Critics often resort to describing a talented singer as the voice of his or her generation, but if there is a single vocalist who could be accurately anointed as the voice of the punk generation, it would be Pete Shelley. The English singer-guitarist died at age 63 from an apparent heart attack in Estonia on Thursday morning, Dec. 6. Shelley was best known as the leader and founder of British pop-punks Buzzcocks but he also had an extensive solo career and was involved in several notable musical collaborations and side projects.
Unlike Bob Dylan, who chafed at being labeled the voice of his particular generation in the 1960s, Pete Shelley really had a voice. Johnny Rotten might have had more bilious venom, Joe Strummer might have had more of a pronounced sympathy for the working class, Darby Crash might have defined poetic nihilism more garishly in his life and art, and The Avengers’ Penelope Houston might have been more idealistic and fiery, but Shelley could sing like a bird, in defiant contrast to the ragged snarling and undisciplined howling of most of his punk peers.
Early in their career, Buzzcocks were dubbed the punk-rock Beatles because Shelley’s songs, in particular, were characterized by instantly memorable melodies and unabashed pop hooks. In the late 1970s, the band from the suburbs of Manchester were unusually prolific, releasing a flood of pop-minded singles, each one catchier than the last, more than a decade before pop-punk became recognized as a legitimate subgenre of punk rock. Many of those crucial early hits were collected on the classic 1979 compilation Singles Going Steady.
In Buzzcocks, Shelley shared songwriting and vocal duties with Steve Diggle, who moved from bass to guitar after original lead singer Howard Devoto departed and eventually formed Magazine. Although Diggle penned and sang some of Buzzcocks’ most beloved hits (including “Harmony in My Head”), Shelley sang the lion’s share of the quartet’s better-known songs, including “I Don’t Mind,” “Sixteen Again,” “What Do I Get?,” “Oh Shit!” and the oft-covered “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve),” which reached No. 12 on the British singles chart in 1978.
While other English bands of the era railed about war and Maggie Thatcher, Shelley’s métier was charting the vagaries of the heart. Much like the British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Pete Shelley was a die-hard romantic, but he never indulged in singing silly little love songs. Instead, he contrasted the soaring melodies and euphoric harmonies of his original songs with brutally frank, masochistic lyrics. “After this love, there’ll be no other/until the razor cuts,” Shelley declared abruptly on “Love You More.”
While Shelley has often been celebrated for his singing and songwriting, he also was an underrated guitarist who specialized in sirenlike figures that had an especially hypnotic quality as Diggle’s power chords raged behind him. These seemingly simple, chiming guitar licks were just as much of an influence on many British and American punk guitarists as Johnny Thunders’ earlier work with The New York Dolls. For instance, the hypnotic guitar pattern in “E.S.P.” never really changes, but it becomes increasingly more mesmerizing as the chords rise and fall and drone on against it.
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Born April 17, 1955, in Leigh, England, Peter Campbell McNeish actually recorded a solo album, Sky Yen, in 1974, two years before punk rock exploded (and a subsequent name change to Pete Shelley), although the record wasn’t officially released until 1980. Despite being banned by the BBC for celebratory references to gay sex, Shelley’s 1981 single “Homosapien” became a big hit in several countries, even as it varied from Buzzcocks’ guitar-based punk formula with a more electronic, dance-music style. The singer released five solo albums in the 1980s, and his final solo album, Cinema Music and Wallpaper Sounds, came out in 2016. In addition to his extensive career with Buzzcocks, Shelley also was a member of The Tiller Boys and Zip, and he backed poet John Cooper Clarke in The Invisible Girls.
Buzzcocks received heavy airplay on KROQ, and by the time they made their local debut in September 1979, billed with The Cramps and Gang of Four, they were popular enough to fill the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Buzzcocks returned to L.A. a few months later, in December 1979, to headline a bill with The Zippers and The Alley Cats at the Stardust Ballroom in Hollywood. Those were Buzzcocks’ only SoCal performances until the band’s quintessential lineup — with drummer John Maher, bassist Steve Garvey, Diggle and Shelley — reunited and returned to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in 1989. Shelley and Diggle continued to record and tour frequently with varying rhythm sections in the ensuing decades, and the revitalized Buzzcocks made key appearances at the Inland Invasion punk festival in San Bernardino in 2002 and Club Nokia in 2010 as well as surprise club shows at the Dragonfly and Spaceland.
In concert, the re-formed Buzzcocks generally concentrated on the popular songs from their late-’70s/early-’80s heyday, but they also featured some of the better songs from their often-overlooked comeback albums, such as Trade Test Transmissions (1993), Modern (1999) and Flat-Pack Philosophy (2006). Shelley’s eternal themes of love, loss and self-torture continued apace on such excellent and heart-piercing latter-day anthems as “Rendezvous,” “Wish I Never Loved You” and “Choices.”
“In these times of contention, it’s not my intention to make things plain,” Shelley sang teasingly on “I Believe,” from Buzzcocks’ 1979 album A Different Kind of Tension. The relatively epic seven-minute song might be Shelley’s — and the band’s — greatest statement as the singer conflates images of the Final Solution, original sin, “the web of fate,” the immaculate conception, his family, fame and the art of creation into a fantastic pop opus on par with the best of The Kinks’ Ray Davies. As fuzzy power chords and a single repeating sirenlike tone launch and repeat into the blank stratosphere around him, a lovelorn Shelley chants a mantra-like line that is simultaneously depressing and empowering, and it stands as a fitting epitaph to his life and these modern times: “There is no love in this world anymore.”