Pete Shelley Obituary / For The Record #3 – Buzzcocks Edition

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one left totally taken by the sudden news of Pete Shelley’s passing. After my first FTR article I was back listening to Buzzcocks on a regular occurrence, returning me to a time when I was around 13 years old, where all of Shelley’s lyrics seemed to describe every emotion of adolescence and teenage innocence so succinctly, humorously and, at times, in such brutal honesty.

I saw Buzzcocks in London during 2017 and they were on tremendous form. All the vitality and energy of the nearly forty-year-old songs was effortlessly maintained – Diggle interacted with the adoring audience for the entire show and Shelley sounded as if it were still 1978. I feel lucky to be able to say I have seen the Buzzcocks live, and lucky that I was able to indulge myself in classic after classic. It was a superb evening.

Any punk documentary, book or podcast will always mention the now legendary Lesser Free Trade Hall gig, where The Sex Pistols stamped their authority onto the punk arena and punk was finally given an audience, no matter what size. What is often overlooked, however, is the role played by The Buzzcocks’ then frontman Howard Devoto and lead guitarist Pete Shelley’s role in organising the gig (amongst many others in Manchester) while the Buzzcocks were still a young, fledgling act, fighting their way into the Manchester scene and beyond.

Without that gig, that mythical array of musical power and fight, who knows whether punk would have ever gained the notoriety and standing it achieved. As many will be aware, members of the then unformed bands The Fall, Joy Division and The Smiths were present that night. Deprived of visionaries and believers such as Shelley, the musical world may not have been so joyous, raucous and utterly compelling for those looking for a voice to speak to them.

Shelley and co. were also archetypal of the new DIY protocol that punk was soon to follow after them, forming the New Hormones label in 1977 and releasing the seminal Spiral Scratch EP, which led a young Morrissey to declare them ‘only the best kick ass rock band in the country’ to NME in 1977.

What’s more, where would pop, and all its various avenues in rock, be without the craft and ingenuity of Buzzcocks? Every single, album track, A-side, B-side, bonus track, everything they did had such edge; every lyric sang, shouted or screamed reminisced with those playing with the strings of lust, youth or immaturity in ways that not many other bands could dream of. Even Devoto’s following band Magazine borrowed a Shelley riff (used in the single ‘Lipstick’) for their debut single ‘Shot By Both Sides’, which saw them sit at #41 on the charts and appear on Top of The Pops.

So, here’s to Pete Shelley and Buzzcocks for making the best pop songs ever, for making every insecure teenager’s coping with life’s little problems more bearable, and for helping a generation of musicians set the country, and the world, to Manchester’s groove.

Due to the monumental loss, I’ll be writing about all my Buzzcocks vinyl that hasn’t been reviewed. Overall, I am left with an extra single to the usual serving. I’ll start with the Spiral Scratch EP, onto ‘Ever Fallen In Love’, ‘Harmony In My Head’ and conclude with their debut LP Another Music in a Different Kitchen.

Spiral Scratch EP

I came into awareness of this EP after discovering Magazine and watching a So It Goes Devoto and Shelley documentary from 1978, where the theme tune was track three ‘Boredom’, the ad-break commencing on Devoto’s “B’dum b’dum”. I had listened to Buzzcocks’ debut album and Magazine’s first three, so this was a new avenue to explore – proper independent punk at its most raw and true.

For me, the EP opener ‘Breakdown’ is a rank above the rest of the tracks. Devoto’s near-rantings come out in high-pitched jaunty half-words, backed by a ridiculously powerful Shelley guitar and the signature fast-paced power drumming of John Maher. It’s punk. The rough recording, the audible mini-mishaps and Devoto’s strained, aggressive vocals. It’s infectious. Completely.

The descending and ascending chords of ‘Time’s Up’ come in instantly – there’s no rest on these grooves, so sit, listen, and shut up. Lyrically superb, ‘Time’s Up’ is a tiny bit instrumentally more refined than its predecessor and follows the same boisterous programme. What’s brilliant is the awful backing vocals on the ‘Time’s up/Me too’ choruses; Devoto and Shelley seem to fight over who can be the least tuneful and the most painful for the ears – simply stupid and simply stunning.

Here’s your ten second break – flip over to side two and sit back down. In flies ‘Boredom’, one of the most highly-held punk riffs and choruses, supported by lyrics such as ‘every ring-a-ring-a-ring-a fucking thing’. Oh so good. The further we go, the angrier Devoto gets – ‘GET YOUR HANDS OUT MY TROUSERS’ is violently thrown up as it explodes out, it’s just crazy. ‘Ah!’ he concludes. You can’t ask for much better.

Or can you? ‘Friends of Mine’ begins with a grinding single chord introduction, followed by Devoto nearly rapping to the cacophony behind him. The guitar solo rings of Fall level neglect for musical delicacy and aural-ease, as does the whole EP to be fair, but it seems to be ramped up for a disturbing final goodbye from the new kids on the ugly, distorted block.

This was their meticulous mark on the world, and it was perfect.

Side One: 5/5   Side Two: 5/5   Sleeve: 4/5

Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve) B/W Just Lust

The signature Buzzcocks ballad of decaying love and a dying relationship. Produced to create the perfect emotional backdrop to Shelley’s longing lyrics, ‘Ever Fallen In Love’ is, and always will be, frankly the perfect pop song. This will probably be one of the shortest reviews I’ll ever write, as I feel no one needs me to tell them how ingenious and powerful this song is.

The words are decorated with despair and grief, while the guitars remain loaded with guts and power yet orchestrate the collapse of this entanglement so fittingly. I’m sure that everyone has felt exactly the way the words describe the feelings experienced, which is probably why this song remains so adored. It speaks to all it touches on some level, whether spiritual or emotional. A masterpiece. Plain and simple.

‘Just Lust’ is arguably even more sombre. Shelley sort of mumbles each word like a man who has given up on hope of attachment to anyone or anything. I remember first hearing this after I bought the single at a record fair, and I was instantly hooked on its sharp jab of sorrow and the descending riffs in the verse. It’s a wonderful B-side that compliments the headline act aptly.

A-Side: 5/5   B-Side: 4/5   Sleeve: 5/5

Harmony In My Head B/W Something’s Gone Wrong Again

The same Buzzcocks protocol – a masterful pop riff, strong drumming and a punchy bassline. But no Shelley this time. Instead we’re welcomed by the rough and gristly barks of lead guitarist Steve Diggle. They really are quite cutting – he claims to have smoked twenty cigarettes before recording to attain the harsh sound, and I think it’s safe to say it paid off.

Even Diggle seems to hold his own emotional twang to his singing despite the gruff sound of his voice, and they’re brilliantly contrasted by the more controlled and soothing vocals sang by Shelley in the slightly more dreamy, less intense chorus. It’s an excellent tune, my Dad’s favourite Buzzcocks song, and a reminder that it wasn’t always a one man show in the song writing department.

The B-side makes me think that Diggle’s tobacco-induced yelps were perhaps more fitting for both songs. Instead, Shelley returns to business as usual. It’s a good song musically, but perhaps Diggle was more suitable for this tune. Still strong, however.

A-Side: 5/5   B-Side: 3/5   Sleeve: 4/5

Another Music In A Different Kitchen LP

A spectacular album, and one of the first albums I bought on vinyl. It catches The Buzzcocks on the cusp of commercial and critical adoration, a sign of things to come with the singles and albums that took the baton afterwards.

Kicking off with a nice excerpt of ‘Boredom’, ‘Fast Cars’ gradually grows and crashes into life so grabbingly. It’s such a raucous opener, a hit in the face of musical apathy and dreariness. It’s as lively an opener can get.

This theme is inevitably continued throughout the album. Though lacking the extra emotional edge of successor Love Bites, AMIADK is still a fantastically explosive journey on a band that appears to be, more than anything, having fun in their minimalist freedom, every strum of the guitar or hit of the drum a slamming reaffirmation of their status in the punk arena, epitomised by the fantastic ‘You Tear Me Up’, a step up in anger and toughness to the opening two tracks.

‘Get On Your Own’ has this brilliantly pitched line by Shelley that kicks off each verse, and is probably one of the main competitors for the best track of side one with ‘Sixteen’. ‘Get On Your Own’ is also probably the most pop of the first side too, but it certainly holds more than enough punk punch to keep the energy levels at their usual high.

Side two is an absolute treat. It opens with lead single ‘I Don’t Mind’, which is indisputably superb and beautifully crafted, re-affirming the energy of side one while also upping the romantic theme of the Buzzcocks sound. Two tracks later we’re met by, for me, the best song on the album. Though the B-side to ‘I Don’t Mind’, ‘Autonomy’ has this brash uncaring guitar line, extremely rough but a class above the simplistic three chord thrash of their youthful punk contemporaries.

What’s excels the song further is Shelley. Though usually the hopeful romantic, the shaman or sham, is now angry, accessing Devoto levels of strength and audacity. I’m not entirely sure what he lyrics are about or what Shelley was so angry at, but I’m not complaining. I remember first hearing this, the exuberance and enthusiasm of the song struck me. They drag out the guitar line at the end for as long as possible. It’s a killer riff, produced perfectly. Stunning.

The album closes with the seven-minute thriller ‘Moving Away From The Pulsebeat’. When I saw them live, they fittingly closed with this too. I’d never been much of a fan of this song, but that night changed everything. Shelley is even angrier. All his vocals seem to be a bit off-pitch because of the emotional strain, but it works fantastically. The Diggle solos are high-pitched, jarring, but ultimately so rewarding. The backing of the low-hits of Shelley’s guitar overlook this piece authoritatively, while Maher’s drums are of course the star of the show.

A stunning way to depart from your first full-length LP. Brave, frantic, and undeniably magnificent.

What an album.

Side One: 4/5   Side Two: 5/5   Sleeve: 4/5

And there we have it. Shelley’s death will probably bring about the conclusion of Buzzcocks, unless Devoto would be willing to step in (unlikely, however). What we are left with is one of the most influential collections of artistry ever achieved within the punk movement, and we owe it all to a man with such insight, grace and class. Cheers, Pete.

 

Next: For The Record #4

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