by Lou Mancinelli
It must be hard for most of us regular folks to imagine living out one’s dream and then seeing it disappear, to go from musical superstar and fame to carpenter and a 9 to 5 job and just one more face in the crowd.
But that has in fact been the biography of local resident Steve Garvey. In the late 1970s Garvey toured the world with the band from Manchester, England, the Buzzcocks, one of Europe’s biggest punk rock bands at the time. Since then he has watched a dream rise and fall, but he keeps on keepin’ on.
Garvey, now 56, was 19, working at a gas station and playing in cover bands before he joined the Buzzcocks to play bass guitar. He was with the band for their first three albums, “Another Music in a Different Kitchen,” “Love Bites” and “A Different Kind of Tension.”
“There was a real feeling in the air of revolution,” said Garvey, during a recent conversation with The Local about life before and after musical stardom. He’s talking about 1976, the early punk days in Manchester, England, days that birthed bands like Joy Division, The Clash and The Sex Pistols. The Buzzcocks too. Garvey recalled, “For young people there was no work. There was no future.”
Son of a truck driver and a nursery school worker, Garvey grew up in blue-collar Manchester. There was anger, angst and a feeling in the air. For him and his friends, music was the thing. The music, which came to be labeled punk, gave them a sense of place and purpose, someone to be. “When it happened it was so different than anything else,” Garvey said. “It was fresh and new and ferocious.”
Founded by Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto, the Buzzcocks played their first show in 1976, opening for the Sex Pistols in Manchester. Garvey often saw the Buzzcocks play because his friends’ band The Fall opened for them. Garvey lent The Fall his gear. He went to see them play, mostly “to protect my gear,” he joked. When the Buzzcocks needed a new bassist, Garvey had an inside track.
It was five years of major success. They sold more than 100,000 copies of “Singles Going Steady,” a collection of singles, though Garvey saw little money from it. They were the days when the band refused to take the stage until they were first handed champagne.
The Buzzcocks’ years were wild, with the band playing to sellout crowds. They were paid well and lived comfortably. Garvey bought a racehorse and a car. Still, on tour, the roadies made more money than the band.
The real money was in publishing. Shelley saw most of the money from publishing royalties since he wrote the songs. Strangely, the production company also seemed to make a large deal of money. When the Buzzcocks broke up in 1981, Garvey went on to play bass for Shelley’s solo project. He made more money touring with that band than he had made with the Buzzcocks.
“It was not good times,” Garvey recalled, about the early ‘80s when the Buzzcocks’ run came to an end. He went on to form the band Motivation and continued to tour for more than a decade with different groups. Then he joined the Buzzcocks again for a reunion from 1989 to 1992.
But health problems, including a cancerous tumor on his cheek, contributed to his leaving the band. At the time he was living on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. He’d met a woman, fallen in love. They had children, realized New York City wasn’t the best place to raise a family. When he came to New Hope in Bucks County he couldn’t believe how beautiful it was.
Now a father of two boys, now 27 and 24, the younger of whom is a musician in Philly, Garvey works as a carpenter in Philadelphia for Toll Brothers’ home builders. His days in the Buzzcocks were a time when dream became mixed with reality, an experience he knows is one to be cherished and is one most never get.
“Of course,” he said, when the Local asked a silly question about whether it was all worth it. “It was my dream,” he said.
Did he think it would be a life-long career? “I guess you don’t think about it really,” he said. “When you’re young, you live in the moment. You don’t think long-term. Did I think I would be a musician the rest of my life? I don’t know.”
Music history has placed the Buzzcocks as one of the pioneers of indie rock. Theirs was less preaching and more music. It was punk that was melodic, too, with intelligible lyrics. In 1976 they released their first album, becoming one of the early trend setters in the independent record label movement still thriving today.
Garvey came to the U.S. several times on tour beginning in 1978 but decided to stay here after a tour ended in 1982. When he came to the U.S., did he know there was a famous baseball player for the Los Angeles Dodgers also named Steve Garvey?
“When I was on tour in California,” he replied, “people would come up to me all the time and tell me about having the same name. I didn’t even know what baseball was at the time. I have a couple of his baseball cards from the ‘80s, though … Years ago, people kidded me about it all the time, and I would say to them, ‘I’m the bass player, not the baseball player.’”
Today, Garvey is not as close to the music industry as he once was, but he is still as much of a music fan as he’s ever been. He runs New Hope Sound and Vision, a production studio that’s gone slow the past few years, in his basement. He produced Brother Eyes, a Bucks County band he met when he moved to the area.
Garvey empathizes with bands today, wondering how they can make money at all with free services like Spotify and YouTube. Up to a few years ago he’d receive royalty checks every six months.
He knows today that someone who wants to listen to old Buzzcocks’ records simply goes online. Just like Garvey does himself. The Local’s call to Garvey had sent him down memory lane via YouTube. He was watching Buzzcock performances from TV shows he’d never even seen.
“Five years of my life has defined me ever since [the Buzzcocks],” Garvey said, “for good or bad. Hopefully for good.” These days, he said he defines himself as the “same old troubled soul, like everyone else … I’ve been a kind of Buddhist-type person with my life. I kind of just let it fall into place”
Ed. Note: Our thanks to Mt. Airy resident Jonathan Harmon, who brought Steve Garvey to our attention.