Punk Interviews

Steve Diggle Bares His Sonic Soul

Buzzcock Steve Diggle gives Punktuation’s Nic Howden an exclusive track-by-track rundown of ‘Sonics In The Soul”, the 10th Buzzcocks LP, which is due to be released on the Cherry Red label in September. 

So, with one singer in the band for the first time since 1977 and no ‘oh-oh-oh’s, what does a new Buzzcocks’ long-playing record sound like in 2022? 

Backed by the same super tight rhythm section as ‘The Way’ together with a second guitarist, Diggle’s focus is fixed on the human condition.

Literary influences loom typically large, and there are discernible traces of Dylan, Bowie and Can/Krautrock – the Buzzcocks’ sound is that kind of Germanic thing somewhere along the line. Diggle’s voice adapts across the tracks too, which helps to adjust the new balance. 

Working in the long shadow of Pete Shelley dying so unexpectedly nearly four years ago, and through a pandemic which kept the band off the road and the frontman from the pubs, ‘Sonics In The Soul’ manages to sidestep the tarnish of ‘lockdown LP’. It’s short songs – a handful proven on the road already – thick with edge and vitality.

Buzzcocks Punktuation mag
Photo © Ben Pollard

I listened to the LP a lot, noting my thoughts, and then I asked Steve Diggle for his. 

Wearing his art on his sleeve, as ever, Diggle is easy to talk to/great to listen to, colouring in tales/tunes which cover everything from Covid frustrations and relationships through to healthy eating – really – and sounds of thunder.

Incidentally, we discussed the potential for a ‘Singles Going Steady’ Mk 2, which could go right back to 1993. And a live LP. But I digress. 

“I tried to make ‘Sonics In The Soul’ like a classic album. There are a few kinds of single types on there, but it makes sense as a whole journey. It’s like reading a book; you’ve got to get to the end to know what it’s all about,” Diggle tells me before we drop the metaphorical needle.  

“I tried to make ‘Sonics In The Soul’ like a classic album. There are a few kinds of single types on there, but it makes sense as a whole journey.”

Steve Diggle, Buzzcocks

“I could have easily regurgitated the past to the nth degree, but where am I going to go with that? There’s no point in repeating yourself. You’ve got to take a gamble and be a bit brave with stuff. Pete’s not here, so it is going to be more my kind of thing. I just hope people get that. 

“I’m in my 60s now; I don’t want to be writing ‘Nobody loves me’ or something. It would be silly for me to pretend we’re back in 1978.” 

My thoughts first, then followed by insights from the man behind it all.  

Senses Out of Control

Nic Howden: Great start. Born of lockdown frustration, ‘Senses Out of Control’ is an old-school Steve Diggle/Buzzcocks song – replete with wiry lead guitar in the middle. Urgent enough to serve as occasional set opener over the last 12 months, Senses Out of Control is a number fans would expect from the Diggle era.

Steve Diggle: Halfway through the album, reminiscing, I thought we needed one inspired by the early days. It was written in the Covid times when everybody’s senses were out of control, so more universal statement than a personal thing. ‘This is what we’re dealing with here and now’. It’s philosophical with a bit of fire in its belly. 

Manchester Rain

NH: Diggle is already talking about the next Buzzcocks’ LP, so it’s hard to tell if there will be another single off this one, but ‘Manchester Rain’ would be a great fit on ‘(Still) Going Steady’. From a stuttering start, led by his guitar line, this song builds a platform for Diggle’s fabulous vocal. It’s ‘Sick City Sometimes’, through the looking glass, a more forgiving place. ‘Manchester Rain’ has already made its mark on the road and sits perfectly at the start of ‘Sonics In The Soul’.

SD: It’s almost the next stepping stone from ‘Senses Out of Control’; you’ve laid your cards on the table about the situation, and then you get this. When I was in Manchester, before lockdown, I was talking to some kids outside the venue I was about to go in to do a gig. It was pouring with rain, and they were telling me about the band they were starting, and I thought, ‘This is where I’m from, this is where I was, in a band in my late teens. So, it’s really about hopes and dreams, that moment of realisation.

How do you catch a dream you just can’t find? Yeah, 
How do you catch a star that calls your name, 
I’m standing on the corner, 
Standing in the Manchester rain. 

Steve Diggle
Photo © Ben Pollard
You Changed Everything Now

NH: Almost an extension of ‘Manchester Rain’, albeit with a drop more 1960s feel, there’s a seamless switch between the two and something ‘What Do I Get’ about it.

SD: I really like the riff; it’s very Buzzcocks. The song’s about any sort of relationship. Things start good and can turn bad. People change. The person you thought you knew, now they’re something else, which is inevitable in life.   

Bad Dreams

NH: First of a run of three titles that could come from a mid-1980s Ramones album, ‘Bad Dreams’ breaks the ‘formula’ – in the loosest sense – that starts this record. Diggle in fuller voice over a repetitious, dare I say ‘Homosapien’, rhythm. 

SD: That’s got a classic chug, like ‘Autonomy’, ‘Fiction Romance’, and even some of the earlier ones, which keeps a bit of the identity, flavour and sound of Buzzcocks. This one came about during lockdown, which seemed to be a bad dream, then it became more universal.

The Freudian thing, the subconscious brings all sorts of tricks to mind, and it’s about dealing with all that. But at the end of the song, it says, ‘Was it just a dream or just real life’. The album opens with three fast songs; now it’s ‘Let’s get a bit more in-depth, more internal’. It changes the tempo. I didn’t want 11 fast songs on there. 

Nothingless World

NH: This is frustration confined – like a Steve McQueen/Great Escape scene, locked in a room with a baseball and glove. ‘Sometimes you love your life, and then you don’t, Sometimes you say you will and then you won’t’… ‘And nothing means nothing in a nothingless world’. Again, it’s rhythm-heavy – little sign here of that Diggle guitar sound.

Photo © Ben Pollard

SD: The existential meaningless of the world. It’s kind of saying you don’t have to make sense of the world, really, to function in it. Existentially it’s all a nothingness. You’re going to die in the end, so don’t worry about it! It’s a bit 16 Again. I like the jangliness in there. 

Don’t Mess With My Brain 

NH: Born of the same emotion as Nothingless World, Don’t Mess With My Brain is unabashed lockdown. Steered by a riff that’s not a million miles away from the Sex Pistols’ Submission, it’s a sneering, ‘what the fuck was that’ song – ’65 million going insane…’

SD: A direct thing from lockdown. 

The fever is high, 
Feelings are low, 
Gazing out the window,
But there’s nowhere to go.

It’s to do with control again, but it can also be about clubs closing and life-changing. The rhythm came to me one day; you could even say it’s a bit bluesy in some ways. Some of the songs are a bit more complex, but here’s one that’s just saying, ‘Don’t mess with my brain’! You can’t spell that song out any easier. 

Just Gotta Let It Go

NH: A bit like Ruts DC’s ‘Psychic Attack’, the riff as much as the ‘attack’ word in the opening line,‘Just Gotta Let It Go’, is a short, caustic therapy mantra. Love this one.

SD: Classic Buzzcocks’ pop song. You’ve just got to get in and out with it. People get wound up with things. We all do. People bug each other and blow over. You just gotta let it go, man! You might be tuned into a different place in your mind, thinking, ‘It should be like this, it should be like that’, but it’s not. You just gotta let it go. Whatever your beef, you’ve got to find a way to deal with it. I like that one. It works well live.

“You just gotta let it go. Whatever your beef, you’ve got to find a way to deal with it.”

Steve Diggle on ‘Just Gotta Let It Go’

It’s a good tune. There’s a little bit of piano in there, which could have been louder. Again, you’ve just got to get in and out with that song.

Everything Is Wrong 

NH: It’s got a second/third generation Kinks feel about it, but the influence from earlier is here too. Steve Diggle’s vocal is thin and nasally, which is a good fit with the lyric.  

SD: It’s a bold, ridiculous statement in a way. That was to do with when Trump was in, people like that, social media misinformation. 

People stop and stare,
Down screens everywhere,
And every little thing you thought you knew is wrong. 

It’s all about the fake news. It’s a bit more melodic towards the end, which could have run all the way through, really. I’ve probably got demos of it that way. Some of these subjects are perhaps a little bit dark, but I always put a bit of a release in there somewhere; there’s always a ray of hope. By the end of the song, turn it upside down, and you can see it from both sides.  

Experimental Farm

NH: ‘Looking back across-a-my shoulder, On the food, they made to control ya…’ Not sure if this is an anti-vac song, but it’s a psychedelic maelstrom led by a big Ogden’s Nut-era Small Faces’ riff. 

SD: I was reading this short story by HG Wells, ‘The Food of the Gods’, the only book in English in this bookshop, when I was in Greece. It’s about a scientist who goes down to a farm in Kent and tells the farmer to feed his chickens with this substance, and they will grow really big. But it gets everywhere; butterflies, rats, everything it came across was growing. The kids that ate this stuff soon became giants, and there was no room for them in the village, almost like a Gulliver’s Travels thing.

So, they’re outsiders. I thought, right, ‘Experimental Farm’ – about the food we eat, the fats, the sugars, the GM, all the stuff they put in the process that we don’t know about. And I got the megaphone out, ‘Don’t believe a word they say’. It’s quite simple and direct. I’m just trying to pass on a bit of information – be careful what you put in your mouth! Sometimes you get into a groove you don’t want to leave. That’s when it becomes transcendental or psychedelic—a mantra kind of thing. 

“[Experimental Farm’ is] about the food we eat, the fats, the sugars, the GM, all the stuff they put in the process that we don’t know about. And I got the megaphone out, ‘Don’t believe a word they say’. It’s quite simple and direct. I’m just trying to pass on a bit of information – be careful what you put in your mouth!”

Steve Diggle talking about the track’Experimental Farm’

NB – Steve Diggle has had his vaccine shots.

Can You Hear Tomorrow   

NH: Starting with a single note repetition, the same one Mick Jones uses at the top of ‘Midnight to Stevens’, this is an ‘old school’, in the Flat Pack Philosophy sense of the word(s), Buzzcocks number. Fabulous.

SD: ‘Television man says it’s alright, Politician says what’s wrong and right’. At that time, we were being bombarded with those meetings every day at 4 pm, the media salaciously telling you how bad it all it is. ‘Sound of a gun in the morning light’, because there were wars going on as there always is – the Taliban moving back into those Afghan territories. Nobody could hear tomorrow at that point. There’s always got to be that ray of hope somewhere, though. That’s my thing. With the ascending riff, it’s a bit of old school, down and dirty Buzzcocks’ rhythm. 

Venus Eyes  
Steve Diggle
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – JULY 06: Steve Diggle of Buzzcocks performs during Sounds of the City at Castlefield Bowl on July 6, 2018 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage)

NH: Following a simple drumbeat intro, Sonics In The Soul finishes on a straight-ahead 1960s infused pop number, albeit in the same system/senses out-of-control vein it started with. 
Though the world is changing, 
Reality’s changing too, 
And the things they’re saying, 
Making you say too. 

The longest track on the LP, ‘Venus Eyes’, is the only song in this run of 11 to mention the ‘love’ word – in a relationship sense – that Buzzcocks’ records of old are synonymous with.   

SD: We had about 14 songs, I’d sequenced a lot of it along the way, and it could end with ‘Can You Hear Tomorrow.’ Lyrically, it’s ‘What’s the next thing?’ But, sorting B Sides for the single, ‘Venus Eyes’ was still lying around, and I like the metronomic rhythm. It’s a bit different sounding to the others, so it finishes the album on a weirder note.

In Orwell’s 1984, when Winston Smith is in a queue, and he gets a note from Julia, they start a relationship in the middle of all that control, Big Brother and everything. So, it does bookend the album with the control idea. ‘Then I turn around, And look into your Venus eyes’. I suppose that’s the spacey or psychedelic bit. Rather than just saying, ‘It’s the government that’s wrong’, looking into your partner’s eyes releases the world from you or whatever you’re dealing with in your life. It was a first take, the vocal, after a massive hangover. It’s got one of those chiming Buzzcocks things too. ‘Sounds of thunder, A place where worlds collide’, and I thought the guitars are colliding with each other. It’s got the heavy sentiment and that ending to the album feel. 

I would switch the word love for something else sometimes; it used to make Pete Shelley laugh. This one it’s just a universal thing. Everyone can relate to that. I’ve got to wear my heart on my sleeve at some point.

“It’s a new era,” Diggle says. “If I’d put the ‘oh-oh-oh’s’ in again, people will say, ‘Oh, that’s great. It sounds just like the other albums.’ 

“You’ve got to make a little break somewhere and see where you can go with it. ‘Sonics In The Soul’ was that moment in time. I’m trying to look at other things now and still taking the Buzzcocks’ great legacy, which can feel like baggage, with me,” he chuckles. 

“It’s a new era. If I’d put the ‘oh-oh-oh’s’ in again, people will say, ‘Oh, that’s great. It sounds just like the other albums.’”

Steve Diggle on Sonics In The Soul

“In some ways, this is a bridge album, bringing a lot of the greatness from the past and trying to take it somewhere else. That’s what I realised when I started writing a few of the songs. Like Trade Test Transmissions and Modern were different from the Singles Going Steady-era, you’ve got to listen to it a few times and get into what it is.

Forty-five years on then, and Steve Diggle keeps delivering on his promises. 

Sonics In The Soul is available to pre-order via Cherry Red Records on CD/Vinyl/Digital Now

Sonics in the soul

Main Feature Photo of Steve Diggle by Nic Howden

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