It’s 40 years since the Manchester band’s first release reshaped pop music. With no industry support, they pressed and sold the E.P. themselves, and kickstarted a revolution.
In January 1977 a young punk band called Buzzcocks walked into the Manchester branch of Virgin with a box of singles they wanted to sell. They had set up a label called New Hormones and paid for the records themselves with an early form of crowdfunding – borrowing £500 from a couple of friends and the guitarist’s dad – and their only ambition was to sell enough of the 1,000 copies they had pressed to be able to repay the loans. The Spiral Scratch EP ended up selling 16,000 copies and reaching the top 40 – there was no problem with the loans. More importantly, though, it proved that it was possible for artists to be in complete control of their music, from production to distribution, and in the process invented indie.
These days, there’s nothing unusual about bypassing the record industry. Chance the Rapper self-released his music and has become a breakout star and Barack Obama’s guest at the White House. In 1977, though, Spiral Scratch was game-changing. In its wake came a wave of British independent labels and a distribution network that meant that, as Rough Trade founder Geoff Travis puts it, “anyone could compete with the big boys, but that only happened because it was an undeniably great record”.
Few who saw the first Buzzcocks show on 1 April 1976 would have felt they were in the presence of people who were about to reshape pop. Peter McNeish and Howard Trafford (who would become Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto) fronted a makeshift version of the band at Bolton Institute of Technology’s students’ union – they were studying there – and managed to annoy not just the venue, but their bandmates, too.
After the venue pulled the plug, their drummer – who had never rehearsed with them before – laid into Shelley and Devoto. “He said: ‘I’m at this level’ – and held his hands very high,” Shelley, remembers, “‘and you’re down there.’”
Shelley and Devoto had been inspired to form Buzzcocks seven weeks earlier, when they read a live review in NME that would transform their lives. The headline, “Don’t look over your shoulder, but the Sex Pistols are coming!”, was enough to convince them to borrow a little Renault and drive 200 miles to High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire to see the Pistols support Screaming Lord Sutch on 21 February.
“Seeing the Pistols changed everything,” Devoto says. “We started to realise what songs we ourselves could write.”
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