tight-lipped punk’s amazing admission!
Various Buzzcocks are draped around the room. Smoking, playing records, reading magazines. They all look alike. Pete Shelley looks like Steve Diggle. Steve Garvey looks like John Maher. Maher is wearing glasses with thick frames. Shelley needs a shave. I get them mixed up.
Pete Shelley is the smallest. His accent is like something out of Coronation Street and he smiles a lot. A very straightforward kind of bloke. But, while he talks, you get the uneasy feeling that he may be stringing you along, maybe sending you up a bit, playing games.
He comes from Leigh in Lancashire and had the usual unremarkable childhood. His first attempt at playing guitar was made one rainy afternoon in the school holidays, trying to stretch his fingers across the neck.
After leaving school he took himself to Bolton Institute of Technology where he studied electronics for two years before changing to a philosophy course.
This brings us to early 1976 and a handwritten notice on a college notice board, placed there by fellow student Howard Devoto, seeking musicians interested in forming a band. Shelley and Devoto got together and started to write songs. What did it sound like?
“Rather bad,” Pete admits, “but inspiring. It was something we decided there was a future in.”
Everything with Buzzcocks seems like that; matter of fact, workmanlike, no big deal. Did he suspect how big they would get?
seeing the Pistols in London
“In retrospect, maybe. But at the time, it just seemed like another day. There weren’t any blinding flashes.”
A weekend in London brought them into contact with The Sex Pistols, then nearly unknown, and provided them with a name. They were looking through a magazine to find out where the Pistols were playing and came upon an article about the TV series Rock Follies.
“There was this line in the article that said something about ‘get a buzz, cock’ and Howard just thought that would be a great name.”
The Buzzcocks themselves organised the first Manchester concert by the Sex Pistols at the Free Trade Hall, and made their live debut on the same bill.
By the end of the year they had supported the Pistols on the disastrous ‘Anarchy In The U.K.’ tour and had released their own EP, ‘Spiral Scratch’, on the Manchester based New Hormones label.
Howard Devoto left soon afterwards to start his own band, Magazine, leaving Shelley to front Buzzcocks on his own.
‘Round about here the group began to chart a rather different course from most of their contemporaries. Pete Shelley started to write more and more love songs, and they put all their efforts into making great singles.
There was still enough speedrock to satisfy the pogo boys, but Shelley was emerging as an unashamed romantic, not afraid to say that he liked The Beatles, that he liked catchy tunes.
They got a record deal in mid-1977 and started to crank out unashamed pop songs.
“A pop song means something different to each person,” Pete explains. “If you fall in love one summer, there’s always one record that breaks you up when you hear it. It’s like tastes or smells; they bring memories flooding back. When you hear it 10 years later, you can’t believe it’s been so long.”
His avowed aim is to make records that are timeless. He enthuses about ancient Shangri-Las singles (‘Leader Of The Pack’ etc) that can still affect people 15 years after they were made.
The band work methodically. Shelley writes all the time, throwing away more songs than he uses, starting with a phrase or line and building from there.
“I thought of this line ‘ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t’ and I thought that would be good to use because it’s the sort of thought that could have come into anyone’s head. Then ‘you spurn my natural emotions, you make me feel like dirt’ came into my head and I put the two together and worked from there. Sometimes you start with the first line and work forwards; sometimes you’re going backwards.”
The band then go into a cheap local studio in Manchester and work out an arrangement, and if they all decide it’s catchy enough they record it quickly rather than wait to put it on an LP.
“If something’s catchy we like to put it out and let other people enjoy the catchiness rather than let it go stale.”
Top Of The Pops
Also, Shelley genuinely enjoys going on Top Of The Pops. “Ton of fun,” he laughs.
This ‘happiness’ has reached epidemic proportions with the new single, ‘Everybody’s Happy Nowadays’, a tune which, in the middle of the current phase of strikes, inflation and advanced national depression, seems at first glance to be utterly ironical. He denies it.
“No, no. I really mean it. Everybody says it must be cynical but it’s not. It’s exactly the opposite. It’s like the Prime Minister was saying on television the other night. As soon as cynicism starts to creep in, it gets like a cancer and wipes away everything.”
He talks about his current efforts to be more positive, to stop himself wanting things he can never get, to be happy with what he has.
“I mean, sometimes, I’m really happy,” he says. A shocking admission.
But wouldn’t anybody be happy with numerous hit singles, big-selling albums., sell-out tours and a fair amount of money, I enquire.
“Look,” he explains, “if it all finished tomorrow, if the record company threw all the records into the street and kicked us out and said don’t come back, I’d still be doing the same thing because I can’t help it.”
Smash Hits, March 1979