When you think of punk you think anger and safety pins and certainly not romance, but a careful listen to most Buzzcocks songs and they are mostly about romance….gone wrong. That’s what made Pete Shelley such a splendid songwriter.
The Buzzcocks’ website sees the band members describing Pete as “one of the U.K.’s most influential and prolific songwriters” and that is not understated. He was born Peter Campbell McNeish on 17th April 17 in Leigh, just outside Manchester. It was whilst attending the Bolton Institute of Technology a fellow student, Howard Trafford posted an in-house ad looking for musicians interested in playing the Velvet Underground’s relentless 17-minute two-chord churn, Sister Ray; that interested Pete who answered the ad. “I was doing philosophy and comparative European literature when Buzzcocks started,” Pete said in an interview in 2009, “We found this whole other world of ideas, but tried to temper all that meaningful stuff with humour. Really, punk was about questioning things.”
Pete and Howard, who had now changed his surname to Devoto, recruited a drummer in late 1975 and formed the Buzzcocks, a name taken from a Time Out headline which read ‘It’s the Buzz, Cock!’ as part of a review for the TV series Rock Follies. In early 1976, Pete and Howard went to see the Sex Pistols in 1976 and then persuaded them to perform at a hall in Manchester, they agreed and a couple of months later they made the performance with the Buzzcocks as their warm up with a last-minute stand-in bass player Steve Diggle who remained throughout their career.
Their first release was the Spiral Scratch EP on their own newly formed label New Hormones, but then Devoto decided to leave leaving Shelley to write and sing and proved a successful as they signed a deal with United Artists records the hits started to come with What Do I Get? being their debut in February 1978 making number 37. By September that year they’d really hit the big time as daytime radio One had followed John Peel’s lead of giving them more airplay and Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve), a title taken from a line in the musical Guys and Dolls, peaked at number 12. The following year more hits came; Promises, Everybody’s Happy Nowadays, Harmony in My Head and the re-issue of the Spiral Scratch (EP) all making the top 40.
They release three albums, Another Music in a Different Kitchen, Love Bites, and A Different Kind of Tension, which all made the top 30, but in 1981 Shelley left for a solo career and the band split.
In 2005, a few months after John Peel’s tragic early death, Shelley decided to re-record Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve) with an all-star line-up which included Elton John, Robert Plant, David Gilmour, Roger Daltrey and Peter Hook among others as a tribute to Peel with all proceeds going to Amnesty International.
In 2002, Shelley and Devoto reunited for a one-off collaboration under the name ShelleyDevoto.
Shelley, by his own admission, was bisexual and was very open about it. He married in 1991 but divorced in 2002 and their son was born in 1993. In 2011, he married again, this time to Greta, an Estonian-born Canadian and in 2012 decided to move to her homeland capital, Tallinn. He said, “We moved because of its tranquillity and we only had a small flat in London which was getting a bit crowded. We came to Tallinn to visit relatives and it was such a beautiful place. It’s a world heritage site and it’s nice and quiet. In the place I was in London at three in the morning it would be a siren corridor. This is a lot more tranquil and it’s only a three-hour flight to the UK, so we’re not cut off.” not long after they’d moved he was asked how he was getting on with the language to which he replied, “I can understand a bit. It helps watching The Simpsons with subtitles, so I can say ‘Ah, that’s what it means.'”
On 7th December, Shelley’s brother, Gary announced on Facebook that Pete had suffered a heart attack and died, he was just 63.
The Buzzcocks songs are as relevant now as they were when first released some 40 years ago because his lyrics are subtle yet witty and are about adolescent love and lust which never changes.