“He was my brother for 43 years” – The Buzzcocks’ Steve Diggle remembers the late, great Pete Shelley

When Pete Shelley passed away late last year, from a heart attack, at the age of 63, it looked like an end to the 40-year career of the Buzzcocks, British punk’s most tuneful, most soppy, most interesting punk band. Surviving songwriter and guitarist Steve Diggle had other ideas. “I think it’s the next chapter of the band,” he says, ahead of the band’s headline appearance at The Royal Albert Hall. “I don’t think our story is anywhere near being over yet,” he says. “I don’t think Pete would want it to be.”

The Royal Albert Hall show, booked long before Shelley’s passing, is now set to be a tribute of sorts to the late Mancunian songwriter, with a host of names – Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth, Tim Burgess from The Charlatans, Dave Vanian and Captain Sensible from The Damned – taking to the stage to perform the vocals which would once have been provided by Pete. We thought we’d check in with Steve – at his request, at his local pub in Hampstead, on the stroke of opening time – to find out what comes next for the Buzzcocks.

“I just live around the corner from here,” he says, lighting a cigarette. “Liam Gallagher lives around the corner from me. I had a few pints with Liam the other day, actually. Ray Davies lives over the road. I know him a bit. Kate Moss is down the road from him. She doesn’t drink anymore. She’s gone all healthy and boring. George Michael used to live around here…”

He laughs. “It’s a little rock ‘n’ roll village, round here. It’s all a long way from where I came from…”

NME asks for a light.

“Bloody NME journalists,” he laughs. “I’ve been giving you lot a light for 40 years. You don’t get that with Q magazine journalists. They bring their own…”

Blimey. Let’s get on with it, then…

So Steve, here we are, drinking a pint at 12pm. Did the death of Pete make you think about your own mortality at all?

“Nah. I’m Steve Diggle. I can do anything. I just turned 64. I do eat more healthy than I used to. I smoke too much. I go through them like sweets. I’ve caned it a fair bit over the years. I used to smoke crack and heroin. I think it’s all about what’s in your head though. That’s what keeps you healthy.”

Blimey, that’s quite a hippy view for an original punk rocker?

“I prefer to see it as an existentialist view. I’ve spent a lot of years in dressing rooms with just a lightbulb for company. It helps you understand things about yourself. That’s what punk was really. It was about changing the consciousness of how people thought about things. So many people came away from it with a different viewpoint on life. Who felt like anything was possible. Some started fanzines. Some became photographers. There was probably a road sweeper who got into punk that swept the roads differently because of it.”

Do you think that punk doesn’t get enough credit for that now? That the intellectualism of it got lost?

“Well, what came after it watered it all down. Green Day and all that. We wrote the script. They found it in the bin and made a killing acting it out.”

“I remember turning the radio on just after Pete died, though, and hearing Buzzcocks songs back to back. It made me really emotional. Me and Pete never discussed whether we were any good or not, but in that moment I knew we really were. I hope Pete knew that”
– Steve Diggle, The Buzzcocks

The Buzzcocks always had those smarts though. A song like ‘I Believe’ isn’t like anything that other punk bands were writing during that era…

“I think so. I think in lots of ways, The Clash and the Sex Pistols were rock ‘n’ roll bands, where the Buzzcocks were an avant-garde band. If we bought a record, we’d buy a book too. Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment. That was his hit single, really. Not that we weren’t a rock ‘n’ roll band too. We didn’t set out to be anything though, really. Neither one nor the other. It was just the sort of person I was, and who Pete Shelley was.”

You complimented each other really well…

“I think so. He was a nightmare for always trying to turn my angry political songs into love songs though!”

It must have come as quite a shock when Pete died…

“Well, it was just so sudden. I’ve got quite a unique take on death though. When I was 17 I was in a car crash. The car hit a petrol pump. The car should have gone up in flames. I wasn’t driving, I was in the back. My friend died. That’s when I started to live really. My philosophy became, ‘Now I know the meaning of death, I know the meaning of life…’”

So that helped when Pete died?

“Completely. Thing with Pete was, he’d been living in Tallinn in Estonia for a number of years. It’s where his wife is from. He was really happy. We’d done about 80 shows last year and about 90 the years before. We were getting stoned in the dressing room together one night, and he said, “I just want to retire, Steve. But I want you to carry on. You have my blessing.” He said that a few times on the last tour. I’d always tell him he wasn’t going anywhere. That I didn’t want that. Then he went to the doctors on the Monday, they booked him into hospital, then a few days later he felt ill on the sofa, his wife called an ambulance, they cut him open and they couldn’t save him. That guy was my brother for 43 years. It was so sad.”

How are you feeling now, six-months on?

“I won’t lie. It all didn’t make much sense to me for a few months. But I guess now I feel a bit like they did in the First World War. When a man went down in the mud, you didn’t stop, you kept going on. The fans have been saying to carry on and it helps that I have Pete’s blessing, but it’s very strange. Thing is though, Pete might be dead, but if we don’t carry the band on, Pete’s songs will be dead too. Pete’s dead, I don’t want the Buzzcocks to be dead too.”

Steve Diggle of The Buzzcocks in Manchester, 2018

What about The Royal Albert Hall show this weekend?

“Well, the manager asked if we wanted to cancel it, but I just thought it would make a good celebration of Pete’s life. It’s cathartic for the fans too. He was buried in Tallinn, so they never got to mourn properly. I think I’m gonna go up with the band and do about four songs, just the Buzzcocks as it is now, then we’re going to get the guests up. Then maybe everyone is onstage for ‘Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)’ at the very end.”

There were some lovely tributes to the Buzzcocks when Pete died. You must have got a lot of offers of people wanting to sing?

“Loads. The phone went crazy for weeks, but practicalities got in the way a bit. Liam Gallagher offered to sing a few songs – “I’ll fucking sing a song for ya” and all that – but he’s away sadly. Chrissie Hynde offered. Simon Le Bon. My mate Eddie Vedder, but he’s away. It’s amazing the people who love the Buzzcocks. We had emails from all around the world. So many emails. We’ve been offered films. Fuck Bohemian Rhapsody and Elton John – Elton is a Buzzcocks fan, by the way, he told me in Vegas once. The world needs a Buzzcocks movie!”

Is Elton the most famous Buzzcocks fan?

“Maybe. Kurt Cobain must come pretty close. He came to see us in Boston. Then he asked us to come out on tour with Nirvana, which was amazing. It was just after they’d really blown up. I’ll have it known that I taught him how to smash a guitar properly! U2 have said they’re fans too. Not that we’re responsible for that. It’s like Robert Plant said, ‘We might have invented heavy metal, but we’re not responsible for what came after…’”

It must be nice to know that the Buzzcocks are so loved…

“It’s great. We got far more love than I ever thought we would get, to be honest. We weren’t The Clash or the Pistols. We were kind of tucked behind those guys. If you knew us you loved us, y’know? To some people we’re just the name of a TV show. I remember turning the radio on just after Pete died, though, and hearing Buzzcocks songs back to back. It made me really emotional. Me and Pete never discussed whether we were any good or not, but in that moment I knew we really were. I hope Pete knew that.”

The Buzzcocks play The Royal Albert Hall on Friday, June 21. Support comes from The Skids and Penetration.