Punk survivor Pete Shelley

  • Bang Showbiz
  • 6 June 2008

The Buzzcocks were one of the original punk bands in the late 70s - formed before even the term 'punk' itself was in use. Exploding out of Manchester in 1976, the group crammed jaunty pop choruses and spiky guitar hooks into two-and-a-half minute bursts - a formula that ensured they stayed at the forefront of the punk movement, survived its collapse and had enough momentum not only to still sound fresh, but also remain a relevant force in rock 'n' roll. Their single 'Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone you Shouldn't've)' remains one of the all time great punk songs.

Buzzcocks was formed by Pete Shelley while at college in Manchester in 1975, alongside another student, Howard Devoto - who also played guitar and sang. After a trip to London to see the Sex Pistols, the nascent band set about arranging a show for them in their hometown, with a view to supporting them. They didn't get it together in time for their first show, but when the punk leaders returned, Buzzcocks were on the bill - having recruited bassist Steve Diggle and drummer John Maher. Following the performance, Buzzcocks become key players in the movement at a time when its UK-wide members still barely numbered in double figures.

The original punk bands all had their own unique characteristics - Sex Pistols were nihilistic, set on destroying the prog' rock of the time, The Clash had their polemic and political agenda, while Buzzcocks brought the heartbreak. Shelley led the songwriting process, presenting his love songs in a typically punk fashion - BBC radio refused to play single 'Orgasm Addict' and 'Oh S**t' was hardly a typical title for a love song.

Although Shelley claims his original aim was to scare people away with the music he made, his penchant for a good tune ensured their debut EP 'Spinal Scratch' was a success. Devoto left the band shortly afterwards, and it fell upon Shelley to handle lead vocals.

Buzzcocks next signed to UAI records in 1977 where they enjoyed their most commercial period, scoring their first UK top 40 hit with 'What Do I Get', which was followed by a number of successful singles including 'Ever Fallen in Love...' and three albums. An anthology of their previous hits 'Singles, Going Steady' was released in 1979 and is considered one of the most important albums in punk history.

Internal tensions originally lead to Buzzcocks disbanding in 1981, and Shelley embarked on a solo career. Initial success was found with single 'Homosapien', and Shelley released a full album under the same name. Buzzcocks were reunited in 1989 "by accident" according to Shelley, after a German promoter started listing 'Buzzcocks' on flyers instead of Diggle's band Flag of Convenience, and word of mouth lead to an American promoter's interest. The band reformed and took to the road. By 1990 Buzzcocks confirmed a permanent reunion.

The band has continued to record new material and tour since then, producing five albums, the most recent of which 'Flat-Pack Philosophy' was released in 2006. Buzzcocks will be playing at festivals throughout Europe, Australia and America this year and have plans to start work on another LP soon.

Here, Shelley reflects on the past and the effect his band and punk music have on today, the future of Buzzcocks and gives his verdict on today's pop stars.

You're playing the Beverly Folk Festival in Yorkshire, England - why a folk festival?

It's caused some consternation and internet chatter, with people wondering why we're playing, some people are asking if we're playing unplugged - but I refuse to do those. The whole idea of our music isn't that. It's like saying to Beethoven, right - we've got a punk band to play your music tonight. He'd be like, 'Well, I actually wrote it for orchestra.' I never play unplugged - I don't like the idea of 'unplugged' - I mean that's the whole reason I bought an electric guitar, so I could plug it in.

How do you think Buzzcocks sound transposes to today?

In a strange way it is a bit like folk music. The people who wrote folk music were writing about what it was like to be the Lord and his Lady in the castle and we were singing about what it was like for the serfs, and that's what punk has always done, told the world from the serf's , the peasants, point of view.

You were one of the first punk bands in the 1970s - but did you always associate yourself with the 'punk' tag?

I don't even remember when we first started using the term 'punk'. The whole thing started for me when I was at college in Bolton. I saw an advert from a guy trying to form a band, looking for guitarists, euphonium players and the like to do a cover of 'Sister Ray' by the Velvet Underground. And in 1975, the number of people who would know 'Sister Ray' was so small as to be nearly as non-existent. So I phoned him up and said, 'I've got a guitar, I know the chords, I can do that.' So it ended up being me and Howard Devoto, writing songs together. I liked noisy music, he liked stuff like the Stooges and Velvet Underground, so we thought we'd do a band which made music that people didn't like.

How much exposure did bands like the Stooges and Velvet Underground get and how did you find out about them?

I suppose the first port of call for everybody was David Bowie. He produced Iggy Pop's 'Raw Power' and he did the first Lou Reed solo album, and he was trying to revitalise their careers. Because we read the interviews and kept up with what was going on we tried to find out more about these things. There was a girlfriend of mine who actually moved from Malvern who had a couple of Velvet Underground albums, so when she came over one Sunday I took the albums and made copies of both of them.

Devoto and I read in the NME about this band in London who played a Stooges cover. So the next day we got in the car and drove to Reading and next day went to see Malcom Mclaren. It was a big jump, but we were that taken by it. We had never heard the band, all we knew was that they did this song, and we got to see them. Malcom said he wanted to take the band somewhere else out of London. I had put on shows before by hiring a church hall and putting on bands. So we decided to organise a gig up in Manchester. Not because we knew anybody in Manchester, or we were part of the music scene there, so we had sex pistol sup to play, it cost us £32 to hire the hall and that was it.

When it started was punk quite a small movement around the UK?

Well, if you took your shoes and socks off you could count everybody in the scene. The problem with the growth of punk wasn't that it was consumer lead, it was participant lead. People saw punk bands and they'd say, 'We should be doing this. This is great, why aren't we doing this?' and they'd go and form their own band. People realised that you didn't need to go to a guy with a big cigar to organise a gig, or learn an instrument - I mean, how boring is that?

Given the fact technology is so much cheaper today, do you think it's even easier to make a punk record today than it was then?

It's easier to get something out. We had to borrow £500 to do our debut 'Spinal Scratch' EP, and within a few months we had paid that back, but nowadays you can do it from an internet cafe. But then it's about getting people to come and see you, another side to it.

What do you think of comebacks, particularly the Sex Pistols reforming and going on tour this year?

The Sex Pistols can reform and make a comeback because they're a great band. It's Genesis that are going around milking it. If all the people that go and see Genesis or the Police play now went and formed bands there's no hoping. If people go see the Sex Pistols and form a band as a result then that would be a much better result for music.

These bands that are reforming - they sign deals. They sign with a company that specialises in comebacks .They say, 'If you sign with us you'll make 'X' amount of money guaranteed, all they have to do is turn up and play..... All the merchandise, all the buy-ons from the other bands that want to play on the bill. It's completely immersive, just an exercise in marketing.

Do you hear elements of your own songs in what you hear on the radio?

I sold my car a couple of years ago and since then I've not really listened to the radio. So I'm a little bit out of touch really with what's going on. But from what I can gather I've not missed much. Over the years you end up with such narrow taste, you make what you like so small, you listen to things and you're like, 'No, no, no.' Anything to do with Phil Collins, no. If only people listened to their inner arbiter, but unfortunately the public are a bit plastic, hence bands like the Hoosiers whose songs sound like B-sides from the Electric Light Orchestra.

What do you think about a few of these bands then, for example, Coldplay?


Kaiser Chiefs?

They're OK. The drummer writes all the songs, I met him at an NME awards ceremony and he was nice... the problem I have with them is their songs tend to be very blocky.

OK, Bloc Party?

I did like Bloc Party, but I've not heard a lot from them recently.

Arctic Monkeys?

I haven't bought the albums, I think that cements my dad status. It's very good commentary, I'm sure his professorial parents are very proud of him. It's not like he's dragged himself from being a street urchin though is it? But then again, he's got a sharp eye. It's not something that you'll be singing in the pub in 20 years though is it?

Oasis or Blur?

I was thinking about Oasis and Blur today. Was their spat ever resolved? I know they're both Buzzcocks fans. Before they did 'Parklife' in 1993 we did a 'Trade Test Transmissions' launch party at a bar in Soho. We played half the album and the front row, literally, was Blur. They all stood at the front. And well, basically I hit the drummer, at the bar, later.

And Oasis, I'd see them, checking in for a flight or something, Liam drinking a Gin and Tonic or something. I'm sure they're c***s, but at least you know what they're like.

Do you rate Amy Winehouse?

I saw her the other week, round here in Camden. What I say is don't trust them Brits, Fame Academy types, Amy is one of them. She's from that Brit School. It's all the same. It's like the Rank Organisation, the 'charm school' who used to bring up and train all the young stars. The Brit awards have just become a fund raiser, like a graduation ceremony for them.

This whole idea that the only way you'll make it is by going on a course is ridiculous. This whole idea that there's a school for getting famous - teaching people that's how it is.

What about TV talent shows like 'Pop Idol' and 'Britain's Got Talent'?

I think 'Britain's Got Talent' is a very good show, because it's a variety show. Just like 'Sunday Night at the Royal Palladium'. I liked the break dancing kid who won, George, because he comes from somewhere, he's got spirit, it was like a story from 'That's Life'.

Do you think it gives ordinary people an opportunity, a shot at fame?

Well, I hate the idea that everybody is trying to be famous - it's missing the plot. Because part of punk is saying I'm not going to be famous doing this and design yourself not to be famous and doing it because you think it will annoy the f*** out of people.

On the later Buzzcocks albums there is experimentation with electronic sounds, drum machines etc, do you think that has a place in the sound?

You try to find something which works, but at the back of it at least we know if there's a power cut, we can fall back to the established sound. We try to keep that in the periphery really.

Are you going to start work on a new album?

Well, I wanted to start a new album last year. I wanted to put it on the internet and give it away. And everybody else was saying they weren't quite sure about that that, but they thought I was mad when I said the internet would take off. The whole idea of people going out and buying only works if you reach the people who are willing to spend. If you go 'have a listen to that, see what you think' then it will work better.

What do you think the term punk means nowadays, is it something that references the past or is it something you can still apply to life?

It is a way of thinking. It makes you an active participant in culture rather than a passive consumer, because punk engages people. Just the idea, not the music, the music is superfluous to punk. It's where people start taking control of their own environment and start putting their own stamp on the environment they have. People are usually used to being told what to do and people who understand punk know that their idea is just as good as any other and they put those ideas forward.

It isn't a get rich scheme or anything like that, it's a way of engaging people and seeing what happens. And so it is something which translates over time. It's an inspiration, rather than an aspiration. It makes people realise that they are intelligent and they can use that intelligence to express themselves. Punk wasn't just music it's impossible to think about punk as just being music, because of everything else it changed, from television to art to fashion.

Do you ever see kids with a big Mohican haircut and doc marten boots who completely miss the idea behind punk?

Yes, of course. But as long as they enjoy themselves, that's fine. As long as they don't listen to Genesis or anything like that its fine.

by Andy Tillet

© BANG Media International

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