Dig Out The Cigar Box: Budgie’s Burke Shelley Is Dead
The lead singer of the influential Welsh hard rock group was 71
Unless you’re over 50 and live on a British Isle, odds are good that you first heard Budgie thanks to a certain Bay Area thrash quartet.
The Welsh power trio helped lay the blueprint for heavy metal, following hot on the heels of the progenitors in Black Sabbath (with whom they shared producer Rodger Bain) and Led Zeppelin–who were a profound influence on the burgeoning band, which released its own loud, bluesy, eponymous debut album in 1971.
Budgie was fronted by vocalist, lyricist, and bass player John Burke Shelley. According to a post made his daughter Ela, Shelley died in his sleep at Heath Hospital on January 10th at age 71. He is survived by his four children.
VIDEO: Metallica performs “Breadfan” live 1989
Shelley had co-founded an early version of the group in 1967, along with guitarist Tony Bourge and drummer Ray Phillips. They settled on the name Budgie in ’69, amused by the concept of making such heavy music under such a light name. That initial lineup made three classic albums before the drum position became a bit of a revolving door. Pete Boot replaced Phillips in 1974 on In For the Kill. Steve Williams arrived in 1975, and stuck around until the band’s final concert in 2010.
Though Budgie released seven albums on major labels MCA and A&M, they primarily made their mark in Europe. In 1974, an unsigned Judas Priest toured in support of Budgie. Throughout the decade, Budgie was filling clubs and theaters across the continent. Their tours to the US in 1976 and 1978 did not make them stars here, however. It would take another decade and change for Budgie to become immortalized in metal fan circles thanks to the efforts of Metallica to canonize the band as a key influence.
Shelley employed his high tenor vocal range on three albums before Rush recorded their own debut. Nevertheless, there are some striking similarities between Burke and Geddy. Both were unrepentant geeks who played the bass, and sang in ways that put every wine glass behind the bar in danger. While either’s voice is an acquired taste, I happen to prefer them both.
Both bands also employed shameless senses of humor, especially in their song titles. Rush spoofed Kiss with “I Think I’m Going Bald.” Budgie had already penned their own ode to Samson and Delilah with “Rape of the Locks.” They found peculiar ways to wax romantic on “You’re The Best Thing Since Powdered Milk” and pined away for a “Drugstore Woman.”
AUDIO: Budgie “Drugstore Woman”
Differences between the Welsh and Canadian trios abound as well, though. Geddy generally plays bass with his fingers, while Shelley preferred the attack of a pick. And while Rush became progressively more intricate and precise, Budgie stuck to a looser, more working class approach. While neither band photographed well, Rush found a way to meet the masses. Budgie has remained a cult act, though they leave behind a considerable body of quality work.
There are great songs on every single one of their albums from the seventies. The debut album is particularly solid, with only a couple of minutes dedicated to acoustic fluff. The rest is positively bludgeoning for 1971. From the charming plod of “Guts” to the eight minutes of “Nude Disintegrating Parachutist Woman” (which more than lives up to its epic title) Budgie is an essential slab missing from far too many record collections.
As producer Rodger Bain wrote on the back of the album sleeve, “they are a Rock Band, a freaking good Rock Band.” The first album’s final track “Homicidal Suicidal” was deemed heavy enough for Soundgarden to place their own cover version on the b-side of the “Outshined” single.
AUDIO: Soundgarden “Homicidal Suicidal”
As the seventies progressed, Budgie got tighter, the studio sounds improved, and the band experimented with multi-part suites. Listen to the last 55 seconds of “Hot As A Docker’s Armpit” off Squawk and you’ll hear exactly where Diamond Head lifted the monolithic end section for “Am I Evil.” Their 1971 single “Crash Course In Brain Surgery” was good enough to reappear on their fourth album In For the Kill, thirteen years before Metallica’s version permanently changed Budgie’s fortunes.
Budgie’s other best known song, “Breadfan” is the lead track on its third album, Never Turn Your Back On A Friend. After hearing Metallica’s blistering version (the b-side of “Harvester of Sorrow” overseas, and of “Eye of the Beholder” stateside) I rushed to the record store and found a copy in the used bin at my local shop. The wraparound Roger Dean cover art is stunning. The music is even better (notwithstanding Budgie’s less than inspired cover of “Baby Please Don’t Go”).
Metallica did particular justice (ahem) to their version of “Breadfan” by replacing the acoustic midsection with their own much creepier composition. I consider both versions to be essential. Drummer Ray Phillips told the BBC in 2018 that the royalties from Metallica’s covers saved him from financial ruin in the ‘80s, and allowed him to buy two BMWs.
By ’77, Budgie was turning out high energy commercial tunes like “Anne Neggen” off the If I Were Brittania I’d Waive The Rules album, which now featured the avian mascot hurtling through space. It took the Voivod character another nine years to catch up. For my money, though, the secret weapon on this album is its closing track, “Black Velvet Stallion.” This production piece features a hard, funky groove, with an inspired guitar lead absolutely ripping its way across eight minutes of weirdness that gives the lyrics to “Hotel California” a run for its money. The song culminates with a massive build followed by a final piano note that pays homage to The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life.” Budgie themselves liked it enough to re-recorded the song in 2006.
In the early eighties, Budgie couldn’t help but notice how many of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal bands were making noise and getting action. Suddenly there was a movement that the Welsh trio had helped to inspire. Shelley plugged away with various lineups and continued to release fairly solid albums. 1980’s Power Supply, Nightflight in ’81, and Deliver Us From Evil in 1982 have their moments, but owe perhaps too much a debt to early Def Leppard and other young upstarts who were having far greater success with that style.
Eventually, Budgie folded in 1988–at the exact time Metallica was turning people onto them. The tributes kept coming, though. Iron Maiden recorded their version of “I Can’t See My Feelings” as the b-side of “From Here To Eternity” around the release of 1992s Fear Of The Dark.
Shelley assembled various reunion lineups in the mid-nineties and beyond. Thanks to a savvy fan club and radio support, San Antonio, TX became their home away from home, with almost annual performances occurring. I kick myself for not being more cognizant and finding my way to one of the six gigs they played there between ’95 and 2004.
From 2008-2010, the final lineup included guitarist Craig Goldy, known for his excellent playing on Dio’s underrated Dream Evil album. Then everything ceased overnight when Shelley suffered an aortic aneurysm. Budgie never performed again.
I reached out to Goldy in 2013 to see about bringing Budgie to America. It seemed to me that enough time had passed. That perhaps they could draw a solid crowd over here. Craig was kind enough to respond to my message.
“Budgie did in fact have a U.S. tour booked but it got canceled during the Volcanic Ash crisis in the UK a few years ago grounding all flights in and out of the UK…..we were in the UK! Burke had emergency surgery a few years back canceling another tour in Poland and the doctors say he shouldn’t sing anymore!!!! I’ve heard he’s doing well and the last time I spoke to Burke and Paul their manager…..he was in fact singing a bit…”
Shelley struggled to sing while playing bass, though that didn’t stop him from participating in some classic rock cover band gigs over the last decade. He also appeared in the BBC documentary Metal Britannia. While he waxed on about his love for Zeppelin, he also revealed his disdain for Black Sabbath, Uriah Heep, and Deep Purple. Much of this attitude was due to his devout Christian faith, and his distaste for occult themes.
VIDEO: Budgie Live 2010
When I spoke to their manager Paul Cox in 2016 about potential gigs, I was advised that Shelley would not perform on Sundays or Wednesdays. He also told me that Shelley and original guitarist Tony Bourge had reunited a year earlier. Apparently that meeting went nowhere musical, though. I hope it was a very friendly visit.
I didn’t know Burke Shelley. I never had the chance to speak with him. But his recorded legacy has made Budgie one of my all time favorites. All of their original LPs sit on my top shelf, nestled snugly between Blue Öyster Cult and Candlemass. I have drawers full of t-shirts from bands I’ve seen live. But Budgie is one of only two groups I never got to see of whom I own multiple shirts (Rudimentary Peni is the other).
Budgie may always reside in the shadow of Zeppelin and Sabbath, Purple and Rainbow, Heep, B.O.C., Mountain, and the Scorps. But to even be spoken of in that company truly says it all.
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2 thoughts on “Dig Out The Cigar Box: Budgie’s Burke Shelley Is Dead”
Lovely tribute, thank you. I believe their name was originally Ten Ton Budgie so dubbed because of Burke’s signature vocals atop the heavy riffing. This of course was shortened and the rest is great musical history.
Thanks for the kinds words, David. The band originally formed in 1967 under the name Hills Contemporary Grass. Then they came up with “Six Ton Budgie” which they abridged in time for the first album. Cheers!