Pete Shelley (April 17, 1955 – December 6, 2018) was born Peter Campbell McNeish to Margaret and John McNeish in Lancashire, England in 1955. He had a younger brother, Gary.
Peter Campbell McNeish changed his name to Pete Shelley, taking the Shelley from the name his parents would have given him had he been born a girl. He was an English singer, songwriter and guitarist who formed the Buzzcocks with Howard Devoto (born Howard Trafford) in 1976, and was the lead singer and guitarist from 1977 when Devoto left. The Buzzcocks released the classic “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” in 1978. They broke up in 1981, and reformed in 1989.
By jointly organising the Sex Pistols’ gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976, Peter McNeish could reasonably have claimed to have made a vast impact on the face of rock music, even if he didn’t form the Buzzcocks. The gig was quickly arranged by McNeish and Trafford, who had no idea what they were doing, and was only attended by about 45 people, including the organisers and the band. It was nevertheless one of the most influential gigs in British rock and pop history.
The question of who was actually there and how many, is part of music “folk lore” now with 100s claiming to have been in attendance. But among those who did actually turn up were future members of the bands Joy Division, the Fall and the Smiths, as well as legendary Factory Records founder Tony Wilson, all of whom seem to have been immediately inspired by the performance.
“A friend who was with me said, ‘Jesus, you could play guitar as good as that,’” recalled Bernard Sumner (of Joy Division and New Order). “We formed a band that night,” said Peter Hook (also of Joy Division and New Order). So did McNeish and Trafford who had changed their names to Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley, recruited a bass player (Steve Diggle) and drummer (John Maher), and were acting as the Sex Pistols’ support act, by the time they returned to Manchester six weeks later, under the name the Buzzcocks.
In late 1976 the Buzzcocks released their first EP, Spiral Scratch, on their own independent label, New Hormones. It remains the essential document of punk rock hitting the provinces, and of the Sex Pistols’ big idea being twisted into something else by people outside of London.
When Devoto left the band in February 1977, Pete Shelley took over as the lead singer and chief songwriter. Working with the producer Martin Rushent, the band created the punk/new wave singles “Orgasm Addict”, “What Do I Get?” and the classic anthem “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)”. They also released three LPs: Another Music in a Different Kitchen (1978), Love Bites (1978) and A Different Kind of Tension (1979) before problems with their record company and a dispute with Virgin Publishing over the UK release of their greatest hits record, Singles Going Steady, brought the band to a halt in 1981.
Pete Shelley’s solo debut album Sky Yen was recorded in 1974 but remained unheard until it was released in March 1980 on 12″ vinyl on his own label, Groovy Records. It was recorded as a continuous piece of music using a purpose-built oscillator. Pete also used layered electronics and playback speed manipulation to achieve its experimental feel. Sky Yen was rooted in electronic music and has been compared with work from the likes of Kraftwork.
In 1981 Shelley released his first solo single, the song “Homosapien” on which he returned to his original interests in electronic music and shifted the emphasis from guitar to synthesiser. “Homosapien” was banned by the BBC in the UK for “explicit reference to gay sex”. In the US dance chart, “Homosapien” peaked at number fourteen. It was at this time that Shelley talked more about his bisexuality, which had been implicit in many of the songs he had written, but now came to wider attention due to “Homosapien” and the BBC ban. The single was followed by an LP also called “Homosapien”.
Shelley released his second LP “XL1” in 1983 on Genetic Records. The album included the minor hit “Telephone Operator” and, weirdly, a computer program for the ZX Spectrum with lyrics and graphics that displayed in time to the music.
In June 1986 Pete Shelley released the single “Never Again”, followed by the album “Heaven and the Sea”. In 1987 he release a new song, “Do Anything”, for the film Some Kind of Wonderful. He also wrote the theme music for the intro of the Tour de France on Channel 4 TV in the UK, which was used from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s.
In 1989 Pete Shelley recorded a new version of “Homosapien”, called “Homosapien II”. The single featured four different mixes of the new recording.
He played with various other musicians during his career and briefly reunited with Howard Devoto to make the LP Buzzkunst, which was released in 2002. Pete also appeared on the 2005 debut EP by the Los Angeles band the Adored, who toured with Buzzcocks the following year.
The Buzzcocks reunited in 1989 and released a new album, “Trade Test Transmissions”, in 1993. They continued to tour and record and released the album “The Way” in 2014.
In 2005 Shelley re-recorded “Ever Fallen in Love”, as a tribute to the legendary BBC Radio DJ John Peel, with an all-star group which included Roger Daltrey, David Gilmour, Peter Hook, Sir Elton John, and Robert Plant. Proceeds from the recording went to Amnesty International.
Shelley was open about his bisexuality, and although it was suggested that his earlier same sex encounters were “a phase”, Shelley continued to identify as bisexual in later life. He was married in 1991 and divorced in 2002. His son was born in 1993.
He moved to Tallinn, Estonia, in 2012 with his second wife, Greta, an Estonian, preferring the less hectic pace there to London.
Pete Shelley died there of a suspected heart attack on the morning of December 6, 2018, aged 63. His music inspired generations of musicians over a five-decade career.
It has been said that The Buzzcocks were one of the most influential bands to emerge from the initial wave of punk rock, with echoes of their music being heard in bands from Hüsker Dü to Nirvana.
The Buzzcocks were inspired by the energy of the Sex Pistols’ but didn’t copy their angry political stance. Instead, they put an intense, brilliant energy to the three-minute pop song with Pete Shelley’s anguished and funny lyrics about adolescence and love being some of the best and smartest of his, if not any era.
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