Pete Shel­ley


Mu­si­cian and song­writer Born: April 17, 1955

Died: De­cem­ber 6, 2018

PETE Shel­ley, who has died aged 63, was an English mu­si­cian and song­writer who was most fa­mous as the lead singer of the Buz­zcocks. Al­though the Bolton-founded group were ini­tially ac­tive for half a decade be­tween 1976 and 1981, and their legacy has been en­twined with that of the punk scene which swept the coun­try at the time, then and since their re­turn to ac­tion in 1989 their mu­sic has proven to be about so much more than ni­hilis­tic, itchy-footed teen re­bel­lion.

The Buz­zcocks’ 1977 de­but EP Spi­ral Scratch, how­ever, was very much a shot of purest punk en­ergy. Shel­ley and the group’s co-founder Howard Devoto, who met while stu­dents at Bolton In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy in the mid-70s, were devo­tees of the Sex Pis­tols, who they trav­elled to see in Lon­don. The pair or­gan­ised the Pis­tols’ in­fa­mous gig at Manch­ester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976 and sup­ported them as the Buz­zcocks at the same venue the fol­low­ing month.

“If I seem a lit­tle jit­tery I can’t re­strain my­self / I’m fall­ing into fancy frag­ments, can’t con­tain my­self,” ran the open­ing lines of Break­down, the first track on Spi­ral Scratch. Sel­f­re­leased in Jan­uary 1977 by the band, the record has been recog­nised as one of the first Bri­tish punk releases, and it bears all the hall­marks of DIY Bri­tish punk rock; in par­tic­u­lar, the EP’S third track, Bore­dom, has be­come a clas­sic of the genre. Yet that open­ing lyric sug­gested the self­ex­am­in­ing depths which would re­veal them­selves in Shel­ley’s song­writ­ing.

Devoto left the band in 1977 to form his own group Mag­a­zine, his only other con­tri­bu­tion be­ing to the sim­i­larly punk­ish first sin­gle proper Or­gasm Ad­dict the same year. Af­ter this, Shel­ley took com­plete control of song­writ­ing in the Buz­zcocks, play­ing along­side gui­tarist Steve Dig­gle, bassist Steve Gar­vey and drum­mer John Ma­her, and the group were pro­lific, re­leas­ing 14 sin­gles and three al­bums in their first five-year in­car­na­tion.

The al­bums were An­other Mu­sic in a Dif­fer­ent Kitchen (1978), which fused the ve­loc­ity of punk with in­flu­ences rang­ing from glam to psy­che­delic rock and 1960s beat pop; Love Bites (1978), whose fo­cus on brisk gui­tar-pop spawned the Buz­zcocks’ big­gest and most en­dur­ing hit Ever Fallen in Love (With Some­one You Shouldn’t’ve); and A Dif­fer­ent Kind of Ten­sion (1979), which hinted heav­ily at the emerg­ing and more aus­tere post-punk sound of the 1980s, as well as the chim­ing, an­themic Fac­tory Records sound which would dom­i­nate the North­ern mu­sic scene in the decade af­ter its re­lease. Lis­tened to one af­ter the other, they are a bridg­ing point be­tween all that went be­fore and all that came af­ter.

None of these records were much more than cult hits at the time, with only the first two al­bums and Ever Fallen in Love… go­ing so far as to break the chart top 20. Yet a fea­ture of the group was their en­dur­ing in­flu­ence, with mem­bers of bands as dis­parate as New Or­der, the Smiths, Du­ran Du­ran, REM and Green Day pay­ing trib­ute to Shel­ley in the hours af­ter his death. U2, Bruce Spring­steen and Nir­vana’s Kurt Cobain were also known to be fans.

The sin­gles col­lec­tion Sin­gles Go­ing Steady, re­leased in 1979 in the US and 1981 in the UK, was one of the rea­sons the band ini­tially split due to dis­agree­ment over its re­lease, yet with a cer­tain irony has be­come one of the most de­fin­i­tive and widely-pur­chased record­ings of its era, group­ing Ever Fallen in Love… and Or­gasm Ad­dict with What Do I Get?, I Don’t Mind, Ev­ery­body’s Happy Nowa­days and more to cre­ate a last­ing tes­ta­ment to Shel­ley’s abil­ity as a song­writer of depth, wit and com­pul­sive abil­ity.

His songs spoke of in­se­cu­rity, edgy ro­mance and un­ful­filled sex­ual de­sire, and af­ter the Buz­zcocks split in 1981, his de­but al­bum proper, not count­ing the early elec­tronic ex­per­i­ment Sky Yen and the 1980 sound­track Han­ga­har was 1981’s Ho­mosapien. Pro­duced by Martin Rushent, and banned by the BBC for its open dis­cus­sion of Shel­ley’s bi­sex­u­al­ity, it’s since gone on to be­come a cult clas­sic of the early 1980s’ New Wave and elec­tronic era.

Shel­ley’s later solo records were XL1 (1983), Heaven and the Sea (1986) and, more re­cently, Cinema Mu­sic and Wall­pa­per Sounds (2016). The Buz­zcocks re­formed in 1989 and he and Dig­gle kept them go­ing through six more LPS – from Trade Test Trans­mis­sion (1993) to The Way (2014) – none of which spawned any hits, yet all of which con­tin­ued the legacy of an ex­pres­sive and master­ful song­writer through­out his later life. With new re­cruits on bass and drums, the band con­tin­ued to en­joy play­ing live and were sched­uled to ap­pear at Belle & Se­bas­tian’s Boaty Week­ender cruise on the Mediter­ranean in sum­mer 2019.

Pete Shel­ley was born Peter Camp­bell Mcneish in Leigh, Lan­cashire, to mill worker Margaret and col­liery fit­ter John in 1955. He was raised in the town with his younger brother Gary, and – al­though his pri­vate life wasn’t a mat­ter of pub­lic record – it was known he had been mar­ried twice and had chil­dren. At the time of his death from a heart at­tack he lived in Tallinn, Es­to­nia, the home city of his wife Greta.

“By all rea­son, we should have out­lived our use,” Shel­ley told on­line mu­sic mag­a­zine the Qui­etus just be­fore his 60th birth­day, re­fer­ring to the Buz­zcocks. “But maybe that’s the myth of the ‘now’ cul­ture… I do baulk at the idea of be­ing a nos­tal­gia act, be­cause peo­ple still find the songs an in­spi­ra­tion… and if you look around, how many other bands are there like Buz­zcocks, any­way?”

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