I can’t tell you why my brain works like this, it just does. My pal Bob will understand. He’s the same; he’s worse, in fact. We can remember dates. And today I present you with a little story commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Spiral Scratch reissue and thus the 30th anniversary of my first hearing Boredom, Time’s Up, Friends of Mine and Breakdown. It’s not the first time I’ve told this story, but it might be the first time I’ve told it to you.
If you were fourteen in the summer of 1979 there was only one thing on your mind. That is, would the new Jam / Buzzcocks / Stranglers single be any good? Musically, all three bands had already made their best records. For The Jam, huge popularity and commercial success were just around the corner. The Buzzcocks would be split within two years and The Stranglers would just plod on forever; the Rolling Stones of punk.
The Buzzcocks were my favourite. After a string of fantastic singles throughout 1978, that still sound as fresh and spunky now as they did three decades ago, they were starting to lose the magic by the time ‘Harmony in my Head’ crawled up to number 32 in July ’79. I bought it, of course, in both the blue and red sleeve, but it wasn’t a patch on ‘Promises’ or ‘Love You More’.
I had everything they’d ever made, including the ‘Pulsebeat’ 12″ on blue vinyl, everything except ‘Spiral Scratch’. The Spiral Scratch e.p. was one of punk’s main foundation stones, certainly the first true ‘independent record’, the piece of plastic recorded one December afternoon in 1976 that inspired so many thousand other bands to D.I.Y. Make your own records, it’s so simple and cut out the corporate middle man.
I had never heard ‘Spiral Scratch’, the only record cut before original singer Howard Devoto had left the band to form Magazine. You could buy it easily enough. Lee (my cousin and surrogate older brother) said you could see it advertised in the NME classifieds. You could buy it easily enough if you have £15 to spare. £15 in 1979 was a King’s Ransom, my paper round earning me £1.25 a week and even Capital Radio by the Clash was only a tenner. It was that rare, that sought after.
Then, Lee writes to tell me that he’s read in the NME that Spiral Scratch is to be re-released. Soon to be available from every record shop in the land for only £1.49. When when when? Two weeks time, Friday 10th August. I could barely wait. The Magic of Christmas returns, seven years after I’d sussed the big secret about Santa.
The day arrived and I marched up to the record counter at Boots in Chatham, 9am. “Have you got Spiral Scratch, Buzzcocks?” The girl looked at me blankly and shrugged. It meant “I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about”. Now, the Buzzcocks were no Spice Girls, no Westlife, but hell, they were on Top of the Pops once a month and this is meant to be a record shop.
Would she act like this if I asked for spuds in greengrocers or plimsolls in a shoe shop? Hmmm.
Never mind, this non-reaction is okay, it’s better than a definitive “I am sorry Sir but we do not stock your desired punk rock merchandise”. She goes to ask someone. I have hope. She will come back with my shiny disc in its paper sleeve with the black and white polaroid of Howard and the Boys on the cover. My palms are clammy, I cannot wait a moment longer for this aural delight. She comes back…No, they’ve not got it. “But it’s rereleased today…it said so…in the NME” I was pleading with her. There was nothing the poor wretch could do. She didn’t have the record. She’d asked and they didn’t have it.
I went to Harlequin, K2, Smiths and Startrack. The story was much the same. I may as well have asked for ‘Bangers and Mash’ by the Lemon Emulsion Spectacular. I went to Gillingham; Barnaby’s Records and Smiths. Same result, same blank looks. The furious and indignant 14 year-old in the NHS specs, adidas shirt and flares (Yes, I know it’s 1979, but my Mum was still living in 1974, and she buys the clothes) wonders how these numbskulls ever got a job in retail. Don’t they know nothing?
The next day, a family trip to Canterbury. Sightseeing? You must be kidding. I walked every pavement of Tommy Beckett’s city, sought out every record store. You know the question, you’ve guessed the answer.
Everywhere we went in that week of my summer holiday; Hastings, Tunbridge Wells, Margate, Maidstone, same outcome. Come the friday, already a week beyond the magical 10th August we visit Hythe, my favourite seaside town. Hythe will not let me down. I will invoke the spirits of all the skeletons in the crypt at St Leonard’s Church to curse all the record stores in Kent if they do not have this record.
Hythe is a sleepy little town, one of the Cinque ports, with only two record shops and not, you would imagine, a bastion of punk rock. I plough on nonetheless, with a doughty spirit that would have made me an invaluable member of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s polar party. First shop; same story, one down, one to go, the little one at the end of the High Street. The one just before the canal.
I stepped through the door, the same clamminess in my hands of a week earlier and my heart sank. It sank to somewhere around my ankles. I could not believe the sight in front of my eyes. Was this some sort of bizarre practical joke? There was a woman behind the counter. When I say woman, I mean somebody’s grandmother. No, make that somebody’s great-grandmother. She’s not likely to have heard of the Beatles let alone the Buzzcocks. Would probably be fine if I wanted ‘Spiral Scratch’ by Max Bygraves or ‘Anarchy in the UK’ by Vera Lynn.
Every bone in my body told me to walk out of the shop. Self preservation; I’d already made an idiot of myself in front of two dozen teenaged shop assistants in the last week and have no need to look any more ridiculous.
But…There’s always a but…The but is I desperately need that bit of plastic.
I stepped up to the counter and the lady gave me a welcoming smile, which seemed to be the first I’d seen in my forlorn quest.
“Hello dear can I help you?”
“Is there something particular that you’re looking for?”
“Well…uh…er…” I dithered. Oh well, here goes; “Have you got Spiral Scratch by a band called the…er…Buzzcocks?” I am already turning to walk out of the door.
“Oh dear, no, I am sorry, it’s been delayed dear, I believe. Now, we do have Harmony in my Head, we’ve got that in a blue or a red sleeve and we’ve got both the Love Bites and Another Music in a Different Kitchen long-players, and I think we also have, if I’m not mistaken, Moving Away from the Pulsebeat 12″ on clear vinyl though not unfortunately the blue vinyl, but let me see…”
She consults an official looking pamphlet. Not the useless NME. More like something aimed at punk rock experts.
“Yes, here we are” she reads, “Spiral Scratch by the Buzzcocks featuring Howard Devoto has been delayed until the 24th I’m afraid”.
What a lady! She’s just crashed straight into the Top 5 Greatest Shopkeepers of All Time, right up there with the two ex-Spitfire pilots who run the cheeseshop in Canterbury, the bloke from Mr Benn and the two old crones with the secondhand bookshop in Westward Ho!
She offered to put one aside when it comes in next week, but alas, I explained I would be back in Chatham by then. I thanked her very much and she wished me a cheery farewell.
So, I got my Spiral Scratch. A week later from Startrack in Chatham. It was worth every penny and played incessantly over the next two years and subsequently every few months or so to this very day. Boredom, Time’s Up, Friends of Mine and Breakdown; pure dynamite.
Twenty years later the thing was re-issued on CD. I know this because Tower Records in Piccadilly featured it in their promotional booklet that they give away free in the store. I was flicking through the thing when my eyes were drawn like magnets to a familiar picture. A picture I know very well. One CD, same cover, same 4 tracks, for just £3.99. Fantastic!
I went up to the counter clutching the leaflet. Luckily, the guy behind the counter looked like a professional; long hair, ponytail, face jewellery, celtic tattoos, Nirvana t-shirt,
“Have you got Spiral Scratch, Buzzcocks?”
He looks at me blankly, pulls a face, shrugs, “what’s that?”
Dear old lady from Hythe, no doubt now residing in punk rock heaven, you are gone but you are not forgotten.