There was only one Pete Shelley
07 December 2018 07:54
There were, though some might argue, only four indispensable British punk bands: the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned and Buzzcocks (please note the defiant absence of the definite article). In this sense, the death of Pete Shelley – co-founder of Buzzcocks with Howard Devoto – is no less significant than that of Joe Strummer, almost exactly 16 years ago.
It is unlikely that Shelley, who was only 63 when he died yesterday of a suspected heart attack in Estonia, will assume the status of folk hero and legend as Strummer did so quickly and enduringly (for details, see Julien Temple’s fine 2007 documentary, Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten).
But that is rather the point: Shelley (born Peter McNeish in Leigh, Lancashire) never flirted with, or was rewarded with, the status of a rock icon. More authentically than the deities of punk – John Lydon, Strummer, Siouxsie Sioux, Billy Idol – he remained true to the grounded ordinariness of the genre. Along the way, he made some of the greatest three-minute pop records that have ever been committed to vinyl – or to any other medium, for that matter.
Look at the sheer range and aggregate creative power of those who have already paid tribute to Shelley: the Pistols’ Steve Jones, Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, Edgar Wright, Pearl Jam, Neil Gaiman, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch, New Order’s Peter Hook, the Cure’s Lol Tolhurst, and many more. Shelley’s image sold few posters. But his music helped to define a generation. ‘It was about being the outsider,’ he told the rock journalist Jon Savage, ‘and it was like Dostoyevsky.’ What a glorious provocation.
Like so many bands, Buzzcocks loved the Stooges, Velvet Underground and T-Rex, but, to act decisively, needed first to experience the emancipating force of the Pistols, whom Shelley and Devoto went to see in High Wycombe in February 1976.
In true punk entrepreneurial style, the duo arranged for the band to play at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester in June of that year – a gig that, in pop myth at least, was more or less responsible for the entire northern punk and post-punk scene (notably Joy Division, or Warsaw as they called themselves originally).
In its machine-gun brevity, Buzzcocks’ EP Spiral Scratch, released in January 1977, was the punk book-end to the year that also produced the Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks (Shelley’s dad had to borrow £200 from the Friendly Society to help pay for the recording). ‘Boredom’ by Buzzcocks has at least as strong a claim to being the definitive anthem of the Blank Generation as ‘Pretty Vacant.’
Devoto’s abrupt departure from the band – he claimed that ‘what was once unhealthily fresh is now a clean old hat’ – would normally have spelt doom. But Shelley stepped up to the plate, both as a singer and lead songwriter. In the NME in July 1977, the chronicler of northern punk, Paul Morley, wrote that his ‘warmth and sympathetic psychological acuteness is in direct contrast to Devoto’s mystery and invulnerability….[he] contributes Peter Pan vocals and off-the-wall guitars.’
The consequences were transformative, and, though punk purists hate to admit it, genre-busting. Working with Martin Rushent (who would go on to produce the Human League’s decade-defining album, Dare, in 1981), Buzzcocks fused perfect pop with punk aggression in three utterly unforgettable singles: ‘Orgasm Addict’, ‘What Do I Get?’, and ‘Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)’.
You know these tracks, even if you don’t: they’ve been part of the national soundtrack for forty years, though the band that created them have largely faded from national memory. Typically, Lydon saw the point, and understood what made the band different, as he records in his second volume of memoirs: ‘A band I loved…Great fun lyrics, a totally different approach to music, and, unfortunately, with everything being lumped under the banner ‘punk’ at that time, people didn’t really notice they were a little bit off the beaten track.’
After three great albums, Buzzcocks split. Shelley founded his own label, Groovy Records, and reverted to his earlier fascination with electronic music and synthesisers (he had met Devoto at the Bolton Institute of Technology where he had started a college electronic music society). In 1981, his first solo single ‘Homosapien’ – an expression of his bisexuality – was banned by the BBC because of its overt reference to gay sex.
In this respect, as so often, Shelley was a pioneer, taking risks when it counted. He also grasped, more than six years before the invention of the World Wide Web, that computer technology was going to change everything: his album XL1 (1983) included a program for the ZX Spectrum that, at the time, seemed merely eccentric. Today, in an era when music and digital technology are indistinguishable, it looks prophetic.
In 2002, Shelley and Devoto reunited to record the splendidly idiosyncratic Buzzkunst, while the post-Devoto line-up of Buzzcocks (or variations upon it) reformed occasionally, most recently in 2016 for a 40th anniversary tour.
It is moot whether many of the viewers of the long-running BBC pop panel show Never Mind the Buzzcocks (1996-2015) grasped the significance of its title (or the solecism of that definite article). Yet it is somehow appropriate that this was so. Buzzcocks managed to combine a ferocious music-hall vibrancy with a no less British aversion to vulgar fame-hunger. There are any number of X Factor winners or phony musical ‘influencers’. But there was only one Pete Shelley.