Buzzcocks: Boredom / Orange Juice: Rip It Up
anuary, 1977: At the tail end of the month, Manchester’s foremost punk band, Buzzcocks, release their debut recording—a four-track, seven-inch EP called Spiral Scratch. The world changes.
While it was not quite the first punk record (that would be the Damned), and it wasn’t the most influential (that’s probably the Sex Pistols), Spiral Scratch was arguably the most important for one reason. It was totally self-financed, in a hand-pressed sleeve, on their own New Hormones imprint. The whole DIY thing started right here, and it hasn’t stopped since. The Pistols and the Clash signed to major labels, playing the same game that the groups they were rebelling against (allegedly) and drinking from that same ugly corporate watering dish. Buzzcocks did it all on their own. Respect, as they say, is due.
Musically speaking, however, Spiral Scratch is a classic in its own right, it being unbelievably energetic and raw, and yet somehow more artsy and sophisticated than much of the other punk stuff going on at the time. The highlight was “Boredom”, nearly three-minutes of raging ennui expressed through Howard Devoto’s smarmy lyrics (“You me I’m acting dumb-dumb / You know the scene it’s very humdrum / Boredom, Boredom”) and possibly the most inventive, cloying, repetitive, three-note guitar riff ever—you really do have to hear it to believe it. This was light years ahead of the competition.
Sadly, this would be the only legitimate recording that Devoto did with the band (he left soon thereafter to form the equally stunning Magazine). While Buzzcocks certainly did well for themselves following his departure (Singles Going Steady should prove that to any unbelievers out there), it just wasn’t the same. But in the space of those (nearly) 11 minutes, they altered the musical landscape forever.
Fast-forward—February 1983: Scottish postpunk stalwarts Orange Juice are starting to make some people wonder. Those people would be the suits at Polydor—the major label that poached them from their indie home at Postcard and threw them in high-tech studios with the expectation of glossy pop singles and huge sales—as well as their devoted indie fanbase. Sadly, the general UK public didn’t appear ready for them and Orange Juice’s debut album You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever garnered fabulous reviews and disappointing sales. The fact that the band chose a stunningly off-key cover of Al Green’s “L.O.V.E. Love” for their debut Polydor single might have had something to do with it. Still, the fans from their early days were starting to whisper: “Sell-outs.”
All that was about to change though, with release of the “Rip It Up” single, the title track from their second LP. With its bubbling Roland 303, Chic-derived guitar, and laidback disco-tempo drums, “Rip It Up” was light years away from the chugging guitar pop of their earlier work. And just like that, Orange Juice had their first—and only—Top 10 UK hit.
Ah, but what would the devoted indie fanbase make of this? On the surface, this dance-oriented track would seem to be the antithesis of the raging indie energy so loved during their Postcard days. The production was unbelievably slick, and it stood in stark contrast to the charm of their ramshackle early recordings. Still, it was pioneering and forward-thinking in its way—it was the first British chart hit to use the 303, in fact.
The day would be saved, however, by a knowing wink to their indie roots in the bridge section of “Rip It Up.” Fiendishly clever OJ frontman Edwyn Collins knows a bit about pop history (and histrionics) and unleashed one of the most clever—and genuinely out-of-place—homages to their roots when he sung these lines:
And there were times I’d take my pen
And feel obliged to start again
I do profess that there are things in life
That one can’t quite express
You know me I’m acting dumb-dumb
You know the scene it’s very humdrum
And my favourite song’s entitled “Boredom”
And then there it is: that same ringing, repeating guitar riff that Buzzcocks put in our heads years previous, in perfect dischord. It sounded fabulously alien on top of this funkified chart fodder, and one couldn’t help but smile picturing all of the band’s new fans scratching their heads and wondering what that was all about. The fact that the riff is immediately followed by an equally foreign sounding Dick Morrissey sax solo makes it stand out even further. An inspired mélange to be sure: punk, funk, electro, pop, jazz—all on one single.
With that one stolen riff, Edwyn and the boys had sold me back to their side. It was as if they were saying, “Okay, you sheep can flock to this synthesized crap and give us loads of money, but we’re going to make sure we at least subvert you while we’re appearing on Top of the Pops next to Haircut One Hundred and ABC.” At the very least, I knew that whatever musical directions they might go on to pursue (and it turned out there were quite a few more to come), they would never change inside. That “attitude” would always be there. They would always be the kids who couldn’t sing or play or tune their guitars properly, but went on to make stunning, heartfelt perfect pop music regardless, almost by sheer willpower.
Sell-outs? Not hardly.