It is a general rule nowadays that when someone of any note dies, first there is hagiography, then there are jokes. Sometimes the universal praise lasts less than a minute before someone posts some horrific thing the newly deceased said or did, maybe in the ’80s or maybe just their first innocently cruel forays onto social media. Serial fucker-uppers that we humans are, it’s usually not too difficult to find some act or song that could taint our collective memory of pretty much anyone.
It’s been a day since Buzzcocks front man Pete Shelley died and there’s not a “well, actually” in sight. Everybody, or at least the everybody who’d be inclined to care in the first place, is just sad.
In the summer of 1990, I turned 15. My father had recently left, and his boyfriend, presumably to bond, and maybe to improve my taste, gave me his well-worn copy of the Buzzcocks singles compilation, Singles Going Steady. I can’t imagine a better time and circumstance to discover the Buzzcocks. My dad was gay, my mom was crying, and I was, frankly, happy to finally be interesting. Sad girls and solipsistic boys; pop-punk in a bottle.
Arguing about the pop-punk is as fun as arguing about punk is dreary. Who invented it? Who perfected it? Whose fault is it that so much of it is fart jokes and misogyny attached to melodies that Carole King would have killed with fire before letting loose upon the world? Well, with no intended slight to the Ramones, the answer to all these questions is Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks.
Forming Buzzcocks in 1975 with Howard Devoto (after Devoto left to form Magazine, Steve Diggle would be the only other consistent member), Pete Shelley invented a lovelorn and conversational poetry driven by slashing guitar music as unshakably catching as any of cupid’s arrows ever were. If Richard Hell was Baudelaire and Patti Smith was, well, Patti Smith, then Pete Shelley was Frank O’Hara, always in love with love, a sophisticate in his underwear, plus treble. And if maybe some of Shelley’s [cough] descendants took “all those stains on your jeans” from Buzzcocks’ first single, 1977’s “Orgasm Addict,” a bit too much as a career lyrical template, what’s more tragic/romantic than unintended consequence.
It’s pretty much canon that Singles Going Steady is the “best” Buzzcocks album the same way that a singles collection of the Temptations or the Supremes would be those groups’ “best.” Singles Going Steady gets youth and desire exactly right. It’s a perfect album from a band that never fetishized perfection. As a young virginal nerd who, despite my fluffy mohawk and poor grades, deeply wanted to be told what to do, I settled on Singles as a holy text and wouldn’t get around to the apocrypha of Buzzcocks’s studio albums until my 20s. I took a chance on a ROIR live cassette as a teen, but with Shelley’s up-front adenoidal singing roundly mocked by the Rollins Band/Social Distortion skate rats I wanted to like me, I set it aside. Presumably Shelley’s ghost will maintain the graciousness he was universally known for in life and forgive me.
To remember Pete Shelley’s songs is to feel the pain of nostalgia, like visiting your hometown when every shuttered deli and graveyard is a monument to some youthful humiliation. Here’s where you took an hour to tell a boy exactly how you felt, only to have him ask about a better-looking friend before you could get the words out. Here’s where you tried to feel up a social better and got shot down in a way that shakes you even now. Here’s where you did something cruel, only to realize just how cruel you were years later. Over by that bridge, you made a joke that bombed, you got caught betraying a friend, once you even, God help you, tried to dance in front of other people. Every song is a litany of failure and frustrated sexual impulse and, in pigheaded defiance of all human reason, there are few things more delicious in this world.
Sometimes the feeling Shelley could evoke crossed over into commentary on itself, like a cartoon of regret leaping from the TV into the real world. I can’t be alone in cringing every time I remember that I wasn’t the only boy on the block to get that mixtape with “Lipstick” on it. But when I hear “in your dreams / Does your lover have my face,” I still sing along.
Pete Shelley never wrote a terrible song. If he did, I haven’t heard it. Buzzcocks have never been anything short of revered, but the pity of Shelley’s passing is compounded by the fact that Domino Records was just about to reissue Buzzcocks’s first two studio albums, Another Music in a Different Kitchen and Love Bites, which will have brought their lesser-known songs to a new generation of listeners. All those beautiful and odd songs were remastered for us undeserving olds and the young people, with less time and distance from their adolescent pangs, would get to revel in that sweet ache for the first time. I don’t know that Pete Shelley cared much about such things, but I’m so sorry that he won’t get to see either the ensuing adulation nor a new generation’s stomach clench of recognition at his art.
In much the same way that Motörhead was beloved by punks and metalheads alike, Pete Shelley existed as a bridge across genre and subculture. He was, being openly bisexual, a queer icon who’s ’80s electro-pop was eccentric and brilliant (1981’s “Homosapien” is particularly an LGBTQ standard, and, my personal favorite, 1986’s “On Your Own (New York Mix)” still gets plays at NYC after-hours clubs), while also writing aggro-punkers “hard” enough to be covered by everyone from posi-hardcore kick-flippers Gorilla Biscuits to scum-rockers the Lunachicks. From the start, Buzzcocks were both early innovators in DIY (self-releasing their first EP, Spiral Scratch) and, with playing Rock Against Racism shows, early adopters of the nascent and necessary anti-fascism movement in the punk underground.
After reuniting in 1989, Buzzcocks would tour with grunge acts and do Warped Tour and Punk Rock Bowling, but none of it ever felt like a cash grab. They spent the last two decades making peppy and occasionally experimental power-pop albums, each one far better than it needed to be. Shelley maintained a knack for tapping into angst without any embarrassing pretensions of eternal boydom or faux-naïveté. Not an easy task when heartbreak and speed are one’s bread and butter. “Never being embarrassing” may seem like faint praise, but you go ahead and try it sometime. I’m hard-pressed to say why we gravitate to music that tells us what we already know, but we move toward painful but familiar songs all the same, holding on to them like a proxy for every person who cared, or who we cared for. Pete Shelley, writer of jaunty tunes suffused with longing and that great death distraction, and sex, is gone far, far too soon at 63. His art answered a confounding and essential need.