'I’m the Shy Boy': Remembering Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks

Discussion of Pete Shelley's radical cultural heritage and legacy after his death, and his music.

Pete Shelley, singer, songwriter and co-founder of Buzzcocks, has died aged 63. Shelley’s achievements have been justly celebrated since his passing: his key role in the beginnings of British punk; his ‘invention of indie’ with Buzzcocks’ pioneering self-released debut Spiral Scratch; and the sensitivity the band brought to a movement only too eager to embrace the Sex Pistols’ slogan ‘no feelings’.

Yet the significance of Shelley’s background has moved away from the pulsebeat, to quote the thunderous krautrock-inspired finale of Buzzcocks’ first album Another Music In A Different Kitchen. Like all the best punks, he was as important for who he was as for his music.

Born Peter McNeish in 1955 in the Lancashire town of Leigh, his mother was a mill worker and his father a colliery fitter. Gentle and unassuming, Shelley struggled at grammar school. “I was really shit at English…they just didn’t see where I was coming from”, he recalled.

It’s a startling statement from such a talented lyricist, endlessly able to distill punk’s anti-consumerist critique into gorgeous, deceptively simple romantic pop (“Your passion is a product of highlight and detail/That come-hither look, bonus offer retail”). Yet Shelley spoke for many who experienced the new educational opportunities of the postwar years. They faced the stubborn persistence of a culture still divided on class lines, whose guardians baulked at the demotic wisdom of the upstart masses.

Luckily the welfare state provided an alternative education for those who knew where to look. Public libraries; subsidised free time; and a BBC still willing to televise a thirteen part adaptation of John-Paul Sartre’s The Roads to Freedom.

At 15, Shelley’s dad let him stay up late to watch it. It was his dad, too, who took out the loan that allowed Buzzcocks to record Spiral Scratch. Those gestures are crucial, as is Shelley’s development into a gay rights activist and electronic music innovator at Bolton Institute in the pre-punk 1970s (he dubbed his soundscapes ‘Poxy Music’). Such facts give the lie to today’s noxious assumption that progressive values and cultural experiment are the preserve of metropolitan ‘creatives’; that Britain’s provinces are backward wastelands populated by a homogenous, reactionary and ignorant ‘white working class’.

Shelley’s journey had a history: his birthplace of Leigh was home to local authority funded modernist art gallery The Turnpike. In 1964, it was also where Coal Board clerk Alan Horsfall established what became the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. Shelley would wear their badge publicly with pride. “I hate London,” he quipped during punk’s peak of mockney snarling. “It’s just another city.” When the Buzzcocks were signed by United Artists, they felt no need to move down south. Instead they stayed put, nurturing Greater Manchester’s nascent post-punk scene.

The band’s output is shot through with a potent combination of ordinariness and experiment; that desire to capture everyday provincial experience along with its more extraordinary elements. Take these delightful lines from ‘Orgasm Addict’:

You’re makin’ out with school kids
Winos and heads of state
You even made it with the lady
Who puts the little plastic bobbins on the Christmas cakes
Butchers’ assistants and bellhops
You’ve had them all here and there
Children of God and their joy strings
International women with no body hair

On one level, the song is an ode to waywardly horny teenage daydreams. It confirms Shelley’s oft-celebrated universalism: his ability to skewer the great truths of love and lust. What kid represented by the shy smiles and scruffy tank tops of the Buzzcocks hasn’t felt the impulsive libido rush of puberty trampling headlong over the tidy expectations of adult desires?

Listen again, though, and something else emerges. In this flagrant disregard for boundaries - class, age, gender and nation alike – the utopian ideals of early 1970s gay liberation are shamelessly renewed. Before gay lib toned itself down and went the way of lobbying interest group politics, it wanted to ‘change the sexuality of everyone, not just homosexuals’ in the words of activist Michael Brown.

This was a countercultural vision that often went hand in hand with a radical socialist humanism; a belief that only an end to uptight, possessive individualism could allow love to truly flourish. It was the expansive life force of eros; the endless possibilities of human connection yearned for in the writings of radical philosophers like Herbert Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich. Reich is all over early Buzzcocks: the catalogue number of Spiral Scratch (‘ORG ONE’) is a cheeky reference to the thinker’s off-kilter theory of a universal biological energy. Once again, Shelley showed that such hopes and ideals were not the sole property of a London-based bohemia.

That’s not to say ‘Orgasm Addict’ is merely a historical curio, a relic of the faded dreams of postwar, pre-Thatcher Britain. In fact it seems more relevant than ever: study after study appears to show an emerging ‘Generation Z’ experimenting with gender, whilst moving ever further from exclusive straightness as the norm.

Indeed, Shelley’s output actually feels ahead of the curve in its celebration of ‘anything goes’. The absence of gendered pronouns in many Buzzcocks songs, for example, maximises the potential for empathy and solidarity. “I enjoy writing songs that do not exclude anyone”, Shelley told the NME in 1977. “The only people they exclude are people who don’t know anything about love.”

Shelley remained sceptical of labels, having relationships with both men and women throughout his life. He belonged to that strand of punk with the rare ability to celebrate being yourself whilst embracing others on the basis of a shared humanity. As his cult 1981 anthem ‘Homosapien’ had it: “I don’t wanna classify you like an animal in the zoo/But it seems good to me to know that you’re homo sapien too”.

Long before the archetype of the Manchester musician coalesced around simian swagger, Shelley’s persona suggested a very different way of being. A figurehead for every ‘shy boy’ and girl who’s never quite fitted in, he offered a route to self-expression that was both earnest and fun, proud of its roots without mythologising them and visually reassuring in a kind of scruffily ordinary yet mildly eccentric way. His fanzine Plaything consisted of a one-page manifesto urging people to give their personality ‘a spring clean’, an image of a topless Bay City Roller photocopied queerly on its rear.

When Shelley went solo in the 1980s, he took his charming, skewed humanism with him into the forward-looking synthpop he recorded with Buzzcocks and Human League producer Martin Rushent. In so many ways, the post-punk turn to electronics symbolised a colder, harder era as Thatcherism took hold and alienation multiplied. Yet the plaintively lovely tones of ‘I Generate A Feeling’ held on to an openhearted, productive logic of life. In a 1982 Melody Maker interview, Shelley worried about the pacifying, destructive effects of consumer society:

People couldn’t survive if the slightest thing happened to the system because we’re living in an unnatural system. I couldn’t make a pair of shoes or a shirt, all we can do is consume fish fingers and buy cars. I think if people don’t start asking themselves “why are we here?” then we aren’t going to be here for much longer.

As this anxious quote implies, exuberant eros is not the only story here. In classics like ‘What Do I Get?’, ‘Ever Fallen In Love?’ and ‘Why Can’t I Touch It?’, the Buzzcocks’ oeuvre features its fair share of frustration and heartbreak. “There’s bitterness in our songs…but there’s hope in them too”, Shelley observed in 1977. “I have a tendency to self-pity but I realise that’s not the way to get anything done.”

Even this ‘self-pity’ is never simply introspective. Instead it’s directed outwards to others in the expectation of empathy - a fact symbolised by the unusually high proportion of Buzzcocks song titles that end with question marks. It’s the sound of what’s not possible in the world as it is - but which we know on some level could be. That ache of longing, as Shelley once near-mystically put it, is ‘nostalgia for an age yet to come’.


David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the author of Post-Punk, Politics and Pleasure in Britain (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and has written on punk and sexuality for the Zero anthology Punk Is Dead. He is Lecturer in English at Manchester Metropolitan University.