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The groundbreaking influence of Buzzcocks' Pete Shelley on alternative music

Buzzcocks were one of the most important punk bands of the first wave of British punk, and without their boundary-pushing riff on the genre, many of punk’s subsequent offshoots would be without their defining factors. In this sense, you could argue that Buzzcocks wrote songs for the future. The introspection that underpinned many of their lyrics was incredibly forward-thinking for the time and showed the machismo of punk to be what it was, futile.

Inspired massively by bands such as The Stooges, Can and The Velvet Underground, there’s no surprise that when Buzzcocks were at their zenith, 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 the faux nihilism and anarchistic invocations of Sex Pistols. Instead, the nihilism they espoused was real, fuelled by the bleak post-industrial environment of ’70s Manchester. 

However, Buzzcocks didn’t believe their own hype like the Sex Pistols and other contemporaries. One of the defining features of their music was the wry humour that was used as an antidote to the gloomy outlook of their socio-economic situation, one that was on the dole and struggling to find a purpose in life.

This was mainly 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 revered as one of the best poets that Britain had to offer. 

Early singles such as ‘Orgasm Addict’, ‘What Do I Get?’ and the iconic ‘Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’veShouldn’t’ve) touched on themes that were not only seen as taboo by the mainstream but also by their punk peers. The first wave of punk was largely concerned with the external, but Shelley was an adept songwriter and was able to fuse the personal with the political, something that went far beyond that of other punk frontmen, including, dare I say it, Joe Strummer. 

Shelley said more in one song that 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 topic and would often combine the mundane with more severe topics creating surreal imagery that wasn’t so far away from that of his heroes Iggy Pop and Lou Reed.

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.”

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Famously, it was Buzzcocks who organised the momentous Sex Pistols gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall on June 4th 1976. Without that small show, Manchester’s massively iconic and influential music scene of the late ’70s, ’80s and beyond would not have to fruition. 

Sex Pistols galvanised those in the audience, including future members of Joy Division and Morrissey. It was a massive day for alternative music, and without Shelley and Howard Devoto booking it, music as a whole today would be completely different. 

Musically, Shelley and Buzzcocks augmented the punk formula. They didn’t confine themselves to playing three power chords, and, in a way, you’d be right in labelling them art-rock as much as punk. The band have got more in common with XTC and Squeeze than they do Generation X. It’s no coincidence that a whole host of legends cite them as heroes, such as Pixies, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Green Day and The Smiths. 

When Shelley tragically passed away at his home in Tallinn, Estonia, in December 2018, tributes poured in from across the musical world. Duff McKagan, Duran Duran, Flea and even Ginger Wildheart all took to the internet to share their respects. Punk-poet Billy Bragg performed ‘Ever Fall in Love’ the day after Shelley’s death at the Meredith Music Festival in tribute to him. 

A legend who was true to himself in life and in music, without Pete Shelley’s contributions, alternative music wouldn’t be the behemoth it is today. He showed that it was alright and a positive thing to discuss emotions and things such as sexual confusion, and through themes such as these, he helped rock mature, repackaging it for the modern audience. A colossal figure in the world of rock, Shelley’s influence lives on. 

Listen to ‘Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’veShouldn’t’ve)’ below.