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.
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shaggy hair and impressive beard enlarge his small frame, and the large glasses that were once part of his look have been replaced by a pair of cooler, thicker-rimmed specs.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.”