To place both bands properly in English rock history, the starting point has to be Manchester itself. A mostly industrial, Northwestern city, Manchester quickly became the second largest rock 'n' roll locale (to London) in Britain. Two young Mancunians, Peter (Shelley) McNeish and Howard (Devoto) Trafford, decided to form the Buzzcocks after seeing the Sex Pistols in London. They arrange for the Pistols to play in Manchester, a scene documented in the recent, largely comedic film 24 Hour Party People, later opening another show for the Pistols. They meet future Buzzcocks bassist Steve Diggle, future members of Joy Division, Steven Morrissey of the Smiths. Speaking with The Indy by phone, Pete Shelley speaks, in his liquid Manchester accent, of the scene the film missed, "Well, that was mostly the story of Tony Wilson and Factory Records. ...There's another story about what actually went on in Manchester in the time. ... I know of at least one director who's interested in finding out what really happened, to make a proper film."
One million people were on the dole in Britain at the time, and punk became an outlet for angst. Step forward several months to 1977, and 18-year-old dock worker Mark E. Smith has given up trying out unsuccessfully for local heavy metal bands. They don't like him, and he doesn't really care for their music, either, preferring the Velvet Underground and German experimenters Can. He forms the Fall as an attempt to explore this noise in his head, and it became a signature sound that is still alien and unique; Smith's atonal vocals used as an instrument, pulsing one-chord grooves with nearly tribal beats piled on heavy. It was brutally experimental and unlike anything before or since, and it's no wonder. In a 1992 interview with writer Chris Mohr, Smith said, "I mean, you're talking about a time when Elvis Costello was considered really weird. You're talking about a time when fuckin' 'I'm Turning fuckin' Japanese' was considered a decent tune. In them days if you didn't have a skinny tie you were fuckin' ... otherwise you had to have a symphony orchestra behind you. We were dead against it. And we used to get hit from all sides. Intellectuals didn't like us because we weren't, like, college. Longhairs didn't like us 'cos we didn't sound like heavy rock. Punks didn't like us 'cos we didn't have safety pins."
Also hanging around the old recital hall for those shows was enigmatic producer Martin Hannett, who soon worked with the Buzzcocks on their Spiral Scratch EP, and nearly all of the aforementioned. Spiral Scratch is a huge milestone in punk history, as the first self-released record; they knew they'd get turned down by the labels in London, so the Buzzcocks created their own, New Hormones. The Fall cut an EP, Bingo Master's Break-Out! which was funded by the Buzzcocks' label, but it sat unreleased for nearly a year. No one was interested in putting it out.
After reaching the 27th anniversary of their first meeting in Manchester this month, Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle are making the rounds again. They've been at it for this long, with side projects along the way, but with a simple secret for maintaining their level of consistency with the Buzzcocks. Says Shelley, "It's enjoyin' doin' it, really. If you don't enjoy doin' it, well ... We never get bored with it. If we do, we just play another one, until it passes." And he chuckles a bit. As for recording a bracing new record for Merge, he says "It was a thing of trying not to make it too poppy. Not being afraid to say 'fuck,' you know. Putting it across in the most direct manner possible."
Mark Smith has led the Fall through a small army of members, running players and labels off, only to reform anew immediately, and so it continues today. The current band is young men Smith recruited, along with his current wife, Elenor Poulou, on keyboards, having recently fired bassist Jim Watts in March. There have been forays into ballet librettos and spoken word but through records numbering in the triple digits, there always remains that grotesque and wonderful thing, the Fall.
That they are still around is proof positive of their undying love of what they do, and their burning need to keep it up. Both groups knack for keeping it a riveting experience, one they own, to see and hear them on a stage, is life affirming to the devoted, fans the Buzzcocks refer to as the "Secret Public." Shelley quips, "As audiences go, we can't really tell if people have the new record or the first record. So it's seamless, really." Here's to that "Secret Public" growing by scores in the Cradle this week.
Selected chronology of two Manchester legends' early years
June 4, 1976: Sex Pistols play at Lesser Free Trade Hall, show organized by Peter (Shelley) McNeish and Howard (Devoto) Trafford of the Buzzcocks. A month later, when the Pistols return for another show there, the Buzzcocks open for them.
January 1977: Buzzcocks self-release Spiral Scratch EP, first independent record, produced by Martin Hannett.
Fall of 1977: formation of Fall by MES, taking their name from the novel by Albert Camus.
Late 1977, early 1978: Buzzcocks' label New Hormones funds first Fall EP, Bingo Master's Break-Out! but it sat unreleased for nearly a year, simply because the band couldn't find anyone who wanted to sign them.