Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper: Pete Shelley

11th December 2018

Elegy for Lost Youth: A Tribute to Pete Shelley – Kevin Pearce remembers the Buzzcocks frontman, who died last week aged 63.

Buzzcocks: a pop group like no other. Has that story ever really been told? Did we leave it too late to tell Pete Shelley what an incredible part he played in it? Sure, the endless reheated, repeated punk narratives grate, but there is another tale to tell about the impact Buzzcocks and others had on kids barely into their teens, too young, too broke, too remote to go to gigs, whose glimpse behind the curtain came via the occasional punk success story on Top of the Pops.

Over the course of 1978 and 1979 Buzzcocks made several appearances on the show, and even without BBC4 reruns it is likely that details of these performances have remained with many. Shredded memories of Pete singing or miming, at the microphone, head cocked on one side like a faithful and curious spaniel, his unique diction. Recollections of plain crew neck jumpers, stripy ones, the Mondrian design shirts, the plain open-necked ones. Diggle pummelling away at his guitar, Steve Garvey the pin-up bouncing around, scratching his chin, John Maher cooler than Clem Burke and impossibly poker-faced behind the drums. All this sticks in the mind indelibly.

But it was Pete out there really that commanded attention. Either deadpan or amused, sardonic or self-effacing, occasionally camping or vamping it up, but generally playing it straight, unflappable, galloping through those wonderfully witty, sometimes spiteful, sometimes sweet words, which we could join in on the harmonies with. Pete looked slight and short, but there was a sense that beneath that tenderness and vulnerability, this hopeless romantic was a tough lad really — who, like many short-arses, had a way with words and ideas.

The great thing about that immortal run of Buzzcocks singles in 1978 and 1979 was that they were within reach, easy to find on the local high street, perhaps even in the ex-chart box in the local department store if you got there early. And the Buzzcocks’ products were pleasing, aesthetically, with great attention to detail, which helped kids feel a part of it. The singles were immaculately presented, thanks to Malcolm Garrett’s perfectly conceived artwork. And there were the added ingredients, like the logo, the seemingly secret messages in the run-out grooves and elsewhere, the inventive ads in the music press, the commemorative badges, and so on.

For those young kids in the late 1970s, Buzzcocks, and other punk groups like Generation X, Stranglers and so on, instantly made sense because they almost directly made the jump from listening to the work of Chinnichap, Mike Leander and Mickie Most to buying the productions of Martin Rushent — though not many would have been astute enough to grasp quite how important a part the visionary Rushent would play in realising the remarkable sound achieved on that peerless set of singles, not to mention two classic Buzzcocks LPs in 1978. By the way, listen to ‘Pulsebeat’ or ‘Nothing Left’ and it’s easy to spot the connections back to The Glitter Band and Cozy Powell.

One thing about Buzzcocks back then was the immediate impact they had in terms of influence. The Undertones’ success story bears testament to that, and it would be safe to say that anyone who was attracted to the mod revival would have a few Buzzcocks singles at home. And indeed Pete Shelley’s immortal words about the future and the past presently being disarranged would make perfect sense. Many of the young groups wanted to stand in Shelley’s shoes, in more ways than one.

But things moved so quickly. The third LP A Different Kind of Tension was greeted with comparative indifference, though this seems harsh as it contains some of Shelley’s greatest songs; many of us will have been haunted by ‘Hollow Inside’ in later years, and it is not difficult to make connections between the title track and Moloko or ‘I Believe’ and Stereolab. By the end of 1980 though, the NME was printing vindictive swipes about Buzzcocks being “just lost”: out with the old and in with the new pop. Ironically the C81 cassette the paper was soon promoting did feature a lost Buzzcocks track, ‘I Look Alone’, about being left on the shelf. The tape would heavily feature Postcard Records acts that owed a lot to Buzzcocks, including Orange Juice, whose ‘Blue Boy’, they once told Sounds’ Dave McCullough, was based around what about a tactless punter said to Pete Shelley at a gig.

Orange Juice seemed naturally to connect the approach of Pete Shelley and Vic Godard with the wordplay of those responsible for the Great American Songbook. They had, initially, that same perfectly poised balance between the group members that Buzzcocks had too. Singer Edwyn later sang about his favourite song being entitled ‘Boredom’ in the group’s big hit ‘Rip It Up’ which also featured a direct reference to Pete Shelley’s guitar solo in the early Buzzcocks song from their pioneering Spiral Scratch EP, which most of us really got to know and love in 1979 when it was reissued and became, ironically, the last in that run of Buzzcocks hits.

Other of Orange Juice’s Scottish pop contemporaries also owed a lot to that first Buzzcocks incarnation, namely Josef K and Fire Engines (whose debut LP came in an appealing plastic bag like Buzzcocks’ did), and it seems fair to say that what they drew on particularly was that uniquely unstable guitar sound Pete Shelley came up with; the one that would mess with minds for a long time. And there was Altered Images who took their name from a Buzzcocks single sleeve, and would later be produced by Martin Rushent.

Many of the Scottish groups of the early 1980s would talk about how their lives were turned upside down by seeing The Clash’s White Riot tour and in particular the support acts, Buzzcocks, Subway Sect and The Slits. This was always a bittersweet thing to read for those who couldn’t possibly be there, and so it was a welcome relief to find a shift from, say, 1982 or 83 onwards, when slightly younger voices were heard, and for example the Marine Girls would cover Buzzcocks’ ‘Love You More’ and the bass player in Factory hopefuls The Wake would semi-jokingly tell Sounds’ Dave McCullough that their Harmony mini-LP was named in honour of ‘Harmony in My Head’.

That same bass player, one Bobby Gillespie, would soon be part of a new wave of underground pop groups who were again very directly linked to the Buzzcocks’ influence, like Jasmine Minks, June Brides, and The Jesus and Mary Chain, who early on included ‘Love Battery’ in their spectacular short sets. Then there was The Pastels, whose singer Stephen very specifically in terms of style, stagecraft and stance owed a lot to Pete Shelley.

More notably those around these bands (and ones that came after), the friends, fans and followers were very much, to borrow a phrase, Shelley’s children. These were the kids who saw Buzzcocks performing ‘Love You More’ or ‘Promises’ on TV and were never the same again, and in the mid-1980s would still be there in their bedrooms or living rooms playing Singles Going Steady to death, listening to battered tapes of the Time’s Up and Best in Good Food bootlegs, pouring their hearts out in long letters, putting fanzines together, talking long into the night, dreaming, scheming, unaware that love can fade.

For, inevitably, there would come a point when those Buzzcocks singles would seem too familiar, and they would be put aside, but never forgotten. The group would carry on regardless. “Are you doing what you did two years ago? Yeah, well, don’t make a career out of it”. Well, Pete and Steve and co. did, treading the vaudeville and variety boards, doing the punk cabaret circuit, and perversely many of us wished them well, leaving them to the business of entertaining many people over the space of very many years.

Then the news of Pete’s death came through, and it seemed like a punch in the stomach, a real body blow. Why? Well, Pete was an incredibly gifted person. Sure, punk was his vehicle, but not the be-all and end-all. Even George Smiley knew punk was necessary, and Pete was in there at the start, when it was needed, but he could have been one of the best in any age, at whatever he did. 20 odd years earlier he might have been part of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, writing, improvising, anything really. It is just a trick of timing, and without theorising and analysing, I wish I had told Pete Shelley about being one of those kids barely into their teens who saw Buzzcocks on the TV, and how the way he gazed into the camera while singing, as though he were looking right into our living rooms, made us all feel a bit more alive and connected in a way we will never forget at all, at all, at all.

Pete Shelley, 17 April 1955 – 6 December 2018


Kevin Pearce is the author of A Cracked Jewel Case, You Know My Name: The Lovers, The Dreamers, and Bobby Scott, A Moment Worth Waiting For, and Something Beginning With O. Read his previous writings for Caught by the River here.