Burke Shel­ley

Close but never smok­ing the big cigar, Budgie in­flu­enced a slew of bands who then over­took them. Bassist/vo­cal­ist/prime mover Burke Shel­ley re­calls 40 on-off years rockin’ hard, dic­ing with death and find­ing God.

Classic Rock - - CONTENTS - Words: Grant Moon Por­traits: Adam Gas­son

Budgie in­flu­enced a slew of bands who then over­took them. Bassist/vo­cal­ist/prime mover Burke Shel­ley re­calls 40 on-off years rockin’ hard, dic­ing with death and find­ing God.

Welsh trio Budgie were 15 years and nine stu­dio al­bums into their ca­reer when, in Au­gust 1982, they first stepped through the Iron Cur­tain to un­der­take their first tour of Poland. By that time, in the UK the hard-gig­ging band were ac­cus­tomed to play­ing de­cent-sized venues – the Mar­quee, The Whiskey, Ham­mer­smith Odeon; in Poland they found them­selves play­ing sta­di­ums and sports are­nas – 17 sold­out shows to thou­sands of bay­ing fans each night.

“We did this one gig, and the ZOMO [para­mil­i­tary po­lice] were there on stage, bassist/vo­cal­ist Shel­ley tells Clas­sic Rock. “They were just crim­i­nals in uni­forms, with white sticks, guns if needed. Peo­ple hated them. The young kids in the au­di­ence were spit­ting at them and curs­ing them out. They got hold of one kid and beat him re­ally badly. We had to get off be­cause a riot was about to start. But our drum­mer at the time, Steve [Williams], was a brave lad. He got hold of an in­ter­preter, went back down to the stage and man­aged to calm the at­mos­phere. He said: ‘Look, we’ve come here to rock. Noth­ing po­lit­i­cal. We just want to play.’ We went back on, and it was a great show in the end.”

From that tour on­wards, Budgie re­ceived a hero’s wel­come from Pol­ish au­di­ences when­ever they played there. Just three years ago Shel­ley re­turned to ac­cept a pres­ti­gious Open Door award on be­half of the band.

“It was a big deal,” he says. “I was sit­ting there with all these he­roes of the un­der­ground re­sis­tance, fa­mous po­ets, peo­ple who had re­ally risked their lives [against the com­mu­nist regime] and whose friends had been tor­tured or killed. We were told we’d been the mu­si­cal back­drop to it, and that was amaz­ing. We can’t re­late to it here.”

We’re in Cardiff, a stone’s throw from Llan­ishen, where John Burke Shel­ley grew up. He turns 70 this April, and in per­son he’s friendly, witty, forth­right, and just a lit­tle bit flinty. His big, shaggy hair and im­pres­sive beard en­large his small frame, and the large glasses that were once part of his look have been re­placed by a pair of cooler, thicker-rimmed specs. There’s a bass gui­tar in the room, and noodling away at it seems to put him at ease as we talk. His tal­ent for the in­stru­ment, along with his pow­er­ful high voice and his deft way with words, helped make Budgie so highly re­garded, from their roots in the late 60s to now.

Budgie were never fash­ion­able, never be­came as well known Sab­bath, Priest or Maiden did, but they re­main part of the fabric of hard rock and metal. They’re spo­ken of in rev­er­ent tones by swathes of rock afi­ciona­dos, and their big, ver­sa­tile pro­tometal sound made its mark on some of the ma­jor acts that fol­lowed them: Van Halen, Me­tal­lica, Iron Maiden and Soundgar­den are just a few of the ma­jor artists who have tipped them the nod.

Back in the 1950s, be­fore all this hap­pened, Shel­ley en­joyed an idyl­lic post-war child­hood in Wales. The sec­ond-el­dest of seven chil­dren, he would climb trees, catch trout in the stream, nick rhubarb from the lo­cal farmer’s field and lark about in school.

“I had a ball as a child,” he re­calls fondly. “I’d skive off ex­ams and get into trou­ble, but I knew I had a brain. Later I used to read a lot – Den­nis Wheat­ley, that sort of rub­bish; back then ev­ery­body was on a mac­ro­bi­otic diet and read­ing Car­los Cas­taneda and Aldous Hux­ley. And I al­ways mucked around with words. I like puns, metaphors, lit­er­ary de­vices, things that amuse me. When peo­ple ask me how I am these days my usual re­tort is: ‘Still ver­ti­cal.’”

When he was a teenager his dad bought him a gui­tar, and he set to work learn­ing Frankie And Johnny from Bert Wee­don’s gui­tar col­umn in one of the Sun­day pa­pers. He would write songs with a friend, and he was just 16 when he drafted the first ver­sion of Par­ents, which would go on to be one of Budgie’s best-loved songs.

As with most of his gen­er­a­tion, The Beatles fired his early mu­si­cal imag­i­na­tion, but what made the dream real for him was see­ing lo­cal boy Dave Ed­munds’ trio play at a lo­cal youth club event in the mid-60s.

“This was flower-power time,” Shel­ley ex­plains. “They’d painted the walls black, they had all the gear, it was cov­ered in net­ting and they had lu­mi­nous flow­ers all over it. I thought: ‘This is cool!’ They opened up with River Deep – Moun­tain High, did a bunch of blues and I Am The Wal­rus. I was stunned. I was train­ing to be a quan­tity sur­veyor at the time, but when I left that place I thought: ‘I gotta form a band!’”

Through a mu­tual friend Shel­ley found gui­tarist Brian God­dard. Drum­mer Ray Phillips had pinned an ad on the no­tice board at Gam­lin’s, then

“I’m not fright­ened of dy­ing, be­cause I know where I’m go­ing. I want to spend my eter­nity

with Je­sus Christ in heaven.”

Cardiff’s main mu­sic shop. An­other gui­tarist friend told Shel­ley he was teach­ing a few licks to this kid called Tony Bourge, and he was pretty good. “So I met Tony for a knock [a jam]. He sug­gested All Your Love by The Blues­break­ers, and he was good. I found out later it’s the only song he knew!”

With Shel­ley on bass, from ’67 into ’68 the four worked up a set of “riffy stuff”: John May­all, Spooky Tooth, Hendrix, and some orig­i­nal songs too, in­clud­ing an early ver­sion of fu­ture Budgie es­sen­tial You’re The Big­gest Thing Since Pow­dered Milk.

And then Shel­ley heard Led Zep­pelin. “They were the root of ev­ery­thing that would later be called heavy metal,” he says. “I heard them play Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Break­down on John Peel, and I thought: ‘Right, that’s us.’ We were riff­ing, they were riff­ing. Robert Plant sang high, and I could sing high.” When God­dard dropped out, Shel­ley, Bourge and Phillips packed in their jobs, and the three-piece Budgie re­ally took wing.

This was when the coal mines of the South Wales val­leys were still thriv­ing, and with them the com­mu­ni­ties around them. Ev­ery town had sev­eral work­ing men’s clubs – Labour, Con­ser­va­tive, Lib­eral – and would al­ways be busy. Shel­ley phoned ev­ery sin­gle one. Those run by com­mit­tee could be sniffy about the band’s new-fan­gled heavy riff-rock

– Budgie were reg­u­larly kicked out of places for be­ing too damn loud. “The com­mit­tee mem­bers used to say things like: ‘Turn it down two tones!’ I still have no idea what ‘two tones’ means! But then we’d play, say, Ll­wynypia Youth Club, and the kids would love it. We were blast­ing away, and we built up a fol­low­ing among the kids.”

Budgie’s big break came when they had a shot at au­di­tion­ing for pro­ducer Rodger Bain, who had set up at Rock­field Stu­dios in nearby Mon­mouth. The trio went in and played some of their own tunes.

“I don’t know why I was so con­fi­dent,” says Shel­ley. “But we went up there and played, and he said: ‘You’re ex­actly what I’m look­ing for. I’ve only signed two bands – you and this other band. When they’re fin­ished do­ing their demos, you go in and do yours.’ It was Black Sab­bath. That’s partly why peo­ple say we were on the same start­ing block for ‘heavy metal’, or what­ever.”

“I heard Led Zep­pelin play Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Break­down on John Peel and I thought:

‘Right, that’s us.’”

Budgie’s self-ti­tled de­but al­bum was re­leased in 1971. The bluesy Guts, the eight-minute Nude Dis­in­te­grat­ing Parachutis­t Woman and Homi­ci­dal Sui­ci­dal (later cov­ered by Soundgar­den) show­cased the trio’s big, bluesy, sledge­ham­mer sound, while its short acous­tic in­ter­ludes Ev­ery­thing In My Heart and You And I hinted at the emo­tional and dy­namic depth that would char­ac­terise and el­e­vate Budgie’s early cat­a­logue.

“The kids who fol­lowed us all bought the record straight away,” Shel­ley re­calls. “And [DJ] Kid Jensen at Ra­dio Lux­em­bourg loved the al­bum and played it to death, so we had big ini­tial sales.

“We were only in our twen­ties and were just muck­ing around. Hon­estly, the things we’d say to each other. Me, Ray and Tony loved ar­gu­ing be­tween us and swear­ing at each other just for

the sake of it. Any­one else would won­der what was go­ing on, but it was just the way we were!”

Budgie be­gan to re­ally pack them in live, and over­all made real progress. They ven­tured out to Ger­many, got press at­ten­tion, and re­leased sec­ond al­bum Squawk in ’72. They started mak­ing some money and paid off their debts. The gigs got big­ger, and they played uni­ver­si­ties, halls and name clubs. “The Mar­quee was a big one,” says Shel­ley. “And we played the real Cav­ern Club [in Liver­pool], be­fore the id­iots tore it down. MCA bought our con­tract from Rodger, and each al­bum did bet­ter than the last.”

Along with a 10-minute re­work­ing of that early song Par­ents, 1973’s Never Turn Your Back On A Friend fea­tured what would be­come Budgie’s sig­na­ture tune: Bread­fan. This was the one the fans would shout for, the one that would al­ways be saved for the en­core. Cut­ting out the slow mid­dle sec­tion, the band would let the bril­liantly cre­ative Bourge (and later his re­place­ment ‘Big’ John Thomas) give it some on gui­tar.

In 1988 Me­tal­lica recorded Bread­fan for the B-side of their sin­gle Har­vester Of Sor­row. That was when Shel­ley re­alised the band must have had some sort of im­pact. “I think a lot of Me­tal­lica fans think they wrote Bread­fan, then see that it was by this band called Budgie,” he says. “We got a lift from all that, it gave us some street cred. Ac­tu­ally Lars [Ul­rich] phoned me up once in the eight­ies want­ing to pro­duce us. I said: ‘Thanks, Lars, but I like to do these things my­self!’ He’s a good lad.”

Me­tal­lica would also cover Crash Course In Brain Surgery, from Budgie’s 1974 Top 30 UK al­bum In For The Kill, and Van Halen played its ti­tle song in their early set. (Check out the grainy recorded proof on YouTube – tinyurl.com/rdxd­s2b. It’s well worth hear­ing for David Lee Roth de­scrib­ing what a budgie is – “It’s a kind of bird, man. The one that sits on top of a hip­popota­mus” – and Roth rightly la­ment­ing Budgie’s lack of com­mer­cial suc­cess in the States.)

“I think a lot of Me­tal­lica fans think they wrote Bread­fan, then see that it was by this

band called Budgie.”

Iron Maiden also gave Budgie the nod, in ’92, when they cov­ered I Can’t See My Feel­ings from the Welsh band’s sem­i­nal fifth al­bum Ban­dolier, which fea­tured the multi-lay­ered suite Napoleon Bona-Part One and Two. This seemed to chime with the pro­gres­sive rock scene that was big at the time, as did the more imag­i­na­tive flights of fancy on Budgie’s last two eclec­tic al­bums of the 70s: If I Were Brit­ta­nia I’d Waive The Rules and Im­peck­able. At least some of us think so.

“You’re de­scrib­ing them that way, but I don’t think of them that way,” Shel­ley says with a shrug. “They’re just songs to me. We’d just write what we liked, and we’d never think about how it fits into the mu­sic scene. I’ve had this idea most of my play­ing life: don’t do any­thing to please the crowd, have a lit­tle faith and please your­self. That way you build a fol­low­ing of peo­ple who like what you do and you’re com­fort­able. When punk came along, all these rock’n’rollers got their hair spiked up overnight. It looks so pa­thetic to jump on the band­wagon.”

Brum­mie gui­tarist John Thomas re­placed Bourge into the 80s, and his more straight-ahead rock style and crunch­ing, cho­rused gui­tar sound was a new el­e­ment on Power Sup­ply (1980), Night­flight (’81) and De­liver Us From Evil (’82). How­ever, Shel­ley says he “wasn’t al­ways happy with John’s ap­proach. He’d give me a cas­sette with a new song idea, and I’d say: ‘John, this is ex­actly the same as the last one ex­cept you’ve turned the chords around!’ I’d try and dig some­thing out, try to make it orig­i­nal.”

Budgie were thriv­ing on the NWOBHM scene they’d helped to cre­ate. By the end of 1982 they’d sup­ported Ozzy Os­bourne at Wem­b­ley, head­lined the Fri­day bill of Read­ing Fes­ti­val, then in Au­gust came that tri­umphant first tour of Poland. Poland is also where the band came to an abrupt end, in 2010.

Shel­ley, drum­mer Steve Williams and for­mer Dio gui­tarist Craig Goldy had flown there, all set for an­other se­ries of shows. For a few years, Shel­ley had no­ticed, and duly ig­nored, a bump in his lower ab­domen. While there, his team per­suaded him to pay a few zlo­tys to get it looked at, just to check. Af­ter a scan, the doc­tor di­ag­nosed an aor­tic aneurysm – a large bulge in the cen­tral artery wall. If the artery wall split it could prove fa­tal. He was told he prob­a­bly wouldn’t make it to the end of the tour. It was a won­der he was still ver­ti­cal at all.

“Next thing I’m at a hospi­tal, on a trol­ley, and the doc­tor’s look­ing over me say­ing: ‘Breathe into this…’ Then I’m wak­ing up in a ward.”

The emer­gency op­er­a­tion to re­pair the aneurysm was a suc­cess, but it was ex­tremely in­va­sive. The sur­geon had to open Shel­ley’s chest and cut through the mus­cles to get to the artery. He spent nine days in hospi­tal be­fore re­turn­ing home to re­cu­per­ate.

“I couldn’t straighten up to shave, so I grew the beard. When I came out I was in good spir­its. The car ar­rives, I’m wheeled out to the air­port, I’m the first through cus­toms, first on the plane and first off. Same thing at Heathrow. It was an ad­ven­ture.

“But af­ter the op­er­a­tion I couldn’t sing. Even now. I’d have dif­fi­culty hit­ting the high notes, and squeak­ing down the mic was one of my spe­cial­i­ties. Yes, it’s a big dis­ap­point­ment, but I’m not into self-pity. There’s no point whinge­ing about it, you just get on with life.”

Shel­ley called time on Budgie that year. While he no longer sings, and ac­tu­ally strug­gles to stand for long pe­ri­ods of time these days, he still plays bass in his lo­cal area with old friends, whom he af­fec­tion­ately calls Dad’s Army. It’s just a so­cial thing for him now.

Last year Shel­ley was di­ag­nosed with a sec­ond aneurysm, higher up in his body and larger than the pre­vi­ous one. He has been told that this one is crit­i­cal – life-threat­en­ing – and re­quires im­me­di­ate treat­ment. But, based on his own past ex­pe­ri­ences and that of close fam­ily, he’s been re­luc­tant to go un­der the knife again. He fears the cure could be worse than the af­flic­tion, and that his qual­ity of life may never be the same, and frankly he’s get­ting ex­as­per­ated talk­ing about it.

“Look, we don’t need to talk about any more med­i­cal stuff,” he in­sists. “I did an in­ter­view re­cently, I thought we were hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion. But when the guy wrote it up it was all about the med­i­cal stuff. I kept get­ting these calls from peo­ple say­ing: ‘Burke, you’re dy­ing! I hear you’re dy­ing!’ It hap­pens, you know. I’ve al­ways had this thing called Stick­ler syn­drome. One of the things with it is your body isn’t good at mak­ing col­la­gen, and all your tis­sues are made of that. The thought is that’s why I got the aneurysms. I dunno. It’s just one of those things. I haven’t made up my mind about any­thing yet. I’m look­ing into my op­tions.”

Life – as we’ve all been re­minded in no uncer­tain terms in 2020 – is pre­cious. Twice di­vorced,

Shel­ley has two chil­dren. What do they think he should do?

“I don’t know,” he says, as if it’s never oc­curred to him. “I’ve prob­a­bly told you more than I’ve told them. They’d prob­a­bly say they would like me to have the op­er­a­tion.” Surely it’s con­stantly on his mind? He sighs, plucks a bass string hard and shakes his head. “I don’t think about it at all. You don’t feel it, you don’t feel in pain. If it bursts, it bursts. I’ll have a heart at­tack and go.” He gives a fa­tal­is­tic chuckle. Talk­ing to Burke Shel­ley, it’s clear that he doesn’t do any­thing he doesn’t want to. Af­ter all, his blood­y­mind­ed­ness is partly what fu­elled Budgie’s own glo­ri­ous, im­por­tant arc. But who wouldn’t want him to stay ver­ti­cal for as long as pos­si­ble?

“I’m not stupid,” he adds, bring­ing the topic to a close. “I don’t want to jeop­ar­dise the life I’ve been given, but I don’t fear dy­ing.”

There’s a big, spir­i­tual rea­son for this. In 1980, dur­ing re­hearsal ses­sions with John Thomas in Birm­ing­ham, Shel­ley found him­self in a se­cond­hand book­shop, and came across a pocket-sized King James Bi­ble, a First World War sol­dier’s edi­tion. When he bought it, the lady at the counter asked if he be­lieved in God. He said he did. She asked if he’d been saved. He said he didn’t know. She asked if she could pray for him. He said okay. He took that bi­ble on the road af­ter that, and read it reg­u­larly on the tour bus. Then 10 years later he at­tended a church meet­ing in Cardiff that con­verted him once and for all.

“I heard the great Geraint Fielder preach­ing about sin” he ex­plains. “And be­tween that and what I’d been read­ing, the penny dropped. Ev­ery­thing fell into place. I’m not fright­ened of dy­ing, be­cause I know where I’m go­ing. I want to spend my eter­nity with Je­sus Christ in heaven. If I have a heart at­tack I don’t want to be re­vived. Let me go, mate. Give some­body else my bed!”

As he says those words, Burke Shel­ley, the cult rocker, the Budgie linch­pin, the Cardiff boy who wound up a Pol­ish folk hero, strums those bass strings softly and chuck­les again.

“We’d just write what we liked, and we’d never think about how it fits into the mu­sic scene.”

Burke Shel­ley: pho­tographed and in­ter­viewed shortly be­fore UK lock­down be­gan, March 16, 2019.

See­ing a gig by fel­low Welsh­man Dave Ed­munds (cen­tre, with Love Sculp­ture) gave Shel­ley the im­pe­tus to form a band.

Shel­ley fronting Budgie in 1978.

Budgie in 1974: (l-r) Burke Shel­ley, gui­tarist Tony Bourge, drum­mer Ray Phillips.

Fly­ing high: Budgie play­ing the Read­ing Fes­ti­val in 1980.

Me­tal­lica cov­er­ing Bread­fan in ’88 was a huge boost for Budgie. “It gave us some street cred,” says Shel­ley.

Shel­ley and John Thomas back­stage at the Pf­in­gst­fes­tiva in Wiesen, Aus­tria, 1983.

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