RIP Pete Shelley. I would suggest three minutes silence, but Buzzcocks would have said it all in 2 minutes and 59 seconds.
When I spoke to Shelley a few days ago for my podcast ‘The Green Room’, he was in good spirits, looking forward to another busy year, and especially looking forward to performing the entirety of the Singles Going Steady collection at the Albert Hall in London. He died suddenly on Thursday of a heart attack at the age of 63. He was a hero of mine and of many others. They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, but I found Shelley patient and witty when I accosted him at a Damned gig in 1987, no less patient and witty when I met him again backstage at a Buzzcocks gig 30 years later, and still patient and witty when we spoke last week in what turned out to be his final interview.
Two poets named Shelley have graced the English language. One was Percy, and the other is Pete. Just as an intellectual is someone who can hear the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger, so a true lover of a three-minute pop song is someone who, hearing the words ‘Shelley’ and ‘Manchester’, thinks not of ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ and the Peterloo Massacre, but of ‘What Do I Get?’, ‘Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t Have)?’, ‘I Don’t Mind’, and the dozens of other songs that Pete Shelley wrote and sang with Buzzcocks.
Of all the songwriters who broke through in the wake of the Sex Pistols, Shelley was the subtlest when it came to the chord changes, and most lyrical when it came to the love song. For Shelley wrote love songs, and that placed him in the line of lyric poets. ‘But after all, life’s only death’s recompense,’ has a touch of Keats. An earlier master of the three-minute pop song like Cole Porter might have envied this:
I’ve lost a lover
That’s why I’m hurtin’
I’ll find another
Of that I’m certain
And Auden, if he had been working with a four-piece band that used a twin Les Paul guitar attack, might have come up with this:
I believe in the web of fate
I believe that I’m going to be late
So I’ll be leaving
What I believe in
There is no love in this world anymore
I took lessons in rhythm guitar from Buzzcocks by playing along to Singles Going Steady, but I still can’t busk my way through some of Shelley’s chord sequences. They’re entirely unique and, like all great art, they express their own internal logic. One of the surprises in our podcast is that Shelley, as a student in Bolton in the mid-Seventies, had bought an old gramophone and some 78s to play on it. These ‘old-time’ songs, he said, suggested quirky song structures, and another Buzzcocks’ trademark, the solo that restates the vocal line. Buzzcocks had the best tunes of any punk band, because they had the broadest sensibility — a mixture of American pop, English humor and Germanic experiment.
Less surprising is that Shelley, coiner of so many memorable lines, was a hilarious interviewee. How, I asked, did he and Steve Diggle get that amazing guitar sound? ‘It was just basically saying, turn everything up to 11,’ Shelley confirms. Punk, he reckons, ‘was like heavy metal, played badly’. When Buzzcocks made their first recordings, the studio engineer called them ‘the fastest thing on two reels’. As for technique: ‘As soon as the singer says four, you start playing.’
Buzzcocks stopped playing in 1980, but reformed in 1988 and have kept going ever since. They remained tremendous live and, unlike almost all the other punk revivalists, they still wrote new material. To mark the fortieth anniversary of the first two Buzzcocks’ albums — yes, they wrote and recorded two albums in a year, while touring all the time — Domino Records have remastered and reissued both of them on vinyl. As there are two albums, we thought the only appropriate response was a punk-style twofer. So while I cast the pod with Pete, Spectator USA’s resident rock guru Luke Haines paid tribute to the Buzzers in our lead arts review.
‘Buzzcocks ’78,’ Luke wrote, ‘conjures images of Woolworths, sharing fags under rain-sodden, wood-rotten bus shelters, snogging on the top deck of the bus, chip shops, wet Wednesday afternoons, Wimpy bars, being ‘chucked’ by girls called Julie, and then wanting to kill yourself.’
‘That’s the power of music, isn’t it?’ Pete Shelley said to me a few days ago. ‘It brings back memories like the waft of perfume or the taste of ice cream.’