Pete Shelley – 10 of the best

Buzzcocks in 1977 … from left, John Maher, Steve Diggle, Pete Shelley and Garth Smith.
Buzzcocks in 1977 … from left, John Maher, Steve Diggle, Pete Shelley and Garth Smith. Photograph: Robert Legon/Rex/Shutterstock

Boredom (1977)

From the initial Buzzcocks line-up, which featured Scunthorpe’s Howard Devoto (nee Trafford) on vocals and Mancunian fellow Bolton Institute of Technology student Peter McNeish (renamed Shelley – after his favourite poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley) on guitar, came one of the first British punk anthems. Boredom appeared on the Spiral Scratch EP, self-released on New Hormones, which paved the way for the wave of punk and post-punk indie labels from Rough Trade to Factory. It was also produced by future Joy Division producer Martin Hannett, so its significance goes far beyond the tune. That, though – written by Shelley on a Woolworth’s guitar – is fantastic. Devoto’s lyrics are self-explanatory (“You know me – I’m acting dumb / The scene is very humdrum / Boredom! Boredom!), and Shelley’s two-note guitar solo is the epitome of punk’s rejection of pomposity and virtuosity. Five years later, the song would be famously referenced in Orange Juice’s similarly disaffected hit, Rip It Up (“and my favourite song is titled Boredom”).

Orgasm Addict (1977)

Buzzcocks’ first major-label single didn’t do the fledgling band’s punk credentials any harm when it was banned by the BBC. Clad in a striking sleeve designed by Malcolm Garratt using images created by Ludus singer Linder, the United Artists 7-inch delivered is a furiously funny blast of subversion, about the radio-unfriendly topic of masturbation. With Devoto leaving (subsequently forming Magazine), Shelley steps up as lead vocalist and the opening wail – “Well, you tried it just for once found it all right for kicks” – unveils Buzzcocks Mk2 in style. England’s Dreaming author Jon Savage recently described Orgasm Addict as “one of their best and one of the best ever songs about sex”.

What Do I Get? (1977)

Buzzcocks’ third single entered the Top 40 at No 37, kicking off the golden run of hit singles which eventually saw the band – as Shelley told me in July – “on Top of the Pops every couple of weeks”. A trademark rush of buzzsaw guitars and wonderful melodic and harmonic construction, What Do I Get? continues the band’s emergence as something far richer than just a punk band. It also marks the start of what would become Shelley’s favourite theme, romantic disappointment: “I just want a lover like any other, what do I get? I only want a friend who will stay to the end, what do I get?” Such songs would see them compared to a punk rock Beatles while Malcolm Garratt dubbed his friend Shelley “the PG Wodehouse of punk”.

Love You More (1978)

The song which landed them on Top of the Pops. Shelley is “in love again” (wasn’t he always?) from the opening line, and here he sounds full of hope: “This time’s true, I’m sure.” The killer chord change/hookline arrives at the precise moment that doubts creep in – “Don’t wanna end up like no nine-day wonder (oh-oh) / I’ve been hurt so many times before” – and of course the harmonies are heavenly.

Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve) (1978)

The pure pop masterpiece by which, above all others, Shelley will be remembered. This No 12 hit began life in, all of places, a guest house in Edinburgh, where the young Buzzcock was watching Guys and Dolls on TV when a line leapt out: “Have you ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t’ve?” Struck by inspiration, Shelley penned the song the next day in a van outside a post office. From such humble beginnings comes a burst of aural perfection from the hurtling intro to Shelley’s concluding, wailed “fallen in love wiiiiiiiiiiiiiith”. He didn’t discuss the real life subject of the song – inevitably, about another failed love affair – for years, eventually revealing that it was about a man with whom the bisexual singer had an on-off relationship for years. It was another act of beautiful subversion in an era when all forms of homosexuality were still seen as taboo.

Nostalgia (1978)

The fourth track on the band’s second album Love Bites sees Shelley, then just 23, effectively singing his own epitaph. A typical young man’s thoughts about the future and a fantasy of time travel collide as Shelley ponders: “I wonder what it will be like in days gone by … about the future I only can reminisce”. The line “Sometimes there’s a song in my brain / And I feel that my heart knows the refrain” is beautifully autobiographical but the conclusion that he is “surfing on a wave of nostalgia / For an age yet to come” perhaps anticipates the esteem in which his work is still held. The track was covered by Pauline Murray’s group Penetration.

ESP (1978)

Although Joy Division are seen as the definitive exponents of late 1970s Manchester’s darkness, Buzzcocks certainly had their moments, such as this classic from Love Bites. The guitars develop from the memorable intro riff into something relentless, urbane and brooding. Here, Shelley is so desperate to win someone’s attention that he considers telekinesis as a means of “getting through” to the elusive object of his (unrequited) affections.

Everybody’s Happy Nowadays (1979)

If Buzzcocks’ catalogue suggests that that Shelley’s life was one romantic disaster after another, the regular disappointments certainly fired his creativity. This hit single is another sublime collision of agony and tuneful ecstasy. Lyrically, as the disentanglements and abandonment pile up, he loses faith in love itself. “I was so tired of being upset / Always wanting something I never could get / Life’s an illusion, love is a dream / But I don’t know what it is.” The title – Shelley at his most sardonic and sarcastic – was inspired by a line in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World: “I am free. Free to have the most wonderful time. Everybody’s happy nowadays.”

You Say You Don’t Love Me (1979)

By 1979 music and fashions were changing rapidly, punk was being discarded for post-punk and machine pop and so Buzzcocks’ third album A Different Kind of Tension saw a more experimental edge to the band’s trademark guitar pop. This, though, is yet another unrequited love song. “You say you don’t love me / Well that’s alright with me ’cause I’m in love with you,” sings Shelley, ever the rejected protagonist and idealised lover. The first Buzzcocks single to miss the Top 40 since I Don’t Mind in 1977, the lyrics and counter-melody surely deserved much better.

Homosapien (1981)

With Buzzcocks’ folding (Shelley would reform them in 1989 for the excellent Trade Test Transmissions, and helm the band until his death), Shelley embraced his radicalism and returned to the electronic music he had quietly explored since 1974. His first solo single – which in its full length, club 12-inch version was some 10 minutes long – was a pioneering mix of drum machines, synths and acoustic 12-string guitar. The lyrics, while hardly graphic – “I’m the shy boy, you’re the coy boy / And you know we’re Homosapien too/I’m the cruiser, you’re the loser / Me and you sir, Homosapien too” – were enough to see another Shelly classic banned by the BBC and the song was deprived of the Top 10 status it should surely have enjoyed. Had Homosapien or 1983’s similarly ahead of its time Telephone Operator been the hit they should have been, perhaps Shelley would be remembered not just as head Buzzcock, a poetic lyricist, masterful pop melodicist and canny subversive, but as one of the foremost pioneers of the electronic pop music we now enjoy today.