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Harmonies In My Head: Remembering Pete Shelley

Jammes Luckett | December 7, 2018

I’m trying not to be in the habit of writing about every single passing of every single person who’s ever meant something to me. Because there’s enough of that in the world and I usually don’t anything to add that hasn’t already been said. But in the case of Pete Shelley, he wasn’t as much of a household name as Prince, Bowie, or Aretha. He’ll have far less said about him, yet made as much of an impact on my life and my work. I owe these words to this man; ones I once thought I’d might have a slim chance of telling him in person, if I should’ve been so lucky.

Without a question, Buzzcocks were/are my favorite punk band.

The main reason for that was Pete Shelley. He was a brilliant pop songwriter masquerading as punk basher (or maybe only being commonly classified as such). A fact that explains why he and they have always been respected by musicians and critics but woefully underrated by the masses.

One of reasons Shelley’s writing impacted me so strongly (both with the Buzzcocks and later, solo works) is that while many of his peers were writing about getting high or drunk, fighting, fucking, or destroying something (granted, a lot of great songs in that mix)… Pete often wrote about love.

Falling in. Falling out. And the fallout of what you sometimes feel in the absence of.

And, in one of his most famous songs, getting the feels for someone that you’re “not supposed to”. A fact that could be taken to mean either because they’re actual bad news for you, off limits, out of your league… or because society forbids or frowns upon it. I can’t, offhand, think of any case in which gender was ever used in those songs, so the catalogue was kind of utilitarian and universal for anyone who needed them to interpret as you saw fit, on a case-by-case basis.

These were punk songs that were also sophisticated, heart-on-your-sleeve, sometimes somersault-flipping love songs of the Lennon-McCartney variety. Or with the harsh realities and heartbreak of a Smiths song, some years before the Smiths would form.

This was at a time when a punk band’s credibility was usually earned in proportion to the amount of snarl, sloppiness, mystery, and apathy it could deliver. Unless you were The Ramones.

So, in the Buzzcocks, you’d have this exciting fast, loud rock serving as a bed for beautiful, sweet, catchy melodies and smart, clever lyrics. Interesting chords and textures too. It was simple in arrangement but complex and layered in how it made you feel.

There were proto-punk bands in the late 60s and wee-early 70s who also toyed with this method of delivery. But those songs were usually one-offs. For Pete Shelley and the Buzzcocks, it was to be at the core of their actual musical identity; their signature sound, to the extent that I’m sure there are people who believe that they actually invented it (I will look the other way if you’d like to claim that for the band).

When the Buzzcocks did it, it always felt new. Many of their songs still sound fresh and exciting today. They just dig deep down into those obscure places of your heart and gut that you’re oddly surprised 1. existed and 2. that this sneaky, deceptive punk music could ever reach so easily.

Pete and crew made punk that you could legitimately dance, sing, hum, laugh, or silently weep along to. They could gut, inspire, and comfort me all at once.

I bet a lot of other people feel the same.

I would later also come to realize what pioneers the Buzzcocks were in the DIY recording movement. They were one of few acclaimed bands when they hit wider exposure that were still recording and releasing their music themselves. That they inspired many other bands to do the same, indirectly affected me well before I knew who they were. Years, later when I would revisit the Buzzocks, that would also be a factor in inspiring me to begin releasing new music and, this year, pulling off some killer trades to acquire a couple of guitars again after having sold everything off.

Directly and indirectly, though, Pete Shelley informed me as a songwriter. Combining the rough and ugly with the delicate and pretty. The simple with the seemingly complex. The thoughtful with the spontaneous.

Buzzcocks had been a presence in my youth but it wasn’t until I became an adult that I fully appreciated all that they were. Also fully recognized their DNA in other bands I dug.

It’s all over Nirvana, for instance (A fact that Kurt Cobain mentioned more than once). A listen to “I Don’t Mind” will quickly reveal itself as an influence on more than a few “Guyville”-era Liz Phair songs. There’s many more. Many, many more.

When I was younger, Shelley’s music was part of the soundtrack of my life, but more in a “mixtape”/playlist sort of way. I don’t even know which Buzzcocks song I first heard. I was really young.

And I didn’t know their name. Kinda, sorta. Allow me to explain:

Their singles continued to jump out at me at parties, shows, record stores and such. I knew their logo from a billion posters and jacket patches but assumed that band probably was a knock-off of the Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys, or Germs.

There wouldn’t have been anything wrong with that, as I liked all of those bands. But I usually only made extra effort to explore more deeply that I could personally identify with.

Music that spoke to my experiences on the deepest levels: My hopes, dreams, disappointments, and desires. And also, music that helped me to process all forms of bigotry (without going to jail) when I was too angry or depressed to write about it in my usual allegorical ways.

I didn’t want music that was mostly just about politics or being horny and immature or having the desire to be antisocial or apathetic just for the sake of it. Likewise, I was never a dedicated drunk, a drug addict or even a pot head so, while I do enjoy a good ode to vices, it’s usually that it’s got a good groove or I find it symbolic for something else. I longed to feel optimistic and connected to a world that hasn’t always left me feeling so. I needed no more fuel to encourage the latter.

And so my initial opinion on the Buzzcocks existed on a surface level, based only on an assumption from seeing that logo. Meaning, that I had no opinion. I didn’t think that I knew what they sounded like. I didn’t know that I knew what they sounded like.

Actually hearing their music in all of these different homes and venues, it was a different time. You usually would have had to go up to a DJ or someone and ask what it was that you’d just heard.

Though I’m now at ease in striking up conversations with random people now, my inherent shyness was at peak levels, back then. And most of the people I knew were either firmly in the camps of metal, hip hop, R&B, goth, new wave, or oldies. There was no mingling. I was always the oddity who enjoyed a little bit of everything.

I figured the stuff was so great and so catchy that there was no way it would remain unidentified for long. Surely, I’d hear it on a radio in a short while. At the time, I didn’t realize how much most radio sucks and would never play music that interesting without payola involved.

And so it would take some time before I would connect the name “Buzzcocks” to all of that wonderful music. I remember the day that I did. It was revelatory.

It wouldn’t happen until around 2003, when Henry Rollins used “Harmony in My Head” as the title and theme song for his show on the fantastic but short-lived radio station Indie 103.1, here in Los Angeles. He played a lot of Buzzcocks on that show, as did other shows on that station.

That’s why it’s a real travesty why that particular station didn’t last — they were a commercial, terrestrial radio station from 2003-2009 who played a lot of tracks that never-before received airplay, had only received limited airplay, or otherwise were only played on specialty stations. Many of its DJs were musicians from well-known bands — Rollins, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols. Joe Escalante from the Vandals also had an amazing show about entertainment law, called “Barely Legal”.  Indie 103.1 rotations included rarities, B-sides, and live versions of tracks. It was heavenly for revisiting old favorites and discovering new things. Truly the best radio station I’d ever heard. The type of radio station I dreamt of running as a kid.

But, yeah, I spent all those previous years of my teens and twenties being inspired by Buzzcock songs and had no idea who recorded them!

And so, yes, digging more into their catalogue is something that happened over time — studio albums, singles, live performances, etc. Loved them so much. It’s music that only became more important and meaningful to me as I got older. The marriage of words and music articulated complex, exact feelings that are sometimes difficult to express.

It was just last Spring that I had another revisit with the catalogue. I’d fallen out of love with a lot of my old favorite modern rock bands and was primarily listening to jazz, electronic, classic pop/rock, early hip hop, soul, Indian ragas, and orchestral music. A lot of my favorite rock bands have soured me by either going the routes of becoming whiny, racist, boring soccer mom-rock, awkwardly following trends without attempting to add anything new to it, or falling into that trap where one sounds like an uninspired copy of themselves just trying to get paid. 

Buzzcocks were never like that.

I had the fortune of seeing Buzzcocks play at Sunset Junction in the summer of 2007. Was less than 30 feet away from the stage and was in heaven. They still sounded as great as any of their recordings, if not better. I only wish circumstances had allowed me to see them many more times.

And last year, Buzzcocks were one of those bands that gave me goosebumps again. We had them on repeat for weeks in this household. I got inspired to do an electronic cover of “Lipstick”, last May. I never put it out or intended to. It’s just something I got riled up to do, almost to study why the song affects me the way it does. I’d be happy if I could write anything half as powerful as what that song does to me but it’s fun to sort of approximate a “tracing” of someone’s creative process to get a sense of how they might have come to certain musical or storytelling conclusions.

Like Cobain, Pete Shelley also always struck me as a genuinely nice and humble person with a sense of humor. A good human being, able to laugh at himself as much as anything external.

Manners/courtesy, humor, transparency, consistency and decency go a long way with me. I loudly and warmly embrace people who are easy in this regard and tend to quietly withdraw from people who leave me feeling like a lot of work is involved just for basic human interaction and pleasantries. Life doesn’t need any more complexities.

Even in arts and entertainment.

You give me a great artist who also appears to be a great person and my metaphorical panties will drop for all time. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that it’s painfully rare and is why I especially adored cats like Pete Shelley.

I’m bummed that the world is down one solid soul who seemed to solve more problems than he created. But I’m grateful for all of the music. And the firsthand memory of one fantastic show.

Great songwriter and, by all accounts, great person. In a world that is largely comfortable with leaving the idea of human connection to a click of a heart icon or ‘follow’ button, I mourn the loss of someone who so much felt like a kindred spirit. I’d always heard lots of stories about his generosity of time and care for other human beings and it was always evident in his music.

I’ll miss him.

Rest well, Pete.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Buzzcocks and Pete Shelley but you love catchy rock music that means something… grab yourself a gaggle of slow days and have a listen. Then dig into the lyrics.

Enjoy for life.

Photo Credit: Andre Csillag/REX/Shutterstock

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