February 2019

Arts & Letters

Pete Shelley’s Buzzcocks: 40 years on

By Luke Goodsell

Buzzcocks in 1977: (from left) Pete Shelley, Steve Diggle and Garth Smith. © Erica Echenberg / Redferns / Getty Images

The history and legacy of a punk pioneer

The first time I encountered Pete Shelley, I had no idea who Buzzcocks were, and the barest conception of punk. As an ’80s-teen-movie-obsessed kid, I knew him only as the performer of “Do Anything”, the playful power-pop song that opens the soundtrack to Some Kind of Wonderful. John Hughes films had a knack for introducing British post-punk to the cultureless trash of new suburbia; they also speak, of course, to the teenage outsider in many of us, regardless of when you experience them. And you don’t need to be cool to be transported upon first hearing Buzzcocks’ indelible “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)”, to feel Shelley’s ache as he sings “You make me feel like dirt, and I’m hurt”, or to recognise his conflicted desire – queer, straight, whatever. Buzzcocks peeled back punk rock’s sometimes prohibitive, macho posturing; they were, as the writer Simon Reynolds put it in his recent piece on Shelley for Pitchfork, “misfits among the misfits”.

When Shelley passed away, aged 63, in December 2018, that sense of connection was palpable. Tributes rolled in: from admirers; from fans who identified with his sexual ambiguity; from bands such as The Raincoats, New Order, the Pixies, and many more. And while it’s merely sad coincidence that Buzzcocks’ first two albums have just been reissued, UK label Domino’s deluxe 40th-anniversary pressings of 1978’s Another Music in a Different Kitchen and Love Bites – complete with new liner notes by the great punk chronicler Jon Savage – serve as a fitting testament to Shelley. They vividly capture his band, at what would be their definitive musical moment.

And what music it is. By 1978, Buzzcocks had the blistering 10-minute EP Spiral Scratch and a handful of singles to their name, and something to prove. Punk was already a six o’clock news caricature thanks to the Sex Pistols’ antics, and the scene had begun to splinter; new wave bands were emerging, not the least of which were art rockers Magazine, led by ex-Buzzcocks singer Howard Devoto. (“I don’t like movements,” he’d told the press of his defection from punk.) The tension is barely contained in the opening seconds of Another Music: reprising his cheeky two-note guitar solo from 1977’s “Boredom”, Shelley throws down, and the band launches into a full-tilt assault that pierces rock ’n’ roll fantasy. “I hate fast cars!” Shelley sings, on “Fast Cars”. “They’re nice and precise, each one begins and ends.”

The statement could be a blueprint for the album. In a compact 35 minutes, these 11 songs thrash and hum with serrated guitars and earworm melodies, punk rock noise laced with hooks, a touch of camp, and an emotional sensitivity that was hardly the anarchy du jour. Like the best of its kin from across the Atlantic, the record marries loud, buzzing guitars and breakneck speed to vocals that conjure the first half of pop from the 1960s: the good half, before the noodling and concept albums started creeping in. The interplay of abrasive guitars and pop songcraft, caught in the crisp production of soon-to-be synth-pop maestro Martin Rushent, creates a compelling dynamic; Shelley’s vocals walk a highwire between nasal sneer and wounded vulnerability. “You let your flesh creep over me,” he yowls on “You Tear Me Up”, before descending into a comical paroxysm of lust, guitars squealing away in a giggling Greek chorus: “You’re a bloody swine!”

Flipping punk’s perceived machismo, Shelley, who was bisexual, crucially wrote from a gender ambiguous perspective – doubly rare in the heterosexual-skewed landscape of big guitar rock. Born Peter McNeish to working-class parents in Leigh, near Manchester, the musician built gender duality into his identity: he took the surname Shelley, claiming it was his parents’ option if he’d been a girl, and also as a tribute to Shelley Winters. (Ironically, the actress had herself adopted the first name in a nod to the Romantic poet.) As a teenager, he’d worshipped Marc Bolan, gravitated towards the pangender rock ’n’ roll lyricism of Lou Reed, David Bowie. “I try to keep the lyrics I write ambisexual,” Shelley told the music journalist Tony Parsons in 1977.

Nowhere is that better exemplified than in Buzzcocks’ signature tune, an anthem of unrequited love if ever there was one. Shelley pinched the chorus for “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” from a line of dialogue in the 1955 movie Guys and Dolls, but the song was really written about Francis Cookson, a man with whom he’d lived. “We won’t be together much longer, unless we realise that we are the same,” he pleads, while guitarist Steve Diggle’s plaintive background chant of “love” trails off into the darkness. In the true spirit of teenage melodrama, the whole thing sounds like the world’s about to end – the mournful minor-key undertow threatening to drag the narrator below the surface – until it doesn’t, and the exuberance of the music, its inescapable momentum, reminds him that the crush is always more exciting than the consummation. It’s not your typical punk blast circa 1978, but Shelley wasn’t fazed. “The stereotype of a punk hadn’t been formed,” he told Pitchfork in 2009.

In an episode of Granada TV’s What’s On in 1978, host (and Factory Records co-founder) Tony Wilson asks the singer if he’s “not surprised that the great bored, blank generation are now into love songs à la Pete Shelley?” “I think people have more things to do than to just talk about how bored they are,” Shelley replies. “Falling in love is one of those things that most people do.” On Another Music’s classic single “I Don’t Mind”, we bear witness to just how far he’ll fall, spun out of control by the wild rush of new affection. “I don’t know if I’m an actor or ham, a shaman or sham,” Shelley flails, upended by a feeling he can’t get a handle on. The music throws him into the delirious swoon of romance, only for him to ask, “Is it all in my head?”

Fans had taken note. In the January 1977 issue of Britain’s New Musical Express, a reader by the name of Steven Morrissey wrote in. “Buzzcocks differ in only one way from their contemporaries,” he gushed, “they possess a spark of originality!” The future Smiths singer might have been overdoing it (after all, he also wrote to say how much he hated the Ramones, which is like hating puppies or ice cream), but it’s hard to dispute that the band were more exciting than the relatively straightforward classic rock pastiches of their notorious UK punk contemporaries. And faster, to boot. “Buzzcocks were very, very fast,” the band’s manager, Richard Boon, told Jon Savage in the writer’s England’s Dreaming. “They did a Ramones song and they were two seconds faster.”

They were also, famously, among the scene’s key architects. When Shelley and Devoto invited the Sex Pistols to play at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in June and July 1976, the shows turned into punk’s version of buying the proverbial Velvet Underground record: few people attended, but those that did — Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Morrissey among them — started a band. Without those shows, and the Buzzcocks sound, who knows what the musical landscape of the past 40 years might have looked like in the alternate timeline. No Joy Division, no Nirvana, no Radiohead? Fanciful, perhaps, but certainly a strand of their DNA would be amiss.

The band’s second record, Love Bites, was recorded in a Buzzcock-ian flash of two and a half weeks and shipped just six months after its predecessor, in September 1978. It arrived in the nick of time, just as they seemed, like Devoto, to be tiring of themselves. “Ever Fallen in Love” is as tightly wound, as emotionally frayed, as anything on Another Music, yet elsewhere the frenetic pace is pared back in favour of space: extended intros, more luxuriant guitar parts, two instrumentals. The unpredictable “Operator’s Manual” changes gears and shapes, jerking its protagonist on a romantic string; “Nothing Left” winds its way through a surprisingly delicate final quarter; and the agreeably naff “Love Is Lies,” performed by Diggle, flirts with jangly, mid-tempo balladry.

If Love Bites is uneven by comparison, it’s because the band were outgrowing their formula. Pre-Buzzcocks, Shelley had built his own oscillator and recorded a droning, Kraftwerk-inspired synthesiser album (1974’s Sky Yen, unreleased until 1980), and he cited Can’s Michael Karoli as his favourite guitarist. There was plenty of evidence of a shared eclecticism on Another Music: John Maher’s jazzy drumming on “Sixteen”, the Neu!-inspired treated guitars on “Fiction Romance” and “Autonomy”, and the startling closer, “Moving Away from the Pulsebeat”, which goes from tribal drum frenzy (which Joy Division would mimic for “Atrocity Exhibition”), to militant guitar patterns, to, finally, strange electronic blips that pan across the speakers. Love Bites sees the band take these impulses to their logical conclusion. For the five-and-a-half-minute final track, “Late for the Train”, sound engineer Doug Bennett sampled the tightest part of Maher’s triplet rhythm drumming to create an endless tape loop, transforming the instrumental into a cousin of Giorgio Moroder’s post-disco sound – a long-distance line to Blondie’s “Call Me”. With its insistent drum sample and chugging, Eno-esque riff, it sends the record off into a kind of world the band had anticipated, where the similarly treated guitars of Joy Division and Gang of Four would co-exist with new wave and post disco. “My future and my past are presently disarranged,” Shelley sings on “Nostalgia”, sensing an age to come.

Buzzcocks were too good to last, at least in that moment. After a third album, 1979’s A Different Kind of Tension, and demos for a fourth, they would split in 1981, and not regroup to record until the ’90s, by which time so much had irrevocably changed. (Shelley had made good on his forward thinking, releasing 1981’s synth-pop smash “Homosapien”, girded by an overt queer narrative that saw it banned by the BBC.) But just as John Hughes’s movies endure as direct portals to the turbulent emotions of adolescence, nothing can dull the arresting immediacy of these two records, which sound as electric now as they must have done blasting from hi-fis in 1978. Within their messy, thrilling noise, the misfits will always have a home.

Luke Goodsell

Luke Goodsell is a critic and editor who has contributed to the ABC, SBS and the Melbourne International Film Festival.


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