Do you remember the smart and sugary shock that plunged through you the first time you heard the Buzzcocks? After an afternoon of chlorine and Led Zeppelin in a suburban summer backyard, someone switched the record and this bullet flew out of the crappy speakers, and the musical clock was stopped and reset to zero. It was like a blueprint, pop’s present perfect. If the Sex Pistols’ chaotic anger was there to tear down the towers of remote bullshit that had been left to us by Yes and Genesis and other aristo-rockers who had been sending us widdly songs about hobbits from their stately homes in the country, then this was the genetic code for the new radio.
Documentary footage of the Buzzcocks hometown of Manchester from the late ’70s looks like it’s from another planet. A landscape of gaping bombsites in city centers, a gray pall of doubt hanging over everything. Unemployment was above 30 percent, and the electricity might only work three days a week because of general strikes and economic meltdown. This is how Thatcher got into office in 1979, with a promise that everybody would be working, come hell or high water. Both arrived right on schedule — and swept an entire class of people under the waves.
This was the national mood that the Buzzcocks’ Howard Devoto, Steve Diggle, John Meher and Pete Shelley inherited. The optimism of the late 1960s was dead and the hope of a country reinventing itself and shedding its class system was exhausted. All of the first generation of punk-rock kids came of age just as this brave new socialist world crashed into the sun. No wonder they were pissed off.
Much is made by trainspotters of the first singles, featuring Howard Devoto, but when Devoto abandoned ship to form Magazine, Pete Shelley stepped up to the plate and emerged as a complicated and incredibly sophisticated songwriter, giving voice to displacement and angst in the strictest haiku format of the three-chord pop song.
Never writing songs about cars and girls, always on the outside. Life’s an illusion, love is a dream — something terrifyingly abstract and unattainable, never a source of faith or comfort. Romance is treated with suspicion bordering on contempt. The Buzzcocks were startlingly articulate teenagers questioning their brave new world, diagnosing the cancer and by the same gesture providing the medicine, a three-minute burst of energy that burned away the rot and rejuvenated a defeated culture like a shot in the arm.
No fear of song craft, either. Whisper it around punk-rock purists with something to prove, but the Buzzcocks owed a heavy debt to the vocabulary provided by the best of ’60s pop and ’70s glam.
Not shy around a chorus, never afraid of a melody or a key change, Pete Shelley delivered a brace of singles that sounded like a teenager exploding.
Shelley has lived in London for the last 18 years, but his voice still carries the trademark Mancunian whine. One gets the impression that press calls are to be dealt with graciously, but swiftly. Pete Shelley has a dozen things he’d rather be doing right now than repeating the same conversation ad nauseam to plug their upcoming American tour supporting Pearl Jam and new spotty-to-brilliant studio album (their eighth) simply called Buzzcocks. We have 10 minutes and a reluctant Manc to divine the secret of one of the greatest punk-rock bands ever to draw a breath.
Metro Times: How does it feel to have your back catalog in the pantheon? There are a lot of bands out there citing you as The Daddy?
Pete Shelley: Well, it’s quite flattering, I suppose. I suppose it’s inevitable, because we refused to go away.
Metro Times: How do you feel about being under the umbrella of punk rock? Do you think that songwriting and arranging talents can be sold short under this anarchy UK banner?
Shelley: A lot of people think that punk was something that happened a quarter of a century ago, but really, it’s something that can happen any time that somebody decides that they have just as much of a right to be an active participant in culture as a passive consumer. I mean, really, the greatest legacy of punk was that it enfranchised people to take a part in what was happening, rather than just going into the record store and seeing what was on offer, you know, and it made people form bands, it made people start expressing themselves… in all forms of the plastic arts, and literature and things, and it gave people an idea that, “Yeah, why can’t I do that?”
Metro Times: The Buzzcocks were responsible for the first punk rock independent releases.
Shelley: People do have the impression that the music industry has been going for thousands of years, you know, that nothing can be changed, but it’s only been sort of a hundred years since they first brought out the record player, the phonograph.
Metro Times: The way that you use gender — or refuse to use gender — has always been fascinating. It’s a trademark of yours as a songwriter.
Shelley: Yeah, the way that I refuse to paint meself into a corner. I was asked the other day about that, and said, “Well, there are certain universal things about relationships, and I think if I start going ‘and then she says, and then I said, then she said’” … that means that if a woman was to connect inside the song, she’d have to change the lyrics, and then it becomes clumsy, you know.
Metro Times: And gender is so loaded with subject-object baggage — the masculine is always assumed to be the narrator, while the feminine slips into abstraction.
Shelley: Exactly! Gender has a cunning way of changing meaning, and excluding. … I wanted to avoid that.
Metro Times: How old were you when you started to write these things? You were just a pup, right?
Shelley: Well, not really. I suppose I’d be about late teens.
Metro Times: That qualifies as a pup.
Shelley: OK, alright [laughs].
Metro Times: That’s a stunning level of awareness coming from a teenage boy, because — let’s face it — teenage boys are not famous for their sensitivity and awareness, are they?
Shelley: [Laughs] It just seemed the easiest way to go in writing the song. I thought that it would then be useful to other people as well. I suppose in some ways, it was also escaping from the ‘baby, baby, baby, baby …’ you know, which is still prevalent today.
Part of the thing with punk was to do something intelligent, you know? People sometimes get this idea, you know, the cartoon punk idea that it was about yobbishness and things.
Metro Times: The label “punk rock” is so misleading. It’s such a broad umbrella, trying to cover everything from Television to Sum 41 in the States, from the Buzzcocks to Sham 69 in the UK.
Shelley: Yeah, yeah! Well, quite early on, in Britain, it stopped becoming punk rock and became the New Wave, to encompass the different styles emerging at the time. [Sarcastically] Yeah, New Wave wore the smart shirt and the skinny tie.
In some ways, punk is seen as being a certain style of music — low guitars, lots of shouting, you know, it’s seen as being just a style, which is something that came later. You know, all the spiky hairdos, the Mohicans, all really came a lot later, so a lot of people that saw that missed the thing that really started off punk. I mean it was half the stuff that was happening at the time, and half intellectualism, dare I say the word?
Metro Times: It has become a dirty word in some quarters. Does it frustrate you that many of the bands citing you as an influence are also deliberately avoiding the intellectualism, giving weight to the phrase “dumb punk rock”?
Shelley: Nah, I don’t let it bother me. It would drive me mad if I let myself care about those things.
Metro Times: Your songwriting seemed to shift punk rock’s agenda from the Pistols’ chaos and the Clash’s class politics to a personal anarchy, to this personal interior aggression.
Shelley: I’ve always thought that even though the world is made up of the great political movements, that it’s really the personal political movements, the changes that happen to people and the way which they relate to others, which then affects the way the other things progress. I think there’s lots of tension and angst in everybody’s lives, inside, if you scratch the surface.
Metro Times: And the rejection of love songs?
Shelley: I suppose I was writing love songs that fitted my own circumstances. So sometimes I would write them about people I knew, rather than the thinking into a hypothetical situation, I would take the situations and problems and joy and sadness which is my own life and try to put those into songs.
Metro Times: Which would leave one to assume that being a teenager in the late ’70s in Manchester was just a heaving sea of sexual anxiety and humiliation.
Shelley: You just described my life now! [Laughs] No, that’s why the songs still work now, because I can still sing them with conviction!
Metro Times: How did these American dates come about?
Shelley: We got a phone call from our agent, he’d had a request. I believe awhile back, many years, long before Pearl Jam existed, whenever we used to play in Seattle … there used to be a guy that used to come round and show Steve [Diggle] around record stores and things like that, and it seems that was Eddie Vedder!
The Buzzcocks will perform on Wednesday, June 25, and Thursday, June 26, at the DTE Energy Music Theater (off I-75 on Sashabaw Road, Clarkston) with Pearl Jam. For information, call 248-645-6666.Shireen Liane is a freelance writer living in London. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org