Late yesterday afternoon, the junior designer came up to me bearing news that “the singer from The Buzzcocks has died!” Incredulous, I had no idea that Pete was dead, but his relevance to the Punk and Post-Punk worlds was significant. I first heard The Buzzcocks when I saw the video for “What Do I Get” on Rockworld. I never really bit for that band, for one reason or another while they were first active. They re-wrote the rules for everything that followed when the original lineup had the audacity to press up their own 7″ record. Making the D.I.Y. ethos of the Punk movement officially begun. If Shelley had never recorded another note, that would have been enough for a place in the history books.
But by the time that I knew about the Buzzcocks, I was already deeper into synthesizer music, making the breakup of The Buzzcocks in 1980 an entry point for lots of Pete Shelley in the Record Cell since his solo career that kept him busy from 1981 to 1988 was awash in technological pop. I first heard “Homosapien” on college radio and had to have this album. I first sprang for the mandatory 2×7″ pack of “I Don’t Know What It Is” to get one of the best B-sides of all time – “Witness the Change.” That song was so hot, that WPRK-FM [the aforementioned college station] was playing it with regularity.
Pete was working with the newly electronic oriented Martin Rushent as these two old Punk dogs were learning new techno tricks at the dawn of the 80s. After witnessing the gestation of Visage, Rushent obtained the Roland Microcomposer and a Linn Drum machine and Pete’s songs for the abandoned Buzzcocks album he would not be recording in 1981 became demos for his solo album. Pete sang and played electric and acoustic guitars and the Microcomposer was used as the compositional tool that it was designed to be for songwriters; only when they were done with the demos the notion was “these sound great – why not release them as is?”
At the time, the juxtaposition of acoustic rhythm guitars with synths and drum machines was defiantly exotic. A new sound was being brewed and the “Homosapien” album was the play lab that enabled it. The stage was set here for the next step on Human League’s “Dare” later in the year,” which would bust open the charts with the new way of making albums. Meanwhile, Pete had a solo career that was as far from the punk pop roots of The Buzzcocks possible. The queer core embedded in “Homosapien” insured that it would not become the hit that “Don’t You Want Me” eventually would become, but don’t tell that to the club denizens who took to this anthem and the very first excursions into electro-dubspace that filled the 12″ singles from Pete Shelley.
Rushent applied honest dub technique to electronic sound and in the process became the go-to producer of 1982; at least until “Poison Arrow” byTrevor Horn dropped and changed the game overnight. I had heard that Pete Shelley was doing a solo tour of the US with machines and tapes in tow, but the closest it came to me in Orlando was Atlanta and those games didn’t happen for years. Meanwhile, I haunted the Record City store asking when Pete’s second album was ever getting released.
It seemed like an eternity but in early 1983 it finally got a domestic release and I wasted no time in buying it or the pre-release 12″ single of the mighty “Telephone Operator.” “XL-1” was a more consistent outing than “Homosapien” had been. I had the US version of the former album, and it had some B-sides swapped int the running order for a few of the left-field tracks that were a strange fit for the album. At least “XL-1” was intact in comparison.
After three year wait, Shelley re-emerged with an album produced by the inescapable Stephen Hague. It wasn’t bad. The singles were strong, but it seemed to lack a certain flair the first two albums had in excess. Maybe the sad fact was that by 1986, everything pop was synthpop. In the last decade I’ve been tracking down the 12″ singles from this album as they are the only Shelley rarities not on CD.
Following that album, Shelley seemed to disappear, until three years later the ’81 Buzzcocks lineup reformed for a series of gigs. The main duo of Shelley and Steve Diggle would helm various versions of the band and in 1993 they made a new album that is the only Buzzcocks in the Record Cell: “Trade Test Transmission.” No… wait. That’s not quite true, I just remembered that I have a Buzzcocks laserdisc [which I’ve never seen] that came out in the USA [!] in 1990 called “Live Legends.” I think it’s a show from 1980. I’ll need to crank that one up and finally watch it this weekend.
1994 finally brought the CDs of “Homosapien” and “XL-1” but owing to the budgetary impact of my first computer purchase [a top of the line 1993 Macintosh @ $4500 – really] and a move that happened at the same time, I did not get these CDs for another 7-8 years. The “Homosapien” CD had some clear editing errors that saw the beginnings and endings of the bonus tracks all messed up, but if listened to in a linear fashion, it sounds just fine. All of the bonus tracks that either album required were added.
Around that time was the one time that I actually saw The Buzzcocks live at the club at Jannus Landing in St. Petersburg. My friend Tom was just back from the UK with a British wife who loved two bands more than any other: Gong and The Buzzcocks. I know, I know. I can’t make up that sort of thing. Would I be interested in seeing them in St. Pete? Most definitely! I got to meet Tom’s wife and I drove us all the 90 minutes to the gig. The band were inside the club at Jannus Landing, not the patio/outdoors venue. It was a zippy, upbeat concert that had everyone singing along with the closing “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays.” We got back into town after 3:00 and fortunately, I was a lot younger then. Four hours later it was off to work with me. Looking back, I’m so glad that I made the effort! It would be my only Pete Shelley concert moment.
One thing that has stuck in my craw was how difficult it was to get the Buzzcocks albums on CD. The “Product” box in 1989 would have been the thing to buy to finally take the Buzzcocks plunge, but I never saw it in anything but the cassette version in any record stores I traveled in. It’s still on my want list. I’ve been a little better at buying all of the ’84-’88 solo singles that were not on CD, with the exception of “Homosapien II” from 1989. That one I’ve never seen, but I have “On Your Own” and recently got “Blue Eyes.” I still need “I Surrender,” “Never Again,” and “Waiting For Love” [in addition to “Homosapien II”] to craft that Shelley rarities REVO edition, Be sure to play some Pete Shelley; Buzzcocks or solo, this weekend as we mourn the loss of a vibrant talent who managed to blaze vital D.I.Y. trails in addition to being the 800 lb gorilla of punk-pop, and also a maker of dynamic club music that blazed new trails for synthpop at the dawn of the genre.
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