then digital download. I’ve never downloaded anything – I wouldn’t know how to do it. Ironically, the vinyl is coming back, which is lovely.
Is a sense of ownership important for you when you buy an album? For me, a big part of the appeal of buying records is the sense of physicality that the format has.
Absolutely, the thing about the album was that it was, like you say, such a beautiful, physical thing that went hand-in-hand with the music. [There was this] golden era, from the late ’50’s to ’70’s, of this wonderful thing where you’ve got music and the physicality. Why move on from something that was amazing? Progress is a wonderful thing but when it just became an abstract download, it took the heart and soul away from it. The other thing is the sound quality – the wave form on a record is massive, you get all the top end and the bottom end. It’s a bit less on a CD, by the time you get to the download its Mickey Mouse, you’ve only got half the top and bottom ends.
One last question for you, Steve: what next? Any plans for the Buzzcocks or your solo stuff?
It was the 40th anniversary [of Buzzcocks forming] last year, we said we’d do a world tour, which we did. We’re scaling down the Buzzcocks gigs for next year and stuff. I don’t think Pete wants to tour as much, really – mainly because it was full-on last year. There are Buzzcocks shows around this year, though, but we’re not doing as much. I don’t know if we’re ever going to do a new album – maybe we will… On the one hand, Pete doesn’t want to do [another] one but on the other, he told me the other day that he’d written a new song! But at the moment, Buzzcocks need some breathing space, so it’s just going to be specialised gigs, this year. Were doing Paris and Berlin, and I’m told there’s a few other coming in; it just won’t be as intense as last year.
In the meantime, I’m looking into what I can do to do a few [solo] shows, because a few people have asked me if there will be any shows tied around [the new solo work]. But for me, I’d do a lot more with the Buzzcocks and hopefully I can do a lot more with my solo band. A couple of years ago, I was thinking I would maybe take it a bit easier but it’s swung the other way again and now I’m like “fucking hell, let’s have it all!” Sometimes the others want a rest and I’m like “let’s get going again!” We’re all getting older and I’m still thinking that I wanna do it, [Buzzcocks] has always meant life-and-death to me, that’s why I’m always singing with the audience; we get this moment together. I’m there with you guys out there, you know? It’s all precious life, all the rest of it is nonsense; but if we can have some magic and excitement and exchange some kind of understanding, for that hour in the holy church of Rock ‘n’ Roll, then it’s precious.