- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2003

The Buzzcocks, the veteran British punk rockers now in their third incarnation, have had a banner year. They released a self-titled album in March, their best since reuniting in 1989. It earned them second billing to Pearl Jam over the summer at amphitheaters such as the Nissan Pavilion, and Friday night, the Buzzcocks were back for more at the 9:30 Club.

It was early Saturday morning, to be exact. The Buzzcocks — original members Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle and the youngish rhythm section of Phil Barker and Tony Barber — nonchalantly walked onstage at the wee hour of 12:15 to an audience approaching impatience.

A local indie-rock band, the Carlsonics, had ably primed the pump, and when the venue’s sound crew refused the band an encore, it gave the mistaken impression that the Buzzcocks’ arrival was imminent.

Nope. There’s nothing punkier than keeping your public waiting and then opening with the moment-appropriate “Boredom,” an angst-filled anthem of late ‘70s British punk.

The Buzzcocks are still full of youthful energy. At least one of them, at any rate: Mr. Diggle, who shares guitar and lead-vocal duties with Mr. Shelley, could barely keep still for the hourlong set, continually roving and moving his arms like a wide receiver shouting to his quarterback, “I’m wide open.”

Mr. Shelley (born Peter McNeish), jowly and balding at 48, was more subdued. He watched the melee of moshing in front of him with an expression of slightly distanced, grown-up delight. A telling symbol that the ‘70s are long gone, literally and metaphorically, was a small AIDS ribbon on the lapel of Mr. Shelley’s jacket.

The Buzzcocks based the bulk of Friday’s show on “Singles Going Steady,” one of the most brilliant compilation albums of any genre. There was, as there had to be, “Orgasm Addict,” then a shocker, today barely a brow-raiser. Subject matter aside, it’s as brisk and catchy a punk tune as anything written by Buzzcock-wannabes such as Green Day.

The Manchester punkers were inspired by the Sex Pistols, but only up to a point; right in the middle of the guitar thrashing are melodies as bright as Buddy Holly’s. And can you really attach the label “punk” to songs that have just warmed up at three chords?

Other punk blasphemies abound in Buzzcockery: artful things such as minor chords and vocal harmonies.

The coequal frontmen traded back and forth on lead-vocal slots, alternating between songs such as “I Don’t Mind” and “Love You More” (Mr. Shelley) and “Harmony in My Head” and “Autonomy” (Mr. Diggle).

Post-reunion Buzzcocks material wasn’t neglected, with “Totally From the Heart” (from the Neil Young-produced “All Set”) and “Lester Sands (Drop in the Ocean),” a gem from “The Buzzcocks,” turning up in the set. The latter is notable as well for its byline co-written by Howard Devoto, the band’s original singer, with whom Mr. Shelley collaborated for the first time in more than 25 years.

After blazing through an encore that included the inescapably catchy “What Do I Get?” and “Ever Fallen in Love?” the Buzzcocks made a feedback-howling exit, with Mr. Diggle beerily slapping hands and knocking over microphone stands.

It was an empty, and needless, punk-rock gesture. Punk is a young man’s game.

The Buzzcocks are no longer young, it’s true, but they should realize that they’re beyond punk, not just because it’s 2003 and 50th birthdays are around the corner. The Buzzcocks were beyond punk right from the beginning.

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