Pete Shelley Sang Punk Rock About Our Lives
Buzzcocks' lead singer pioneered a melding of pop and punk that directly connected with fans.
Most of the gorgeous lost souls who embraced punk rock were vulnerable and insecure, so why were our musicians such arrogant, assertive gods?
Punk helped us find our tribes, but these fearsome, steely-eyed singers, these fallen angels in creepers and combat boots, were they us? After all, we were the bookish, the bullied, the last to be picked, the first to be picked on, the faggots, geeks, and freaks. The ’77 heroes we taped up on our walls and our lockers chewed on nails and spat out slogans of resolve and revolution, but they did not sing our stories: the stories of the terrified, the rejected, the too round or too fey, the ones who never believed, not for one single moment, that these were the best years of our lives.
True, punk rock did make us feel that anything was possible. Punk rock made us feel there was a world outside, over there, beyond. We were seduced and stamped forever by punk rock, by the simplicity, the rush, and the intimacy of the music; by the way it put a safety pin in the map so the outsiders could find each other. However, “God Save the Queen” might be a slogan on a t-shirt with which we could spot fellow travellers, but it was not our slogan. It said nothing about us.
Then Pete Shelley came along.
Pete Shelley sang songs about us. Shelley, who passed away suddenly in December, at age 63, applied a vulnerability to punk that had largely not existed earlier.
Punk was certainly about returning music to the level of the fans (literally the level of the fans, since the artist could now look right in the eyes of their heroes). But Shelley, working primarily with the Buzzcocks, completed the equation: He sang songs which expressed the insecurities, vulnerabilities, hopes and fears of his young listeners, as perhaps no other artist of his era did. He sang anthems of romantic rejection and emotional confusion, not revolution. We heard our story in his songs of longing and insecurity, topics that were acres away from the slogans and bursts of cynicism of The Clash, The Sex Pistols, or The Damned.
Shelley knew the truth: Each afternoon brought us a fresh rejection, each evening a new search for words to describe a thwarted expectation, each morning a challenge to enter a new cycle of disappointment and anxiety. To a teenager who believes in nothing so much as the inevitability of his or her own misery, each day is another march into darkness.
Pete Shelley made punk rock ours.
Just as significantly, Pete Shelley pioneered a pop developed exclusively for the purpose of punk.
His Buzzcocks made pop that soared and twisted, like sugary sirens, like tripping choral runs practiced in a basement, like The Hollies crossing a bridge over a gorge in a Morris Mini going at top speed and then suddenly finding the bridge ends, leaving them dangling in a space that is almost heaven. The Buzzcocks then blended this, absolutely uniquely, with a punk sound that brought the Pistolian roar to it’s near-conclusion: a constant churn and thrimble that had the hyper Morse-code-ism of The Feel Goods or Eater and the Gwooooar of Steve Jones and Ronson.
Of course, element of pure pop had been blended into punk rock before then. The Ramones had drawn heavily on the playground melodies of bubblegum and Herman and the Hermits, and decades of melodic memes (from Tin Pan Alley to Greaser Rock to Pyschedelia to Glitter) had been reflected in the music of The Clash, The Damned, Television, The Adverts, and many others. But the first generation punk bands—especially the British acts—preferred chanting short, sharp shocks of text, as opposed to crooning elastic or elongated melodic lines. Until Shelley and the Buzzcocks, no one had created a pure, high pop fashioned exclusively from and for punk, something that was both elastic and ecstatically melodic, yet simultaneously complimented the genres extremes of density, simplicity, and repetition.
Others had come close (for instance, Wreckless Eric, The Soft Boys, The Nerves, Generation X, The Barracudas, and slightly later, The Dickies and The Professionals), but none had quite consistently hit the blissful home run that the Buzzcocks did. In other words, it was one thing to be a punk-era act that used melodies that came out of the Britbeat and bubblegum tradition; it was another thing to be a pure—and I mean pure—punk rock band that dealt, nearly exclusively, in those melodies, and integrated them without irony, without gimmick.
So it was left to the Buzzcocks to invent, pioneer, and perfect a pure, soaring punk pop, a tennis-racket thrim-thrim/hubcap skating on asphalt shout-shimmer that fluted and flowed like the most high-flying pop.
This is why when you discovered the Buzzcocks it was like falling in love with music all over again.
Ask anyone who was “contemporary” to the Buzzcocks—i.e., who heard them for the first time roughly around when their records were first released. It was an elegant and dazzling shock that wrapped your heart and your recently acquired short hair in sugar. We had wanted, without being able to articulate it, the melodies of The Beatles and the ‘60s/’70s AM radio that was part of our childhood ambience to find their way into the 16-beats-to-the-bar up’-an’-down-a-up’-an’-down of punk. And here it was, presented to us by the Buzzcocks! Suddenly, briskly, brilliantly, each line of the verse, bridges, and choruses felt like a holler of hallelujah.
So when I think of Pete Shelley, I will think of someone who gave us the Pop Punk Hallelujah; and just as importantly, an empath who gave us songs that were about us, that still ring with melody and feeling today.