‘Spiral Scratch’​ and the bootstrapping innovation of The Buzzcocks

Spiral Scratch is a glorious four-track EP and the first release by the Buzzcocks, recorded forty-four years ago today, on 28 December 1976 at Indigo Studios in Manchester. The EP is the only Buzzcocks studio record with original lead singer Howard Devoto, who left shortly after its release to form Magazine, another era defining Manchester band.

According to Devoto, It took three hours to record the tracks, with another two for mixing. Produced by Martin Hannett, who went onto make his mark with Joy Division, the music was roughly recorded, insistently repetitive and energetic. Boredom, probably the EP’s most well-known song, announced punk’s rebellion against the status quo, templating a strident musical minimalism: Pete Shelley’s guitar solo consists of two notes repeated sixty-six times, ending with a single modulated seventh.

My personal favourite track is Breakdown. The band’s musicianship is a joy to behold, particularly the uninhibited drumming of John Maher and Devoto’s vocals with the Johnny Rottenesque sneer, although he uses it in the service of much more personal politics. Devoto wrote the lyrics during night shifts at a tile factory; Shelley wrote the tunes on his Woolworth’s guitar. Its existence is a cultural landmark and portent of revolution.

The record was also an exercise in the demystification of the record-making process – its title was taken from the music being recorded literally as a spiral scratch on each side of the vinyl; also, the listing of take numbers and overdubs on the record sleeve. Devoto’s idea of providing recording details on the sleeve – Breakdown (third take, no dubs), Time’s Up (first take, guitar dub), Boredom (first take, guitar dub), Friends Of Mine (first take, guitar dub). – further simplified the process of making records, making it accessible to other with the ambition to start a band. 

Band manager Richard Boon took Spiral Scratch’s cover photo of the band on a Polaroid instant camera and the band assembled at Devoto’s shared flat in Lower Broughton to slide 1,000 singles into their budget picture sleeves. The hand-pressed, blurry black-and-white sleeve housed four tracks, each a uniquely compelling experience, married raw, youthful zest with belligerent intelligence. The itchy, trebly intensity helped to codify the DIY fervour that resulted in so many scrappy new wave bands over the next few years. The Buzzcocks showed many the way of doing your own thing.

On 29 January 1977, the band walked into the Manchester branch of Virgin Records with a box of Spiral Scratch records to sell. They had set up their own label, New Hormones, and paid for the records themselves with an early form of crowdfunding, borrowing £500 from friends and Pete Shelley’s dad. Jon Webster, manager of the Virgin store, accepted 25 copies and sold them for 99p each (of which 60p went to the band). In London, Geoff Travis had just opened the Rough Trade label, and took an initial 50, then ordered 200 more just two days later. The band didn’t have the money to press more copies, so Webster lent them £600 from the shop’s till takings.

Soon enough, a copy of Spiral Scratch reached John Peel, who duly played it; it became single of the week in the music papers, and sales exploded via mail order. The EP ended up selling 16,000 copies and reaching the top 40. More importantly, though, it proved that it was possible for artists to be in complete control of their music, from production to distribution. It was also bootstrapping as we know it today.

Spiral Scratch was game-changing. In its wake came a wave of British independent labels and a distribution network. Suddenly the gap between wanting to do something and actually doing it seemed small. It proved that anyone could release a record without needing an established record label. It is often said that the many small DIY labels that sprang up in 1977 took Spiral Scratch as their inspiration, and ultimately resulted in the name Indie being used to describe a style of music, as well as a publishing mode.

The release of Spiral Scratch captures the essence of a startup: financed by doting relatives and friends, raising enough cash to have a few hours in the studio and have a thousand copies pressed. Like today’s tech startups, it was exciting. Of course, most fail, and t was usually a total waste of money, but you made it happen, for yourself. Startup bands are always optimistic of course, but usually accepted privately that not a lot would come of it. Still, it WAS exciting!

The Buzzcocks subsequently became renowned for quirky, innovative tunes. Pete Shelley, who took over from Devoto as lead singer and song writer, was an entrepreneurial tour de force, his efforts, antics, shenanigans and eternal spouting off to anyone who would listen, about tales and talent from his beloved metropolis in the north are legendary. He had a romantic, artistic, creative missionary zeal to make an impression and a worldly confidence rarely seen in Manchester.

The Buzzcocks helped put Manchester back on the map, as a collection of ideas, as a place of creativity and energy, with audacity and a series of headlines and punchlines. Just as Manchester had emerged originally in C19th, the C20th version was invented by a rousing collective of musicians, who were dreamers, schemers, writers and fantasists. Alas Shelley died aged 63 in December 2018. Pete’s music has inspired generations of musicians – everyone knows the band’s most famous song, the masterpiece Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve) in 1978.

So what are the bootstrapping lessons we can take from Spiral Scratch, for today’s startups?

A DIY ethic drives innovation The Buzzcocks release showed their Do-It-Yourself abilities. Try, try, try – and see what happens. Just like the Spiral Scratch experiment. The Buzzcocks gigged virtually every night for their first two years – they put themselves out there, into the market. Get out of the building and put your product into the market, strive for low cost, low risk accelerated learning. Don’t worry about failing – the goal is to learn what the market wants.

Attitude and conviction trump talent The Indie ‘product’ was, in reality, very simple, raw and basic in the extreme. Talent is awesome, but it’s often overemphasised. Success is achieved by a host of variables, none more so that sheer-bloodied single-mindedness to get up there and make it happen. Startups need to remember this when launching their product – ambition and attitude is the driver. It’s about conviction and determination to make it happen.

Belief The Buzzcocks took on an established industry with major labels in control and broke the rules with their disruptive thinking. In doing so, they changed the dynamics and disrupted an established market. They had enduring success and created a lasting legacy, albeit measured in cultural terms, if not financial. They made the mind shift change that is needed to begin thinking and behaving like a startup and ask themselves the questions that an entrepreneur must ask: What is the value of the work that I do or the product I make?

Authenticity inspires customers The Buzzcocks started with bold artistic expression of their own, truly authentic, not seeking to copy or replicate others. They inspired a revolution. The startup leadership lesson here is one of my favourites: you can be confident and competent all you want, but if you’re not accepted as real, and having a point of difference in what you offer customer, you won’t inspire a following. People like real.

Build demand Anticipation builds demand. Bands understand this, trailing publicity for their next album release or Tour dates. For startups, building anticipation during your product launch and create customer demand is key. People don’t know you’ve been working on your project for months. You need to get them excited, but you can’t build all that excitement on launch day. A product launch should never be a surprise – think about Apple. Sure, they’re secretive, but they’re really good at building demand before their launch day.

Be your own image If you plan on getting noticed, establishing a brand promise, and creating an image is vital. The band’s name and music made them stand out, just as John Pasche designed the ‘tongue and lips’ logo for The Rolling Stones in 1971, originally reproduced on the Sticky Fingers album. This ability to create genuine uniqueness is a key trait of any entrepreneurial business. Not all of the Buzzcocks records worked, but their willingness to try out new ideas, knowing that not all will triumph, is a trait every entrepreneur needs.

The music scene in Manchester of the late 1970s was as diverse and experimental as anything in the history of music, it was an exhilarating breath of fresh air, with the iconic Factory Records pioneers of a new genre, entrepreneurs for sure, emerging alongside the Buzzcocks. And an interesting footnote to the story. Indigo Studios was demolished in 1982. The original Master Tapes of Spiral Scratch were never taken from the building. They might still be there – get your metal detector down to 72 Gartside Street, Manchester, M3 3EL.

What are you doing to optimise your startup potential, your startup energy, your fulfilment, your joy, your love, your self-actualisation, your startup Life? What’s your Spiral Scratch signature tune and tone of voice? What is your target audience in an already crowded market, why would people buy from you ahead of others? How hard are you reworking to be different and stand out from the crowd, and build your own audience?

Manchester in the late 1970s. The moors meets machinery meets mental turbulence of new music. The Buzzcocks had an aesthetic, and gave amplification to a sense of audacity, a lucid soundtrack of innovation and genuine disruption, a fantastic blueprint for the idea of generating personal and artistic freedom. It all started with Spiral Scratch on 28 December 1976. It’s a great little package of four truly memorable songs. As Pete Shelley said: It just shows what can happen if you’re stupid enough to believe that you can do something. History is made by those who turn up.

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