Buzzcocks lead singer Pete Shelley has died of a heart attack. He was 63.
To my ears, Buzzcocks were always a pop band with punk sensibilities, rather than the other way around. The craftsmanship behind songs like “Why Can’t I Touch It” or “What Do I Get” demonstrate an ambition beyond provocation. Pete Shelley was Ray Davies’ legitimate heir: smart, sincere, and acerbic with an unerring ear for musical hooks. The early Buzzcocks albums Another Music In A Different Kitchen, Love Bites, and A Different Kind Of Tension are each their own kind of greatest hits compilation.
Still, Buzzcocks had an impeccable punk pedigree. Peter McNeish, as he was originally known, organized the June 1976 Sex Pistols gig in his hometown in Manchester. That appearance, though sparsely attended (“I think there were about 42, 43 people there,” Shelley remembered), was the catalyst for almost the entire post-punk Manchester scene, as some of the attendees went on to found Joy Division, The Fall, the Smiths, and Factory Records. The next time the Pistols came through town, McNeish’s new band opened. His stage name was now Pete Shelley, which his parents would have called him had he been born a girl.
The first Buzzcocks EP, Spiral Scratch, was released in January 1977 on their own independent label, New Hormones. “We made quite a bit of money from Spiral Scratch,” Shelley said. “It ended up selling about 16,000 copies and we were able to buy some new equipment.”
Once Shelley took over as principal songwriter and vocalist later that year, the band released a series of extraordinary singles, characterized by breakneck tempos, breathless canny lyrics about unrequited love, and ingenious chord changes pumped out by buzzsaw guitars. There’s not a rock star guitar solo in sight. Shelley sings with a petulant Manchester yelp. He turned this material out with seeming effortlessness.
It’s an impressive collection, from the delirium of “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays” to the confessional testimony of “I Believe,” to the ceaselessly catchy “You Say You Don’t Love Me” — all created by a man who was 26 when his band broke up in 1981.
Shelley did not come out as bisexual until years later, although anyone listening to his romantic complaints and genderless lyrics would have already understood. “Ever Fallen In Love With Someone (You Shouldn’t’ve),” the band’s masterpiece, was inspired by a line from Guys and Dolls. “You spurn my natural emotions,” Shelley sings. “You make me feel like 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?
“I wrote it about Francis, who was the social sec at Warrington Tech,” Shelley remembered. “I was going through self-discovery, shall we say, a fertile ground for writing songs. In the initial courtship he was resistant to my charms.”
Punk decluttered popular music, and Shelley, already a fan of pared down acts like the Velvet Underground and Can, was prepared to fill the void. “There are plenty of musicians that I enjoy watching that are entertainers,” he told The Guardian in 2006. “But I wouldn’t want to be that, because the thing with an entertainer is that there is always that dishonesty, which is what punk tried to get rid of.”
“It was like, you’re not pretending to be something you are not,” he continued. “You are just what you are.”
He applied this approach to his lyrics as well, always smart but never contrived. “See, with me, I’m never really happy unless everything sounds like it’s conversational,” Shelley told The Quietus a few years ago. “That’s why I find it hard to write lyrics, to simplify it to the point where it sounds like there’s no writing there. So a lot of time and effort goes into me rejecting things.”
Shelley went solo after the Buzzcocks broke up. An early single, “Homosapien” — banned by the BBC because of its “explicit reference to gay sex” — was actually written in 1974, before Buzzcocks formed. But the influence of Shelley’s former band was still rippling out through mainstream culture.
The Fine Young Cannibals’ 1988 cover of “Ever Fallen In Love” reached the top-10 in the UK, which “financed our comeback,” according to Shelley. The band’s reunion lasted almost 30 years. In the meantime, college radio, indie rock, and Nirvana all advanced and receded. Buzzcocks music informed them all.
Punk fizzled, like any musical trend. Its most durable aspects of emotionally direct, vulnerable, aggressive, and unornamented communication have remained. Buzzcocks embodied this approach. Long live Pete Shelley.
Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.