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A tribute to Buzzcocks frontman Pete Shelley

Image source: 
Flickr/Andrew Benge Photography (CC BY 2.0)

Last week the music world learned of the sudden passing of Buzzcocks frontman and solo artist Pete Shelley due to a suspected heart attack, aged 63. Tributes began to flow from all sides of the music community, remembering the legacy and power of his still active band and musical career.

One of the pioneering UK punk bands, Buzzcocks most notably set themselves apart from the lyrical aggression and politically-charged focus of bands like The Clash and the Sex Pistols. While the typical punk band of the time would be rallying to dismantle political systems and challenge all authority, Shelley’s lyrics focused on his own personal relationships and the conflicts and struggles within them. Proving to be massively influential to this day in alternative music, the openly bisexual Shelley was arguably the first punk rock singer to explore this side of his relationships in a commercial setting. The band is often overlooked for just how far ahead of the time they were with their songwriting, yet it’s hard to deny the importance of the small pieces that they focused on, – specifically their point of always using gender-neutral language and eschewing binary gender pronouns in their lyrics. In a 1977 interview with Sounds, Shelley explained: “There isn’t any implied gender in our songs now because we think it’s boring singing about one thing when it could apply to both sexes. Our songs are bisexual.”

Lyrics aside, Buzzcocks were arguably one of the fastest and most energetic of the initial wave of UK punk. The Sex Pistols had their mid-tempo rock ‘n’ roll down pat, The Clash were already slowing things down with reggae and roots influences, and while The Damned had the speed and drive, their sound always had a dark and morbid undercurrent. Buzzcocks moved away from all of that, deciding that they could be just as punk and revolutionary musically without resorting to already- established rock tropes and mindless aggression. While the most appropriate comparison of the time would be The Ramones, Buzzcocks took a far more intricate and developed method of songwriting and storytelling to address the audience. The Ramones were obviously excellent pop songwriters as well, rarely having to rely on aggression and force to create their sound, yet there’s no denying that much of their material was just updated versions of already existing pop. Buzzcocks didn’t take any obvious cues from music of the yesteryear, carving out a new template for punk rock and power pop. To Shelley, the most powerful and subversive attitude came from his own personal feelings and experiences, combined with forward-thinking and just damn catchy pop punk.

Lyrical and musical analysis aside, perhaps what made Pete Shelley and his band so likeable and relatable was their lack of star power and celebrity. While peers Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer became household names overnight with their outspoken public platform, Shelley arguably kept things far more down to earth by simply sticking to what he was doing with his music and having little, if any, interest in promoting himself as anything that he was not. He will be missed.