The Buzzcocks singer who invented indie, staged the gig that changed the world and brought vulnerability to punk....
Ben Willmott
06:28 9th December 2018

If you were looking for a few bars of music that truly summed up punk rock, you'd have to plump for Pete Shelley's guitar solo on The Buzzcocks classic 'What Do I Get?'

Shelley, who has died at the age of 63, uses just two notes to fill the slot, but those two very simple notes speak volumes. They're an instant two fingered salute to the flashy technicality of progressive rock, a proper year zero moment after which nothing could ever be quite the same again. Most importantly of all, the solo sends out the message, loud and clear, that you could do this too.

Indeed, many did do it. Shelley's influence extends right from the birth pangs of punk to its stadium-filling fulfillment and beyond. No doubt it will continue to reverberate long after his much mourned passing.

Even if Shelley had never picked up an instrument or uttered a word into a microphone, his role would have been pivotal. He and bandmate Howard Devoto surely had no idea of what they were starting when they invited a tipped but little known band called the Sex Pistols to play a gig with Buzzcocks at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall on June 4 1976. Despite the fact they only paid the band £32 to play, it wasn't a financial success. Barely 40 people shelled out 50p for a ticket to see them.

But, in a scene that was later immortalised in the film '24 Hour Party People' and widely trumpeted as 'the gig that changed the world', the tiny crowd left the hall fired up and went on to create amazing things. One half of the band that were soon to become Joy Division were among the punters, as was Martin Hannett, the producer who would produce their two albums, alongside many other classics. “I walked out of that gig as a musician,” Peter Hook of Joy Division and later New Order would later comment.

Other attendees that night night included Mark E Smith of The Fall, journalist and label owner Paul Morley, photographer Kevin Cummins, plus a young Morrissey and Simply Red's Mick Hucknall, both of whom would go on to become multi-million selling artists.

Similarly, before the Manchester's scene's flagship label Factory even existed, Buzzcocks had reached the Top 40 with an EP called 'Spiral Scratch' on their own New Hormones label, the first DIY release from the UK punk scene. They would later selflessly suggest to a demo-touting Morrissey that he should take his copy of The Smiths' 'Hand In Glove' to Rough Trade instead, because New Hormones didn't have the resources to do it justice. As with almost every move Shelley made with Buzzcocks, the rest is history.

That is all ancient history, of course, but Buzzcocks' impact on music has been a constant across successive generations. They forged a short, sharp style blessed with unforgettably catchy choruses still very much evidence in the power pop/punk of stadium fillers like Green Day and Blink 182.

Unlike the Pistols, Clash or The Damned, the songwriting of Shelley often showed a vulnerability that was rare in punk, often concerned with unrequited love and disappointment. It's not hard to see why that appealed to Kurt Cobain, who regularly wore a Buzzcocks beanie hat and invited the band to support Nirvana on what would be their final European tour in 1994. Touching footage later emerged of Kurt meeting his heroes for the first time backstage at the Pavilhão do Grupo Dramático e Sportivo de Cascais in Portugal in February 1994.

The news of Shelley's death comes barely more than a month after news that Domino Records, home of Arctic Monkeys and a host of other cutting edge acts, was to mark the 40th anniversary of their original releases by issuing the first two Buzzcocks albums 'Another Music In Another Kitchen' and 'Love Bites' in January 2019. Meanwhile, one of the most personal tributes to Shelley came from the owner of another of today's key labels, Pete Rok Donaghy of Ra-Ra-Rok Records, a former guitar tech with the band.

“Steve Diggle rang me at 7:05 tonight to break the tragic news that my friend since the 80's, Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks, had passed away this afternoon. My heart goes out to Pete's family, Buzzcock members past and present, his many friends and fans and to my dear friend Steve Diggle who with Pete made amazing records and were magic on stage together and each complimented each other's songs.

“I consider myself to be 'Buzzer' family. I was guitar tech for the Buzzcocks 1995/6 and got to really know Pete well over those two years. Pete was a real character with a quick witty humour and an infectious laugh. In the early spring of 1977 his 'guitar solo' on the tune 'Boredom' from the 'Spiral Scratch' EP totally changed how I thought and played guitar. I saw Pete and the Buzzcocks at least 100 times from October 1977 at the Marquee to their last London show. Every single one of those gigs was fantastic and the chemistry between Steve and Pete always magic. I feel blessed to have known and worked with Pete..XXX R.I.P.”

Photo: Press