The brainy and witty Buzzcocks guitarist Steve Diggle opens up about the origins of punk in Manchester, the band’s working-class roots, the need to be genuine, his friend and partner, the late Pete Shelley, friendships with Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, and Joe Strummer. Oh yes, and George Orwell.
Buzzcocks guitarist Steve Diggle has always taken the road less traveled. From getting fired from his first job for organizing a strike, to getting thrown out of another job for dressing like a Mod (he still rocks a Mod cut), to joining Pete Shelley in starting the first punk band in Manchester in 1976.
Diggle is one of the most genuine, and outrageously honest, people I know. His infectious “dirty old man” laugh still haunts me since we met at the Lord of Arms pub near his home. He lives in Highgate: a posh, sweet-smelling, foliage-heavy area of London that Kate Moss and Liam Gallagher also call home. He looks much younger than his 64 years, which he attributes to his vegetarianism.
Diggle is candid about his hard-partying ways and his musical dislike for certain famous bands. The unfortunate December passing of his songwriting partner and friend, Pete Shelley, has inspired him to take a trip down memory lane. He organized a tribute concert for Shelley which just sold out the enormous Royal Albert Hall this summer. Thurston Moore, Captain Sensible, Dave Vanian, Peter Perrett, Tim Burgess and others performed to honor the memory of the man known as the first sensitive punk.
Steve Diggle: Back in 1976, there was the Damned, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Jam, and the Buzzcocks. As far at the British side of punk rock. We wrote the play and these new bands have found the scripts in the bin and are acting out the play we wrote. Without the consciousness of what it’s all about. It’s a monkey see, monkey do thing. That’s what it seems like. The American side was the Ramones and… You have to have something in your soul while you are doing this. You can’t just say, “We are a punk band.”
PKM: I’m guessing you guys were broke back then?
Steve Diggle: Oh yes…Hahaha! Quite happily… Haha!
PKM: You lived in a conservative society with an overbearing Queen and royal family. I feel like there was a lot to fight against. As opposed to a kid who was raised in a well-off suburban family who doesn’t have anything to fight for,
Steve Diggle: You can’t write a punk rock song when you live in a penthouse. We were only poor financially, but we were rich in ideas. Money didn’t count. We got by. We had these ideas and they eventually revealed themselves. We had the self-realization of who we were. We were from Manchester. If we were from London, for instance, we would have been distracted by parties and things. Manchester was like a small village. It’s a bit like Detroit in some ways. The good thing about that is, that you find yourself in a room with a lightbulb. We bought books on existentialism and all this kind of stuff. Every time I bought a single, I bought a book.
PKM: You had more time and space from distractions.
Steve Diggle: Yeah. Self-realization is important. We were all smart guys as well. We were aware of the important things that were going on. We grew up with ‘60s music and then progressive music. We were kind of fruits but we were unique as well.
You can’t write a punk rock song when you live in a penthouse. We were only poor financially, but we were rich in ideas.
PKM: Were you listening to the Troggs? What were your early musical inspirations?
Steve Diggle: It wasn’t just about the music for us. Some bands look at other bands and are like, “I wanna be like that band.” It wasn’t like that for us. We were looking at the people that had to pay the gas bill. We were looking at the human condition. Things like philosophy, not just, “Hey baby, let’s rock n’ roll!” Haha! We were self-educated, working-class people. Me and Pete used to drink a lot at pubs. There was a lot of intellectuality as well as rock n’ roll. So we was armed with a lot of things. Most bands are a bit more simple musically. Me and Pete were very complex people, and still are… well he’s dead now.
PKM: I’m sorry about that.
Steve Diggle: It’s okay, you’re sweet. That complexity in a slightly unorthodox way of looking at the world taught me that we were different. The traditional way of rock n’ roll is supposed to be waving your cock at the birds, “Hey baby, come over here! I’m the man, you’re the woman! Let’s go!”
Steve Diggle: We would sometimes say sensitive things and dark things, but we could rock out as well. People could identify that it was a lot like their life. The Sex Pistols, the Damned, the Jam, we were all unique. We were all thinkers. Even though we were on the dole, we knew we wanted to say something. We didn’t want to simply say the government is wrong. That’s too dumb. It’s like, “Really? Yeah, nobody knows that…” (eye roll). It’s like what about yourself. Be your own president.
Buzzcocks – What Do I Get?
PKM: I find songs about the human condition are more satisfying. When artists sing about starving people, I think that they think it will help more people turn on to that cause, but sometimes it comes off as a humble brag. Look how much I care…
Steve Diggle: There are starving people in the world? Really? We know that and you aren’t going to change the world with that. How cool are you? I don’t think so. We know the world is complex. We didn’t have the answers. Nobody has got the answers. So we would proposition, “What do you think of this and that?” That exchange of ideas. That exchange of an experience.
PKM: You guys were free thinkers. Like the saying, “Small minded people talk about other people, average minded people talk about events, and bright people talk about ideas.”
Steve Diggle: Picasso made a work of art. The Buzzcocks made a record that was a work of art. Make of it what you will. It’s not like, “You must think this or you must think that.” The Buzzcocks inspired a lot of people to be themselves. To rethink your own consciousness about what music was doing to you back in 1976. It was all a bit sleepy. You could have a tab before and take acid and zone out. I’ve got to find out who I am a little bit. So it was kind of a wake up call. Because of the energy of the music. An assault on your senses. Particularly the Buzzcocks music was like that.
PKM: An answer to the sleepy music that was going on.
Steve Diggle: Pete and I grew up in the ‘60s with style and hit singles.
PKM: Did you have long hair in the ‘60s?
Steve Diggle: Yeah. Like Picasso had the cubist period, the blue period, and so on… People change. The hippie thing. We came from the Swinging Sixties. The Kinks…Ray Davies was around the corner.
PKM: Were you friends with Ray Davies?
Steve Diggle: Yeah, I see him all the time around here. I was on the bus with Dave Davies the other day. That was kind of weird. Haha! Liam Gallagher lives around here too.
PKM: Would you say the Buzzcocks were the first punk band from Manchester?
Steve Diggle: Oh yeah. We were the only ones. There was nothing around for miles. We started the Manchester scene.
PKM: I’ve heard that the Damned was the first punk band in England. Do you think that was true?
Buzzcocks – Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve?
Steve Diggle: I’m not sure. I do know that we started two days before the Clash. Haha! That’s what Pete told me. They were all from London. We brought the Sex Pistols to town. (Passes gas) I’m sorry, I had chili for lunch. I don’t want you to smell that.
PKM: Haha! It’s okay. Were you self-taught?
Steve Diggle: Yeah. Nobody could teach me. It’s impossible. I learned a bit of classical guitar. I thought if I could learn that, I could learn rock n’ roll. There was nobody around to teach rock n’ roll back then. A guy across the road who was a heroin addict showed me my first chords with blood spurting out of his arm everywhere. I was like 16. I had a classical music teacher showing me classical guitar and then this guy saying, “You do it like this you see?” I was like, “What the fuck is this?!” Haha!
Steve Diggle: I was banned from school for being a mod. I’m reduced now to the pub and playing Spanish guitar I bought for six pounds. I used to tune that thing the best I could, it was a terrible little guitar. In the face of adversity, I was playing Beethoven’s 9th on two strings. Fast forward four years, all the Buzzcocks’ little tunes came from that. It was a magical moment when I realized that my riffs came from the worst guitar in the world. The posh kids buy expensive guitars and sell them six months later for a pair of skies or something. In the face of adversity, something beautiful happened. It could be the worst playing guitar in the world but end up creating your unique sound. The guitar is like clothing, it’s got to look right on you. That’s another thing. You’ve got to have the right mind set or I won’t believe you.
PKM: I used to work at a music venue but some of these dudes would wear Gap t shirts and flip flops. They sounded good, but if they don’t come with the entire package, nothing is going to come from it.
Steve Diggle: Exactly. Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, they looked cool. Some guy in flip-flops?! You got it wrong.
We didn’t want to simply say the government is wrong. That’s too dumb. It’s like, “Really? Yeah, nobody knows that…” (eye roll). It’s like what about yourself. Be your own president.
PKM: Did you always cut your own hair?
Steve Diggle: My brother cut my hair with a pair of decorating scissors for wallpaper. Haha! I used to go to a girl on Carnaby Street in the ‘60s and say “cut my hair like the Rolling Stones”.
PKM: What was your audience like the first couple of shows? Did you make your own fliers?
Steve Diggle: Someone made the posts as we were going on. On a duplicating machine. We used that good glue for pasting. You remember that glue from school that was good for sniffing? It was just lovely.
PKM: Haha! Yeah. I would inhale that and the fumes from the gas station as a kid.
You were an original member of the band. Did you and Pete write songs together?
Steve Diggle: Yeah. My first song was called, “Fast Cars.” Pete and I wrote songs together after the original singer left and Pete took over. I wrote the song, “Promises,” about the government.
PKM: Would you say, “Orgasm Addict,” and “What Do I Get?” were your biggest hits?
Steve Diggle: People only remember, “Orgasm Addict,” because it’s dirty, but it was never a big hit. We had “Harmony In My Head,” which was mine. We were on the show, Tops Of The Pops in ‘77 or ‘78. We ended up going back on that show about eight times over the next few years. We had about eight hits, which equaled eight appearances.
PKM: Did you have to fake your instruments?
Steve Diggle: Yeah. We used to get drunk at the bar.
PKM: With 13-year-olds dancing to your music! Haha! Not real punks.
Steve Diggle: No. No. The director would hand out free tickets. We were used to playing to real punk kinda people. So this was so weird. We had them shouting at us, “Don’t look at the camera!” Also, “When the camera comes, get out of the way!” We would just take the piss out of them and fuck off up there. It wasn’t our real audience anyway.
PKM: Today, that’s what makes the show fun, because the bands are really cool and the audience isn’t. They are all dancing to some other kind of music in their heads and it doesn’t match up. Haha!
Steve Diggle: In those days people would know when a new record came out faster than an email. I don’t know how they did it with no internet and cellular phones. Every town we played in… these towns were dead, but they came alive when we played. So watching the punk rock thing evolve was very exciting.
PKM: Punk gave the underdog power and confidence.
Steve Diggle: You hit the spot. That was important for us as a band. People found themselves with this. We found ourselves. Forget about a great song or show business or something. Be yourself and do it yourself. People started to question what they’re doing, who they are, their political surroundings, emotional surroundings, everything. People would start becoming photographers, artists, and everything else after shows. We got an award for inspiration from Mojo magazine a few years ago. I thought that was interesting. Instead of an award for most records sold or some bull crap of whatever. Best video or whatever. The most amazing thing is to inspire people.PKM: When you started playing alongside the Sex Pistols, were you getting spit on?
Steve Diggle: Oh yeah, it was madness.
PKM: Did you have to hit a bottle back with your guitar?
Steve Diggle: Oh yeah, I waxed a couple of people. Remember that Keith Richards thing. I did that a couple of times. It was organized chaos. Anarchy is about education really. If everyone was educated enough not to do harm to people, we wouldn’t need the police.
PKM: I would come home from punk rock shows covered in sweat ready to sleep because I got my angst out.
Steve Diggle: It was an emotional release. People went wild at shows, but nobody got stabbed. The primal scream thing and everything. It was a release but a massive assault on your senses as well. It wasn’t like religion where they are saying, “Oooh, the Lord’s gonna save you” or anything. It was the white trash version of that. Hahaha! It was animalistic.
PKM: It saved some lives for sure.
Steve Diggle: A lot of the early people. We were all a bit dysfunctional, weren’t we?
PKM: Speaking of which, did you hang out with Sue Cat Woman and Jordan and all those girls?
Steve Diggle: Haha!
PKM: I wasn’t asking in an intimate sense.
Steve Diggle: I hung out with a lot of girls. A lot of the common groupies, well I shouldn’t call them groupies because we would sit and have a nice conversation first and then get to it. It wasn’t like, “Hey bitch, come with me.” We’d hang out in the hotels, have fun and everyone went home okay.
PKM: Were you surprised by all the female attention when the band started getting popular?
Steve Diggle: I realized that we were an attractive band. We were on the road all the time. We’d meet girls backstage or at the bar. The girls were very intelligent that we met. Plus we would have mini therapy sessions with these people. We were only 20 years old, so we’d talk about home life and fucked up parents and everything. I was very concerned with some of these girls and guys because Pete was bi-sexual. I thought bring everything to this punk rock party. Sometimes I’d be signing records and Pete would say “I like the boyfriend” and some poor guy that doesn’t even like our band and just came to support his girlfriend, gets taken by Pete while I entertained his girl. Hahaha! Sometimes Pete would be passed out in the hotel and I’d be smoking a spliff listening to these guys problems about being gay. My son is gay now so I had a lot of experience with sensitivity. It was all part of this interesting new thing called punk rock. These new experiences and unique people. It’s not as simple as Blondie. I prefer the Clash.
PKM: Some of the people from your generation and scene back then have discussed anger towards Joe Strummer because he was a rich boy singing about poor men’s problems.
Steve Diggle: He was the son of a diplomat.
PKM: But them judging him is just as bad as people judging them because they were poor.
Steve Diggle: George Orwell who wrote 1984, Joe was a bit like him. He told it like it is and lived in squats. It’s not where you come from, it’s what you do with it. Joe Strummer was fucking amazing. Along with John Lennon, his lyrics were incredible.
PKM: I want to preface my earlier comments about political music by saying that when it’s made by the Clash or John Lennon it’s powerful. It has to have an intelligence and genuine emotion behind it for it to work well.
Steve Diggle: My music is political but a bit understated. Not all Clash songs were political, but the ones that were made you aware of your surroundings. Like, “Know Your Rights.”
It was a magical moment when I realized that my riffs came from the worst guitar in the world…. In the face of adversity, something beautiful happened.
PKM: What bands did you have in common that you all listened to in the van.
Steve Diggle: Nobody liked similar music. Jonathan played Blondie and some other shit and I didn’t fucking like that. I wanted the Clash. Pete Shelley and I had porn on a little TV on VHS 24/7 on the bus. We were too tired to concentrate on a film. We’d just snort lines of cocaine and watch porn. When you go from Denver to Utah… Haha!
PKM: You better have had the curtains drawn while driving through Utah with those Mormons.
Steve Diggle: Sone of the best partiers I met were in Utah. They could only drink cough syrup there because it was Mormon country. Someone invited us to this guy’s house. It looked like space in this guy’s garden there. This three-level home. It was amazing, the American tours. I remember watching the Go-Go’s at the Whiskey so stoned out of my mind. We’d turn up at random people’s houses. We didn’t sleep for days. I did a tour on crystal meth for two months. I went bloody crazy. I had a friend that did seven years for having meth on him. I do a load of drugs and drink but I’m a vegetarian. Whole Foods is my favorite place. Your body is your temple and people put fast food that costs only 99 cents in their body. It’s crazy!
PKM: Do you eat sweets?
Steve Diggle: Yeah because I’m always trying to quit smoking. I like to smoke a lot of crack as well… Hahaha! I’m 64.
PKM: Well. You look amazing. You literally look 20 years younger.
Steve Diggle: It’s the health thing. I’ve got my mother’s genes as well. My great-grandmother was Scottish and they are heavy drinkers. It’s a terrible addiction. It’s really a British cultural thing to drink a lot. I’m not a dumbass though. I still read a lot. I used to drop a lot of acid when I was 17. If you are an empty vessel, there is no point, but you can expand your mind if you are smart. I do really like to smoke crack though… haha! Coke is boring compared to crack. I’ve written 50 songs for the Buzzcocks and 80 songs for my solo work. I’ve been around the world and I need a release from all of that.
I need excitement in my life. I’m a Taurus and my moving star is Venus so I have a bit of a sexual mind. I read a book by Henry Miller called Black Spring and I read a page in there that says forget Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, everyone in your street is a hero. I’m paraphrasing but it says something about Junkie John and Pale Mickey, they are the street heroes. So I thought that’s a great punk rock song. The local girl that works at the checkout is a hero as well in her own way. She’s better than Brad Pitt. The working class thing came up again in Bernstein’s Language Barrier, so I put a reference to that in my song as well.
PKM: Well Marilyn Monroe was incredibly depressed and not taken seriously for being an intelligent woman.
Steve Diggle: Used and abused. Quite often that’s actually the case with those people. I’m sure James Dean never had a moment to himself and then he died. It’s like Kurt Cobain was very unhappy and then killed himself.
PKM: Did you ever meet him?
Steve Diggle: We toured with Nirvana. Kurt was a lovely guy. We had a load of televisions on the stage and I’d smash them every night. He came back stage in Boston and he said, “Steve, I love the way you smash those TV’s.” I looked into those deep blue eyes. He looked like Jesus. I told him that I was actually electrocuted because they were plugged in. We had porn and all different shows going on the TV’s during the gigs. Kurt said, “I’ve only smashed one television.” I said, “You haven’t lived! I’ve smashed thousands of these things!” I remember getting cocaine and laying it out on the tour bus. Krist and Dave didn’t want any of it and Kurt went upstairs. So I did it all myself. Then Kurt comes back downstairs and says, “Where’s the coke?” So I told him I’d buy him some when we got to England. He didn’t make it by then. He loved the Buzzcocks. He asked me how I survived all these years in the band and I said I just kept a sense of humor. He was a lovely guy and we did that last tour with him. I’m gonna have two grams of cocaine put in my coffin so I can take it to him and Jimi Hendrix.
PKM: What do you remember about New York when you first got there in the ‘70s?
Steve Diggle: We grew up with Kojak on the TV. So the steam coming out from the street potholes was cool. The fire hydrants. We stayed at the Gramercy Park Hotel. It took about two years to go there because we had a lot of hits in England. We drank that nasty, gassy Budweiser all day. I’m like, “I ain’t drunk, I’m gassed out!”
PKM: Did you play CBGB?
Steve Diggle: No. We played Irving Plaza. The wicked witch from The Wizard Of Oz lived down the block so we got to meet her. Some radio station was broadcasting us live in New York and the woman who was the presenter of the show brought out flowers and they fell because we pulled the ID down and the photographer punched someone and all hell broke loose. It happens the Ramones were waiting to meet us, but we had to say hi fast while running down the street like the Monkees because the radio people were so pissed at us and running after us. We jumped into a cab because our tour manager pushed us into one to escape. The Ramones were very nice and welcoming to us the second time we met them. Captain Beefheart was sweet to us as well. I remember much later down the line Eddie Vedder was a doorman and had some other job before Pearl Jam. Then we had 12 dates with Pearl Jam, and Eddie and I became friends. Eddie used to bring my bags to the car. So then I’d say, “Eddie used to knick my girls and my cocaine,” and he would get mad at me, “Why do you have to tell people that?” We used to pull all these birds back to the hotel and had loads of cocaine, but one by one the girls would leave because Eddie would start to talk politics. So we would end up alone together. Fucking hell, Eddie! We did a gig at Madison Square Garden and a beautiful blonde girl was waiting for us. It turns out it was Meg Ryan.
PKM: It was the ‘90s, Meg Ryan was hot then. Eddie Vedder was a big punk rock fan. Didn’t play good music himself, though.
Steve Diggle: So I go backstage to meet my lovely friend Eddie. We are in the dressing room and Meg Ryan says, “Have you got any cigarettes?” So I gave her some. Then the next night that Drew Barrymore was there with her boyfriend from the Strokes and she asks, “Do you have any cigarettes?” I was like, “What is it with you fuckers? Have you ever been to Camden? They are always asking you for cigarettes.” Then Eddie is there talking about Ronald Reagan. There are all these beautiful girls here. Do we have to talk about Bush right now? I never liked Pearl Jam. I bought the record for research before the tour and was like, “Well this is shit.” Jeremy talked. Haha!
Buzzcocks play Ever Fallen In Love (Finale) at the Royal Albert Hall June 2019 at Pete Shelley tribute