Musician and songwriter

Born: April 17, 1955

Died: December 6, 2018

Pete Shelley, who has died aged 63, was an English musician and songwriter who was most famous as the lead singer of The Buzzcocks. Although the Bolton-founded group were initially active for half a decade between 1976 and 1981, and their legacy has been entwined with that of the punk scene which swept the country at the time, then and since their return to action in 1989 their music has proven to be about so much more than nihilistic, itchy-footed teen rebellion.

The Buzzcocks’ 1977 debut EP Spiral Scratch, however, was very much a shot of purest punk energy. Shelley and the group’s co-founder Howard Devoto, who met while students at Bolton Institute of Technology in the mid-70s, were devotees of the Sex Pistols, who they travelled to see in London. The pair organised the Pistols’ infamous gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976 and supported them as the Buzzcocks at the same venue the following month.

“If I seem a little jittery I can’t restrain myself / I’m falling into fancy fragments, can’t contain myself,” ran the opening lines of Breakdown, the first track on Spiral Scratch. Self-released in January 1977 by the band, the record has been recognised as one of the first British punk releases, and it bears all the hallmarks of DIY British punk rock; in particular, the EP’s third track, Boredom, has become a classic of the genre. Yet that opening lyric suggested the self-examining depths which would reveal themselves in Shelley’s songwriting.

Devoto left the band in 1977 to form his own group Magazine, his only other contribution being to the similarly punkish first single proper Orgasm Addict the same year. After this, Shelley took complete control of songwriting in The Buzzcocks, playing alongside guitarist Steve Diggle, bassist Steve Garvey and drummer John Maher, and the group were prolific, releasing fourteen singles and three albums in their first five-year incarnation.

The albums were Another Music in a Different Kitchen (1978), which fused the velocity of punk with influences ranging from glam to psychedelic rock and 1960s beat pop; Love Bites (1978), whose focus on brisk guitar-pop spawned the Buzzcocks’ biggest and most enduring hit Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve); and A Different Kind of Tension (1979), which hinted heavily at the emerging and more austere post-punk sound of the 1980s, as well as the chiming, anthemic Factory Records sound which would dominate the Northern music scene in the decade after its release. Listened to one after the other, they’re a bridging point between all that went before and all that came after.

None of these records were much more than cult hits at the time, with only the first two albums and Ever Fallen in Love… going so far as to break the chart top twenty. Yet a feature of the group was their enduring influence, with members of bands as disparate as New Order, the Smiths, Duran Duran, REM and Green Day paying tribute to Shelley in the hours after his death. U2, Bruce Springsteen and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain were also known to be fans.

The singles collection Singles Going Steady, released in 1979 in the US and 1981 in the UK, was one of the reasons the band initially split due to disagreement over its release, yet with a certain irony has become one of the most definitive and widely-purchased recordings of its era, grouping Ever Fallen in Love… and Orgasm Addict with What Do I Get?, I Don’t Mind, Everybody’s Happy Nowadays and more to create a lasting testament to Shelley’s ability as a songwriter of depth, wit and compulsive ability.

His songs spoke of insecurity, edgy romance and unfulfilled sexual desire, and after the Buzzcocks split in 1981, his debut album proper (not counting the early electronic experiment Sky Yen and the 1980 soundtrack Hangahar was 1981’s Homosapien. Produced by Martin Rushent, and banned by the BBC for its open discussion of Shelley’s bisexuality, it’s since gone on to become a cult classic of the early ‘80s’ New Wave and electronic era.

Shelley’s later solo records were XL1 (1983), Heaven and the Sea (1986) and, more recently, Cinema Music and Wallpaper Sounds (2016). The Buzzcocks reformed in 1989 and he and Diggle kept them going through six more LPs – from Trade Test Transmission (1993) to The Way (2014) – none of which spawned any hits, yet all of which continued the legacy of an expressive and masterful songwriter throughout his later life. With new recruits on bass and drums, the band continued to enjoy playing live and were scheduled to appear at Belle & Sebastian’s Boaty Weekender cruise on the Mediterranean in summer 2019.

Pete Shelley was born Peter Campbell McNeish in Leigh, Lancashire, to mill worker Margaret and colliery fitter John in 1955. He was raised in the town with his younger brother Gary, and – although his private life wasn’t a matter of public record – it was known he had been married twice and had children. At the time of his death from a heart attack he lived in Tallinn, Estonia, the home city of his wife Greta.

“By all reason, we should have outlived our use,” Shelley told online music magazine the Quietus just before his 60th birthday, referring to the Buzzcocks. “But maybe that’s the myth of the ‘now’ culture… I do baulk at the idea of being a nostalgia act, because people still find the songs an inspiration… and if you look around, how many other bands are there like Buzzcocks, anyway?”

David Pollock