Harmony in My Head – Pete Shelley Of The Buzzcocks Remembered
The Buzzcocks didn’t create punk rock, although Pete Shelley was fronting a version of that band before the Ramones were singing about Nazis and cretins; before the Sex Pistols defined the genre with their cathartic, yet ugly, rage. Shelley brought a level of tunefulness to the music that screams for the adjective “indelible,” and displayed a wicked sense of humor – generally involving sex and romance. He passed away on December 6th, leaving a legacy of an important band who caught lightning in a bottle for a seemingly fleeting moment, yet inspired musicians and fans for decades.
While U.S. radio treated punk rock like an intestinal disorder until Geffen Records coughed up enough payola to change the game with Nirvana in 1991, it was a different scene in the U.K. As unimaginable as it seems, the Buzzcocks first hit the U.K. charts (albeit a minor hit and one banned by the BBC) in their native country with “Orgasm Addict” in 1977. Shelley would later distance himself from the…um…explosive rocker, but its description of indiscriminate lust still makes me laugh (“You’re making out with school kids, winos and heads of state”).
The band had their biggest U.K. hit the following year with “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve).” Shelley was inspired to write the lyric from a line from the musical “Guys and Dolls.” Producer Martin Rushent, “I felt it was the strongest song that they had written – clever, witty lyrics, great hooklines.” Rock critic Mark Deming, “Pete Shelley’s basic formula in the Buzzcocks was to marry the speed and emotional urgency of punk with the hooky melodies and boy/girl thematics of classic pop/rock. When he applied this thinking to that most classic of pop themes, unrequited teenage love, he crafted one of his most (author’s note – here’s that word again) indelible songs, ‘Ever Fallen in Love?’” The Fine Young Cannibals released a radically rearranged version for an international pop hit during the mid-1980s.
The Buzzcocks released two more classic singles in 1979, the satirical “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays” and the aggressive “Harmony in My Head.” Guitarist Steve Diggle had a particular sound in mind for his vocal performance on “Harmony,” the Buzzcocks’ last U.K. Top 40 hit. Having been fond of the Beatles version of “Twist and Shout,” where one can almost hear John Lennon’s vocal chords shredding, Diggle smoked twenty cigarettes to prepare for his barking growl on “Harmony.” Nevertheless, the bridge and chorus live up to the title phrase, massaging every possible pleasure center in the punk rock wired brain.
The early brilliance of The Buzzcocks was perfectly captured with their 1979 U.S. compilation “Singles Going Steady,” which was comprised of eight U.K. singles in chronological order, along with their corresponding B-sides. In writing about the album, David Fricke of Rolling Stone noted the importance of the entire unit, “Bass guitarist Steve Garvey and drummer John Maher set the manic rhythmic pace (stiff competition for Dee Dee and Marky Ramone) but never succumb to speed tripping. They run with the tune and not ahead of it. Guitarist Steve Diggle’s right hand is a blur that bangs relentlessly on rhythm guitar, a steady harmonic anchor without which Shelley’s songs would lose much of their physical impact.” In 2003, “Singles Going Steady” was included in Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” and if you own a copy, I consider you a friend whether you like me or not (Editor’s Note: The original name of rock nyc was Singles Going Steady).
“A Different Kind of Tension,” the band’s 1979 album, failed to generate significant chart interest and Shelley began a solo career in the early 1980s. He entered the world of synth pop with his “people are people” view of homosexuality on his 1981 single “Homosapien.” Shelley had written “Homosapien” in 1974 and recorded want he intended to be a demo in 1981. Shelley, “(Producer) Martin (Rushent) was listening to it on repeat, as he often did, then suddenly he swung round in his chair and said ‘That’s finished, that is. You could release this as it is if you wanted.’ So we went to Andrew Lauder, who’d been our A&R guy at United Artists and who was now at Island Records, to see whether we were mad or not. Because it was just two of us in a studio messing round with machines and stuff. I was writing computer programs where I’d tell it the notes I wanted it to play, and then it’d tell you the input you had to enter, all that stuff – it was really flying by the seat of your pants – and we didn’t know if we were just fooling ourselves. But Andrew Lauder heard it and said ‘Wow – are you doing any more of these?'” This single went Top Ten in Australia and Canada, but was banned by the BBC for the lyric “homo superior/in my interior.” Shelley also had U.S. dance hits in the 1980s with “Telephone Operator” (his aural stimulator) and the Pet Shop Boys style techno of “On Your Own.”
The Buzzcocks reunited in 1989 and never formally went away again, releasing five albums of new material that couldn’t successfully compete with their past glories. Upon his death, fellow U.K. punk rocker Glen Matlock noted that Shelley was, “A superb songwriter, artist and a totally sweet hearted guy who was one of the very few originals of punk and even a one off within that.” Music journalist Jon Savage wrote, “Buzzcocks were true innovators and a wonder: they took me to Manchester and were a major part of why I moved there.” Peter Hook of Joy Division/New Order wrote, “He helped us so much at the start of our career out of a sheer love for all things punk. Without Pete & the Buzzcocks I would probably still be working at the Docks.”
I only caught the Buzzcocks once, at a Dallas gig in 2010. I was front, center for the entire show, withstanding the pushing and shoving of younger kids who wanted my spot, but couldn’t compete with my aging tenacity. I screamed along with every song, loving the music that made me feel so alive as a teenager and capturing that euphoria once again. At the end of the set, Shelley reached down and shook my hand, perhaps as a salute to my endurance and passion and appreciation. I felt completely honored that he did so.