Buzzcocks are one of the most important bands of all time. Without their boundary-pushing interpretation of the punk genre, many of its ensuing offshoots would be without their defining factors. They wrote songs for the future, and this is what endeared them to fans of all walks of life. The introspection that underpinned many of their lyrics was remarkably forward-thinking for the time and showed the machismo of punk to be what it was, futile.
Greatly inspired by bands such as The Stooges, Can and The Velvet Underground, there’s no surprise that when Buzzcocks were at their peak, critics and audiences had trouble pigeonholing them. They were punk, but they were also so much more than that. They didn’t concern themselves with faux nihilism and anarchism like Sex Pistols. Instead, the nihilism they vocalised was real, fuelled by the bleak post-industrial environment of 1970s Manchester.
However, Buzzcocks didn’t believe the hype like many of their other contemporaries, giving them an everyman feel that people who weren’t necessarily punks could get behind. Perhaps the most unmistakable feature of their music was their wry humour, and it served as an antidote to the dire socio-economic situation of the late ’70s.
This was primarily down to frontman Pete Shelley. Openly bisexual, his discussions of love, sex and other taboo subjects were pioneering for the time. Interestingly, he was born Peter McNeish, but his stage name was taken from the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and by the time Buzzcocks split for the first time in 1981, he’d also be regarded as one of the best poets that Britain had to offer.
Shelley said more in one song than many of his contemporaries managed to do in their whole career; that’s how incisive he was. ‘Everybody’s Happy Nowadays’, ‘Autonomy’, ‘Lipstick’ and ‘Whatever Happened To…?’ are just four examples of Shelley’s lyrical density. He was afraid of no issue and expertly combined the mundane with more severe topics. This created surreal imagery that was similar to that of his heroes, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. In doing so, he helped to set the scene for the advent of heroes such as Morrissey and Kurt Cobain in the coming years.
Typically playful, he told Melody Maker in 1978: “I won’t be nasty. We’re just four nice lads, the kind of people you could take home to your parents.”
Given that Pete Shelley was such a masterful wordsmith, we’ve listed his seven best lyrical compositions that clearly reflect just how pioneering he was. He was a poet, a comedian, and a social commentator, and without his work, alternative music today would be very different. Be prepared to jump into the complex, and often wicked mind of one of the greatest frontmen of all time.
Pete Shelley’s 7 greatest lyrical compositions:
Punk nihilism – ‘Everybody’s Happy Nowadays’, Singles Going Steady, (1979)
“Life’s an illusion / love is a dream.”
This cut is classic Pete Shelley. In fact, the lyrics don’t stretch much further than this line, and the title of the song comprises the song’s chorus. However, in doing so, it gets the point across clearly. As the band repeat, “Life’s an illusion, love is a dream” towards the end of the song, as the music drops out, you understand what Shelley’s getting at.
1970s Britain was such a bleak time, and the grey and browns made Shelley and the rest of his generation think that life wasn’t real, and that love, whatever that may be, was unattainable.
Freedom at all costs – ‘Autonomy’, Another Music in a Different Kitchen, (1978)
“I, I want you, autonomy / Yes, I, I want you, autonomy.”
One of the most anthemic tracks Shelley and the band ever wrote, ‘Autonomy’ fuses the raw power of the punk movement with some stellar musicianship. Steve Diggle’s solo is up there as one of his finest, and even though it’s simple, it’s emotive and powerful, echoing the message of the song.
Here, Shelley ponders the concept of freedom and, by the end, comes to the conclusion that he wants it at all costs. He wants to break free from the chains of everyday life and determine his own fate, and with moments like this, he did.
Humorously dealing with a breakup – ‘Lipstick’, Love Bites, (1978)
“When you miss me / In your dreams does my lover have your face?”
‘Lipstick’ has been a favourite of Buzzcocks fans since it was released. Whilst the lyric, “Ah, it’s the morning / And the mourning, it is dawning on me too”, is indicative of Shelley’s position as one of the very best wordsmiths in punk, the lyric about his spritely face popping up in his ex-lover’s dreams is brilliant.
Surreal, funny, and dark, this was Pete Shelley to a tee. Even though he’d split up with the anonymous subject, he wasn’t going to forget it anytime soon.
Cultural magpie – ‘Whatever Happened To…?’, Another Music in a Different Kitchen, (1978)
“Whatever happened to twin sets? / Whatever happened to Hi-Fi? / Whatever happened to TV sex? / Whatever happened to you and I?”
On ‘Whatever Happened To…?’, which is a personal favourite of the band’s, we hear Shelley touch on almost every possible topic relevant to culture at the time. It’s so very post-modern and highlights the kind of disillusionment that the band and their generation felt, listen to any Joy Division cut and you’ll heed this point. Whether it be mentioning New Age beliefs, Chairman Mao, or the yellow pages, Shelley delivers another comedic masterclass here.
Forbidden Love – ‘Ever Fallen in Love’, Love Bites, (1978)
“You spurn my natural emotions / You make me feel like dirt and I’m hurt / And if I start a commotion / I run the risk of losing you and that’s worse.”
Shelley was openly a bisexual at a time when it was still dangerous, as the country and society at large were still stuck in the middle ages. Added to this defiance was the fact that the punk scene was also homophobic, and Shelley’s discussions of being hurt by a lover, presumably of the same sex, was the antithesis of what punks such as Sex Pistols claimed to be about.
Resultingly, ‘Ever Fallen in Love’ represents a significant turning point in punk, which helped to set the stage for the likes of Rites of Spring and Nirvana to discuss their feelings, dragging us into the future. Whilst we could’ve listed the chorus lyrics, it’s the opening verse where Shelley delivers his best work.
Dirty Bugger – ‘Orgasm Addict’, (1977)
“Sneaking in the back door / With dirty magazines / Now your mother wants to know / What all those stains on your jeans.”
Let’s quickly remember what Shelley said in the 1978 Melody Maker interview: “I won’t be nasty. We’re just four nice lads, the kind of people you could take home to your parents.” Obviously, he was being sarcastic, and his work is smattered with dirty suggestions and graphic scenes. ‘Orgasm Addict’ is undoubtedly the most explicit in Buzzcocks’ back catalogue.
It’s clearly about masturbation addiction, and is comprised of hilarious lines, including the one about “beating your meat to pulp”. However, the best image has to be about the horny rookie sneaking in through the back door with the prohibited goods.
Philosophical ponderance – ‘I Believe’, A Different Kind Of Tension, (2019)
“I believe in the things I’ve never had / I believe in my Mum and my Dad.”
Pete Shelley was clearly miles ahead of many of his punk contemporaries when it came to the intellectual side of things. A real genius, who left no stone unturned, he was consistently looking for a way out of the current mire that society found itself in. ‘I Believe’ is an absolute masterpiece lyrically and musically and is perhaps the densest set of poetry he ever wrote.
He forensically picks apart the countless ideologies that cause the world problems and shows them to be what they are, fallacies. Whilst the subject matter is bleak, as he sings in a primal howl, “there is no love in this world anymore”, we’ve picked the line about following the beliefs of your parents refusing to make your own mind up, as it’s so very British.