Pete Shelley, leader of seminal punk band the Buzzcocks, dead at 63

Pete Shelley, leader of the legendary British punk band the Buzzcocks and one of rock’s best and most biting lyricists, has passed away from a suspected heart attack. He was 63.

“It’s with great sadness that we confirm the death of Pete Shelley, one of the U.K.’s most influential and prolific songwriters and co-founder of the seminal original punk band Buzzcocks,” the band said in a statement. “Pete’s music has inspired generations of musicians over a career that spanned five decades and with his band and as a solo artist, he was held in the highest regard by the music industry and by his fans around the world.”

Shelley, who was born Peter McNeish, formed the Buzzcocks with Howard Devoto in Manchester, England, after the pair attended a life-changing Sex Pistols concert in February 1976. Adopting a suitably Pistols-esque moniker and recruiting bassist Steve Diggle and drummer John Maher, they played their first show opening for the Pistols at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall on June 20, 1976, and quickly became a virile force to be reckoned with in the burgeoning punk scene. In January 1977, they issued their Spiral Scratch EP — the first punk record to be self-released (Shelley borrowed roughly $300 from his father to record and issue it on the band’s own New Hormones label), thus laying down the D.I.Y. blueprint for countless indie bands to come. Devoto left the band only four days after the EP’s release, but the Buzzcocks soldiered on, with Diggle switching to guitar and Shelley taking on most of the lead vocals.

In fall 1977, the Buzzcocks signed to United Artists Records, who gave the band complete artistic control, and in a breathless period between 1978-79 they released three masterpieces of the punk age: Another Music in a Different Kitchen, Love Bites, and A Different Kind of Tension. However, the Buzzcocks were, first and foremost, the premier singles band of the first punk wave, thus making their 1979 A-sides compilation, Singles Going Steady, one of the greatest punk albums of all time.

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Pete Shelley, leader of punk band the Buzzcocks
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Pete Shelley, leader of punk band the Buzzcocks
Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks performs on stage at the Rainbow Theatre, London, 10th November 1979. (Photo by Chris Mills/Redferns)
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JULY 06: Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks performs during Sounds of the City at Castlefield Bowl on July 6, 2018 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage)
English singer, songwriter and guitarist Pete Shelley performing with the Buzzcocks at The Venue, London, 1979. (Photo by David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JULY 06: Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks performs during Sounds of the City at Castlefield Bowl on July 6, 2018 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage)
English singer, songwriter and guitarist Pete Shelley performing with the Buzzcocks at The Venue, London, 1979. (Photo by David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JULY 06: Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks performs during Sounds of the City at Castlefield Bowl on July 6, 2018 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: Photo of BUZZCOCKS; Pete Shelley (left) with the writer C.P. Lee at the Gramercy Park Hotel (Photo by Roberta Bayley/Redferns)
Frontman Pete Shelley of the British punk band Buzzcocks, performs at Plaza Condesa in the 6th edition of the Marvin Festival, in Mexico City, Saturday, May 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
SAN BERNARDINO, CA - AUGUST 26: (L-R) Singers Steve Diggle and Pete Shelley of The Buzzcocks perform onstage during the Its Not Dead 2 Festival at Glen Helen Amphitheatre on August 26, 2017 in San Bernardino, California. (Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)
NOTTINGHAM, ENGLAND - JULY 22: Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks during Splendour Festival at Wollaton Park on July 22, 2017 in Nottingham, England. (Photo by Tony Woolliscroft/WireImage)
BLACKPOOL, ENGLAND - AUGUST 05: Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks performs on day two of Rebellion Festival at the Tower St Arena at Winter Gardens on August 5, 2016 in Blackpool, England. (Photo by Lorne Thomson/Redferns)
LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS -- Episode 0192 -- Pictured: (l-r) Steve Diggle, Danny Farrant, Pete Shelley and Chris Remington of musical guests Buzzcocks perform on April 20, 2015 -- (Photo by: Lloyd Bishop/NBC)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - MARCH 24: Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks performs in concert at Sala Apolo on March 24, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Xavi Torrent/Redferns via Getty Images)
COCKERMOUTH, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 22: Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks performs on stage during Cockrock music festival at Wellington Farm on July 22, 2012 in Cockermouth, United Kingdom. (Photo by Andrew Benge/Redferns via Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 25: Pete Shelley and John Maher of Buzzcocks perform at Manchester Apollo on May 25, 2012 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES - JULY 24: The Buzzcocks, with Steve Diggle (L), Pete Shelley, and Danny Farrant (rear) perform at 'The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson' at CBS Television City on July 24, 2006 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
LONDON - JUNE 5: Danny Farrant, Pete Shelley, Steve Garvey, Steve Diggle of The Buzzcocks pose with The Mojo Inspiration Award at The MOJO Honours List awards, recognising career-long contributions to popular music, at Shoreditch Town Hall on June 5, 2006 in London, England. (Photo by Jo Hale/Getty Images)
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While many of the original British punk groups, including the Sex Pistols, focused mainly on the political issues of the era, Shelley’s lyrics death with interpersonal politics, exploring such timeless matters of the heart as one-sided crushes, doomed romances, rejection, jealousy, betrayal, and, in the infamous “Orgasm Addict,” sexual frustration. Shelley’s heart-on-ragged-sleeve love/hate songs — “Love You More,” “Ever Fallen In Love?” (famously covered by Fine Young Cannibals in 1987), “What Do I Get?,” “Promises,” and “Why Can’t I Touch It?” — were all highlights of Singles Going Steady, whose coy title cleverly hinted at this recurrent theme.

However, Shelley’s lovesick laments were never tedious; instead, they were the type of songs seemingly specifically engineered to win the listener over in three breathless minutes or less, with impeccable melodies, singalong choruses, and Shelley’s crisp, coquettish vocals lending his caustic words just the right amount of pitch-black humor. By applying punk’s spotty-faced adolescent aggression to the radio single’s hooks-and-harmonies format, he and the Buzzcocks created short, sharp, souped-up powerpop (emphasis on “power”) that sacrificed neither the snottiness of the former nor the sweetness of the latter. In the process, he laid the groundwork for pop-punk and emo bands like Green Day, Nirvana, and Fall Out Boy, as well Britpoppers ranging from Blur to Supergrass.

When the Buzzcocks disbanded in 1981 (Shelley and Diggle reunited the group in 1989 and proceeded to release six more critically acclaimed studio albums, with various lineups, between 1993 and 2014), Shelley — who had released one electronic music solo album, Sky Yen, prior to the Buzzcocks’ formation — became a leader of the 1980s’ synthpop movement. His quirky 1981 music videos for “Telephone Operator” and “Homosapien” were early-MTV staples, and the latter song, an international club hit, was banned by the BBC for “explicit reference to gay sex,” thus cementing Shelley’s status as an LBGTQ icon. In occasional press interviews, Shelley discussed his bisexuality, and it is noteworthy that his songs never employed gender-specific pronouns, thus rendering his lovelorn lyrics relevant to listeners of all orientations.

Shelley was a proud punk until the very end, regularly touring and recording. The Buzzcocks were in the middle of celebrating their four decades as a band, and were scheduled to perform an anniversary concert in the Netherlands next Friday.

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