17 April 1955 – 8 December 2018
Pete Shelley, singer with the Buzzcocks, dies aged 63
Pete Shelley and his band Buzzcocks became indelibly linked to the UK’s punk movement when they played their first gig supporting the Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester in July 1976, but they never conformed to any of punk’s cliches about rage, anarchy and rebellion. Shelley, who has died of a heart attack aged 63, proved to be a songwriter of wit and subtlety, able to probe the angst and confusion of adolescent love and lust with shrewd insight.
He was innovative musically as well as lyrically, taking inspiration from David Bowie, Brian Eno, Roxy Music and the Velvet Underground, as well as from German bands such as Neu and Can. While the music of many of the punk bands remains firmly of its time, Buzzcocks’ best songs still sound fresh and inventive, mixing dense guitar patterns with infectious melodies. Their influence can be heard on bands from Primal Scream and the Jesus and Mary Chain to REM and Nirvana. Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet said: “Pete was one of Britain’s best pure pop writers, up there with Ray Davies.”
Buzzcocks achieved success with their first recording, the Spiral Scratch EP, which was released on their own label, New Hormones, in January 1977 (the band having supported the Sex Pistols on their Anarchy tour in late 1976). It was one of the first independent releases of the punk era, and to the band’s surprise sold its first thousand copies in four days. “We made quite a bit of money from Spiral Scratch,” Shelley recalled. “It ended up selling about 16,000 copies and we were able to buy some new equipment.”
They then signed to United Artists. Their first single, Orgasm Addict, was released in November 1977 but the BBC declined to play it because of its subject matter and it did not make the charts. The follow-up, What Do I Get, released in February 1978, reached 37, and their debut album, Another Music in a Different Kitchen (1978) climbed to 15. Their second album, Love Bites, which came out later that year, contained what remains their best-known hit, the zingingly propulsive Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve), which made No 12. Shelley borrowed the title from a line in the musical Guys and Dolls. The 1979 album A Different Kind of Tension reached 26 in the UK.
Continued singles success came with Promises (20), Everybody’s Happy Nowadays (29) and Harmony in My Head (32). However, growing tensions in the band coupled with friction with EMI, which had purchased United Artists, prompted Shelley to break up Buzzcocks in 1981.
He was born Peter McNeish in Leigh, Lancashire. His father, John, was a fitter at Astley Green colliery, and his mother, Margaret, a former mill worker. Peter began writing songs while still at Leigh grammar school, and while studying for an HND in electronics at Bolton Institute of Technology he bought a Tandberg four-track reel-to-reel tape recorder and began making recordings of his own songs. (“I think of my career in music more as a songwriting career than anything else,” he said in 1983.) He formed a group called Jets of Air, the name inspired by a college lecture on Newtonian physics, and while “we played only about six gigs in three years”, Shelley built up a stockpile of songs.
He then dabbled in a project called Sky, where he experimented with electronic music and recorded the album Sky Yen, released later, in 1980, on his own label, Groovy Records. He subsequently tried making “heavier, more rhythmic” music with Smash, which he described as “a non-existent group”, but which supplied more raw material for Buzzcocks.
The band came about when Shelley spotted an advertisement on a college noticeboard from Howard Devoto (real name Howard Trafford), wanting to form a band in the vein of the Stooges and the Velvet Underground. “That was much in line with the Smash idea, so I phoned him up straight away,” said Shelley. Buzzcocks originally planned to make their debut at the first Sex Pistols concert at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976, but the bass player and drummer pulled out.
For their eventual appearance the following month, Shelley and Devoto were joined by the drummer John Maher and the bassist Steve Diggle. When Devoto quit after the release of Spiral Scratch and went on to form Magazine, Shelley became lead vocalist, Diggle switched to guitar and the original bass player, Garth Smith, rejoined temporarily, later replaced by Steve Garvey.
In 1981 Shelley launched his solo career with the single Homosapien, from the album of the same name, produced by the Buzzcocks producer Martin Rushent (who was about to help make Human League’s electropop epic Dare). Shelley had returned to his earlier fondness for electronica, and found himself in controversial waters when the BBC banned Homosapien for its “explicit reference to gay sex”. In 2002 Shelley commented that his sexuality “tends to change as much as the weather”. The track reached 14 on the US dance chart.
In 1983 his second solo album, XL1, brought him a minor hit single with Telephone Operator. In 1987 he contributed the song Do Anything to the soundtrack of the John Hughes movie Some Kind of Wonderful.
In 1989 Buzzcocks reformed and toured the US, and released Trade Test Transmissions (1993), the first of a series of albums, the most recent of which was The Way (2014). In 2002, Shelley reunited with Devoto to record the album Buzzkunst. “Devoto is not the life and soul of the party or a born raconteur, but he sees things as funny and I think that’s how we hit it off with each other,” Shelley observed drily. “I always had this idea that me and Devoto were like Gilbert and George. As long as you approach it from that angle you can do anything you want, and you just call it art.”
In 2005, following the death of the DJ John Peel, Shelley recorded a tribute version of Ever Fallen In Love with a multi-platinum lineup of stars including Elton John, Robert Plant, David Gilmour and Roger Daltrey.
In 2012 he moved to Tallinn, Estonia, with his second wife, Greta. She survives him, as do his younger brother, Gary, and a son from his first marriage.
• Pete Shelley (Peter Campbell McNeish), musician, singer and songwriter, born 17 April 1955; died 6 December 2018