Buzzcocks, Carling Academy, Bristol <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

So, where have all the old punk rockers gone? The answer, by looking at tonight's crowd, is that they've either got themselves nice City jobs, or are stuck in perpetual stasis: peroxide-blond receding hairlines, beer guts, and battered cut-off leather jackets with rusting studs marking out past glories. These days it's not so much about bucking the system as trying to stop people spilling their pints.

There's no doubt that many of the audience at Bristol's Carling Academy are here to relive a bit of teenage angst, although there are also indie kids and nu-metallers mingling in the audience - a testament to the enduring legacy of Buzz-cocks' 30 years in the business. But there's something lacking in tonight's performance. It's not that original members Pete Shelley and fellow guitarist Steve Diggle can't play with the ferocity of old. Musically they are still tight as a drum, with close-precision harmonies crawling their way through the barrage of noise. But the vitality and passion of youth has sadly disappeared.

When Shelley sings "sneaking in the back door with dirty magazines/ now your mother wants to know what are all those stains on your jeans" ("Orgasm Addict"), it holds only retrospective fascination. Now an elder statesman of rock with a double chin and a slight paunch hanging over his trousers, singing about adolescent indiscretion seems somewhat surreal.

In fact, watching Buzzcocks play - at what can only be described as breakneck speed - is akin to watching your dad and his mates getting up on stage and showing how punk-rock was done back in their day. Apparently they don't fancy playing too late; they are back in the dressing room before 10pm. To make matters worse, guitarist Diggle doesn't seem quite sure which band he should be in. Although firing out some audacious punk-rock riffs, he's dressed in tight white jeans, a matching waistcoat, and a black shirt with white polka dots; a look Francis Rossi would be proud of.

Flat-Pack Philosophy is Buzzcocks' eighth studio album, and holds few surprises as it tries to outgun the young pretenders in the riffage department, while replicating familiar vocal hooks and maintaining the amphetamine fuelled rock'n'roll aesthetic. That isn't to say it's a bad album. The first single "Wish I Never Loved You" is easily as good as any punk-pop tune out there at the moment. It segues neatly from the far grungier "Flat-Pack Philosophy", which opens tonight's performance.

Understandably Shelley's voice has a deeper tonality, and his band certainly crank out an impressive wall of sound. Their dual guitar approach lacerates the eardrums, destroying any hope of subtle musical variation. But the thing they lack, which the recently-reformed Gang of Four managed to recapture, is sheer exuberance on stage. They're far too polite. Shelley is playing within himself and is largely static, Diggle moves as much as his tight jeans will let him, thrusting his guitar skywards at regular intervals, and the bassist Tony Barber is an unassuming presence, keeping the rhythm taut. Drummer Philip Barker belts out a decent beat, most notably on "Moving Away From the Pulsebeat", but is hardly a crazed stick-man. It's all very polished and clinical, causing only a handful of punters to pogo heroically in front of the stage. It poses the question: can ageing punk rockers to recapture past glories? One couldn't imagine Arctic Monkeys firing out "I Bet You Look Good On the Dancefloor" aged 50 without it all descending into parody.

Buzzcocks just about manage to escape this fate because they've always managed to make great pop tunes. They never possessed the anarchic fascination of the Sex Pistols, but "Isolation", "Autonomy", and "Promises" still sound fresh and exciting. The biggest disappointment is that they don't play "Ever Fallen In Love?". It's what most people are waiting for, and although they are probably sick to the back teeth of playing it, it remains their finest song.

Touring to 23 March ( www.buzzcocks.com)

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