Pete Shelley's Compact Revolution: Sasha Frere-Jones on the Buzzcocks Frontman
Punk liberated Pete Shelley before most people knew they needed either punk or liberation. In June 1976, he and his friend Howard Devoto arranged the legendary Sex Pistols show in Manchester, England, that Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis saw. But Shelley was already over rock. In 1974, he made Sky Yen, an album created to be woolly and abrasive, with synthetic tones and organs jacked around as if nothing mattered. It's funny and ugly and not very good, but a better thing to do in 1974 than, like, be in a rock band.
Except that so many people wanting to be in rock bands found their way because of Shelley and the Buzzcocks. Kurt Cobain's love of the loud and the de-gendered and singable owed a lot to them. The Smiths are more or less the baroque version of Shelley's vision.
Shelley's revolution was compact and handsome and sad, like a phonograph in a suitcase next to the front door. In their first five years, the Buzzcocks put out four albums, two EPs and no bad songs. And everything started at home -- the Buzzcocks did not find inspiration in Che or May 1968. One of Shelley's early triumphs was born watching a musical on the TV, a primal scene of domesticity. The 1978 single "Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)" took shape when the Buzzcocks were touring with The Clash in 1977. After hearing one of Adelaide's lines from Guys and Dolls on TV -- "Wait until you fall in love with somebody you shouldn't!" -- Shelley wrote the song about a man named Francis he dated for seven years: "I can't see much of a future/Unless we find out what's to blame, what a shame/And we won't be together much longer/Unless we realize that we are the same."
Being the same -- the Greek meaning of "homo" -- allowed Shelley to discuss sexuality without actually discussing it. After the Buzzcocks disbanded briefly in 1981, Shelley released Homosapien, a peak of '80s dance rock. He got banned by the BBC for the title track's lyrics: "Homo superior in my interior/But from the skin out/I'm Homosapien too/And you're Homosapien, too/And I'm Homosapien like you." Even the dumb straight boys understood that sameness.
Shelley's main topic was partnered love, the engine of the domestic, and his emotional key was frustration, the tone of the homebound. One of the shortest, sweetest and loudest songs on the 1979 LP A Different Kind of Tension is "You Say You Don't Love Me," which could be the story of a spouse finding a way out: "You say you don't love me, well that's alright with me/I'm not in love with you, I just want us to do the things we both want to do." It sounded like those things might finally liberate Shelley from the house, site of his pain and his songs.
"I Believe" was Shelley's Freudian high noon, a showdown between the domestic (his parents) and his optimism (himself). "I believe in perpetual motion/And I believe in perfect devotion/I believe in, I believe in/I believe in the things I've never had/I believe in my mum and my dad." The song ends with Shelley screaming "There is no love in this world anymore" for three minutes. When I was 13, I thought it was scary. Now, I think Pete was wrong. We loved him, in or out of the house.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 15 issue of Billboard.