Pete Shelley, 1955–2018

Back in high school, I had a friend named Pete who somehow had an inside line on really cool music that we rarely if ever got to hear on the radio at the time. That’s even considering that, living in Massachusetts in the 1980s, I got to listen to the then-cutting-edge WBCN and the even better WBRU, Brown University’s station based in Providence. Somehow, even though those bands ended up getting played on those stations, he got them to me first. I heard R.E.M.’s first EP through him (although I had heard their first single, “Boxcars,” on ‘BCN already), as well as early Clash, Minor Threat, Steel Pulse, U2 (who he correctly predicted, even at the time of the release of their second album, October, would be one of the biggest bands in the world), and a variety of others, including the Buzzcocks.

It was around that time, in what was the early days of my most fertile era of music discovery, that I was growing to love the sub-genre of power pop, that super-catchy, high-energy assimilation of the best bits of Beatlesque pop and high-energy rock. And similarly, the Buzzcocks immediately appealed to me. They had some of the rawness of the original punk bands of the late ’70s that were their peers, but with that came a catchy musicality missing from most of those bands—one could safely go so far as to call it a pop sensibility. Theirs was a more sophisticated brand of punk, featuring at times both a wicked sense of humor and a romantic streak that must, to some degree, have been sneered upon by some of those same peers. But the Buzzcocks, led by Pete Shelley, sacrificed nothing in terms of punk energy in their fantastic songwriting and willingness to sing about love.

All of this was embodied most clearly in Shelley, whose lyrics—which frequently dealt with heartbreak and interpersonal awkwardness—and emotive, unpolished singing demonstrated a defiant vulnerability that few bands at the time, punk or otherwise, were willing to lay bare. In Shelley’s world, love was strange and often unrequited, and the lovers either unattainable or difficult to please once attained. What made it so entertaining, though, was that he offered it all up with a knowing wink that said “oh, I know love’s not always this awful, but this way is so much more fun, isn’t it?” I don’t think it would be too out of place to say that Pete Shelley was punk’s Oscar Wilde.

Their 1979 Singles Going Steady is one of the best punk albums of all time, so much more than a mere compilation of the remarkable string of singles they had released to that point. It showcases all their best qualities in one amazing package and exhibits all the proof you’d need that they easily stand side by side with the Clash and the Sex Pistols as one of the great pioneering bands of ’70s British punk. The song I’ve chosen here for this post, “Raison d’Être,” would have been a great choice for that album, but appeared instead on A Different Kind of Tension, their third studio album released the same month as Singles Going Steady.

It was quite a shock when, last December (yes, this in memoriam is a few months in the making), the news came through that Pete Shelley had passed away much too young, at the age of 63, due to a heart attack. Although the Buzzcocks had broken up for most of the ’80s, they had reunited in 1989 and, over the ensuing decades, had toured several times and released more albums than they had in their initial, most influential incarnation. Fortunately, I managed to see them one time: on that very first 1989 reunion tour, at the Citi Club in Boston, thinking at the time that it was a one-off reunion and might be my only chance ever to see them. As it turned out, it didn’t necessarily have to be, but it was. And if you look really really closely, you might see a tiny, 45-rpm-record-shaped hole in my heart where there was once the hope that I’d get to see the Buzzcocks live again. But luckily, I’ve got one Pete to thank for introducing me to another Pete, and plenty of music left to hear.


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