Perfect Sound Forever


a tribute to Buzzcocks' Time's Up
by RICHARD MASON (February 1999)

Having acquired a copy of this historic recording only recently, I was hence compelled to attempt this eulogy almost immediately. It's almost twenty years since I first heard it and it still stands alone, not just from other UK '70's punk rock but, well, gosh, from the whole history of rock itself, just like all those other mavericks that will not fit into the neat little boxes we find it so hard to do without in these hazy, crazy, postmodern days. It cost 'about 45 quid' to make, boasts no overdubs, was recorded in a single afternoon and features the mighty sound of the Starway guitar. Truth is that Time's Up, in all its delirious, neurotic frenzy is not only the big brother to Spiral Scratch but a fitting testament to the greatest punk rock group that only just ever was. Looking back smugly with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, it's easy to bemoan the decline of punk rock after such auspicious beginnings. So I won't bother.

For me, Spiral Scratch was THE punk record, the one that really delivered. Four songs that changed the world for a lot of people, I suspect; packed full of more musical energy and lyrical vitality than most of the music that had come out in the previous five years put together. Not what you could call a nod back to Nuggets or the Stooges or early Kinks or the Velvets, not even a look forward as such, more an adroit step sideways, eyes cast askance at the music of the time in mischievous mockery of its pomposity. How four young men from the Manchester area came to fashion this record is now part of musical history, yet somehow it seems to have been undervalued as time has passed, fobbed off as a mere stepping stone for its youthful protagonists (John Maher was 16) on their way to bigger and greater things. Truth is, there's more invention and passion in any one of the four tracks on Spiral Scratch than in all of the post-Devoto Buzzcocks and Magazine records put together, to say nothing of most of what else was going on at the time.

Most folk, myself included, first encountered it as a bootleg dating initially from the late 70s, cashing in partly on the fact that Spiral Scratch had been deleted. Not unlike The Basement Tapes, it became as famous as its legitimate counterparts and an official release became inevitable as the mythology grew. It eventually saw the light of day thanks to the good folk at Document Records, London, about whom I know precisely nothing except they put it out in 1991 on cassette and CD, both in a limited edition. So when I stumbled into a nearby emporium in search of something completely different (all right, the first Ry Cooder LP; happy now?) I could scarcely believe my eyes when I saw the tape box for Time's Up in all its glory as I'd supposed this was something never to be seen again.

Listening to it alongside Spiral Scratch, there are obvious refinements that ensued before the EP came out, Martin Hannett aka Zero obtained a cleaner, though no less abrasive guitar sound and the overall sound quality is higher, but if anything the polish disguises more considered, measured performances of the four songs that appear on both recordings. Devoto's renderings of his incomparable lyrics (of which more later) are more frenzied on the Time's Up versions than on, where certain refinements of the vocal delivery point ominously to the mannerisms to come in Magazine. You get the feeling from the former that they know they've got that afternoon, no more, forty-five quid, let's get it down, no messing. The resultant energy and commitment shows in every one of the ten tracks, eight originals and two covers, from Devoto's frantic yelping of the lyrics to John Maher's manic drum fills, once described to me as sounding like somebody falling down a flight of stairs in perfect time.

We all know the songs from their other versions, yet the versions recorded on Another Music In A Different Kitchen by the post-Devoto line-up of the group pale by comparison with what's on offer here. "You Tear Me Up" and "Love Battery" sound coy and fey when Shelley sings them; Devoto imparts real loathing and lust, and slavering over each word and savouring each phrase, despite his frantic delivery. As for "Orgasm Addict", despite the resultant post-Devoto 45's merits, what is without question one of the greatest lyrics ever written by anybody simply has to be heard straight from the author's mouth to be appreciated fully. The instrumental backing is similarly furious, guitar, bass and drums hurtling form one song to the next, less self-conscious and more wild than on Another Music... yet no less focused and far sharper in tone and delivery.

The versions of the four songs that later made up Spiral Scratch are similarly impassioned. The guitar on "Friends Of Mine" if anything is more out of control than on the EP, shrieking wildly across Devoto's gibbering vocal as the track nears its end. "Time's Up" features a manic vocal in contrast to the sly tones of the later version, with Shelley's answer vocals far clearer and bereft of studio treatment. Devoto had changed snippets of his lyrics in between the two sessions (the reference to the girl's grandmother in "Time's Up" disappears by the time of the EP and the verse order on "Friends Of Mine" was altered) yet the impact of each of the four songs remained as jarring and subversive as before. Quite simply, no rock lyrics since Beefheart had possessed the ability to nail you to the wall by their very force and peculiarities of language. When combined with Shelley's instinctive chord changes and the group's edgy energy (was ever a record more aptly titled than Spiral Scratch?) the effect was, and is, shattering.

The two cover versions the group recorded that appear on Time's Up say a lot about the Buzzcocks in those days. Beefheart's "I Love You, You Big Dummy" is translated from the original blues-based swagger into a two-chord stagger, Devoto relishing the song title's contradiction until a change of tempo hurtles the song towards its end with talk of a "subterranean profile" amongst other dark mutterings. There's no true attempt to replicate the feel of the original, more a celebration of its exuberant irreverence.

The same could be said of the version of "I Can't Control Myself", although the treatments could not be more different. The slowly pulsating sexuality of the Troggs' original is replaced by a knee-trembler of a version, Devoto barely able to conceal his mirth as he delivers the immortal line "Your slacks are low and your hips are showing" and Shelley splattering grace notes all over a frenzied final chorus as in "Friends Of Mine". But whereas Reg Presley described his lust as being able to "move a nation", Devoto revels in its ability to "destroy a nation", which led Jon Savage to describe Time's Up as "pure 1976 product". The tempo increase not only translates Ronnie Bond's thumping into John Maher's clattering, but gives a whole new twist to the sexuality of the song; whereas Presley savours and glorifies his lust, Devoto seems fascinated and disgusted in equal parts. The manic finale mirrors that of "Friends Of Mine", guitarist and vocalist shrieking in abandon. The remaining track never appeared on any other release; "Lester Sands" (also known as "Drop in The Ocean") is a classic Devoto/Shelley composition- scything guitar, gritty functional bass and drums and an acerbic, perverse lyric out of left field. "Lester Sands is a stupid fucker/Lester Sands will stay that way" is Devoto's bleak assessment of the situation and the chorus holds out no greater hopes for the lad in question: "He thinks he'll be someone some day (no way!)/He thinks he'll be someone some way (no way!)/Lester Sands is a drop in the ocean!" No punk putdowns, not even Rotten's, can outstrip the unadulterated contempt shown here.

When you listen to Time's Up it's easy to forget it was in all probability nothing more than a rehearsal. The sense of history that grows around music like this like some parasitic plant tends to obscure the reality as it was then. In retrospect the group's manager, Richard Boon, opined that at the end of 1976 "something that had been striving to give birth to itself was beginning to retreat, and there was a feeling that if there was nothing else, there should be a record... it just seemed worth documenting the activity, perhaps as the end result, perhaps the only result." The media had already started to get hold of punk, and protagonists such as the Buzzcocks feared that unless something concrete was produced and put out, the music's impact would become watered down before most people knew anything was actually happening at all.

Hence Spiral Scratch, hence New Hormones; hence the 'indie' label as we know it today. But now of course Time's Up is far more than a rehearsal tape; it is, after all, the only other recording available by one of the truly great line-ups of all time and contains almost all the classic Devoto/Shelley songs performed by the two together (the exceptions being the classic "Fast Cars" from Another Music In A Different Kitchen ("Sooner or later/You're gonna listen to Ralph Nader!") and "Shot By Both Sides", the peerless debut single by Magazine and the best music made by either post-Spiral Scratch.) As with the Subway Sect, perhaps we should just be grateful that the original Buzzcocks got to record at all; as far as Time's Up is concerned, it's nothing short of tragic that this priceless slice of history is now consigned to the bargain bins and all too ironic that so much of what passes for, er, punk rock these days would never have got its chance if it hadn't been for the initiatives that were taken after this recording. Just think of it as a classic slice of punk rock history and you're on the right lines. And after all, where else could you find lyrics like "You're making out with school-kids, winos and heads of state/You've even made it with the lady who puts the little plastic robins on the Christmas cake"? Nowhere, that's where.

Also see this 2018 interview with Buzzcock's Steve Diggle

And our 2022 interview with Mr. Diggle

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER