Description: EP track, Spiral Scratch
Label: New Hormones
Release date: 1977
First heard: 1979
Boredom, boredom, boredom
I own three vinyl copies of the Spiral Scratch EP. I’d like to say the first one is the 1977 original. But it isn’t. (I hadn’t even graduated to buying the NME in 1977, so I would have had no knowledge of the EP’s groundbreaking existence.) My earliest copy is the 1979 reissue, which I bought with pocket money the moment I’d seen it reviewed in the NME, and will be identifiable when it turns up on Antiques Roadshow by the addition “with Howard Devoto” under the band’s name. The other two copies in my collection must date from 1991 when Spiral Scratch was reissued again by Document, although one of these is either signed by all four members of the band, or possibly signed by a PR, who has gone to the trouble of using different pens for each Buzzcock. Since I did not attain these signatures myself, nor can I verify their provenance, I will assume they are faked and worth nothing. (I did meet Pete Shelley once, but in a professional capacity, so I was hardly going to take a record along and get his autograph.)
Spiral Scratch is often cited as one of the most important seven-inch releases in British music history. Not the first independent record, obviously, or the first punk record, but one that heralded the birth of the post-punk independent era, so lovingly and fluently chronicled in those staples on the rock’n’roll curriculum Rip It Up And Start Again by Simon Reynolds and My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry For The Prize by David Cavanagh. It’s a tale well worth telling and told well; one that combines British industry, British creativity and British rebellion, while it lasted.
To quote Reynolds: “Spiral Scratch was simultaneously a regionalist blow against the capital (Manchester versus London) and a conceptual exercise in demystification (spiral scratch, because that’s what a record materially is).” In other words, it combined geography, business studies and art – very much indie’s A-level choices.
Some industrial context: when the initial, 1,000-copy run of Spiral Scratch was unleashed in January 1977, The Clash were signed to CBS, the Sex Pistols were between contracts with EMI and A&M, and The Damned were signed to Stiff, ergo distributed by EMI. Spiral Scratch was self-funded from recording and mixing (by far-out northern kingpin Martin Hannett) to pressing and distribution. It was made without anyone’s permission. Buzzcocks became the first band to start their own record label, New Hormones, and they did it out of burning necessity. This was the spirit of punk.
That the grooves also thrum with that spirit is more than coincidental. Boredom is regarded as the lead-off track, although it’s actually the first song on the B-side. It encapsulates everything that’s on the borrowed money about this EP, tossed off, you might say, in five hours (including the mix), and yet unimpeachable. Time’s Up is almost a jazz odyssey at just over three minutes, while Breakdown and Friends Of Mine come in at roughly two apiece. Boredom is a shade under three, but part of its nihilistic alchemy arises from repetition, a chugging beat and the insistence of Pete Shelley’s skeletal solo. Boredom was a key tenet of punk rock, the refusal to be entertained by that which was intended to entertain, and many lesser pop units than Buzzcocks attempted and failed to bottle its essence. Songs about boredom tend towards the boring; not this one. It might even be ironic.
Later enshrined by Edwyn Collins into Rip It Up, a breezily upbeat pop tune of the early 80s indie enlightenment, Boredom‘s nee-naw guitar signature makes this the Smoke On The Water of punk. Devoto’s sneering, priapic, nattering vocal is essential to this early maquette of post-punk futurism. When he insists that you “get your hand out of my trousers,” the very tragedy of male insecurity is encapsulated in just a few short syllables, yelled out as if from the sexual confusion of an upside-down world. Devoto would no longer be “with the Buzzcocks” after these four songs, but what a hysterically apposite contribution he made to their legend.
Pete Shelley’s voice was, and is, so much more harmonic and heartbreaking than Devoto’s deadpan but perhaps it would have flowered up the attack. Devoto strains to keep up with the choppy thrust of the song (“ring-a-ring-a-ring-a-fucking-thing”) and the go-faster drums of John Maher, but it works. He even seems to acknowledge the very shelf life of the song he’s singing:
You see there’s nothing behind me
I’m already a has-been
My future ain’t what it was
I loved it because I was frightened. The Buzzcocks made many more glorious pop songs, more sophisticated, more acceptable, more whistleable, but Boredom and its three comrades on this historic EP are the mother lode, the creation myth, the spring, the source, the core. Devoto would go on to front Magazine and take the bendiness of this early incarnation to lengthier, more literate and apocalyptic ends over four intoxicatingly nihilistic albums. Buzzcocks themselves, minus Devoto, would tighten up into an even more flamboyant post-punk platoon, full of hits, colour and discipline.
From this early acorn did so much powerful modern music – and an entire economy – grow.