December 31, 2018 Pete Shelley – An Angstless Legacy
Buzzcocks Co-founder Peter Shelley once said, “If you’re bothered about whether people like you or not then you’ll never do anything. You’d be too self conscious. Just say this is what I do and deal with it.” A truthful statement, there is no question the care free attitude helped Shelley build a lasting legacy within the British Punk movement that still resonates loudly even after his sudden passing on Thursday, December 6, 2018.
Amid plans to celebrate their 40th anniversary this coming January, the band was to release remastered recordings from the Buzzcocks’ first two original albums, 1978’s Another Music In A Different Kitchen and Love Bites. Then, tragically, the Punk pioneer Pete Shelley died of a suspected heart attack at the age of 63. Born Peter Campbell McNeish in Leigh, Lancashire, England, Singer, Songwriter and Guitarist Pete Shelley attended the Bolton Institute of Technology in 1976, where he met fellow musician and college classmate Howard Devoto. They founded Buzzcocks, and together became a vital part of the British Punk movement.
It is true that the British Punk movement would have never erupted in the mid ’70s without the irreverent innovation and bold as well as brash influence of bands like the Sex Pistols, The Clash, but it is also important to name Buzzcocks as well. Often political and certainly anti-establishment, Punk Rock rejected any and all restrictions and carried its own freedoms with a Do It Yourself ethic. The short-lived Sex Pistols may have been the inspiration for almost every British Punk band formed in London, but the Buzzcocks’ Power Pop/Punk Rock fusion made them the most influential band to come out of Manchester.
Not as flamboyant or fashionable as John Lydon and not as overtly political and explosive as Joe Strummer, the unassuming Pete Shelley was more introspective and personal, singing about young romance, love, and heartache in his custom non-gender specific way. Shelley and Buzzcocks’ highly energetic and melodic songs influenced generations, and the band managed to remain an active group for almost five decades; they only temporarily disbanded from 1982-1989, when Shelley showed even more diversity, launching his successful Post-Punk/Synthpop/New Wave solo career.
So, how did the Buzzcocks come to be? The story goes it was on a trip to London that Shelly and DeVoto saw a show of the Sex Pistols, which gave Shelley the determination to come up with something that polarizes an audience. Pistols’ Manager Malcom McLaren introduced them to Bassist Steve Diggle who would become Shelley’s consistent bandmate throughout their lives. They completed their band with Drummer John Mar and in 1976, opened for the Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester. The Buzzcocks were now authenticated with positive reviews from the press and on their way.
With Manager James Richard Boon, the band released one of their very first independent recordings, the Spiral Scratch EP, in January 1977 on their own New Harmones label. The next month, Devoto left to form another band, Magazine, and Shelley took over as lead vocalist, guitarist and songwriter. Between 1977 and 1979, Buzzcocks put out a string of hit singles produced by Martin Rushent, including “Orgasm Addict,” “What Do I Get,” and “Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve’),” which became their most formative song.
From 1978 to 1979, Shelley and the band released three full-length recordings: 1978’s Another Music in a Different Kitchen, followed by Love Bites the same year and 1979’s A Different Kind of Tension, which secured their way into the Top of the UK charts before disbanding in 1981. Thanks to this success the band now had a steady fanbase in both the UK as well as U.S. and were heralded as everything from “Punk’s Beatles” to “Godfathers of Punk.” Even still, Shelley never expected their music to last more than five minutes as Punk group.
Fortunately their music did and it gave Shelley the chance to release another side of his musical personality years later. In fact, in 1980, he returned to the first album he recorded while in college back in 1974, an Experimental Electronic recording, entitled Sky Yen, and released it on his own label Groovy Records. Embracing his first love of electronics, Shelley launched his second solo effort with the 1981 single and the album Homosapien, a Post-Punk/New Wave song with synthesizers and drum machines produced by Rushent. Interestingly enough, Homosapien was banned from the BBC for “explicit reference to gay sex.” Despite this, the song became a top Dance hit and reached Number 14 in the U.S. Dance charts.
Moving forward, Shelley released XL1 in 1983 and the song “Telephone Operator” also became a hit, and the album included a computer program. Now with two hits, his music videos for “Telephone Operator” and “Homosapien” were instant MTV heavy rotation clips. Thus, as a solo artist, Shelley would release a total of 14 singles and six more albums, making him a success individually as well as a part of the Buzzcocks.
Speaking of which, it it was in 1989 Shelley reunited with the Buzzcocks for good. With new Manager Raf Edmonds, they released their fourth studio album, 1993’s Trade Test Transmissions. This time around, Shelley opted to let Diggle do more of the press interviews surrounding the release of the recording. In support of the album, the band toured and performed with Pearl Jam and Nirvana in the U.S. From this point on, Shelley and Diggle, with various lineups, proceeded to release five more critically acclaimed studio albums, with The Way being their last in 2014.
With Shelley sadly passed on, he and the Buzzcocks will remain one of the most influential and inventive groups to emerge in Punk Rock. Most importantly, he will always be remembered fondly by those who knew him. Many people recall him as a gentle, witty, and genuinely nice person. Speaking softly and thoughtfully, Shelley often took every opportunity in any interview to define Punk and always found a bit of humor in the irony of his success. “I signed up for a band to play the most uncommercial music you can think of. Instead, Buzzcocks wound up on Top of the Pops,” he once quipped.
Funny enough, when Shelley began, he aimed to play hard enough to make people walk out – but that never happened. In fact, the people never left. He never expected the success he and the Buzzcocks received, nor to be “contained to entertain.” Diggle, who was certainly highly respectful of his bandmate, saw it as “beautiful songs with amazing dynamics.”
Following his death, the Buzzcocks backed an online campaign to get their seminal hit “Ever Fallen in Love…” to Number 1 on iTunes. “Forty years on from the incredible track being released, the band deserves its first Number 1, plus it would be a brilliant tribute to Pete Shelley. The charts run from Friday to Friday, so get downloading the iconic song below and help us salute Pete!” the Change.org petition stated.
As news of Shelley’s death spread throughout social media, the artist community and fans responded with their comments and condolences. The Charlatans’ Tim Burgess said Shelley’s “perfect three-minute Pop songs” were “the soundtrack to being a teenager.” AllMusic Critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine said: “Buzzcocks were one of the most influential bands to emerge in the initial wave of Punk Rock, with echoes of their music in everyone from Hüsker Dü to Nirvana.”
Peter Hook, the bassist in New Order, said Shelley was a “true gent.” “He helped us so much at the start of our career out of a sheer love for all things Punk. Without Pete and the Buzzcocks, I would probably still be working at the Docks.” Furthermore, Richard Blade of SiriusXM’s First Wave, R.E.M., Dead Kennedys, Teenage Fanclub, and many others all paid tribute to Shelley and honored the musical legacy he has left behind.
Pete Shelley is survived by his wife Greta; his son, Alex; and his brother, Gary McNeish. Bandmate and lifelong friend Steve Diggle once told MTV: “Buzzcocks has its own timeless world. That’s what’s been good about it. That world is on our terms.” Sadly, those terms and their timeless world have changed now without Pete Shelley. However, certainly his legacy and his music will forever remain timeless.