Few songwriters have captured matters of the heart the same way that the Buzzcocks vocalist Pete Shelley did. Shelley, who passed last week from a heart attack at age 63, was deeply perceptive, and attuned to the particular ways that former loves get under our skin. The band, which came up during first-wave punk in the mid-1970s, went on to become one of the genre’s preeminent voices from Manchester, England, with a slew of impeccable punk gems to show for it. Buzzcocks’ most well-known tune, “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” is, much like many of their great songs, a deftly crafted, punkified pop anthem about love’s disquieting nature. It’s one that will forever live on through dive-bar jukeboxes — and rightfully so. Here are ten essential Buzzcocks songs, many of which wrestle with the knottiness of love and how it affects us.
“Time’s Up,” a demo that the band recorded in 1976 and rereleased in 1991, immortalizes early incarnation Buzzcocks still getting their kicks as a band. Still, it’s just as uncompromising as anything they’d go on to write. Shelley wasn’t totally fronting the band yet — here, he’s mostly helming the buzz-saw guitars, while vocalist Howard Devoto spits a nervy yarn about waiting for a lover who’s left him hanging: “Waiting for you’s like waiting for the man in the moon,” he sings, before admitting that “this hanging on is murder / But if you’d just come along I’d have no regrets.” This was the same year that Devoto and Shelley had borrowed a car and driven to London to see the Sex Pistols, told the Pistols they’d get them a gig in Manchester (the legendary one at Lesser Free Trade Hall where Mark E. Smith, Ian Curtis, Morrissey, and Tony Wilson attended, immediately starting their respective projects after), and then formed their own band. “Time’s Up,” recorded just a few months later, is the sound of a band already testing its propensity for being at the forefront of punk innovation.
Shortly after putting together a string of demos on Time’s Up, the band went into the studio to redo several songs — resulting in the foundational EP Spiral Scratch, released in 1977. The EP is barely over ten minutes, but was an absolute game changer for punk, both within their hometown and outside of it: The fact that they scrappily released it themselves became a template that would become pivotal for other DIY bands bubbling up in Manchester to self-release albums. Spiral Scratch remains untouchable, front to back. But it’s the pithy, smarting “Boredom” within it that’s a punk shakedown at its finest, with a repetitive beat (bolstered by Shelley’s cheeky, bare-bones guitar solo) underscoring the band’s apathy with the burgeoning scene and rallying cry to shake it up already. “You know the scene — very humdrum,” Devoto snarls, singing in one of his last Buzzcocks songs before going on to form the band Magazine.
“I Don’t Mind”
After Devoto left Buzzcocks, Shelley took up the reins as vocalist. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better opening statement from someone than what he did on Another Music in a Different Kitchen, the band’s debut full-length release. It’s packed with brilliance from start to finish, with spitfire singles, including “What Do I Get?” and “Orgasm Addict.” But it’s the barreling ode to self-doubt “I Don’t Mind” that is at once pop-perfect and finds Shelley flexing his talent for imbuing emotive bursts into his words, moving from pained to playful with finesse. “I’m lost without a clue / So how can I undo the tangle of these webs I keep weaving? / I don’t know if I should be believing / Deceptive perceiving,” he sings, right before launching into one of the band’s most irresistibly catchy choruses. Shelley’s intonation on the word “mind” is one that demands to be belted loudly, maybe even using a hairbrush as a makeshift microphone.
Perhaps no other song in Buzzcocks’ canon more aptly encapsulates Shelley’s stance on fleeting love than the absolute barnburner “Fiction Romance,” also from Another Music in a Different Kitchen. Behind a squall of chugging guitars, Shelley unfurls how his real-world romances have varied from the comforting, albeit predictable love stories forever depicted in books and magazines: “I love this love story / That never seems to happen in my life,” he cries out. Turns out they’re just fictitious for a reason, though. Later on in the song, Shelley realizes that his own romantic dalliances, even without the pop-culture precedent, have been extraordinary all the same: “No fiction romantic / Could ever’ve predicted / All the things that happen in my life,” he sings, in a perfect literary twist. No wonder the band’s guitarist, Steve Diggle, once described them as “punks with library cards.”
In what may be one of history’s greatest punk victory laps, Buzzcocks released their second smoldering album, Love Bites, the same year that Another Music came out. The title aptly describes the band’s ethos, about how love is as cutting as it is brief, and hints at the brief, lovesick tunes within; it’s this album that spawned “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’tve).” Love Bites also saw the Buzzcocks leaping remarkably ahead as a band — tighter, more sure, and increasingly adventurous with their rhythms — in a remarkable few months. The album’s despondent “Nothing Left,” a song about being unsure about why someone departed, and feeling hurt in their absence, sees Shelley putting his heart on display: “I’ve lost a lover / And I am certain / I’ll get another / So why’m I hurtin’?” he asks, before lamenting how he has “nothing left at all.” The only way is forward, a conclusion emphasized by the song’s galvanizing gallop.
“Love You More”
Later on Love Bites, Shelley shares a (slightly) more upbeat take on loving someone — the one that happens once you’ve licked your wounds from a previous heartache — on the hooky “Love You More.” “I’m in love again,” he sings, elated, with a twinge of apprehension. “This time’s true, I’m sure.” While he shares that he’s been “hurt so many times before,” Shelley doesn’t care. Here, he’s committing to loving someone even harder, even more than he has any time before, until it inevitably falls apart again. Everything comes to an end, yes. But in an era of increasingly depersonalized, digital-driven dating, when no one is willing to show their cards first, Shelley’s optimism on “Love You More,” however brief, is a reminder that we could all stand to be more tender with one another.
“I Don’t Know What to Do With My Life”
In 1979, Buzzcocks released A Different Kind of Tension, the last studio album of their first run as a band. (They’d break up in 1981, and later reunite.) On it, the band started dabbling in more experimental rhythms, while keeping wiry rhythm sections and punchy choruses close to the core of their work. One standout from this record is “I Don’t Know What to Do With My Life,” an underdog anthem of frustration about life’s vicious, cyclical nature. “I’m not expecting things to be perfect / But a high success rate would be nice,” Shelley sings, behind a nervous, energetic melody. Fair enough!
The German band Can, with their singular talent for unspooling revelations from mesmeric rhythmic sequences, were massive influences on Shelley — and it’s evident on songs like “I Believe,” the final song from A Different Kind of Tension. This seven-minute-long song is a propulsive romp and cynical, too — its chorus features Shelley screaming: “There’s no love in this world anymore!” It’s also some of the most prescient and revelatory lyricism he ever put to tape: “In these times of contention, it’s not my intention to make things plain / I’m looking through mirrors to catch the reflection that can’t be mine / I’m losing control now, I’ll just have to slow down a thought or two / I can’t feel the future and I’m not even certain that there is a past,” he sings.
“Everybody’s Happy Nowadays”
After their four years together as a band, Buzzcocks had amassed an inimitable oeuvre of lovelorn punk thrashes. In 1979, they released a compilation album, Singles Going Steady, culled from the sharpest singles they’d written so far on previous albums, demos, and B-sides. It’s impossible to single out just one on this essential collection. But the stunning “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays” is absolute pop perfection, and a fitting distillation of Shelley’s tongue-in-cheek worldview. “I was so tired of being upset / Always wanting something I never could get,” Shelley confesses, the bouncy rhythm section making his words bite even more. “Life’s an illusion, love is the dream.”
Buzzcocks’ single “What Do I Get?” got some movement on the U.K. charts upon its release in 1978. The record’s cutting B-side, “Oh Shit,” shines as well, especially as a brash realization about someone wasting your time. “Oh shit, I thought things were goin’ well / But it hasn’t turned out so swell, has it?” Shelley seethes, before laying into someone for not being forthright with him. As if he hasn’t voiced his disdain enough, the potty-mouthed anthem ends with “Admit, admit, you’re shit, you’re shit!”