Kiran Dass remembers Pete Shelley, co-founder and co-songwriter of the Buzzcocks, who died this week.
After we’d heard that co-founder of punk group the Buzzcocks Pete Shelley had died of a heart attack aged 63 at home in Estonia, one of my friends pointed out that one of the great things about the Buzzcocks, whose songs are often genderless, is that whether you are gay, straight, male, female, in love or brokenhearted, there is always a Buzzcocks song that you can relate to. And with his own fluid sexuality and ambiguity, Shelley was one of the first examples of queer punks who blazed the trail.
I can think of at least eleven Pete Shelley/Buzzcocks songs that have the word ‘love’ in the title. Here’s some of them: ‘Love is Lies’, ‘Love You More’, ‘Love in Vain’, ‘Waiting for Love’, ‘You Say You Don’t Love Me’, ‘I Don’t Know What Love Is’, ‘Love Battery’, ‘In Love with Somebody Else,’ and of course, the iconic ‘Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve). And let’s not forget the Buzzcocks’ archly titled second album Love Bites.
This is one of the many endearing and singular things about the Buzzcocks and specifically Shelley, that I love. While generally, punk’s stance (a stance which rapidly became cliched, with its air of artifice) was one of anarchy, rebellion, aggression and confrontation, the Buzzcocks didn’t share the Clash’s machismo. And while Sex Pistols sneered about ‘No Feelings’, the Buzzcocks quite radically sang about the murky, confusing and often emotional, fumbling terrain of love, lust, jealousy and small-town ennui in a smart, direct and witty and sometimes cynical way. The songs are personal but universal. There is a kind of poetry to these personal lyrics and Shelley was the master at clever wordplay. I guess it’s not by coincidence that he’d changed his name from the more prosaic Pete McNeish, taking on the surname Shelley after the Romantic poet.
Another punk trope was to bang on about boredom and being bored. Buzzcocks brilliantly turned this on its head with the iconic and meta Howard Devoto penned ‘Boredom’. “You know the scene – very humdrum. Boredom, Boredom, Boredom”. A song so great post-punk group Orange Juice high-fived the Buzzcocks by referencing it in their catchy hit ‘Rip it Up’ – “and my favourite song’s entitled ‘Boredom’” croons Edwyn Collins as they add a guitar piece that reinterprets Shelley’s guitar solo from the song.
I love that Shelley wrote the music for ‘Boredom’ on a crappy Woolworth’s guitar, and my favourite thing about the song is his crack-up memorable two-note guitar solo, delivered at speed (66 times, in fact). That was one of the most important things to me about Shelley – a kind of rejection of or at least indifference to slick musicianship. He once said in the Guardian “I’m not interested in being able to play. A musician is like another brand of entertainer.” And yet, while retaining a kind of simplicity and economy, he crafted one perfect tightly-wound pop song riddled with hooks after another. Shelley was a truly visionary songwriter.
And you know, it’s impossible to pin down just one favourite Buzzcocks song because there are so many hits. The compilation Singles Going Steady (there’s that clever wordplay again) collects a bunch of singles, and as Scottish crime writer and fan Ian Rankin has pointed out about the Buzzcocks – there is not an ounce of fat on there.
My favourites change all the time to form a kind of rotating suite. ‘Boredom’ of course. The BBC-banned single ‘Orgasm Addict’ with its sleeve (Buzzcocks and Shelley always had such great, smart design) featuring a collage of an iron-headed woman designed by band associate and artist Linder, the irresistible rush of ‘Love You More’. Definitely ‘E.S.P’ – I smile every time and feel ecstatic whenever I hear that beautifully simple repeated guitar motif. (“Do you believe in E.S.P? I do and I’m trying to get through to you!”) There’s ‘Sixteen’, ‘Fiction Romance’ (“a fiction romance, I love this story that never seems to happen in my life”), ‘Moving Away from the Pulsebeat’, ‘Fast Cars’ (“they’re so depressing going around and around/I hate fast cars”), and ‘Lipstick’! I love the way he rhymes “morning” with “warning” and how old bandmate Devoto borrowed Shelley’s exact guitar riff for his follow up group Magazine’s song ‘Shot By Both Sides’.
But one of the things I most admire and respect Shelley and the Buzzcocks for is the seismic statement they made about DIY and autonomy when they self-released their debut EP Spiral Scratch in 1977, setting a strong example for the future of independent music. They recorded four tracks in 30 minutes and released it themselves with borrowed money on their own label New Hormones. In doing this, they asserted the point that you didn’t have to wait to be asked to do something, you don’t need permission to put music out. You could just Do It Yourself. I love the back cover tracklisting, and how it itemises what take was used and if there were overdubs: Side One ‘Breakdown’ – “3rd take, No dubs” ‘Time’s Up’ – “1st take, guitar dub.” A smart way to demystify, show the ease of and democratise the music-making process.
Shelley, who studied engineering at polytech had experimented with building his own oscillators prior to forming the Buzzcocks. With an interest in Krautrock and synthesizers, this was something he explored further post Buzzcocks, particularly with his superb second solo album Homosapien (1981). I love this album. With it, Shelley re-invented himself, or, depending on how you look at it, went back to his roots, using synthesizers and drum machines to create a more experimental but very poppy synth album. The sly title track with the suggestive lyrics “I’m the shy boy, you’re the coy boy, and you know we’re Homosapien too. I’m the cruiser, you’re the loser, me and you sir, Homosapien too,” was, surprise, surprise, banned by our old mates the BBC. See also the 1979 track ‘Big Noise from the Jungle’ that Shelley and a Manchester teenager named Eric Random recorded together as The Tiller Boys – a surprising, avant-rock piece that nods to Shelley’s early love of Can. What a wonderfully sonically adventurous musician. That’s true punk.
Shelley once said in the Guardian that “history is made by those that turn up.” Let’s be thankful he did.