The passing of Pete Shelley robs British music of one of its finest, and most frequently overlooked voices.
Through his work with seminal Manchester punk group Buzzcocks and his own solo output Pete Shelley broke new ground, with his gender-less lyrical style leaving the objects of his fascination tantalising out of reach, and encouraging fresh space in the process.
There was a coy sensibility to his work; an out bi-sexual man, his work could pin down universal truths about love and beauty and insecurities and paranoia in a way that made this condition – the teenage condition, the punk condition – feel fresh, vibrant, and immortal.
Sadly passing away at the age of 63, Pete Shelley’s work will burn brightly for years to come. The acts speak for themselves. Whether that’s helping to inaugurate – or so the story holds – Manchester punk with those seminal Lesser Free Trade Hall shows, or helping to birth indie as a movement with the ‘Spiral Scratch’ EP, Buzzcocks are a key aspect of the evolution of British music in the late 70s.
But it’s the songwriting itself that leaves the biggest impact. Perhaps the best singles act of the new wave era, Buzzcocks took the adrenalin and confrontational nature of The Sex Pistols and added some human warmth and frailty; as reliable a hit-making crew as The Jam but without the retro-affiliations, Buzzcocks took the seven inch single – punk’s prima facie weapon of choice – and turned each release into an art statement.
The band’s persistent modernism even applied to their touring plans, notably taking a relatively unknown Joy Division out on the road with them, exposing the group to thousands of new fans. Buzzcocks reformed in 1989, touring the world and releasing a total of six studio albums in the process.
No matter how solid those records are – and there are numerous sparks of life – you can’t help but be drawn back to that initial run of spectacular singles.
Written during Buzzcocks’ first flowering, ‘Boredom’ arose from a time when songwriting duties were split between Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto. Quickly tiring of punk’s rigid uniformity, Devoto departed for a stint in college, before leading Magazine through post-punk’s creative mine-fields.
The creative relationship between the two would result ‘Spiral Scratch’; an EP of just four songs, it would become revered as the starting pistol for independent music in this country, but unlike most overly-mythologised documents this one actually stands the pace of time.
Quickly recorded, the wiry, minimalist sound actually has more in common with post-punk and the early indie era. Indeed, The Pastels cited the group as a reference point, while Edwyn Collins would include a shout out to ‘Boredom’ during the smash hit Orange Juice single ‘Rip It Up’.
With DeVoto now submerging himself in academia and plotting his next move a reconfigured Buzzcocks accepted a deal from United Artists, and entered a professional studio for the first time.
Punk’s disdain of sex was partly a rejection of the free love ideals that lingered on from the 60s counter culture, but here Pete Shelley seizes on the obsession/confusion that drives the adolescent experience.
Laced with incredible puns – “Now you’ve found out that it’s a habit that sticks” – ‘Orgasm Addict’ is also incredibly catchy, delivered in Shelley’s infectiously straining just-too-high vocal range. Appropriately enough it stiffed.
‘What Do I Get?’
Love and the absence thereof became a recurring theme in Pete Shelley’s work, and while its consummation would drive wonderfully filthy solo cut ‘Homosapien’ Buzzcocks tended to be a vessel for both romantic and erotic frustration. ‘What Do I Get?’ nails Pete Shelley’s gender-less lyrical style, it’s daring openness set against that buzzsaw melody and those crunching, crisp guitars.
Whereas The Clash specialised in bombast Buzzcocks would leave plenty of space in their music, with guitarist Steve Diggle’s fondness for mid 60s pop adding a cute dimension other groups lacked.
Clocking in at a breakneck 2:50 ‘What Do I Get?’ is petulant, seething, and hilariously funny, Pete Shelley’s voice hurrying the band forwards to those almost self-effacing final notes.
‘Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t Have)’
Enshrined as one of British punk’s central documents the enduring popularity of ‘Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t Have)’ overshadows the sheer power and daring of its lyrical execution.
A foot-stomping indie club favourite, the searing guitar lines wrap themselves around a lyric that deals with some of Pete Shelley’s earliest, most uncertain homosexual longings.
Falling for a close friend, the taut emotion seems to come through all the more clearly, precisely because of the push-pull of the rhythm, constantly surging ahead, only to be pulled back.It’s a masterpiece in punk drumming from John Maher, while Steve Diggle’s guitar finds a dry, cynical counterpoint to those psychedelic effects.
‘Everybody’s Happy Nowadays’
If punk was a scene built but outsiders then Pete Shelley remained an outsider even within this circle. The second wave of British punk became increasingly macho, with the influence of the band’s early recordings being felt more profoundly in groups such as The Slits, or labels such as Postcard.
The last time a song by Pete Shelley would appear in the British Top 40 – ‘Harmony In My Head’ being a Steve Diggle effort – ‘Everybody’s Happy Nowadays’ is riddled with melancholy, the simple, striking melody taking the vocal to the top of its register and beyond. Worth sitting alongside some of Ray Davies’ work from the mid 60s, the sheer ennui in the single makes it one of the band’s most striking 45s.
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