Friday 20 September 2019

Obituary: Pete Shelley

Buzzcocks frontman who effortlessly created singles which became part of the musical landscape

TRUE ORIGINAL: Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks
TRUE ORIGINAL: Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks

Pete Shelley, who died last Thursday aged 63, was a musician whose songs of teenage angst and frustration ensnared a generation of fans with their yearning lyrics, insistent hooks and chainsaw guitar lines. Buzzcocks, the band he formed with Howard Devoto, served as an antidote to the tempestuous politics of their angrier colleagues in the punk movement, most notably in their biggest hit, Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've).

The song was written for a fellow musician, Francis Cookson, with whom Shelley would later live for seven years, and part of the band's appeal lay in their anti-macho persona.

Shelley, who had been involved with gay politics at college, remarked of his sexuality that "it tends to change as much as the weather", and when the band made their Top of the Pops debut he wore a badge declaring: "I Like Boys".

His lyrics were specifically aimed at both sexes, however, and in 2002, he said: "I honestly think Morrissey stole my idea of the non-gender-specific lyric."

He was born Peter Campbell McNeish on April 17, 1955 in Leigh, Lancashire (now part of Greater Manchester). His father, John, was a fitter at Astley Green Colliery, while his mother, Margaret, had worked at a mill in Leigh.

Peter began experimenting musically in his teens, and in 1974 recorded an electronic album, Sky Yen; when he finally released the record in 1980 it received a hostile reception from fans expecting something more like Buzzcocks.

He studied Electronics at Bolton Institute of Technology (now the University of Bolton), where he answered an ad on a noticeboard looking for musicians to form a band. He found a kindred spirit in fellow student Howard Trafford, and they formed Buzzcocks, eventually recruiting Steve Diggle on bass and John Maher, whose machine-gun drumming would be the beating heart of their sound.

The name came after they read a review of the television series about a girl band, Rock Follies. It contained the line "it's the Buzz, Cock!" - "cock" in its slang sense of "mate". Trafford and McNeish changed their names to Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley, "Shelley" being what Pete's family would have called him had he been a girl.

After reading a review of a Sex Pistols concert, the pair drove down to High Wycombe in a borrowed car to see them. They set up the Pistols' first appearance in Manchester, at the Lesser Free Trade Hall - the gig of which it was famously said that although only a few dozen people turned up, everyone there went on to form a band. They had intended to support the Pistols themselves, but were stymied by lack of rehearsal time thanks to complaints from Devoto's neighbours.

Eventually they found St Boniface Church hall in Lower Broughton to rehearse in, and when the Pistols played Manchester again, Buzzcocks were on the bill, garnering ecstatic reviews. They later played a thank-you gig at St Boniface, to an audience composed largely of nine-year-olds.

In January 1977 they borrowed £500 from friends and parents and made the EP Spiral Scratch on their own New Hormones label - making them pioneers of the indie movement. Recorded in half an hour, its stripped-down sound and witty lyrics fitted the punk aesthetic perfectly, encapsulated in the two-note guitar solo on Boredom, which, recalled Shelley, came "out of the blue and seemed to fit. After we'd finished it, we fell about laughing".

Their DIY gamble paid off when John Peel played the EP on his Radio 1 show, and it went on to sell 16,000 copies in six months. On the sleeve the band printed details of the recording process, inspiring a legion of punk rockers to record and distribute their music themselves.

Immediately afterwards, however, Devoto left to resume his Humanities degree, disillusioned with the direction punk was moving in - he went on to form the Art-rocker magazine - and Shelley assumed principal vocal and songwriting duties. Having effectively launched the indie movement, Buzzcocks, now with Diggle on guitar and Garth Smith and then Steve Garvey on bass, signed to a major label, United Artists. But their debut single, Orgasm Addict, released in November 1977, was banned by the BBC for its high smut quotient. Shelley later remarked: "It's the only one I listen to and shudder."

The follow-up, What Do I Get? - "I'm in distress, I need a caress, what do I get?" - entered the Top 40 in February 1978, and their status as punk superstars was cemented by their thrilling debut album the following month, Another Music in a Different Kitchen, produced by Martin Rushent. With its angular riffs and playful lyrics of thwarted romance, raw but intensely melodic, it sounded like the love child of the Beatles and the Stooges.

A mere six months later they avoided the "difficult second album" syndrome with the joyous Love Bites, whose standout track, Ever Fallen in Love, reached No.12, their highest chart placing.

Shelley had written the song after watching the film Guys and Dolls, in which Adelaide tells Sky Masterson: "Wait till you fall in love with someone you shouldn't have." Their third album, A Different Kind of Tension, took on a more experimental and arty bent while retaining punk's emotional and sonic ferocity, but in 1981 the band split amid a dispute with their record company. Shelley returned to his electronic roots, releasing the single Homosapien, which was banned by the BBC for gay references such as "I'm the shy boy, you're the coy boy". During the following decade he did more experimental work, including the 1983 album XL-1, which included a program for the ZX Spectrum computer featuring lyrics and graphics to accompany the music.

When a cover of Ever Fallen in Love by Fine Young Cannibals reached the Top 10, Buzzcocks were inspired to re-form (minus Devoto), making six more albums and touring extensively. By that time, bands such as REM and New Order, had acknowledged them as an inspiration, and Nirvana enlisted them as support act for their final US tour.

Shelley's solo work included the theme tune to Channel 4's coverage of the Tour de France. His final solo album was Cinema Music and Wallpaper Sounds, another pre-Buzzcocks electronic piece.

Though he claimed not to have made much money, Shelley was not bitter.

"The worth of the songs is measured by the effect they have on people," he said in 2002, when he reunited with Devoto to make the electropop LP Buzzkunst.

"I'm not a millionaire, but then again, I'm not starvingly poor. I could do with more, but I didn't sign my life away for £10. The love of the music around the world is worth more than money."

Pete Shelley's first marriage, which produced one son, ended in divorce; in 2012 he moved to Estonia with his second wife, Greta, an Estonian-Canadian artist.

© Telegraph

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