GOD, SOMETIMES I'M such an idiot.
The Buzzcocks Billy Talent, The Thermals Showbox, 206-628-3151, $22/$20 adv. 9 p.m. Tues., June 10
Pete Shelley goes, "I can almost always find something to fascinate me about music, but for the last 13 years, it's been doing the Buzzcocks."
To which I reply, "Huh?"
Booze cooks. It sounds like Pete Shelley is saying he'd spent the last 13 years doing the booze cooks. It's not that I don't know, on some level, what he's talking aboutI mean, c'monbut seriously, at this moment I really don't understand what the guy is saying. When you've spent your life around Manchester, England, like Shelley, your vowels take on a radically different air than if, say, you've spent most of your life in Northwest Washington. And to be fair, our international phone connection is plagued with thick metallic clicks and the hum of distant satellites, plus he's been nursing a nasty illness over the last few days and keeps clearing his throat, then hacking tremendously, but even so, I feel like a real asshole after asking Shelley to repeat himself twice.
But then I get it: Since the band got back together in '89, Pete Shelley has been busy with the Buzzcocks. Makes perfect sense.
"YOU'RE VERY distorted," says Shelley as we discuss our technical difficulties, and I almost thank him. Coming from the co-songwriter and guitar player of one of punk/pop's most influential bands, it almost seems a compliment. But it isn't, and he carries on. "There are all the old faces, and then some new ones are appearing, too, as more and more Buzzcocks fans come into the stream," he observes, answering a question about going on the group's current tour.
And this time I know what he means. With their first new release in three years, the Buzzcocks seem to be insisting that they've still got it. Though it lacks some of the jangle and melodic sneer of their seminal late-'70s recordings, the self-titled album (their first for North Carolina indie Merge) contains plenty of trademark Buzzcocks bark. And if the sharp bite of vintage songs like "What Do I Get?" is now perhaps more of a rough-tongued lick, well, that certainly seems fair. After all, Time's Up, the Buzzcocks' first release, came out over 25 years ago. We should all hope to age as gracefully.
"The songs come in and out of focus in my own life, as I suppose they must do with other people," reports Shelley, who adds that the band's current set features about six new songs among a balance of old classics. "Depending on the mood you're in and the things you're thinking about at the time, certain songs leap out at you. It's a very dynamic relationship. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, 'You can't step into the same river twice.'"
Not that plenty haven't tried. I ask Shelley what it's been like to bear witness to the various copycats ripping off his style for the past 20-odd years.
"Quite shamelessly some of them," he quips. "But in many ways imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, isn't it?"
He admits that his good-natured approach "depends on how good my bank balance is. That's the roller-coaster ride of being a musician. There are years when things happen and years when nothing happens."
Nonetheless, Pete Shelley has stayed in the game.
"Well, as one door closes, another one opens," he explains. "Maybe not immediately all the time, but . . . "
Shelley and I spend the next 10 minutes talking about how many of those now- collectible early Buzzcocks 7-inches he held on to (not many), his personal music collection (mostly CDs; his "vinyl player" has "usually got a pile of video tapes on it"), and when he last saw Howard Devoto ("I thought he may have come to the last gig we played in London, but I didn't see him. Then again, there were lots of people I didn't see"). All of a sudden, the already poor phone connection crackles loudly, pops, and then breaks. Completely. When I reconnect with him on the fourth try, the link is as clear as if I'd called someone in the next office cubicle. Although we decide to wrap it uphis throat could use the rest, and I've already taken up a lot of his timeour conversation ends with yet another passing comment that I decide to take as a compliment.
"Now you sound human," says Shelley.
Thanks, Pete, you do, too.