By Matt Hanson
Pete Shelley’s elegies for the wilted flowers of romance were shouted over songs that were alternately tuneful and fierce.
Put bluntly, punk rock is not known for emotional vulnerability. Sure, there’s plenty of righteous anger; lots of bands roared back at a world that wouldn’t listen. But there’s more to life than outrage, however justified. One of the drawbacks of punk as a genre is how narrow its emotional range tends to be; sensitivity and romantic longing are often pushed aside in the mosh pit of primal indignation. But few bands have had the guts to apply punk’s “three chords and the truth” style to matters of the heart. The Buzzcocks were one of them.
Pete Shelley, the band’s lead singer and principal songwriter, died last week at age 63. The outpouring of heartfelt tributes from both sides of the pond demonstrates how his songwriting prowess and love-struck lyrics wedged their way into many fan’s inner lives. His elegies for the wilted flowers of romance were shouted over songs that were alternately tuneful and fierce. The Buzzcocks had plenty of street cred, but they pushed the envelope by allowing for a complex emotionality amid all the ruckus.
Shelley helped organize the infamous 1976 Sex Pistols concert at Manchester, memorably dramatized in the film 24 Hour Party People, the gleeful cacophony of which inspired a slew of influential bands who had never seen anything like it before. Future members of Joy Division, The Fall, and The Smiths, as well as future Factory Records impresario Tony Wilson, were pretty much the only ones in attendance. But they all started bands. The demotic rallying cry was heard — Bloody hell, even I could do that! and thus U.K. punk was born. The Buzzcocks were hastily assembled and supported the Pistols on their next visit to the industrial north.
“Orgasm Addict” was their first single, which cheekily celebrated the joys of self-abuse. But the band began to really develop with angst-ridden singles like “What Do I Get” (“I just want a lover like any other/ What do I get?”) and “I Don’t Mind” which takes raw self-doubt as a starting point (a very British move) and ultimately comes down on the side of measured optimism: “Reality’s a dream a game in which I seem/ To never find out just what I am/ I don’t know if I’m an actor or a ham, a shaman or a sham/ But if you don’t mind, I don’t mind.” The Buzzcocks made plenty of good records, but their brilliance shines brightest when condensed into singles, old-school rock and roll style. The compilation Singles Going Steady is the place to start.
On their next record Love Bites, several singles showed the band hitting their stride. “Love You More” basks in the glow of newfound romance but is soberly aware of how dangerous falling for someone exciting and new can be: “I’m in love again/ Been like this before/ I’m in love again/ This time’s true I’m sure/ Don’t want to end up like no nine-day wonder/ I’ve been hurt so many times before/ So my darlin’ I will never leave you/ It’s in my blood to always love you more.” These lines could possibly sound sappy if they weren’t backed up with crunchy, catchy guitars and a fist-pumping backing vocal. An ominous reference to a “razor cut” abruptly snips the song off. The lyrics maturely acknowledge love’s limits and contain a wisdom worthy of an Auden poem.
The widely covered “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” is one of Shelley’s masterpieces. The question is pretty universal — if your answer is no, dear reader, then I’m afraid you have not lived. Apparently, the song was inspired by a screening of Guys and Dolls and was written the next day while sitting in a parked car. Shelley’s lament for amour fou is set to an extremely catchy ping-ponging riff and is about as emotionally desperate as it gets: “You spurn my natural emotions/ You make me feel like dirt and I’m hurt/ And if I start a commotion/ I run the risk of losing you and that’s worse.” Our poor narrator’s abjectness only puts him deeper at the mercy of his beloved’s caprice, a theme with a long and venerable history from Catullus to Madame Bovary. They call it “falling” in love for a reason.
The fact that it was written about Shelley’s male lover of several years gives the song a special edge. Shelley was openly bisexual and intentionally avoided any gendering of the names or pronouns of the characters in his songs. He didn’t do it out of squeamishness — he was a punk rocker, after all — but because he wanted to make his songs appeal to a wide audience, without all the societal baggage of gender-specific language. It’s a democratic gesture that clearly went a long way towards building the band’s devoted fan base. The “I” in the songs arguably begins with Shelley himself, but it can easily speak for you in certain moments. Buzzcocks singles can be a welcome balm for broken hearts (just trust me on this), which is not one of the usual reasons why people listen to punk rock.
Over an impressively long and diverse career, The Buzzcocks kept the up energy of their punk roots but evolved their sound. It’s interesting to discover that one of Shelley’s favorite bands was the experimental, jazz-fusion influenced German band Can, whose abstract but danceable grooves were the stuff of underground legend. I have never connected the two bands before, but the steady, funky rhythms of “Why Can’t I Touch It?” now makes a little more sense. In the ’80s, Shelley scored a solo hit in the very danceable “Homosapien” which made the sexuality more explicit, from the suggestiveness of the title to the coy double-entendres in the lyrics.
In “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays” the constant spectacle of complacency gets a proper gob in the eye: “I was so tired of being upset/ Always wanting something I never could get/ Life’s an illusion, love is the dream/ Everybody’s saying things to me/ But I don’t know what it is.” Never mind the bollocks; being upfront about your desires and confusions, being willing to express your all-too-human vulnerabilities and having the guts to shout it out over churning guitars and a ferocious backbeat — it doesn’t get more punk rock than that.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.