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I was backstage with Buzzcocks at the Paradise rock club in Boston, November 1993, right after the four-piece group had played a ferocious life-and-punk-rock affirming set to a full house. It was just after Nirvana – the hottest band in the land — had played Springfield Civic Center arena, and their bassist Krist Novoselic, clearly a Buzzcocks fan, had joined the crowd, attracting considerable attention.
Finally, it seemed, in America some variant of hard-edged punk rock had broken through to the mainstream. Buzzcocks singer-guitarist Pete Shelley looked over at Novoselic and his throng, shot me a glance, raised an eyebrow, and said, with a slight smile, “So, is this what we fought the punk wars for, Jim?” That is, seeing a ‘90s grunge band benefit hugely from the ground-breaking work of the mid-late ‘70s punks. Like a lot of the questions Shelley and his band posed in song, this had no answer. Or several. Yes. No. Kind of.
On Thursday, Shelley, 63, died, not far from his home in Estonia, from an apparent heart attack.
That Buzzcocks – one of the first British punk bands to make a record (the EP, “Spiral Scratch,” 1976) – was one of the major bands of its time and their latter influence is unquestionable. Punk rock always has been, in many ways, about considering life’s proverbial glass, declaring it half empty, and then pretending it’s half full. Few bands sculpted this mix of bitterness and euphoria better than Buzzcocks.
Shelley married witty, questioning lyrics to razor-sharp guitar riffs and engaging melodies. Buzzcocks could be nasty, but neat; direct, but elliptical; agitated, but warm. Or, as Shelley told me in 1991, “We’re not a statement, we’re an adjective. Each time we play it’s like an accident in creation.”
Shelley was one of his generation’s best melodists and lyricists — think of him as an existential Paul McCartney on speed without the schmaltz streak. He twisted pessimism around optimism and despair around joy — and he loved to pummel home a refrain.
“Buzzcocks were hugely influential, with those layered guitars creating a wall of noise.” says Jake Burns, singer for punk peers Stiff Little Fingers. “I was a big admirer of Pete’s pop sensibility, songs like ‘What Do I Get?’ and particularly ‘Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” are simply classic pop records that will stand indefinitely.”
“Pete was the most unassuming pop star, ever,” says former Gang of Four drummer Hugo Burnham, whose band shared several tours with Buzzcocks. “That constant, slightly bemused ‘Is this really all happening?!’ look on his face onstage.”
Steve Garvey, Buzzcocks bassist from 1979-1981 and again 1989-1993, says, “We could party big time and we had a lot of fun and a lot of great memories. He was a really sweet guy. But very elusive, He didn’t plan too many things in his life. A real punk rocker.”
Garvey got the call on Thursday from longtime band manager Raf Edmonds. “He told me Pete’s wife, Greta, was not at home at the time,” Garvey says, “and Pete had called to say he wasn’t feeling well. She called an ambulance, got home, and the ambulance was driving away with him. He died either in the ambulance or in hospital.”
Garvey, who exited the band amicably, last saw his old mates play in 2017 at the Stone Pony club in New Jersey. “We had a good old laugh about who would be the first to die,” Garvey says. “Pete and I both looked at Diggle … and in reality, Pete was the first. He had gained a lot of weight. He never did look after himself ever, though he stopped smoking many years ago. He didn’t do much speed. There was a period around ’80-‘81 he did some hard drugs. He was a drinker.”
The band broke up in 1981 and Shelley, as a new wave solo artist, moved in a more synth-pop direction, scoring the hits “Homosapien” and “Telephone Operator.”
He released two more solo albums in 1983 and 1986, but in one shape or another Buzzcocks have been with us since 1989, releasing their last LP, “The Way” in 2014.
Buzzcocks, which played their last concert in Belfast, Northern Ireland in August, released three great albums, “Another Music in a Different Kitchen,” “Love Bites,” “A Different Kind of Tension.” They also released a batch of killer singles – “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays,” “Harmony in My Head,” “What Do I Get?” – compiled on their “Singles Going Steady” album.
Buzzcocks were masters of melody, barbed-wire guitar licks, and tension/release arrangements. “We realized we have been blessed with really good tunes,” the self-effacing Shelley told me eight years ago.
Although the group’s first singer and main songwriter was Howard Devoto, he left very early on and Shelley took the reins. Shelley favored cryptic lyrics and found joy in repetition. “I think if you start asking questions, that’s better than giving answers,” Shelley told me, of his songwriting. “That’s the Socratic method. It’s what life’s about, posing that question … until finally you stumble on the right idea.”
One key song was the seven-minute “I Believe,” often a concert-closer. It’s a series of stated certainties – some irrational, some profound – that Shelley dismisses at the end with “And I’ll be leavin’/What I believe in.”
“The song was all about paradox,” said Shelley. “That just because you believe something, doesn’t mean it’s true. I was cataloging things, like ‘the elixir of youth’ and ‘the absolute truth,’ and ‘the Final Solution’ and ‘the Workers Revolution’ Those [last two] would be discredited.” And Shelley was happy enough to both dismiss the song and pass the discredit around. “It’s just a ditty. A pop song, a rip-off of the chords from Yes’s ‘Starship Trooper.’
Shelley talked to me in 1989 about what kept the band viable. I suggested confidence. “Um, either that or just plain stupid-ness,” he said.
Asked if he’d envisioned being a Buzzcock in 1989, Shelley said, “Well, no, but when we started in ’76, we didn’t think by ’77 we’d be still going. It’s as much a mystery to us as it is to everybody else. Really, we’re just caught up in the whirlwind of it all.”
In “Why Compromise?” Shelley sang, “Hope springs eternal/When you’re down on your knees/Overnight sensations just fade away/Nothing last forever/I don’t care what you say.
I last saw Buzzcocks in September 2016 at Boston’s Royale club. They did not come across at all as a nostalgia act, but a still vital band that happened to have the good fortune of an A-level catalog.
Buzzcocks zipped from song to another with no small talk or chat. The band played thinking-person’s music for people who liked to bash around a bit. Once again, the songs embraced contradiction, whether it was in the lyrics themselves or the contrasting trajectories of music and words. They played some of the stronger songs from “The Way” album and the relative maturity of their early material made it stand up years later. Buzzcocks songs were timeless, not dated.
Garvey was in the audience last year at the Stone Pony gig watching the band he played in for so long, a big smile on his face. “There were so many people in total bliss,” he said, “singing along to Pete’s songs, to these great little pop punk songs. That’s the memory I’m going to have forever.”