Buzzcocks’ emotionally fraught Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve) would, on its own, have ensured Pete Shelley was remembered. A punk-pop classic and number twelve hit in 1978, in 2005 it was also endorsed by the wider rock establishment when a version featuring Roger Daltrey, Robert Plant, David Gilmour, Elton John and others was released in tribute to John Peel. But it was just one genius song among many by the Leigh-born Shelley, who died on December 6 of a suspected heart attack.
His life in music began when, as teenage Beatles fan Peter McNeish, he formed his first band Jets Of Air in 1973. Though numerous future Buzzcocks songs were written during this period, fate intruded decisively when McNeish and his Bolton Institute of Technology pal Howard Trafford travelled south to see a new group called the Sex Pistols in February 1976. With the help of co-conspirator Richard Boon, within the year, McNeish and Trafford – who adopted the new identities Shelley (McNeish’s name had he been born a girl) and Devoto - would bring the Pistols to Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, thereby igniting the wildly creative northwest punk scene, and, as Buzzcocks, record the Spiral Scratch EP for their New Hormones label. It was the first independently-released punk artefact in Britain.Awkwardly, frontman Devoto opted to leave soon after the EP’s release in January ’77.
Shelley, a fey, sensitive non-alpha male given to on-stage utterances like, “Don’t scream, I’ve got a headache” took on the lead role with consummate ease. “Then it could become the pop sensation I wanted it to be,” he told me in 2014. The race was on: in four years, Buzzcocks toured to the point of oblivion and released three albums and 14 singles. Balanced by the writing of the more street-level guitarist Steve Diggle, gender-unspecific Shelley compositions including What Do I Get?, I Don’t Mind and Love You More combined the succinct melodic verve of classic pop with real-life lyrics of adolescence, frustration and heartache. As 1979’s Singles Going Steady compilation showed, theirs was one of the greatest runs of 45s any group ever managed. “We were trying to give a true reflection of the tortured life that everybody leads, so people listening know, there is hope,” he said. “It might be miserable hope, but it’s not being alone, thinking, ‘everyone’s having a great time – except me’.”
Yet, exhausted, financially frustrated and creatively out of sync, the band ended in April 1981. Shelley went onto release his excellent technopop solo debut Homosapien, whose title-track lead single was banned by the BBC for its homoerotic lyrics. Later activities included 1983’s XL1 (whose tracks included a computer file of visuals to watch via your 8-bit Spectrum home computer), 1986’s Heaven And The Sea and synthrock group Zip, whose 1988 single Your Love would be used as the theme for Channel 4’s coverage of the Tour De France.
In 1989, Buzzcocks reunited for regular touring and six new albums, the last being 2014’s fan-funded The Way. Live and on record, they stayed connected to the essence of what made them great. This year Shelley’s collected lyrics were published, and dates were planned for 2019, including one at the Royal Albert Hall. He died at his home in Tallinn, Estonia. “I am lost for words,” commented his Buzzcocks partner of 42 years Steve Diggle. “(I) loved him dearly.”