When artists, musicians, filmmakers or authors release their creations upon the world they never know whether they’ll be accepted by the world at large or lost to obscurity.
When Peter McNeish, better known to the world as Pete Shelley, co-founded Buzzcocks in Manchester, England in 1976 he may not have been aware of the lasting affect the songs he would help craft would have on musicians and music lovers around the world. However, when news of Shelley suffering a fatal heart attack started to spread through social media on December 6 it was clear he and Buzzcocks had created something special that will continue to have an affect for years to come.
Not only did Buzzcocks craft smart pop with a punk rock spirit, they were also credited with being the first punks to start an independent record label to release their own music. When their contemporaries Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned and a host of other bands caught up in the English punk explosion were all signing record contracts, it seemed Buzzcocks might have got left behind. They took matters into their own hands releasing their Spiral Scratch EP on New Hormones, a record label started by their manager Richard Boon. Self-releasing records became common practice for punk bands in the years to follow, but in January 1977 it was unheard of.
In the days following Shelley’s passing, local and international musicians who have been inspired by the spirit of Shelley’s music talked to Spoke News about his influence.
“I find his songwriting to be warm and loving, yet brutally honest and raw,” Patrick Walsh, an acoustic solo artist from Peterborough, Ont. said. “I would call him a songwriter’s songwriter. Just the straight up raw honest energy.”
As a teen growing up in a small Illinois city in the late 70s, Jon Ginoli, founder of the overtly gay rock band Pansy Division, loved 60s music much more than 70s music until punk came along.
“The Buzzcocks had the drive and speed I loved in punk but had the best melodies in punk which evoked the catchy songs of the 60s,” he said. “They also had lyrics that were fun, smart, and concise. When later I formed my own bands, my approach was a variation of what they did: a melodic crunch, but with more 60s jangle,” Ginoli said.
The Midwest was not a particularly open place for a young homosexual growing up in the 1970s, so Shelley’s music had a profound affect on Ginoli.
“There was an undercurrent of queerness in their music that was laid plain by Pete Shelley’s first solo record Homosapien,” he said. “My band Pansy Division covered ‘Homosapien’ on our second album, doing it the way I imagined the Buzzcocks might have done it had they recorded it.”
In 1996 a friend of Pansy Division was the US tour manager for the Buzzcocks, so Ginoli had the chance to meet Shelley.
“My band is really out and gay, and I told him how important it was to have him as a queer role model,” Ginoli said. “He said, ‘look, I have to tell you I am married to a woman now and have a kid.’ I said I knew that, and it didn’t matter to me, there wasn’t a litmus test, he never pretended to be something he wasn’t. I used the word bisexual, but he said he didn’t really want to define himself … I understood that each side was always part of his essence. It was wonderful being able to talk with him.”
“Never mind the speed or intensity of the performances,” Chris Freeman, bass player of Pansy Division said. “At their core, the Buzzcocks wrote pop songs with proper choruses. And their lyric approach was so smart and often very funny. That set a pretty high benchmark for me as a budding songwriter.”
In the original ad that Ginoli put out he was “looking for musicians into the Ramones, Buzzcocks and early Beatles.” Freeman fit the bill and answered.
“That kind of direct songeriting set to a roaring guitar and fast drumming style was a blueprint for us,” Freeman said. “This was music I was passionate about …This style is in my DNA since it was mostly what I listened to at the time”
Frank Portman, the driving force behind the Mr. T Experience — a band that has been balancing punk rock and pop punk since 1985, was heavily influenced by Shelley’s writing style. Portman is also the author of several teen fiction books, the King Dork series and Andromeda Klein.
“From the very beginning of my clumsy attempts to figure out how to write songs, Buzzcocks songs were an example of how best to do it,” he said. “I don’t mean only in the usual sense of the ‘pop punk’ tradition, the sound and the aesthetic, though that’s part of it. But the more important part is the over-arching sensibility, the introspective, self-doubting narrators, speaking clearly but not too clearly, the slight confusion in the ‘rhetoric’ being an integral part of the characterization. It proved to be a very economical way to communicate an elusive yet very common experience and is in many ways the ideal setting for a love song … it’s something that I and many others have tried to build on.”
John Jughead Pierson said that when he was starting the seminal Chicago punk band Screeching Weasel with Ben Weasel, Buzzcocks music seemed beyond his capabilities, but the ideas put forth in their lyrics influenced the direction of his music.
“Buzzcocks influenced me, more in my belief that you could, and should, say whatever you feel in a song,” Pierson said. “So many more topics opened from listening to them, introspective, socio-political, humorous, and heartbreaking.”
“I went out and bought Singles Going Steady,” he said. “And the first song (Orgasm Addict), what audacity, what brilliance, I could seriously relate to that first song. My name is Johnny, and I was, and technically still am, an orgasm addict. But I never thought to put that in a song – on a record. After hearing that … there seemed no turning back. Punk was now, and forever, a part of my life.”
Pierson was also involved in theatre in Chicago, but it was separate from his punk life until he was out with theatre friends at a club called NEO.
“One night while there I heard a song that sounded like the voice of the Buzzcocks, but the structure of the song just seemed different,” he said.
It was Pete Shelley’s Homosapien.
“It seemed no matter who you were, you would jump on that dance floor during Homosapien,” Pierson said. “It just cemented the idea that music could be aggressive, challenging norms, and yet still bring people together.”
“I was completely floored when Pete Shelley released ‘Homosapien’,” Brian Donnelly of Eugene, Oregon’s Indiscretions said. “In my mind, this was an anthem of support and celebration of gender fluidity and acceptance of non-conforming identities … Years later, I came back to that song with greater appreciation of its brave, bold message … I feel like Pete Shelley’s music had more of an influence on my thinking than my songwriting.”
In the mid 90s Morte Treehorn, founding member of Ohio’s Kill The Hippies, met a couple of girls who liked to spray paint the Kent State Campus.
“I found myself back at their apartment one day,” he said. “Some music was blasting from one of their rooms and it struck me dead centre in the brain … it was Buzzcocks … I couldn’t get enough of it. I had Orgasm Addict on the brain when I started writing the first Kill The Hippies stuff.”
Joey Growden of Kitchener’s The Essential Letdown feels their writing style has also been heavily influenced by the Buzzcocks songwriting style.
“They weren’t shy to lean towards a more pop punky sort of sound and writing love songs as opposed to other punk bands at the time that focused more on political or social issues,” he said. “We thought if the Buzzcocks could play love songs and be cool about it, we aren’t afraid to follow in the same footsteps.”
For Bonnie Bloomgarden, singer of the Los Angeles doom rock band Death Valley Girls, the catchiness of Shelley’s songs influences her every day.
“I have Buzzcocks songs in my head at all times,” she said. “I sometimes laugh out loud walking down the street thinking about how cool a certain part of a song is.”
Death Valley Girls guitarist Larry Schemel credits his survival of high school to Shelley’s songs.
“All his love songs are so universal,” he said. “Everyone can relate to his words but when you’re young it feels like he wrote those songs just for you.”
Emma O, guitarist of Hamilton, Ontario’s hardcore punk band Pantychrist, was introduced to Buzzcocks by her big brother around eight years old.
“I was hooked from the first listen,” she said. “Singles Going Steady was an album I grew up with and never got tired of … I find their music to be very energizing. I can’t help but bop my head and sing along when I listen to them. They’re a band that makes me happy.”
She never got to meet Shelley in person but Buzzcocks used to host an MSN chat with their fans and he would regularly interact with fans.
“He always seemed really friendly and down-to-earth,” Emma said. “I’m glad I at least had a chance to chat with him, even if it wasn’t in person. It was an honour to connect with a person who had such a huge impact on my life and music.”
Through the highs and lows of his life Ian Tomele, singer of Chicago’s Voice of Addiction, said Buzzcocks have been there for him.
“For over 25 years Buzzcocks have been part of the soundtrack of my life,” he said. “No one can make you feel the heart break and teenage angst quite like Pete Shelley. While he is gone at no time soon will he be forgotten, and his songs will live out through each and everyone one of us he has touched.”