When I was first buying records, UK punk obviously walloped onto my radar. It’s everything a teenagers wants — obnoxious, loud, and if you had any aspirations of playing guitar, you were told it was easy as shit to play. Then you find out barre chords make your hand hurt.
The first LP by Buzzcocks (always adamant that there’s no ‘The’), ‘Another Music in a Different Kitchen’, was instant love. I’d heard ‘Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)’ and it wasn’t on it. Undeterred, I threw it on and the rest of punk seemed too blokey and tuneless.
Understanding the impact of band and actually liking them enough to listen to have always been two very different things to me. Aside from ‘Rock The Casbah’ and ‘Train In Vain’, The Clash didn’t do it for me. The Sex Pistols? I get it, but no — they looked insincere and sneering for the sake of it — maybe that’s exactly why some people like them, but it left me a bit cold.
The only two UK punk bands I fell for are X-Ray Spex and Buzzcocks, and we’re talking about the latter.
There was something about Pete Shelley that I instantly liked. I loved his Paul McCartney haircut, and that voice of his — what is it? It’s vinegary and desperate. He seemed well-read, but didn’t come off like he was pretentious. The band played fast and loud, but never forgot about melody. They’re the musical cousins of The Ramones, with that weird cocktail of heartbreak and brashness.
I loved the way Pete stared right down the camera when they appeared on television. He sang energetic, repetitive songs. The albums weren’t afraid of studio trickery, because fuck it — make cool albums that aren’t concerned about being 4real.
From these shores, they’re one of the best bands of any genre.
Obviously, I liked the tunes on a surface level (which was always important to a band like this), and they were immense live. Lyrically, they had loads of zingers. All the best bands have you hopping around feeling glorious, but cut it with loads of sadness and yearning. ABBA, The Beatles, Madonna, The Beach Boys, all the great disco records, Stevie Wonder — they all had this euphoric melancholy, which is total catnip to me.
Shelley sang: “What do I get? I only get sleepless nights — alone here in my half-empty bed. For you, things seem to turn out right — I wish they’d only happen to me instead.”
The high watermark of ‘Ever Fallen In Love?’: “You spurn my natural emotions — you make me feel I’m dirt and I’m hurt. And if I start a commotion, I run the risk of losing you and that’s worse… ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with?” Who hasn’t felt lonely or fancied someone who is a complete dick?
Shelley, singing about his loathing of ‘Fast Cars’: “They’re nice and precise, each one begins and ends — they may win you admirers, but they’ll never earn you friends.”
He was funny too. In ‘You Tear Me Up’, in a song that’s very obviously about getting off with someone, he sings: “All this slurping and sucking — you know it’s putting me off my food”
In ‘Orgasm Addict’, Shelley goes hard: “You get in a heat, you get in a sulk but you still keep a beating your meat to pulp,” and “it’s a labour of love fucking yourself to death.” There’s even a bit where he sings about making out with “winos”, “heads of state” and “you even made it with the lady who puts the little plastic bobbins on the Christmas cakes.”
In the best song about being bored: “You know me — I’m acting dumb;
you know the scene — very humdrum” and “I’m the one waiting for the phone to ring -ring-a-ring-a-fucking-ding”, a two-note guitar solo and the flattest utterance of “boredom” you’ve ever heard on record. Magic.
On top of all this, Buzzcocks never looked like they were in punk fancy-dress. Half the time, they were in tank-tops, shirts, and normal trousers. As old-punks moved into the cabaret scene, sticking up their thinning hair and dressing like they’d just come from fuckin’ ‘Scrapheap Challenge’, Pete & Co left all their posturing to the tunes, and stayed cool, being a more direct influence of the pop-punk came back in the ’90s and Noughties. Listen to Nirvana, Green Day, Blink 182, and Buzzcocks are right there, worn on their sleeves.
Being from Bolton, the fact they met at college there was another boon. I saw Pete Shelley having a bag of crisps outside the WH Smiths, and I yelled “YOU’RE PETE SHELLEY!” and, mouth full of Golden Wonder, he yelled back “YEAHRA-KNOW!” I was made up.
Finding out that he (and Howard Devoto) chose the band name after reading a review of ‘Rock Follies’ which had the headline “It’s the buzz, cock!” — a show about a fictional rock group called ‘Little Ladies’ made up of women — it just made me love him even more.
Shelley & Co were hugely important too, and wouldn’t parp on about it. It was Shelley who arranged for the Sex Pistols to come and perform at the Lesser Free Trade Hall gig in ’76 that everyone goes on about (which basically gave birth to Joy Division, Factory Records, and Mick Hucknall, and there’s a whole book written about that gig if you’re inclined).
They opened. No-one would sign them, so they put their own EP out (‘Spiral Scratch’), being one of the first UK bands to create an indie label. Some argue they invented indie as a thing, period. I don’t know about that, mainly because I’ve not looked into it — but if anyone’s getting the credit, I’m happy it’s Buzzcocks and Pete Shelley.
He embraced synthpop and paved the way with it with the awesome ‘Homosapien’, produced by Martin Rushent. That track, heard by some honcho at Virgin Records, hired Rushent to produce the Human League’s next album, which happens to be the all-conquering ‘Dare’.
So if you hear ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ at a Christmas party this year, raise your glass to Pete Shelley (but do it in the intro, as you’ll no doubt want to be singing your head off once Oakey starts singing “you were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar”).
So here we are. It’s the day after the news broke that Pete Shelley passed away.
There’s going to be a huge amount of tributes and emotion, and they’re all deserved. All I know is that, as soon as I heard about it, the first thing I thought was that Pete Shelley is someone who I believed when he sang.
Still do. No mawkishness. Always will.