Budgie legend Burke Shelley dead at 71

Burke Shelley in 2020
Burke Shelley in 2020 (Image credit: Adam Gasson)

Budgie founder Burke Shelley has died at the age of 71.

The news was confirmed on the Budgie fan page on Facebook by his daughter, Ela Shelley. She wrote, "It is with great sadness that I announce the death of my father, John Burke Shelley. He passed away this evening in his sleep at Heath Hospital in Cardiff, his birth town. He was 71 years old."

No cause of death has been announced. 

One of seven children, Burke Shelley was born on April 10th 1950 in St David’s Hospital in Canton, Cardiff. He was raised in the city, in the district of Llanishen, the site of the Royal Ordnance Factory that took a direct, devastating hit from the Luftwaffe during World War II. The area was being rebuilt in the aftermath of the war, and Shelley had a happy, free-range childhood there, climbing trees, scrumping, playing the fool in class. 

Even before learning to play an instrument he and a pal would make up songs and perform them at the school’s end of term concert. When The Beatles arrived in the early 60s and changed everything he nagged his father – also called Burke Shelley – for his first guitar, which cost six guineas (“We should never have changed to decimal,” he lamented, characteristically, in 2020). He learned to play through Bert Weedon’s column in the Sunday paper, and kept writing tunes, knocking out future Budgie fan-favourite Parents when he was just 16. 

Like John Lennon, he had an early love for language, especially puns and absurdism (he studied for an English degree as a mature student in the 80s). Later this became part of Budgie’s USP, an acronym you can almost hear him quailing at. Memorable titles abounded across the band’s classic-era catalogue: You’re The Biggest Thing Since Powdered Milk, Hot As A Docker’s Armpit (borrowed from the Small Faces’ Steve Marriott), Napoleon Bona-Part One and Two. In The Grip Of A Tyrefitter’s Hand was inspired by Shelley’s local mechanic, who would pull old tyres off their wheels with his bare hands. And given the trademark heaviness of the Budgie sound, even their name itself was a tongue-in-cheek paradox worthy of Terry Pratchett.

Shelley’s worldview was transformed forever in 1967 by a show by fellow Cardiffian Dave Edmunds and his trio, Love Sculpture. He jacked in his traineeship as a quantity surveyor and committed fully to music, switching to bass and forming the fledgling Budgie that year with drummer Ray Phillips and guitarists Kevin Newton and Brian Goddard. Newton and Goddard would soon drop out, and fortune would lead to Tony Bourge, a truly gifted and versatile guitar player who would be Shelley’s musical foil and co-writer until leaving the band in ’78. 

Despite Bourge’s departure the pair remained lifelong friends, and lived near each other to the end. When discussing the band’s music, Shelley was very careful to credit Bourge for his part in the songwriting process. The guitarist was a font of riffs, textures and ideas; Shelley had an ear for the best ones and a knack for bringing them together into song form. “We’d just write what we liked,” said Shelley, “and we’d never think about how it fits into the music scene. I’ve had this idea most of my playing life: don’t do anything to please the crowd – have a little faith, and please yourself. That way you’re comfortable and you build a following of people who like what you do.”

And they really did. To this day the internet is awash with old rockers’ happy memories of seeing Budgie play, and footage of them on everything from The Old Grey Whistle Test to Sweden Rocks Festival bears out their reputation as fine performers. 

They did the hard yards in the late 60s clubs of South Wales, shaking the walls of the many social clubs across the valleys with their ear-splitting, blues-based riff-rock. With Shelley securing the gigs by calling each and every venue himself, the band began to win fans among the kids getting hip to the era-defining hard rock of the upcoming Led Zeppelin. They were also barred by senior members of ‘the committee’ at numerous venues, for being just too damn loud. 

Their huge, contoured sound and questing compositions chimed with those changing times. Shelley’s long hair and big, milk-bottle-bottom glasses fit the bill too, as did his fiery, nimble and deeply musical bass style and his effortlessly high vocal register. Add Bourge’s agile, stylistically diverse playing and Phillips’ rock-solid, metronomic beats, and Budgie were a winning proposition.

Even back then, Shelley was fiercely single-minded, a man of conviction, and was sure to make the most of their big break when it came. On the way to their audition for producer Rodger Bain at Rockfield Studios in 1970, he instructed his bandmates to defy their then-agent’s wishes to perform covers, and instead launch into their own material. 

“We went up there and played,” recalled Shelley, “and [Rodger] said, ‘You’re exactly what I’m looking for. I’ve only signed two bands – you and this other band. When they’re finished doing their demos you go in and do yours’. It was Black Sabbath. That’s partly why people say we were on the same starting block for ‘heavy metal’, or whatever.”

In a parallel universe it’s Budgie who rose to the top of the heavy metal pile rather than Sabbath. In ours however, Shelley would have to be (and was) content with Budgie playing The Kinks to Sabbath’s Beatles. His hard-touring trio’s cult appeal, credibility and oddball-cool were fuelled partly by the very fact that they never became the stadium-filling mainstream act they could well have been. 

They certainly had the songs for it. The 70s saw the albums Budgie, Squawk, Never Turn Your Back On A Friend (featuring signature tune Breadfan), In For The Kill (a Top 30 hit in the UK), Bandolier, If I Were Brittania I’d Waive The Rules (another example of Shelley’s whimsical, Milligan-esque facility with words) and – Bourge’s brilliant last album with them – Impeckable. These may have underperformed commercially at the time, but the sheer songcraft and heavy style on display were not lost on some of rock and metal’s major players. 

Van Halen covered In For The Kill in their early set, and bemoaned Budgie’s unwarranted obscurity in the USA. Later, Iron Maiden took on I Can’t See My Feelings, Megadeth did Melt The Ice Away and Soundgarden took a swing at Homicidal Suicidal. Most famously, Metallica recorded Breadfan and Crash Course In Brain Surgery in the 1980s, giving Budgie’s career and royalty income a significant bump, and crucially introducing them to a new generation of fan.

Early on in that same decade, while in Birmingham with Budgie guitarist ‘Big’ John Thomas, Shelley had happened upon a King James Bible in a second-hand bookshop. He read it assiduously on the tour bus over the years, and a slow, sure change came over him. As a raft of upcoming NWOBHM bands started citing Budgie as an inspiration, the star’s commitment to Christianity was deepening, and he came to loathe metal’s satanic overtones. He even hated Halloween. 

In ’82, on the promotional trail for Nightflight (’81) the band played Reading Rock Festival, which was headlined by Maiden. Shelley and band also supported Ozzy Osbourne on his solo tour that year, but both of those artists caught Shelley’s renewed puritanical ire later on. Even in 2020, when I suggested to him that much of Maiden and Sabbath’s satanic pretensions were just pantomime, he scoffed: “Well you can see it like that. I don’t. I’m sure Satan thinks it’s brilliant. I can’t quite see Jesus Christ being in Black Sabbath! Bruce Dickinson – he’s an amazing guy. He flies, he fences, he’s erudite and clever, but their whole music is satanic, about the Devil. I literally hate it.”

Indeed, Shelley had a healthy, outspoken contempt for many things by this point. He didn’t own a TV, and despaired of modern radio and – as he saw it – the ‘left-wing propaganda machine’ that was the BBC. He also reviled music’s more superficial trappings. Even in the 70s he had felt out of step with the prevailing cultural winds: “I couldn’t stand it, I had a real aversion to it. I hated the 70s – the charts, the glam rock, the glitter, the Bay City Rollers. Bowie was a bit different, he had a more art-school style. I didn’t like him dressing up, Ziggy Stardust and all that, but I liked a lot of the music.”

It amused him how so many of his contemporaries bent over when punk came along at the end of that decade: “All these rock‘n’rollers got their hair all spiked up overnight. It looks so pathetic to jump on the bandwagon.” 

And, into the 80s, he had little time for the glamorous exponents of the hair metal scene: “Spinal Tap sums it up. They were so pompous. Whitesnake with the hair flowing back and their legs apart. All that stuff looked awful to me, I didn’t want anything to do with it.”

Budgie’s own bullshit-free brand of rock earned them a huge following in Poland. Shelley was rightly proud to have been one of the first bands to play behind the Iron Curtain there in ‘82, at the time when Lech Wałęsa’s Solidarność movement was gathering pace, and the jackboot of Communism was slowly working loose. He and the band had witnessed the heavy-handedness of the authorities there at their concerts, and also the sheer will of the people for things to change. 

Budgie revisited the country many times, and their music came to be perceived as part of the soundtrack of the swing towards capitalist democracy, to the point that they themselves were considered folk heroes. When he accepted a trophy at the country’s lavish Open Door Awards in 2019, Shelley was truly humbled by the company in which he found himself: “At the ceremony we were sitting with all these heroes from World War Two, whose friends had died, or had been tortured – people who’d really risked their lives, but we just went in and did our thing. We can’t relate to it over here. It’s funny how things work out.”

It was in Poland that he was hospitalised, in 2010, with an aortic aneurysm, a potentially fatal bulge in the wall of his thin-skinned central artery. The emergency operation there probably saved his life, but the surgery was highly invasive and ultimately meant that he could no longer sing. “I’d have difficulty hitting the high notes now,” he said, “and squeaking down the mic was one of my specialities! Yes, it’s a big disappointment but I’m not into self-pity, there’s no point whingeing about it. You just get on with life.”

He had long been afflicted by Stickler Syndrome, a congenital condition that impairs the body’s production of collagen, a substance crucial for healthy tissue, in the eyes, the arteries, and elsewhere. On his return to the UK he had further operations on the iliac arteries in his legs and, he said: “They messed up the one in my right leg immediately. I was in a right state. They had to take me straight back down [to the operating theatre] and put me under general anaesthetic again, which you’re not supposed to do. My leg was on fire, they’d put a kinked stent in there. Four years on and it’s still numb from the knee to my groin. And my left hand side gives me pain. After playing standing up for 45 minutes or so I have to sit down, and then I can’t get into it so I’d rather not play – I’d rather be up moving, tapping my foot, the bass is so rhythmic. So basically, they messed me up.”

Budgie was effectively retired in 2010, making their 11th studio album, 2006’s coolly-received You’re All Living In Cuckooland, their last. In his latter years Shelley played bass with old friends in the Cardiff area, just for fun. His band The Night Owls would perform in local pubs, knocking out old blues classics, Davey Graham’s Angi, John Mayer’s Waiting On The World To Change

When news broke in 2019 that he had developed another, bigger aneurysm, the headlines were that he was refusing life-saving surgery for this critical condition. The Christian man was being fatalistic, the story went, and he was resigned to his fate. This was, it turned out, only partially true. The damage to his legs in 2010 meant that he was terrified of the same doctors doing the procedure. “I don’t trust them,” he told me. “It’s not that I don’t want the operation, but I don’t want them doing the operation.”

By March 2020, Shelley – twice divorced and a father of four – was reviewing his options, and looking at specialists in both Bristol and Scotland. And at this really sad time there’s some comfort to be taken today in his reflections on his mortality then. 

“I’m not frightened of dying,” he said. “I know where I’m going. I feel sorry for all the people who don’t believe in Jesus Christ, because I know where they’re going. All unbelievers go to Hell and that’s eternal. I want to spend my eternity with Jesus Christ in Heaven. I’m not stupid – I don’t want to jeopardise the life I’ve been given, but I don’t fear dying. I might fear the way I die – slowly and in pain! We are all living longer, but it’s about the quality of life. I feel a bit like that. If I get a heart attack I don’t want to be revived, let me go mate. Give somebody else my bed! It’s a personal choice. [The condition] is not on my mind. I don’t think about it at all. What’s the point?”

He eventually got annoyed talking about ‘all this medical stuff’. After such a rich, influential and fruitful artistic life, he understandably did not want to be defined by his poor health. 

And in the long term, of course, he won’t be. Burke Shelley will be remembered for the indelible, slow-burning musical legacy of his beloved, ever-underrated cult Welsh band Budgie – a band that fought the fight, had its own voice, and continues to mean a great deal to a lot of people, still.

Amen to that. Rest in peace, Burke.

Grant Moon

A music journalist for over 20 years, Grant writes regularly for titles including Prog, Classic Rock and Total Guitar, and his CV also includes stints as a radio producer/presenter and podcast host. His first book, 'Big Big Train - Between The Lines', is out now through Kingmaker Publishing.