Pete Shelley: a musical pioneer who gave us lusty, essential punk pop

Pete Shelley’s standing as a rock ‘n’ roll great was assured long ago, thanks to a cannon of perfect pop-fuelled punk. But even so, a bit like a musical Doctor Who, he had an uncanny ability to, throughout history, repeatedly find himself at the heart of some of the medium’s most seismic happenings.

Formed in Bolton in north west Manchester in 1976, his band The Buzzcocks were responsible for hosting The Sex Pistols’ appearance at Manchester’s Lesser Trade Free Hall on June 4, 1976. It’s a show regularly cited as the spark that ignited the vastly influential independent music scene in Manchester. Morrissey was there. Mark E Smith too. Future Factory records founders Tony Wilson and Martin Hannet. A nascent version of Joy Division. Mick Hucknall of Simply Red (though then making a punkier racket in The Frantic Elevators). And documenting/mythologizing the whole thing, NME’s Paul Morley. The Buzzcocks had been scheduled to play, but fell apart before the date of the show.

It was after reading a review of the Pistols in NME that Shelley and co-founder Howard Devoto (who would leave the band before their first EP was released to form the excellent Magazine) travelled to London to see music’s most infamous group the February prior. Six week’s after the Lesser Trade Free Hall gig, Sex Pistols returned to Manchester and Buzzcocks – their line-up issues fixed – actually managed to play in support. 

Shelley was present at the inception of what would become indie too. Released on January 29, 1977, the Buzzcocks’ debut EP ‘Spiral Scratch’ may have arrived after The Damned’s New Rose, the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy In The U.K. and the first two singles by The Vibrators the previous year, but where all these releases had the backing of staffed record labels, the Buzzcocks’ release – on their manager Richard Boon’s New Hormones label – was the first independent one. 1,000 copies pressed after much cajoling from friends and family led to a loan of around £500, the release went on to sell 16,000. It showed other creative but independent minds what could be done for decades to come.

You can find Shelley’s DNA within dance music. Detroit house pioneer Kevin Saunderson has spoken of the influence that Shelley’s fledgling electronica – most prominently showcased on 1982’s solo Homosapien single – had on his music. LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy shamelessly gutted the aforementioned song for his 2007 hit single North American Scum. Producer Martin Rushent’s work on Homosapien and its parent album (Shelley’s second solo work, after the deeply experimental sound-collage Sky Yen – recorded in 1974, yet not released until 1980) led to Virgin Records’ Simon Draper asking him to produce The Human League’s incredible, triple platinum third album Dare.

Few wrote about sex in such a nuanced way as Shelley. With the Buzzcocks it was often sex of the grubby, fumbly teenage variety. 1977’s Orgasm Addict’s was blunt in its depiction of the teenage experience (“You get in a heat, you get in a sulk, but you still keep a-beating your meat to pulp,”) but often his writing veered more towards the territory of coy. “Saying just enough in his lyrics – not a word more – to let us know what he meant, sexually” the music journalist Simon Price tweeted when news of Shelley’s passing broke yesterday. With his solo work it was frequently more explicit. Homosapien would subsequently be banned by the BBC for what they cited as an ‘explicit reference to gay sex’, the line “homo superior / in my interior” being the offending couplet.

Though the message was coded at the time it arrived in, Shelley’s bisexuality would form the subject matter of arguably punk’s greatest song, 1978’s ‘Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t Have)’. The songwriter would later it was inspired by a man named Frank who he lived with for seven years, but much like in the majority of songs he wrote, Shelley’s use of gender-neutral pronouns meant the song really could be about anyone, while also empowering anyone who ‘knew’.

Fittingly, the song topped NME’s Songs Of The Year list in 1978, and has been covered by everyone from the Fine Young Cannibals (whose 1986 single charted in the UK at nine, five places higher than the Buzzcocks themselves had) to Canadian punks Pup, to emo legends Thursday. Most notably, the song brought together artists as disparate as The Who’s Roger Daltrey, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, Elton John, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and The Futureheads on a 2005 charity tribute to the late John Peel. All proceeds went to Amnesty International.

Somehow Shelley even arrived at the final days of grunge, the Buzzcocks having been personally invited by Kurt Cobain to support Nirvana on the tour that would be the Seattle bands last. “Will you come and play Europe with us, we’re doing all these stadiums,” Buzzcocks guitarist Steve Diggle said of Kurt’s request. “It was weird.” A quick YouTube search will bring up footage of the two bands in conversation in the February of 1994, two months prior to Kurt’s death. A couple of years ago, Diggle said he’d upset Kurt by taking all of his cocaine during one of the dates. He promised to repay him when the band came to the UK. Kurt would never make it.

When Diggle wasn’t stealing the class A drugs of rock icons, he summed up the Buzzcocks, and subsequently Shelley’s appeal, by describing the group as “punks with library cards”. It was an apt description. Shelley’s songwriting might not have given punk another chord so much as another braincell or two, expanding what it could be and what it could mean. He cranked the door wider, ushered in voices beyond what the music had previously given a platform to. His influence would see Hüsker Dü bring a sensitivity to American hardcore that hadn’t been present prior, and would create a template that every C-86 and indie pop band that followed would owe a debt to. It’s present in the kitchen sink dramas of Britpop era Blur, Pulp, Elastica and beyond. And you might even have heard of a popular panel TV show that owed something to his existence too.

Losing Pete Shelley at 63 to a heart attack is unquestionably an early, tragic end to one of pop’s most unique talents. It’s hard not to wonder if there was another, seismic hand left for the man to play. But then many have lived decades longer and not made even a fraction of the impression he did. In the music he gave us, and the moments he shaped, Pete Shelley is one of rock ‘n’ rolls immortals.