Pete Shelley, the singer, songwriter, guitarist and founding member of British punk band Buzzcocks has died of a suspected heart attack in Estonia, where he had been living since 2012.
With his trademark overdriven chords and swishy melodies, the 63-year-old indie icon co-founded Buzzcocks in 1975 with Howard Devoto. His witty, waspishly sardonic lyrics often evoked the agonies of thwarted desire and sexual exploration, later summing it up with typical understatement: “Me and Howard Devoto grew up in Manchester and we were writing songs which we thought were songs like the Stooges. That was what punk was.” Before Devoto would jump ship to form Magazine, the pair also played a part in bringing the Sex Pistols to Manchester for their legendary summer of ’76 shows at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, which were famously attended by Morrissey, members of the future Joy Division/New Order and countless other less than angelic upstarts.
“It’s with great sadness that we confirm the death of Pete Shelley, one of the UK’s most influential and prolific songwriters and co-founder of the seminal original punk band Buzzcocks. Pete’s music has inspired generations of musicians over a career that spanned five decades and with his band and as a solo artist, he was held in the highest regard by the music industry and by his fans around the world.”
Shelley’s brother, Gary Mcneish, confirmed the news, writing on Facebook: “This is the hardest thing I have ever had to do, is tell you my brother Pete Shelley had a heart attack this morning and passed away.”
Like their American counterparts Blondie, the Buzzcocks weren’t always the first or second name on the tip of the tongue when discussing the progenitors of punk, but in January of ’77 they effectively invented independent music when they issued their Spiral Scratch EP, the first DIY single. And it didn’t take long for their Singles Going Steady collection to become one of the seminal documents of the genre’s first wave upon its release in 1979, the US-conceived compilation proving them among the finest singles bands of their day. A lot of early punk emerged self-consciously naïve and cloddish, but like all the best original punk bands – those whose legend has lasted, anyway – Buzzcocks were articulate, in a wholly unorthodox anti-macho fashion.
The band released 10 studio albums and toured extensively, disbanding in 1981 but the subject of a reformation eight years later. While news of their surprise reunion in 1989 had critics and old crusties on the edge of their seats (regretfully my flatmate Judi caught them while I stayed at home, later the subject of much regret on my part), the general public wasn’t quick to respond with similar adulation, and the Buzzcocks were easily overshadowed by the rise of disciples Green Day, the dubious return of the Pistols, and the corporatised copyists that would send punk tunnelling back underground.
Innovative and diminutive, over a career spanning more than 40 years Shelley influenced countless musicians, including the Charlatans’ Tim Burgess, who tweeted that the frontman “wrote perfect three minute pop songs” and was one of the UK’s most influential songwriters.
Case in point: Orgasm Addict, the ‘cocks’ debut 45 from 1977, is their lascivious ode to onanism and indiscriminate, compulsive hanky-panky in all its other manifestations, though Shelley later dismissed the gleefully vicious portrayal of a compulsive masturbator as “embarrassing. It’s the only one I listen to and… shudder.” However, the salacious subject matter, stuttering chords, descending basslines and ‘mockney’ vocalese certainly packed enough of a wallop on the young Adam Ant, whose early pre-teen startlet catalogue is littered with lurid variations of, in turn influencing the likes of Blur’s Damon Albarn. And like Adam & The Ants, Buzzcocks were happy to stand out, never feeling the need to conform to any of punk’s cliches about rage, anarchy and rebellion.
Born Peter Campbell McNeish in the Lancashire town of Leigh on 17 April 1955, Shelley once described punk as being “about deciding to do something and then going out and doing it.” Produced by future Visage and Human League helmsman Martin Rushent, Buzzcocks’ most recognisable song was 1978’s spiky perennial Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve).
Though the title was inspired by dialogue directed at Marlon Brando’s character in the movie musical Guys And Dolls, Pete wrote this effortlessly quixotic topic about a man closer to home, literally (reportedly Francis Cookson of the Tiller Boys, who he was living with). The track reached No.12 in the charts and was an even bigger hit for the Fine Young Cannibals in 1987, climbing to ninth position and giving Shelley his only Top 10 single. This one’s for Alison Brooks:
After a third album, A Different Kind of Tension, reached 26 in the UK, the band laid down demos for a fourth set, but growing tensions in the band coupled with friction with EMI, which had purchased their label United Artists, meant that Buzzcocks imploded in ’81. Shelley immediately took up a solo career with the bold and fantastically outré synthpop single, Homosapien, again produced by Rushent. On this campy classic he returned to his original interests in electronic music and shifted emphasis from guitar to synthesiser; Rushent’s elaborate drum machine and synthesiser programming laying the groundwork for his next production, the League’s all-conquering epoch, Dare not to mention a shiny and new pop duo that had just met for the first time.
In his newly published book One Hundred Lyrics And A Poem (Faber & Faber, 2018), Neil Tennant recounts how during the Pet Shop Boys‘ initial attempt at making music at his flat on London’s Kings Road, he and Chris Lowe adopted the Shelley song as the template for what would become one of the most glorious careers in electronic music: “He started to noodle around on my synth and I started to strum on my guitar. Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks had recently released a single called Homosapien, and it combined acoustic guitar and synths in a way I thought we could imitate.”
On the American Billboard dance chart, Homosapien peaked at number fourteen, though the track was banned by the BBC for “explicit reference to gay sex” and didn’t chart. In truth, “homo superior in my interior” was about as unchaste as the lyrics from which it was clearly inspired; David Bowie’s “gotta make way for the homo superior,” from Hunky Dory’s playlist perennial Oh, You Pretty Things a decade earlier. Today, its suggestion that gender and sexuality are fluid, malleable things – “I don’t want to classify you like an animal in the zoo” – seems less shocking than remarkably prescient. The video was pretty ahead of the curve too…
Nevertheless, it was around this time that Shelley talked publicly about his bisexuality, which had been implicit in many of the other songs he’d written. I still have many fond memories of devouring his 12-inch in Adele Rogerson’s bedroom in Oldbrook, across the road from our school in Woughton Campus, Milton Keynes. Oh, how we marvelled at its edgy ping-pong electronics and knowing winks. Never mind the Buzzcocks, this new wave wonder was my personal introduction to the unconventional and wayward talents of Pete Shelley, a man and artist who quite rightly defied and rejected stereotypes. Viva defiance, viva deviants. I’m a homosapien too, see.
Postscript: Also from the Homosapien album, Pusher Man is a remarkably batty, almost-caught-by-the-fuzz tale of being sold dodgy drugs and seems to anticipate Thomas Dolby’s entire career. Blinding.