By: Andrew Flanagan, NPR Music
Pete Shelley, the Manchester-born co-founder, singer and guitarist of the influential British punk band Buzzcocks, died Thursday in Tallinn, Estonia, at the age of 63.
The news was confirmed, “with great sadness,” by the band’s publicist. A cause of death was not provided.
Formed in 1976, Buzzcocks went on to have a substantial impact on the sound of the still-nascent genre of punk, adding pop sensibilities and space to breathe to a fast-and-hard sound that had, up to that point, largely been defined by The Ramones.
In his book Real Life Rock, Greil Marcus observed that the central shibboleth Buzzcocks aimed their wiry guitars toward was “ordinary, unspectacular, everyday life.” To that end, the Buzzcock sound was defined by Shelley’s adenoidal love-and-sex-obsessed sneer, which was often wielded in service of a vaguely aloof, sometimes paranoiac satire of that everyday type of life. It was best exemplified in songs like “Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve?)” and “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays” — both of which stand among punk’s totemic, timeless contributions to pop music history.
On the subject of love, Shelley was, again, ahead of his time, very purposefully foregoing gender-specific pronouns in his songs. “It tends to change as much as the weather,” he told The Guardian, in 2002, of his preferences.
Inspired by The Sex Pistols — themselves inspired by an early tour by The Ramones — Shelley and group co-founder Howard Devoto quickly formed a band and opened for the Pistols in their hometown of Manchester. The group was a smashing success from the outset. In an interview with The Quietus in 2015, Shelley explained the group’s quick rise: “We didn’t expect anyone to take us seriously when we started. Punk was a fluke – there was no precedent in terms of what was popular. It was like the greatest marketing campaign in the history of music to convince the world that we were worthy of being listened to! We just wanted to do it this way, we knew it wasn’t gonna be the quick road to stardom – but in fact, within two years we were doing Top Of The Pops.”
As influential as their precise and playful music was, the method by which they distributed was equally groundbreaking. Shelley, Devoto, bassist Steve Diggle and drummer John Maher were, as Buzzcocks, one of punk’s do-it-yourself pioneers. They released music they had recorded themselves, something that has since become something of a rite of passage for aspiring young artists with a chip on their shoulder and their guitar’s gain knob cranked.
After more than a dozen singles and three full-length albums, the group disbanded in 1981. Shelley went on to a solo career, releasing Sky Yen — a krautrock-indebted slab of electronic pop — prior to Buzzcock’s dissolution; somewhat curiously, the album was comprised of songs he had written as early as 1974, prior to Buzzcocks’ formation. Diggle and Maher went on to form Flag Of Convenience, a longer-lasting but far less impactful artistic vehicle. Shelley and Diggle reformed the group semi-regularly beginning around 1989, touring as recently as 2016 and releasing a new record, The Way, in 2014.