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Buzzcocks, Steve Diggle and the story of ‘punk Soho’

Last updated on November 16, 2019

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A quiet and unassuming man, it’s hard to reconcile the chap who sidles up to us with the boisterous youngster in those classic Top of the Pops re-runs. But let’s get one thing straight: Steve Diggle was there at the birth of punk. There are very few people who can honestly say they were at the forefront of a cultural revolution, but Steve can.

Rock’n’roll folklore dictates that the sainted few who attended The Sex Pistol’s Manchester debut went on to form bands and have a profound effect on the UK music scene. It was at the Lesser Free Trade Hall that Malcolm McClaren introduced Diggle to Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley, and he was a fully signed-up member of the band that supported The Pistols when they returned a few weeks later. That band was Buzzcocks.

That Lesser Free Trade Hall gig is the stuff of legend. What do you remember of it?

We brought The Pistols to Manchester, and we put the provinces on the map. A lot of people think that punk and The Sex Pistols started in London, but it wasn’t until they got to Manchester that they realised there was a scene going on. You know, they say Jesus was born in Bethlehem – well punk was born in Manchester. Those early gigs crystallised it all.

Is it true that every person in that hall went on to join a seminal indie band of one kind or another. Peter Hook, Morrissey, er… Mick Hucknall?

Well there weren’t many people at that gig, it’s true – there were more at the second one, three weeks later. But members of Joy Division were there, and members of the Smiths. I’m not sure about Mick Hucknall… he may have been. But I wanted to form a different band, so I was there to meet someone else. And Howard and Pete were there to meet somebody else, too, but they met me (laughs).

And you were on bass originally…

On bass for the first six months, but you know, I’ve just done 40 years on guitar. Sometimes they still write that I’m bass, but I’ve turned into a guitar hero since then! These people have read Wikipedia, which is completely wrong. It’s written by some American geezer. I’ve tried to tell him that things are wrong, but he won’t have it. “My father used to write rock books!” he says. Yeah, but it’s my life! He still won’t change it. (Laughs) 

Punk, according to the Tao of Steve, may have started in Manchester, but it’s in London that he has spent much of his off-road life. He lives in Highgate, where he knocks about on occasion with Ray Davies (“he’s not offered me tickets to that Sunday Afternoon musical yet – it’s a bit uncool to ask him, really”) as well as other members of the British rock community.

Can you remember coming down to London for the first time?

Yeah, the first time we came to London, I think, was to the 100 Club. It wasn’t long after that first gig supporting The Pistols in Manchester. It was supposed to be two sets, which we didn’t really like – we didn’t really do two sets. But after the first, they asked us to do another. They were so shocked and horrified by it!

I can’t imagine Buzzcocks managing two sets. Your songs weren’t exactly what you’d call long.

Actually, that’s a good point. A gig used to be 20 minutes, maybe 25, and we could certainly squeeze a few songs in. Now we do about an hour and a half. 20 minutes, though – you’ve barely set up!

So, back in ’76…

…back in ’76 the landscape was barren. There was nothing happening musically – nothing exciting going on in fashion or youth culture. Something needed to happen. We were just frustrated. One song on a progressive rock album would last a whole side. We needed something relevant and instant. That’s certainly something that was on my mind. We had that song ‘Boredom’, which summed it all up really. Once we got down to London… well, word of mouth is an amazing thing. Faster than email! (Laughs) We always wondered how people in Aberdeen knew there’d be a single out, but they knew. It touched a nerve with people.

Who did you feel closest to on the punk scene? Were there other bands that you identified with?

Well, there was the Clash and the Pistols down in London, as well as the Damned and the Jam. I was a mod before I was a punk – it was more about attitude for me than anything else. I had all the scooters and all the mod stuff when I was 17. We grew up with that sixties stuff – all those magical Kinks singles coming out. It was all there, and that’s what got me. My mates always say to me now, “you’ve got a Paul Weller haircut”, but give me a break! Look back at the Stones and the Small Faces pictures, and all the rest of them. Besides, I’m older than him by three years!

So in the early days of punk, down here in London, the Clash and the Jam – those were the bands you were hanging out with?

There were no other people around until months later. We were bands that just started at the same time. We did the 100 Club Festival, so we all knew each other, and I think those bands were the most creative and explosive of them all. That’s where it began. Months after that, punk bands were everywhere. We wrote the play, and all the others found it in our dustbin! Look at Green Day. They’re just acting out a pantomime.

And from there… well, it must’ve been from London to the world…. London calling, no less.

When we went to New York, people like the Ramones wanted to come and see us. And we wanted to see them, you know. I think they were into us because we had those angular guitars – we had an experimental side. We were into Stockhausen and noise in general. I remember recording my mother vacuum cleaning outside my bedroom door when I’d been out drinking all night. (Laughs) It was very avant garde when you put it through my stereo! It’s not that far from Buzzcocks sound.

Steve Diggle’s Walking Guide to Soho London

Before the winter light packs up, we knock back our drinks and hit the streets. If you’ve ever wondered what a punk gets up to as they approach pensionable age, keep an eye open next time you’re in Soho. Walking, it transpires, is one of Steve’s great loves. He rarely has anywhere in particular that he’s heading for – “the destination is observation”, he says.

Inevitably, the conversation turns to the vanishing Soho back alleys that we wander past. “I don’t like it,” he says of their impending demise. “There’s nothing left to write about. You can’t find Dickensian characters hiding in the shadows of tall, glass, Santander buildings. Where are we going to find the Artful Dodgers? You can’t write punk songs from a penthouse.”

Heading down Old Compton Street, we come to the site of the 2i’s coffee bar (59 Old Compton Street, Soho). “It’s the last of the great villages, Soho”, he says. “There are stories everywhere, but you wonder if the guys that own this building now even know why the 2i’s was important.” A green plaque on the wall loudly indicating ‘the birthplace of British rock’n’roll’ suggests that they might, but his point is crystal clear. It’s a village in flux, and even its recent history will soon be the stuff of poignant photos and grainy, visceral videos.

From Old Compton Street we trundle our way across to Carnaby Street. It seems cliched, and the throngs of tourists attest to its fall from the height of cool, but there’s no denying its cultural importance.

“When I arrived, this place was just becoming punk as well as mod,” he recalls, ducking past Sherry’s (63 Broadwick Street, Off Carnaby Street, Soho), the celebrated mod outfitters. “Can’t let her see me hanging around,” he mutters, eyeing up the owner through the window. “I love this place, but every time I come past here I end up buying something I don’t need.”

Strolling on, we come to the latest incarnation of Ben Sherman (50 Carnaby Street, Soho) “A few years back, Ben Sherman were thinking of doing a ‘Diggle Dots’ shirt,” he tells us. “I was known then for wearing polka dot shirts. Dylan used to wear them back in the sixties, but they kinda became my thing. Ben Sherman were thinking of doing a line. I found those old shirts recently and thought, you know, these things have lived! They’ve been through a lot on stage. I sold them for £150 each on my Pledge Music page. They’ve helped me raise money towards my new solo album.”

Naturally, his new album comes up a number of times, and it’s particularly interesting to hear that he’s using Pledge – essentially crowdfunding for fans who want something new from their favourite artists – to fund it. “Pledge is the most punk thing I’ve seen in years,” he says. “It’s giving people the music they want, rather than what the record companies have decided they want.”

As we reach the back door of the London Palladium (Ramilies Place, off Great Marlborough Street), he runs his hands over some of the dirtiest brickwork you’ve ever likely to come across. “I remember seeing The Beatles on TV when they played here,” he smiles. “It was when Lennon said that thing about ‘rattling your jewelry‘. There was footage of them walking down this alleyway. They came brushing along this wall and in through the door.”

He touches the brickwork again, more reverential of Beatles legend than the press clippings say a punk should be. “The dirt on these walls must be the same dirt The Beatles lent up against. It has been here through the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s… You know, people tell you to look up at London buildings to really see them, but you shouldn’t. This is what you get into when you walk these streets. The day this goes, a bit of my life goes.”

The walk to Wardour Street sparkles with reflection. “Just up there, on Portland Street, you’ll find The George (55 Great Portland Street, Bloomsbury). That’s one of my favourite pubs. When I was a kid I had a Dylan Thomas Christmas album. The story goes that old Dylan had one too many drinks in The George, stumbled into the nearby recording studio and recited the album word for word. How rock’n’roll is that!? That story inspired me as much as anything the Beatles or the Stones ever did.”

And so we arrive on Wardour Street, arguably the centre of the punk revolution. No Soho walking tour would be complete without stopping off at The Ship (116 Wardour Street, Soho) and the site of the Marquee Club (90 Wardour Street, Soho).

The Ship, steeped in musical history, was traditionally the place where musicians would drink before hitting the Marquee stage. Hendrix drank here, Clapton drank here, Lennon drank here… and Buzzcocks certainly drank here. Steve just about remembers it. “Back in the day, you’d come into The Ship and it’d be lairy, but you’d never think about how much you’d had before you went on. It didn’t matter.”

“People would offer us flutes of champagne, but we’d say, ‘no thanks.’ We preferred it in plastic pint glasses. I can’t drink champagne now. Just the smell of it, and I think I’m about to do a gig.”

If the 2i’s coffee bar was the birthplace of British rock’n’roll, then the Marquee was it’s home address, its primary school and where it hung out in its teenage years. These days it’s a rather nondescript building boasting the legend, Soho Lofts. For traces of any reallegends, you only have to look up – a blue plaque marks it out as the place where Keith Moon once plied his trade. Steve gazes at it. “The only plaque I’m gonna get is on my teeth.”

He looks along the pavement and leans against the wall. “You’d turn up here and there’d be punks all along the street. It’s sad that it’s gone. I did a gig here with my other band, Flag of Convenience, and I must have been one of the last people who played here. I remember leaving the loading bay and this guy told me it was closing. I didn’t realise what it was that he was saying to me.”

And on that poignant note, Steve brings his walking tour of punk London to a close and heads back into the frenetic gloom of an early Soho rush hour. Soho may be changing – for better or for worse – but while the likes of Steve Diggle are pacing the streets, it’s always going to have character.

The destination is observation. Long live the spirit of ’76.

Originally published on the SideStory website in February 2016.

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