Pushing Punk and Electronics beyond their boundaries
What did the world lose with the passing of Pete Shelley, who died of a heart attack on December 6, leaving us far too soon at the age of 63? A hell of a lot.
If Shelley’s career had begun and ended with his stewardship of The Buzzcocks, he would still be celebrated as a musical visionary. But there was more to his story, from his pre-punk avant-garde experiments to his solo synth-pop ventures and beyond.
Besides being pioneers of British punk, forming in 1976 as part of the movement’s very first wave, The Buzzcocks were the first to look beyond its borders before the fledgling scene’s paint was even dry. When they released their legendary 1977 debut EP, Spiral Scratch, on their own New Hormones label, they put themselves at the vanguard of DIY, a major achievement in itself. The songs guitarist Shelley co-wrote with singer Howard Devoto, even at that early stage, displayed a sensibility that set them apart from the early punk pack. And when Shelley took the reins as both singer and songwriter following Devoto’s departure soon after, the band’s music grew by leaps and bounds.
If The Clash were punk’s Rolling Stones, the Buzzcocks were undoubtedly its Beatles. Shelley married the band’s rough-edged riffing with a ’60s pop-informed melodic savvy, a keen lyrical eye, and a willingness to experiment. For all the pure sonic power of the hard-charging guitars and drums, tunes like “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve),” “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays,” “I Don’t Mind,” and “I Believe” boasted more hooks than a butcher’s meat freezer and lyrics that alternated between canny personal observations and downright poetic, even metaphysical touches. And when they turned out a tune like “Why Can’t I Touch It,” creating some sort of collision between punk, dub and 19th century French symbolism, they were operating in a landscape all their own.
After three incredible albums and a singles collection (Singles Going Steady) that remains one of the all-time great best-ofs, the Buzzcocks knocked it on the head in 1981. If this was the final chapter in the Shelley saga, we’d still be honoring him today, but the man from Manchester had even more to achieve.
Before the year was even out, while the Buzzcocks’ ashes were still smoldering, Shelley reinvented himself completely, managing to expand his audience and find a new level of success in the bargain. Tapping into the long-held love of electronics (more on that in a minute) that never found a foothold in the Buzzcocks, he created Homosapien, a swirling, bumping, beeping, thumping masterpiece of a synth-pop solo album.
Working with synth sultan Martin Rushent, who was just about to change the world by producing the Human League’s Dare album, Shelley took all the sophistication and pop mastery of his Buzzcocks-era songwriting and framed it with state-of-the art electronics to create an entirely new beast. He didn’t jettison his guitars entirely, and bits of rock ‘n’ roll and dance music bumped up beautifully against each other over the course of the album.
In the LP’s title track, which became a dance hit in America, Shelley even took the opportunity to strike out at some societal boundaries. Over an unrelenting beat that undoubtedly moved many bodies in gay discos at the time, Shelley gave free reign to the bisexuality his Buzzcocks lyrics only hinted at, with a thinly veiled homoerotic lyric that got the song banned by the BBC. Besides becoming his biggest hit, the track ultimately made Shelley a hero to generations of LGBTQ music lovers, and Shelley eventually revealed that even his Buzzcocks lyrics avoided gender pronouns for a very specific reason.
But the punk guitar hero’s way with electronics wasn’t as unprecedented as many might have assumed. Way before the Buzzcocks, back in 1974 when he was still in his teens, Shelley was an aficionado of the electronic side of krautrock. And with a homegrown setup basically consisting of a single oscillator, not even a full-on synthesizer, he created Sky Yen, an album of minimal electronic instrumentals with a rawness that made Metal Machine Music seem like Muzak in comparison. It finally saw release in 1980 through Shelley’s own Groovy imprint, and received a digital reissue decades later.
Shelly made a couple more synth-bedecked solo albums in the ’80s before reuniting with the Buzzcocks at the end of the decade. After some touring, they eventually got around to restarting their recording career with 1993’s Trade Test Transmissions. After that, they never stopped performing and recording, releasing several more albums up through 2014’s The Way. In 2016, Shelley even returned to his early electronic inspirations with Cinema Music and Wallpaper Sounds, a collection of synth instrumentals, though markedly more melodic than Sky Yen.
Shelley’s songs have become a part of our cultural fabric, turning up in commercials, TV shows, and movies. But the direct, personal connection that occurs every time someone hears Singles Going Steady or Homosapien for the first time will feed and further his legacy for a long time to come.