RIP Pete Shelley: A tribute to the Buzzcocks innovator, the voice of a generation

A Manchester lad who helped changed the face of music forever, Pete Shelley will go down in the annals of history for his contribution to punk.

The Leigh-born musician passed away yesterday morning in Estonia, where he was living, of a suspected heart attack. With Buzzcocks he gave birth to indie, brought punk to the north of England and led the way in an unparalleled cultural movement.

Pete was a vanguard in the punk rock revolution, especially in Manchester. With former band member Howard Devoto, who went to form Magazine, he organised the famous Sex Pistols gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall on June 4 1976.

They were inspired to put the night on after having driven to High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire to see the London-based group. They booked them in Manchester under the stipulation that they could be the support act, but around came the night and Buzzcocks still didn’t have a drummer or permanent bassist.

Despite this, Pete had already changed musical history. The gig, and its sequel six weeks later, held host to Morrissey of The Smiths, Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner of Joy Division and Mark E. Smith of The Fall. All of whom, like Shelley, were convinced they could do better than Johnny Rotten and his band of (not so) merry men.

After setting the fuse for a punk rock boom in Manchester, Shelley and Devoto recruited Steve Diggle and John Maher – and with that Buzzcocks released their first EP, Spiral Scratch in January 1977. Having taken punk away from Soho and up to Salford, Shelley and co then gave birth to indie.

Buzzcocks set up a record label called ‘New Hormones’, and produced and distributed Spiral Scratch, borrowing £500 from various friends and family to cover the costs. Hoping only to sell 1,000 copies, enough to cover their debts – they instead sold 16,000.

In doing so they set the precedent for the new wave of British independent labels and proved that anyone could get involved in the music industry, which may not seem radical now with anyone being able to upload their music, but in the 70s this tore down huge barriers to entry in the industry.

Shelley’s lyrics were a frantic combination of romanticism and punk wit, from the unflinching rebellion of Oh Sh*t and Orgasm Addict to the reflective tone of Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve).

Putting his position to good use, Shelley performed with Buzzcocks at Rock Against Racism in Manchester and never feared from using his platform to talk about his sexuality.

His first single as a solo artist, Homosapien in 1981, was banned by the BBC for its “explicit reference to gay sex” with its lyric “homo superior, in my interior”.

This single was far more clear in its pride, but the Buzzcocks’ work wasn’t overtly vague, with lyrics such as “ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with” clearly not being about the girl next door.

“It’s the aim of existence to offer resistance to the flow of time,” wrote Shelley on the 1980 single I Believe, and it rings true of his own music.

Over 41 years on from their first release, their proto pop punk tunes haven’t aged a day. A riotous collision of pop and punk, their influence can be heard from Nirvana to Arcade Fire.

With his dry wit and Steve Diggle’s infectious melodies on guitar they made a sound that defined an era, and continues to impress today. His lyrics were both epic and intimate, and adored by millions – all the way up until his death Buzzcocks were still performing to sold out crowds all around the world.

Twitter was awash with tributes to the star last night, with Stiff Little Fingers, Dead Kennedys and The Stranglers all posting their respects.

Former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock wrote: “A superb songwriter, artist, and a totally sweet hearted guy who was one of the very few originals of punk and even a one off within that.”

A poet of the human condition, an innovator, and the voice of a generation – Pete Shelley will never be forgotten.

Image courtesy of UMusic Publishing UK via Twitter, with thanks.

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