Pete Shelley : a personal appreciation by John Robb

Screenshot 2018-12-06 at 21.29.51In our world and on every level this is a huge loss.

Tonight we feel emotional. Fragile. Pete was a beautiful soul and his music touched us physically, emotionally and artfully. 

Love is the universal language of pop but so few people have written about its confusion of signals and powerful emotions and its fluidity, frailty and imperfection as eloquently and brilliantly and succinctly as Pete Shelley.

Freeze-framed forever coyly looking at the camera under his tousled mop of hair and his homemade Mondrian striped shirt delivering a stunning melody and a beautiful string of words with a rush of sound that was pure adrenaline, Pete Shelley was the poet laureate of punk with those genius lovelorn lyrics, effortlessly brilliant melodies, artful smarts and sexually fluid love songs as challenging and inspiring as any snarling manifesto.

It made him one of the key architects of punk rock, Manchester music and, by extension, independent music and a gigantic influence on anyone who loved pop culture and the sheer scope of emotional power than you can make with a guitar.

And yet.

And yet there was even more than this. Buzzcocks were also pop art, an utter inspiration to anyone in the north of England. They were clever, snarky, hip, cool and could be funny as fuck – the two note guitar solo on their 1977 song, ‘Boredom’ – embodied the pose of boredom with its deadpan smirk and was hilarious and perfect – a response to the guitar bores and a perfect simulation of the fast forward rush of the tail end of 1976.  

And yet.

They also changed the culture by bringing the Sex Pistols to Manchester and releasing their own single on their own label – they were game changers – empowering us and inventing indie culture.

Named after a Time Out magazine headline about the Rock Follies, Buzzcocks had an endless run of hit singles in the late seventies that rushed with melody and ideas and three brilliant albums – they never released a bad song. Every B side was perfect, every A side was timeless. 

It was art pop perfection. 

Every single thing they wrote was utterly original – like Spector’s mini-symphonies for kids but without an orchestra – they could reinvent guitar, bass and drums over and over again in every song – they were so clever and so cool and they were formed just down the road from us and they empowered us and a thousand other aching bedroom bands to have a go.

Pete was also one of the nicest people you would meet on the worldwide punk rock circuit. A joy to hang out with. Funny and full of stories delivered with a razor-sharp memory and a cheeky smile that could remember things in micro detail and delivering great tales from the cutting edge of popular culture with that lovely northern accent and twinkling eyes. A beautiful soul.

Pete Shelley has died of a heart attack at 63 and like many of you, I’m really gutted. He was part of the soundtrack of our lives and sang songs about the sort of stuff that most of us could never say – isn’t that the power of pop at its very, very best.

Pete was not only one the greatest songwriters this country has ever produced but also a genuinely nice man. I’ve interviewed him many times, done a great chaotic in conversation with him and Howard Devoto, been on TV with him and both my bands – Membranes and Goldblade have supported Buzzcocks at gigs across the world. He was a genuine golden-hearted host and a joy to be with. He was also one of the key architects of the culture that changed my life and probably everyone else’s who is reading this, as well. He may have been too modest to barge the Rottens and the Strummers out of the way but he was equally important in that he broadened what the culture could be about. He subverted rock n roll with that talent.

Pete’s coy sexually fluid love songs were full of the lust and confusion of human relationships –  the perfect heart of pop, that frailty and that humanity and that honesty and they came armed with those quicksilver melodies. Every song is a superb glistening run of notes sung in that brilliantly camp, verging on hysteria voice with its northern accent never diminished. It was as pure a punk rock voice as you could get before punk became a shouting match – this was the genuine soul of the movement – the non-macho, stunningly talented, switched on genius of Pete Shelley.

His beautiful brazen honesty and stunning gift for writing about the most powerful force in the world -love – made him a pop genius. The fact that he could marry this poetic brilliance to some of the greatest melodies in pop culture – quicksilver rushes of intangible melodic brilliance and then deliver them over that thrilling buzzsaw guitar sound and the two guitar interplay with his wonderful Buzzcocks partner Steve Diggle was the heart and soul of a culture. 

Then there was the fact that Pete Shelley, along with Linder, and Richard Boon were a cultural force in pre-punk Manchester. The artfulness of the band and their inspirational approach saw them take punk from London and give it to Manchester and then, by extension, the rest of the world with those iconic self promoted 1976 Free Trade Hall gigs that saw the Sex Pistols play in town inspiring the now world famous Manchester scene into action. Then there was their January 1977 Spiral Scratch EP that marked them out as one of the key cultural forces from that tumultuous year.

One of a handful of genuinely switched on people in mid-seventies Manchester he and Howard Devoto and Richard Boon made the now legendary journey to London to see the Sex Pistols in early 1976 after reading the first live review of the band in a music paper whilst at college and brought punk out of London and to the rest of the world. 

Those legendary gigs at the Free Trade Hall in 1976 kick-started the Manchester scene and the eventual rejuvenation of a whole city. Without Buzzcocks there would probably be no Factory Records, no Joy Division, no Smiths – the whole damn lot. 

Their debut single – the 4 track Spiral Scratch EP is arguably the only genuine punk record – of course the whole raft of releases at that time are part of our DNA but that snarky, buzzsaw rush with its rudimentary sound and wonky melodic brilliance was the perfect snapshot of the raw creative rush of ideas of punk rock.

Howard’s lyrics and vocals are, of course, perfect and when he was the first person to retire from punk rock in early January 1977 it was so hip and cool and then when he went on to form Magazine and kick start post punk and release their first single the anthemic rush of Shot By Both Sides they were the coolest band in the world – and what was even cooler was that it was his buddy Pete Shelley who wrote the song. Damn. Genius. 

After Howard left Buzzcocks and Pete started singing they became one of our greatest ever pop bands. There is no other word for it. Buzzcocks singles have to be one of the greatest runs of seven inch singles ever. Each is melodically pure but they were more than that. There was that art twist in them. They managed to take that buzzsaw sound and reinvent it with every song. It was incredibly sophisticated and clever and you could sing along with it – just look at that run of hits – it’s stunning – very few bands have had that depth of creativity and in such a rush – they were banging them out every couple of months. And they were all great.

Post Buzzcocks there was Homosapien – another brilliant song this time with Martin Rushent providing electronic backing for a single that was ahead of its time and blissfully brilliant. Eventually, the band reformed and celebrated their legacy with endless tours. They should have been as big as the Beatles but the mainstream were scared of punk rock in those days. The people that knew, celebrated Buzzcocks. They were big. They should have been the biggest. The songs live forever. 

Buzzcocks were not just a punk band. They were not just a band. They were a cultural force. Game changers. 

It was a key role that Pete never took the credit for. He was a modest man with a genuine heart of gold. The last time I saw him was backstage after a festival in Croatia that Membranes and Buzzcocks played. It was a warm evening and we were hanging out with Pete and Steve Diggle for a hilarious and joyful evening of giggling fun. The chalk and cheese pair were relaxed and hilarious finishing off each other’s one-liners like dear old friends. 

Buzzcocks had just delivered a stunning set that they played for years – that set of end to end hits – the greatest jukebox show on earth. They toured non stop and you did sometimes wonder about how exhausted they must be as Pete and the band lived life to the full. 

My final freeze frame of Pete is the older man. Laughing at the absurdity of life. Giggling under the Croatian skies. Another festival. Another night of that most special of jukeboxes. Another reminder of that eternal genius.

God bless you Pete and thanks for everything.

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82 comments on “Pete Shelley : a personal appreciation by John Robb”

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  1. What a great tribute .. wonderful words that painted a picture of a Manchester legend

  2. Thanks John. A great tribute. Absolutely gutted.

  3. Lovely words Brother John. Pete has left this world a better place with his contribution. RIP Pete

  4. Wonderful tribute – time stands hanging with a strange sad wash of nostalgia tonight for songs that pickled our hearts and souls and made us smile in our minds –

  5. A lovely heartfelt tribute John.

    RIP Pete

  6. Brilliant John.

  7. Love it!! Well put John.
    Absolutely shocked, and gutted. Glad I met the legend a few times. R.I.P. Pete Shelley…. Another kick up the arse, to enjoy life and live it to the fall….63 years old is another too close for comfort….

  8. Perfect tribute. It’s such a shock and so sad. I always looked forward to the annual hometown show. Never occurred to me that one day there wouldn’t be one.

  9. Wonderful tribute John. A real personable guy who was down to earth and very generous. RIP Pete

  10. Brilliant John. A fitting tribute.

  11. Wow! Amazing words.

  12. A warm and accurate recollection of a truly great man

  13. What a tribute. Absolutely beautiful John.

  14. Lovely words, John. A fitting tribute.

  15. Very moving John, you were truly blessed to have known him so well, whilst us the fans felt we knew him as he gave us everything his heart & soul had to offer live & on them ever more so precious pieces of vinyl. It’s a very sad day John.

  16. A wonderful tribute John..written with love..

  17. Andy Fatman Hayward

    Sad Times…..but beautiful words about a man that so many loved and a lot more didn’t realise that they’d heard of him.
    RIP

  18. Spot on John. Lovely tribute

  19. Beautiful, heartfelt tribute John.

  20. Absolutely right. That voice and what lay behind it was the true spirit of punk – the individuality and non-conformity and soul – before the macho uniform of leather jackets and spiky hair took over.
    Course it helped he was sprinkled with stardust.
    XX

  21. Absolutely right and well put. That voice and what lay behind it was the true spirit of punk – the individuality and non-conformity and soul – before the crowds and uniform of leather jackets and spiky hair took over. The humour, too.
    Course it helped he was sprinkled with stardust.
    XX

  22. I don’t cry much, some would say too much, others not enough, but that eulogy and the radio interview this morning were pretty darn moving!
    Many thanks

  23. A beautiful piece of writing about a very special man. Thank you John. X

  24. Nice one John. Buzzcocks have been a regular on my turntable since I was a teenager. Saw them in the 70s, 1990 and then a few years ago at Albert Hall. Timeless tunes, great attitude.

  25. Pete Shelley summed up perfectly. Buzzcocks my favourite band of all time and have grown up with them over the last 4 decades. Feel bereft this morning. Even forgave the great man for wearing a Man Utd shirt while playing a gig in Leeds back in the day. Thanks for this John.

  26. Beautiful tribute John xx What a loss :(

  27. There must be a billion possible ways to write about Pete’s brilliance and importance, and this is a fine one. Few artists have stuck in my mind as long and as fully as Pete and The Buzzcocks have. The man earned the right to a much longer life.

  28. Well done mate. A fitting tribute.

  29. Pete Shelley rest in peace. The voice of my adolescence.

  30. A joy to read this John on a very sad day. Beatiful words.

  31. Beautifully put John.
    Rest in peace Pete.

  32. I’ve found it difficult to know how I’m feeling. Buzzcocks were the first punk band I saw live. Reading your beautiful and moving tribute to a beautiful and moving man has helped me realize how I feel. To quote the great man himself: I feel “hollow inside.” Goodnight and God bless you Pete Shelley! You will be so missed by so many!

  33. Thanks for this John. Lovely tribute to a lovely man

  34. I went straight to louder than war when I heard no one could do the Justice you have John
    RIP Pete

  35. Yesterday I was so shocked I couldn’t cry, was just listening to record after record.

    But your words released the sadness, the tears, the feelings.

    Thanks.

  36. Incredible words and tribute John, it’s so easy to lose track of the significance and importance of Petes astonishing contribution to music such was his humility and understated approach. A genuine genius of simply epic proportions on so many levels, a cultural icon and a thoroughly lovely bloke. x

  37. very moving tribute John, beautifully put.

  38. What a tribute John, long live the music and smiling face of pete..
    Cheeers

  39. Nice one John. Well put. I think, with Pete’s departure, a HUGE piece of my make – up has blistered to the fore. This morning I cried, then I put on the first three albums and cried at various times throughout and then looked at some pictures. He was good he was, fucking good.

  40. Perfectly put weaving of all the guitar-string strands, John. Thanks. RIP Pete Shelley.

  41. An excellently well-written, fitting tribute to without doubt the most influential of all the figures to come out of Punk. RIP Pete…and thank-you.

  42. RIP Pete Shelley Beautiful, perfect words, John. We’re all a bit lost, but we’re binging on Buzzcocks last night, today, forever… What a homosapien ♥

  43. Great piece John. Pete even got Customs and Excise VAT operatives being creative, lyrical and comedic. No mean feat.

  44. Cheers John,

    A bang on, fitting obituary on so many levels.
    Thanks. scotty EJCC film. x

  45. A lovely read, very sad I won’t get to see him again.

  46. A fitting tribute to a great innovator, singer, and songwriter.

    Life’s an illusion, love is a dream…

    RIP Pete

  47. Perfect heartfelt tribute John.

  48. Wonderfully written tribute, but I expect nothing less from Mr John Robb a fantastic musician and music journalist.

  49. Thanks for saying what I guess we were all thinking, John.

  50. Thanks Rob, you can tell this came from the heart. He’ll forever be in our hearts. The guy had that cheeky smile that embraced the world of Punk / Pop and popular culture for decades, his legacy will continue for decades too. RIP Pete

  51. John,
    As usual a sharp, accurate, succinct and salient tribute.
    You mention Pete scribing the words of feelings that no one else could capture but in a journalistic vein you always deliver that.
    Buzzcocks/Shelley – true greats.

  52. Fabulous words, John. I’m still weeping, 21 hours since I heard this terrible news. I’ll get over it sometime, only for another top genius to go. Life gets harder, the older you get..

  53. Cheers John fantastic tribute R.I.P Pete Shelley

  54. That’s a beautiful tribute John

  55. I’ve weeped many times for Pete today, John. This piece was lovely to read. Pete didn’t get as much credit as he deserved …. he helped shape pop culture in many humble ways and of course wrote cracking songs. He was also just such a lovely man and of course very dear to the family. Thanks and all the best. Tim.

    • thanks Tim, appreciate that – and lets not forget your dad’s role in all of this – still the greatest producer in the punk period.

      • Thanks John … appreciate the kind comment. Hopefully they’ll have some new stuff to play everyone when we get round to joining them! But for now at least we can enjoy what they left for us.

  56. Nice tribute John. True benchmark band for many . Checked their Wikipedia before and under former members it says Pete Shelley 1976-2018 . Time waits for no one.
    https://youtu.be/EVYRYR9ykV8

  57. That’s a really touching article John. I rushed like crazy to get to Blackpool rebellion this year to see them on the Thursday night, the week after I got to see them again with Adam Ant and Boomtown Rats at the Kubix festival. They always delivered a top notch full on show. I loved going to see the Buzzcocks with Goldblade and the band Fabulous supporting them. It feels like the end of an era. The Buzzcocks have left a legacy of songs that everyone can relate to no matter what walk of life you hail from. We all have the same feelings growing up especially the teenage growing pains, Pete Shelley encapsulated those feelings and wrote them into some amazing lyrics that you can totally identify yourself with. An absolute genius. “orgasm addict”, brutal honesty!! “Ever fallen in Love with someone you shoiuldnt have fallen in love with?” Well of course we all have. “Boredom” what a tune! I’ll be blasting out some Buzzcocks tomorrow!!!!

  58. Thanks John, beautiful words for a beautiful human x

  59. Lovely RIP

  60. Karyn Waladkewics

    This. Is. Perfect. You have put our feelings into beautiful words. Pete was a true gent. Humble, hilarious, cheeky and warm. His music has been the soundtrack of my life for 40 years. The thought of never seeing him again is devastating but the memories and music live on.

  61. You put your heart and soul into this tribute and it shines out. Thinking that flags should be at half mast around Manchester, starting with the Town Hall, but this will never happen as the authorities have always been too slow to recognise the important things music, clubs and performers such as Pete Shelly have done for this city because those in power have been and still are out of tune with the times and care little for music unless they can exploit it for their own ends.

  62. John

    Brilliant mate, just brilliant.

    Geoff

  63. Thanks John. Especially for nailing the non macho sexuality thing. Bowie, Bolan and Mercury had strutted around like Kings and Queens. But Pete was more vulnerable and confused; much more easy to identify with. Embodying the late 1970s more than the late 1960s I guess. Gutted we’ve lost him.

  64. Brilliant tribute John. The world lost a great guy and I will always remember seeing Buzzcocks so many times and being happy after they played. Perhaps a big tribute at Rebellion? Pete deserves that.

  65. John amazing tribute here is mine.Well it’s sad when anyone dies.But particularly at such a young age for the modern day.But of course you are affected more if you know them or are

    a fan of someones music,there have been sad losses of musical icons in recent years,but the sad untimely death of Pete Shelley has hit me hard.

    The Buzzcocks were always my joint second fav band along with “The Damned”,”Spear” and “TOH”,in fact other than The Stranglers i have every studio

    release of “The Buzzcocks” and “Homosapien” as well.There was never a shit Buzzcocks album,some were better than others of course.But Pete Shelley

    just did Punk his own way,he didn’t need to be macho he was just himself with the slightly camp vocal style etc,but he was just a fine songwriter and

    wrote so many gems that you can’t list, with humour and observations of life,along with his guitar which merged together with Steve Diggle in a pretty

    unique way,some songs they were playing lead,other rhythm.You could say that the Buzzcocks were possibly the only Punk band to stay true to their

    principles,certainly a no frills,no bullshit approach to their live gigs was their mantra,a buzz of distortion and speed (not the drugs,maybe in earlier days).

    We take life for granted,so it shows with the loss of Pete Shelley not to do that,as you never know whats round the next corner.I just thought that I

    would be seeing The Buzzcocks for some years to come,thank god i saw them in Belgium last year supporting The Stranglers,once again a fast no frills

    performance of distortion and energy.I will always remember sitting with Pete and Steve outside a Brasserie on route to gig,it was afternoon and there

    were at least 6 empty bottles of a local beer called Spartacus with 6.5 percent volume,I thought great,still living the rock and roll lifestyle over 60

    years old,I still have a bottle of that beer in fridge,now may be time to drink it and raise a toast to a unique,very talented songwriter and guitar

    player,who influenced countless bands.I am still very sad but glad I got to see them live and enjoy their music,also Pete was a very nice bloke and

    totally genuine.Of course the music lives on and we all have the memories,thank’s Pete for all the enjoyment you gave to me and others with your

    brilliant music R..I.P..The music lives on.

  66. Beautiful tribute for a beautiful soul

  67. Steve Cartwright

    Really powerful and moving words John Robb to one of the best song writers this country has ever produced and the soundtrack to mine and many others youth

  68. That is a brilliantly articulated piece about one of thee best song writers to ever come out of the UK, a true innovator.

    Thanks John

  69. Smashing tribute that. The missus and me stayed up half the night playing the first three LP’s which I’ve played to death for decades as it is. Pete was a poet and a brilliant one at that and had the pleasure of meeting him a couple of times, a funny, polite sweet man. Joe, then, Bowie, then Poly, now Shelley, little bits of my past seem to disappear each time. ‘there is, no, love, in, this, world, a, ny, moreeeeeeeeeeeeeeee…’ RIP Pete.

  70. Clearly those words were Totally From The Heart, John – you’ve really got to the nub of Pete’s and the band’s Raison D’Etre.

    There’s nothing much to add just now, other than the anecdotes and touch-points where their music has affected people’s lives could fill a few shelves.

    The sonic landscape feels a little less warm and angular today. Pete, you were loved and God knows you’ll be missed.

  71. Thank you for this tribute. Buzzcocks and Pete you are the spark that has always stayed in my heart, always. Love you Pete. You must have read my mind xxx

  72. Just beautiful.

    Amid the essential anger and anarchy… someone was singing of the human heart.

    A huge loss.

  73. It’s a testament to Pete Shelley that he was admired and respected by both John Lydon and Joe Strummer.

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