photo by Justin Herring
Harmony in his Head: The Lost Steve Diggle Interview
This year it’s forty years since Steve Diggle released his first solo effort, the 50 Years of Comparative Wealth EP. To mark this anniversary, Louder Than War presents the first part of a previously-unpublished interview Mark Youll did with the Buzzcocks guitarist in 2009 in which he speaks about his formative years growing up in Manchester, his early musical inspirations, mod bands, Motown and the advent of punk rock.
MY: What were your first memories of Manchester as a child?
SD: Lots of terraced streets. I was born in a house with a garden and stuff and I suppose that might have been posh then, a semi-detached, you know? Me mam had a business and that went down the pan so we had to moved to a terraced street, like Coronation Street , that was when I was seven. In fact me mam had this baby’s clothes shop and she’d give credit out to people as you did in those days, people would pay back weekly. One of them was Myra Hindley’s mother or some other weird connection. My dad also decorated Ian Brady’s bedroom around the time Brady was sixteen and he was coming out of Borstal. Dad never told me till years later, I think it was the eighties when he mentioned it, around the time of The Smiths and stuff. I couldn’t believe it, you know? That whole thing was lurking in the background for us; it was a big thing in Manchester and we didn’t live far from where it was all going on.
Was this when you were growing up in Rusholme?
Well, I’d moved to Bradford by then but I was born in St Mary’s hospital just off Oxford Road. I’m the only Buzzcock that was properly born in the centre, just to the left of the curry mile. In the eighties at St Mary’s they split these two Siamese twins. It was the first time this had been done and it was a big thing.
So I was born there and then because me mam’s business went down so we moved. That was a great time, I remember being seven and walking down the street and there were all gangs on the corners and I thought what are we getting into here? But it was great, and we adapted to that, it was very inspiring that street. It was called Goole Street which is where the new city ground is now. The pub on the corner is still there, The Bradford Hotel. I keep meaning to go back and see it, see where I come from. We had a street army defending the woody on bonfire night. It was the school holidays and we stayed up till twelve or one in the morning defending the wood cause kids would come round and you would throw bricks at them ‘cause they were trying to nick your bonfire wood, you know? We would get up at seven and we’d be running down the street with people’s back doors, about forty back doors for the fire, and then we’d be back in bed for half ten. Me and another mate had a street newspaper as well. We had a little printing machine with a cylinder and so we made a street newspaper. It only lasted about one and a half issues!
What sort of things went into the street newspaper?
The main thing was about a Great Dane escaping from security van and just stuff about the neighbours. You kind of knew everybody which was great, like in the east end, but it was a real northern thing. There was a lot of interaction with people. We would get in trouble with people and we’d get a clip around the ear off some bloke if we was up to summat or whatever. We never thought nothing of it then, like you’d get arrested these days. It was a great environment. There was a croft at the end the street, it was just like wasteland where we would go and play football and end up smashing some blokes window or summat. Great times. The guy I did the newspaper with, we would be told by people in the street that we would get nowhere, but he became ended up a brain surgeon! Very creative and very inspiring time.
When did your interest in music begin?
My cousin lived two doors down and he loved Elvis. He was a rock & roller and from his upstairs window there would Elvis and Little Richard coming out.
Would that have been the first music you remember hearing?
Well I suppose that would have been the awakening. My dad used to have Nat King Cole records and the old 78s and we used to sit on them and break them. Nat King Cole coming out of an old radiogram with that big bassy sound, they were like old jukeboxes made of wood, you know? You had your dials with radio Luxemburg and you couldn’t usually tune it in but it looked good! So my cousin would play Rock & Roll much to the annoyance of the rest of the street and then The Beatles came along just when I got my first transistor radio. I would listen to all these joke bands, comedy stuff that George Martin was producing like Charlie Drake or Bernard Cribbins…Rolf Harris even! The thing I didn’t like was my mam got me that radio on HP so every time school would finish, I’d have to get a bus to a place miles away to pay the fucking ten-bob or whatever it was to pay for this fucking radio! I remember The Beatles’ ‘Love Me Do’ coming on and it was cool. Other than that it was Michael Holliday singing ‘Runaway Train’ which had sound effects on it. So it was ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘Please Please Me’ and then me mam got me ‘Twist & Shout’ the EP off the market, and that was what really got me going. The next thing I know my cousin’s sister took us to see A Hard Day’s Night at the Manchester Apollo, and we also went to see Help! after that. Across the road from us lived this lad and his sister had the first Bob Dylan album and first Beatles LP, and I remember going across the road and listening to that. It was mad to hear The Beatles and then Dylan, Dylan with this voice, you know? I remember thinking I don’t know what he’s saying but something sounds right about it. His voice is still like that to this day, you still can’t quite work out what he singing about! So I remember listening to these records and watching this lad’s sister drying her hair with a hairdryer, this great big thing that looked like a Russian sputnik or summat. She was combing her long blonde hair and I’m watching her and listening to Dylan and The Beatles, and I plucked the string of this old Spanish guitar and it resonated against me, and I think that was my first sexual experience! Little did I know that all of that would become my life.
What came next, would it have been groups like The Who and Small Faces…?
Yeah, the Stones and The Who. I used to watch Ready Steady Go and all that. I’m just proud of myself that I had good perception to pick out groups like The Rolling Stones, because you kind of knew that groups like Brian Poole and the Tremolos and Freddie & the Dreamers didn’t count. Back then it was all pop music, stuff you could have a sing and a jive to.
Would you say the destructive elements to The Who’s music were essentially what drew you to them?
Well, I was into the melodic stuff in those groups as well. I remember being in junior school and they would take us to the swimming baths and you would hear ‘Tired Of Waiting’ by The Kinks. It was the summer and you’d be swimming and have these songs in your head. Ray Davis lives in Highgate where I live now, and I’ll be having a coffee and I’ll see him buying a newspaper, it doesn’t get more British than that! There was something real about those bands and those songs, it made a big impact. The thing about The Beatles was you had your mam and dad and your school teachers teaching you stuff, but this music was telling you something else, something they couldn’t explain. They could tell you about geography and maths and that, but The Beatles gave you a sense of humour. It was poetic and colourful. By the time they got to Magical Mystery Tour it was psychedelic, me mam thought that was a bit weird.
Did you prefer the early Beatles to the later period?
No, I liked it all. I liked the journey they had. One thing about groups from that period they all had this journey. The Who had the three minute songs and smashing up the guitars and stuff, the next minute they had them big beards! I miss that in music today in a way. Sound effects and studio effects that changed those bands, like The Beatles’ Rubber Soul and by the time The Who got to ‘Baba O’Riley’ with the synthesizers and that sort of stuff. It was all great poetry and great magic and it all touched your soul and made sense. It was up there with Shakespeare and all that stuff.
Would you say the mod thing was more to do with the storytelling in the songs than the attitude and the clothes?
It was the attitude as well, but being a sensitive kid then you were looking for more, you were looking for the poetry in life. Your living a shit terraced street so you had to see through all that you know? There was a guy that used to ear a T-shirt all the time that lived in the street we used to call him “T-shirt man”. In those days it was a bit weird for a bloke with kids to wear a T-shirt! Normal blokes would have greased back hair and would shuffle down to the local pub. Blokes were traditional back then. It was people with ordinary jobs and you thought you’d never get out of that. My brother became an artist. We had to see past all that, to the poetry. It still counts today. You can call The Clash poetry or the Buzzcocks, Pistols. From this you could get into art or whatever else you wanted to really…
Was northern soul something you listened to?
Oh yeah, my brother used to go more than me, places like The Pendulum and The Twisted Wheel, and he’d come home with singles by The Bar-kays and all that sort of stuff. I don’t know why I didn’t go as much as him but I did go a few times….
Did you see people like Roger Eagle DJ?
I didn’t know who anybody was then, I was very young. But we were into all of that stuff, what became Wigan northern soul. You could sometimes blag your way in, but most of the time we didn’t have the money so we couldn’t go all the time. My brother had stuff had Johnny Johnson & The Bandwagon’s ‘Blame it on the Pony Express’ and we’d have parties at the house and half the fucking records would get nicked. I got into Motown around that time…
What was it about Tamla Motown that appealed to you?
The songs, the tunes, it was instant, you know?
Why do you think Manchester embraced black American soul music as much as it did?
Probably because it’s got heart and spirit and soul. Like a lot of the places this music came from places like Detroit, rundown areas but it’s soulful you know? It was also the origination of the blues and pop via slavery or whatever. To be honest I felt like a slave up there, you’re gonna be fitted up a shit job, so I felt like a slave as well! The music was catchy and it was great. Also, it was what The Beatles were listening to with the Smokey Robinson ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’ cover they did. You didn’t think about influences then, it was just the music. I once swapped a pushbike for a load of records and my granddad bought me a record player but it never worked. I used to listen to the stylus! I was twelve when I bought Help! and I’m listening to Help! through the sound of the stylus! I had all me Beatles chewing gum cards stuck to the inside of this record player, it was fantastic and it smelt like a record player, you know, that kind of smell. I wish it fucking played!
Tony Wilson once remarked that Manchester was the ideal environment for punk because of its social condition at that time. Would you agree?
Yeah. Like we were saying about the blues in America, or Motown in Detroit. I don’t think anybody really thought before punk, that you could be influenced by your town, and bring that into music in a sense. You can listen to a lot of records and there is lots of stuff about love, relationships or whatever, but with those Manchester bands and that Manchester attitude and things that come from around there and those streets, it comes through in the music, you know? There is less distraction up there. When you come to London there is a lot of distraction. When I finally moved to London I was being invited out to this and that, just loads of distractions. When you’re in Manchester in a room with a light-bulb, you start to think you know what I mean? You start to think who you are. It gets a bit philosophical.
Do you think that was reason the Manchester groups like the Buzzcocks, Joy Division or The Fall had such an edge, and sounded raw or so dark?
Yeah. Manchester, way before punk in the fifties and early sixties was always known as a good time city. The beer, the pubs, it was a vibrant city for that. It gave you a spirit. I remember me granddad going to the Bellevue dogs, and what they had there was amazing…
What was the Bellevue?
It was like a massive amusement park, almost like what Blackpool has, but with a zoo as well. As a kid you could see elephants and stuff like that. They even had a flea circus. I remember going and thinking I can’t see any fleas here. There was more fleas in people’s houses! I remember going to Bellevue as a kid and seeing lads in parkas with, you know, The Who on the back of them…
What year would that have been?
Around ‘65. I would have been ten.
Was it much later you would be interested in the mod music and the clothes?
It would around that time really. It started with The Beatles and I had me black polo-neck and the Beatle boots. I remember me cousin was still into Elvis and Little Richard, but we said Elvis doesn’t write his own songs, so we thought Elvis was a bit dumb. You’d see the Elvis films on TV, and he would but saying (adopts American Accent)“Hey, let’s start the show right here..!” then The Beatles came along and blew that away, particularly with their first film (A Hard Day’s Night) for all it’s realism. The clothes kind of came in from that. We made some guitars from cardboard boxes and tubes and did our own Beatles performance in somebody’s back yard. I couldn’t afford a parka, but I bought me first Levis and a pair of brogues and braces, stuff like that.
Was image important to you at that age?
Yeah, I think it was. Via The Beatles and James Dean’s Rebel Without A Cause, which would be on the telly late at night, all that stuff had a big effect on us as kids. Like I said, the streets were black and white, old blokes doing their thing, so you needed a bit of glamour somewhere. I remember when a kid a bit older than us had his scooter in the street, and I remember it had no kick-start so he had to push it up and down, but I remember clearly it had union jack flags and side-panels an all that. That sparked a lot of things off for me. That sense of rebellion. Your folks weren’t into it, and so you could get the clothes and be like them. It was almost like a gang mentality then. When you got your first Levis it was great, before that you would get your jeans for like ten-bob, in dark blue or ice blue with a white X on the back. I remember a guy in the next street got some Oxford shoes in cherry red, all polished, and I thought how did afford them? But getting me first pair of Beatles boots that had to have the seam down the middle, that was it. Timpsons used to sell them, Proper ones with the heel and the tag at the top. Then I saw Lennon with a pair that went up to his knee and I thought where did he get them? The style was very important.
Did you see any live groups around that time?
It was quite a lot later when I saw the groups. I would have been around sixteen. Before that, I remember going to see a band at the local church and there was a Coca-Cola machine there and all that!
Do you think the attitude and music of the mod scene was easily transferable to what would become punk?
Absolutely yeah. I remember seeing that whole Brighton thing (mods & rockers riots in 1964) on the telly. That was important to it all. We had an auntie who lived in Chelmsford, so we used to get to go to places on the south coast when these disturbances were going on. That was a distinctive image for me, those kids jumping off walls onto the sand and fighting. I think it’s natural to have criticism and be rebellious in some ways. You’re fitted up for something in this life, particularly for the working class where its like get a job, get married and all this. So with the clothes and that attitude, you felt different you know? The teddy boys, my cousin with his drape coats and all that. We are that, they are this. I mean it’s weird, I love Elvis now, but watching him then in Fun In Acapulco jumping off a cliff into the sea, and I thought I’ve never seen cliffs and the sea…it was like going to the fucking moon, it was kind of alien. The Beatles and The Who seemed to be about us and the streets. It was The Who saying “I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth” or Kinks “Tired Of Waiting For you…” Songs like ‘Well Respected Man’ were real man, told you things. Also Saturday Night & Sunday Morning being on the television, Room At The Top, all that stuff had a massive impact on who I would be and what we would be as a band.
What groups were crucial to the advent of punk?
The psychedelic thing and then you had the Velvet Underground thing, Andy Warhol. My brother passed a lot of the art things onto me. He used to go out drawing old buildings and then he got into all that arty Ozzy Clarke sort of stuff. Later came The Southbank Show, which was very important looking back. It was a real culture thing. When you put these things together it was the development of punk really, for me anyway. I remember somebody at some point mentioning the Sex Pistols but then the term punk was really unknown. McLaren had seen the New York Dolls and all that stuff, and then he came back home and put the Pistols together. In Manchester I was taking acid listening to Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come and we would trip out to all this stuff when I was seventeen. It’s not like kids these days who hold of get music easily, it’s so accessible now. Back then you had to dig stuff out, discover music naturally. I like that period of ‘67/’68 when music tripped out a bit. There was something a little bit Alice In Wonderland which was magical for your imagination.
What was your reaction to the Sex Pistols initially?
By that time I was rehearsing with a group, tripping out, taking photographs of stuff spinning around. Eventually, I got bored of all that and started thinking about The Who again, three minute songs and smash the fucking guitars you know? With that whole hippy thing I went to see Yes and one song was the length of a whole album. But even that stuff was quite rebellious at the time. The whole country had moved onto this ( progressive rock) thing. It was a powerful thing. Taking acid and listening to this stuff made sense. I felt that anger and frustration. I thought, I don’t wanna be a fucking window cleaner!