Picking the 10 best Buzzcocks songs – such is the wealth of brilliance within their catalogue – feels a little bit like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s entirely likely that the 10 songs you would pick would differ to the 10 we’ve picked here. At the same time, it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll disagree that any of these songs aren’t amongst the greatest that punk, or indeed any other era of music have produced, and are ample proof that the late, great Pete Shelley was one of the finest songwriters to ever stroke the neck of an electric guitar.
We picked out 10 classics that not only are among the best Shelley ever had a hand in creating, but also showcase the ever-evolving mind of one of pop’s most unique creators.
There’s a cool moment towards the end of Orange Juice’s 1983 single ‘Rip It Up’, where singer Edwyn Collins proclaims “and my favourite song’s entitled ‘Boredom‘” before busting out a truncated take on the atonal, disinterested, two-note Peter Shelley guitar solo that featured on the Buzzcocks original. Written by Shelley on a guitar purchased at his local Woolworths, the first song on side two of the band’s first EP, ‘Spiral Scratch’, is desert dry, funny (“now I’m living in a movie, which doesn’t move me”) and encapsulates everything wonderful about punk’s assault on the pomposity of 70’s rock.
Best Bit: Just before that guitar solo, then singer Howard Devoto – who would leave the group to form Magazine shortly afterwards – makes a noise a little bit like a cartoon elephant seeing a mouse for the very first time.
‘Orgasm Addict’ (1977)
Much has been said about the Buzzcocks’ first major label single and tribute to “beating your meat to death” in the days since the man who sung it passed. Instead, here’s a few words on the record’s sensational, bricolage sleeve. “The iron came from an Argos catalogue and the female torso came from a photographic magazine,” said artist Linder Sterling (also of the excellent Manchester post-punk group Ludus). “I never cleared the copyright but no one noticed, so it was alright.” Incidentally, Shelley once said he found the song “embarrassing, the only one I listen to and… shudder.”
Best bit: Producer Martin Rushent, who helmed the mixing desk for all three of the band’s classic early records, succeeded in capturing an energy in Shelley’s vocal, the rawness of which is perfectly in sync with the songs subject matter.
‘Fast Cars’ (1978)
The opening shot from debut album ‘Another Music in a Different Kitchen’ is almost certainly the only punk rock song in existence to reference the American attorney Ralph Nader. Allegedly concerned with a car crash a young Steve Diggle had been involved in (and to add insult to injury, the first pressing gives the guitarist zero credit for writing the majority of the song), Nader was an activist pushing reform of safety standards within the auto industry. He wrote the 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile, which had a seismic impact within the car-manufacturing industry. ‘Unsafe at Any Speed’ is also the name of a fairly seminal 1982 hardcore punk compilation, proving that punks always use a seatbelt.
Best Bit: There’s a bit at the end of the song that sounds like a spaceship taking off. So yeah, that.
‘I Don’t Mind’ (1978)
It’s commonly believed that the young Peter McNeish renamed himself Pete Shelley in tribute to the romantic poet. The late Tony Wilson disagreed, saying that Shelley was actually what Peter would have been named by his parents if he’d been a born a girl. It’s a fitting nom de plume. It’s quite extraordinary to hear a song like the Buzzcocks’ third single, then as now. Men didn’t sing about things like this then – paranoia, insecurity, adoration. Men too rarely sing about them even now.
Best Bit: “I used to bet that you didn’t care, but gambling never got me anywhere…” is as good as it gets, really.
‘What Do I Get?’ (1978)
Let’s quickly sidestep the disappointing use of the Buzzcocks’ top 40 debut (the single peaking at number 37 in the February of 1978) in a 2016 punk-themed McDonalds advert, and instead concentrate on the merits of the song itself. Because of all the lovelorn classics, the Shelley-composed ‘What Do I Get?’ is arguably the most yearning the man ever sounded. That said, if you want to hear the song completely reinvented, check out the version recorded by outsider musician Steve Lieberman, aka the Gangsta Rabbi. It’s on YouTube and it’s absolutely and utterly batshit.
Best Bit: “I’m in distress, I need a caress” might be a disappointing insert in a Valentine’s card, but it’s a killer lyric.
The central refrain from this Buzzcocks B-side also features in Magazine’s classic debut single ‘Shot By Both Sides’, a testament to the time that band’s frontman Howard Devoto spent playing alongside Shelley and company. The Buzzcocks man gets another credit on Magazine’s ‘The Light Pours Out Of Me’, on the band’s debut ‘Real Life’, the album that hosts both songs. Even so, the Buzzcocks’ use of the riff is tender and soppy, whereas – comparatively, at least – Magazine’s is bruising. It’s preposterous to throw a song this good away as a B-side.
Best Bit: Compared to ‘Boredom’, the guitar solo midway through might as well be ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’. It’s still no more than six notes, mind.
‘I Believe’ (1979)
Shelley repeatedly expressed some frustration, however mild, that three-minute, three-chord pop-fuelled-punk was viewed as the brightest colour within his songwriting palate. Plentiful evidence to the contrary exists throughout his catalogue, though predominantly on his solo records. This jagged seven-minute piece, however, from the Buzzcocks’ third album, ‘A Different Kind Of Tension’, dictates a dark night of the soul, reportedly spent high on LSD, staring into the abyss. It is perhaps the most existential, the strangest, the most out there, he ever took the Buzzcocks.
Best Bit: You’d like to think that somewhere, wherever he is now, the man is still screaming the coda of “There! Is! No! Love! In! This! World! Anymore!”
‘Last To Know’ (1993)
This song, taken from the Buzzcocks’ fourth studio album, ‘Trade Test Transmissions’, their first – after breaking up in 1981, then reforming in 1989 – in 14 years, is something of a lost classic, and easily holds its own with the classics of the band’s punk-era purple patch. It’s proof that the paranoia that inspired much of Shelley’s best work never really went away. It’s weirdly creepy too; the line “I came into your room while you were sleeping, and tip-toed to the bottom of your bed/I held my breath so I could hear you breathing/Love’s such a sweet thing” is unsettlingly desperate.
Best bit: There are some lovely backing vocals from Steve Diggle here, which, if you ever heard him barking along to whatever the jukeboxes of Camden were playing at any point in the last four-decades, may come as something as a surprise.
‘You Say You Don’t Love Me’ (1979)
It’s quite amazing that a song which perfectly articulates the demolition of the human heart can sound as lovely as this. There’s also a reading of the song that suggests it might also be one of the purest depictions of love to be found anywhere within pop’s rich history. “You say you don’t love me,” purrs Shelley. “Well, that’s alright with me because I’m in love with you/And I wouldn’t want you doing things you don’t want to do.” It’s also this writer’s favourite Buzzcocks song.
Best Bit: Much like The Ramones adaptation of sixties girl group sass, the repeated “You say you don’t” part that forms the pre-chorus is more doo-wop than it is punk.
‘Ever Fallen In Love With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve’ (1978)
Every great band has a song synonymous with their existence, and the Buzzcocks are no exception. This bisexual punk anthem – the song is said to have been written about a man named Neil that Shelley had lived with for many years – was allegedly written in a van outside a post-office, proving, beyond doubt, that magic really can strike anywhere.
Best Bit: The first line – “You spurn my natural emotions” – colliding with the unannounced clatter of the song’s guitars, remains as arresting now as it did 40 years ago. It’s interesting to note that the line was originally “You piss on…”, but, Shelley told Uncut magazine, “because Orgasm Addict hadn’t been getting radio play because of its title, I needed something a bit subtler!”