When we lost Pete Shelley in 2018 we lost one of the greatest pop craftsmen humankind ever produced. His uncanny ability to deliver concise, engaging exemplars of edgy, post-punk minimalism with durable mainstream appeal never left him – Buzzcocks’ final album, The Way (2014), maintained the reunited combo’s perpetually upward creative trajectory – but it was the seven-inch singles the band released for United Artists between 1977 and 1980 that represent him best.
When programmed back-to-back on essential vinyl-age compilation Singles Going Steady (and its expanded 2001 CD edition) they represented an unassailable legacy, the punk era’s equivalent of The Beatles 1962- 1966 Red album.
Minimalist, thrash-paced, laced with cynicism and humour and delivered with occasional gobbets of sneer-lipped spite, but irresistibly perfect pop all the same.
Lyrically, Pete Shelley specialised in trauma for teens. After opening the Buzzcocks’ UA account with Howard Devoto co-written masturbation anthem/ tantrum Orgasm Addict, he served up a quintet of ’78 A-sides that refracted the accepted model of romantic trad-pop fiction through a contemporary punk prism.
Eternally frustrated, fashionably world-weary protagonist Pete is invariably devoted to someone he shouldn’t’ve fallen in love with. His bottomless well of affection being unrequited (What Do I Get?), he tries sympathy: ‘This pathetic clown will keep hanging around, that’s if you don’t mind’ (I Don’t Mind) before simply giving up and moving on: ‘I’m in love again, this time’s true I’m sure’ (Love You More). But, Pete being Pete, the course of true love never did run smooth: ‘You spurn my natural emotions, you make me feel I’m dirt, and I’m hurt’ (the timelessly brilliant Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve?)).
By the end of Shelley’s tumultuous year of emotional disappointment, things finally seem to be looking up. Ten seconds into Promises: ‘Loving you is easy you are on my side’; yet less than 90 seconds later: ‘Oh, why did you ever let me down?’
Pete never had it easy. And oh how we identified. Living one’s life in a leather jacket with one’s hair spiked did not make one immune to the emotional agony of ongoing adolescence.
Buzzcocks’ brilliance wasn’t limited to Shelley’s keening vulnerability. There was the jaw-dropping economy of their guitar solos, Steve Diggle’s sympathetic brayalong backing vocals, and Assorted Images’ extraordinary sleeve art.
A priceless legacy.