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

Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks in the 1970s. (Photo: Consequence of Sound)
Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks in the 1970s. (Photo: Consequence of Sound)

Pete Shelley, leader of the legendary British punk band the Buzzcocks and one of rock’s best and most biting lyricists, has died 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.”

Photo: The Telegraph
Photo: The Telegraph

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 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 DIY 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, which 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.

Although many of the original British punk groups, including the Sex Pistols, focused mainly on the political issues of the era, Shelley’s lyrics dealt 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. (“I think one of the most meaningful parts of politics is how people relate to each other. I mean, you create your own society through relationships with other people,” Shelley told me in 1996. “So, it’s actually more important than other political issues that you may have forgotten about in five years.”) Shelley’s heart-on-ragged-sleeve love/hate songs — “Love You More,” “Ever Fallen in Love?” (famously covered by Fine Young Cannibals in 1987), “Promises,” “What Do I Get?” 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 over the listener in three 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, Shelley laid the groundwork for pop-punk and emo bands like Green Day, Nirvana and Fall Out Boy, as well as Britpoppers ranging from Blur to Supergrass. While many of Shelley’s disciples went on to much greater mainstream than the Buzzcocks ever did, Shelley, in my 1996 interview with him, expressed no bitterness. “Having money is only one element of success,” he reasoned. “There are other measures of success, such as people liking what we do, and influencing people. And I think I’ve been proven successful in that. As far as the financial part of success, that will come in time.”

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 LGBTQ icon. In occasional press interviews, Shelley discussed his bisexuality and sexual fluidity, 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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