Pete Shelley Was an Innovator Far Beyond Punk
U.K. punk pioneer Pete Shelley, singer, guitarist, and primary songwriter of The Buzzcocks, died Thursday (Dec. 6) in Estonia, where he was living, at 63 of a heart attack. The announcement was made by his brother Gary McNeish (Peter Campbell McNeish is Shelley’s non-professional name), and confirmed by the band’s management.
Although neither The Buzzcocks nor the singer’s solo output achieved significant U.S. sales, Shelley’s influence on several generations and musical genres is indisputable. The Buzzcocks' debut – January 1977’s Spiral Scratch EP – was U.K. punk’s first self-released record, one that proved young musicians could at least temporarily bypass the musical establishment, and it paved the way for its producer Martin Hannett to define post-punk through his subsequent work with Joy Division.
Its success lead to a contract with United Artists, which released the Manchester, England quartet’s series of U.K. Top 40 hits -- including classics like "What Do I Get?," ""Everybody's Happy Nowadays" and "Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't Have)" -- which were collected on 1979’s Singles Going Steady compilation. That set endures as one of punk’s smartest, catchiest and bittersweetest achievements, largely thanks to Shelley’s alternatingly melancholic and cheeky songwriting, which often favored tricky chord progressions amidst surging tempos and ultra-tight rhythms. (In 2003, Singles Going Steady was #360 on Rolling Stone’s The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time). The band’s other initial LPs, 1978’s Another Music in a Different Kitchen (U.K. No. 15 peak) and Love Bites (U.K. No. 13), and 1979’s A Different Kind of Tension (U.K. No. 26, U.S. No. 163) also rank high among first-wave punk’s essential documents.
Because The Buzzcocks are forever associated with the speedy, churning, pop-punk template they helped create, it’s not always acknowledged that Shelley also contributed significantly to several styles of synthesizer music. Recorded in 1974 -- before the Buzzcocks’ formation -- but not released until 1980, his debut solo album Sky Yen combined the relaxing drones of early Tangerine Dream with the unsettling roar of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. (A sequel of sorts, Cinema Music and Wallpaper Sounds, recorded in 1976, was released in 2016.)
Following the Buzzcocks’ breakup in 1981, Shelley’s solo career began that same year with a pair of hugely influential synth-dominated singles. The first one, “Homosapien,” was a staple of new wave clubs (it reached No. 14 on Billboard’s Disco/Dance chart), and its video featured on the earliest days of MTV. “Witness the Change” – the unconventionally funky instrumental B-side of the follow-up single “I Don’t Know What It Is” – also became a breakdance staple when it appeared on New York’s R&B/dance radio stations WBLS and WKTU, and helped shape what was soon known as electro. Along with early singles by the Human League, who shared his producer Martin Rushent and nearly identical sonics, Shelley defined early-‘80s synth-pop.
While breaking down barriers between guitar rock and synth-pop, Shelley also broke ground on the LGBTQ forefront. The BBC rejected the Buzzcocks’ first proper single, 1977’s “Orgasm Addict,” a playful representation of Shelley’s bisexuality, but championed much of what followed from the band in the ‘70s, like their highest-charting U.K. hit, the No. 12-peaking “Ever Fallen in Love." In this and other Buzzcocks songs, Shelley pointedly avoided gender-specific pronouns as a way of reflecting his own sexual experience -- making the songs universally relatable, and countering the hyper-masculinity of punk contemporaries like The Stranglers. Nevertheless, the BBC also banned “Homosapien” for its “explicit reference to gay sex.” Shelley maintained that its rather tame, yet supposedly offending line, “Homo superior in my interior,” acknowledged his debt to Hunky Dory-era David Bowie; specifically “Oh! You Pretty Things.”
When The Buzzcocks reunited – for the first time in 1989 with the original lineup, and then with decades of various bassists and drummers, which briefly included Mike Joyce of The Smiths – subsequent generations enjoyed the intensity and joy Shelley and fellow singer/guitarist/songwriter Steve Diggle brought to the band. Kurt Cobain adored The Buzzcocks, and the band supported Nirvana on the Seattle superstars’ final tour in 1994. In 2003, they similarly supported Pearl Jam, and in 2012, Shelley -- now old enough to have fathered much of the band’s 21st century audience -- beamed with bemusement as a euphoric Coachella crowd sang back at him so loudly as to nearly drown him out. In his greatest songs, Shelley presented himself as an underdog, the guy who failed to snag his dream girl/boy in “What Do I Get?”; the damaged but unwavering romantic of “Love You More.” But in his legacy, Shelley will forever remain victorious.