Pete Shelley: punk rocker who perfected the bittersweet, witty tale of unrequited love

Pete Shelley and his band Buzzcocks supported the Sex Pistols and Nirvana, were revered by REM and New Order and saw his most successful song, “Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)”, re-recorded by the very rock establishment punk was supposed to sweep away.

Shelley, who died of a heart attack at the age of 63, built a career and a body of work, both with Buzzcocks and as a solo performer, which belied his background as the son of a father who was a fitter at a colliery in Leigh, Lancashire and a mother who had worked in a mill.

Buzzcocks became renowned for a bittersweet, pop-oriented take on punk rock. Shelley’s lyrics, set against a breakneck guitar attack, centred on unrequited romance and were marked by sensitivity and humour. A penchant for melody also set him apart.

He was born Peter McNeish and was known by that name in 1975 when he responded to a notice at Bolton Institute of Technology. Fellow student Howard Trafford sought musicians who liked “Sister Ray” by Velvet Underground. By the summer of 1976 they had changed their surnames to Shelley and Devoto, and Buzzcocks, completed by Steve Diggle and John Maher, were opening for the Pistols in Manchester.

The following year, Buzzcocks put out the UK’s first independently released punk record, the Spiral Scratch EP, on their New Hormones label. Devoto promptly left, eventually resurfacing with Magazine, and Shelley, sharing guitar duties with Diggle, became lead vocalist.

Shelley (second left), and fellow Buzzcocks Danny Farrant, Steve Garvey and Steve Diggle pose with The Mojo Inspiration Award in June 2006 (Getty)

After signing to United Artists, Buzzcocks reeled off seven Top 50 singles between 1977 and 1979. Shelley penned six, including “Ever Fallen In Love”, which was their biggest hit (No 12). His singing style hinted at sexual ambiguity, as did lines such as “I just want a lover like any other” in “What Do I Get?” Many years later, Shelley said: “I honestly think Morrissey stole my idea of the non-gender specific lyric.”

Buzzcocks split in 1981, after which Shelley cut an album under his own name and was banned by the BBC for a second time. In 1977 it was Buzzcocks’ brazen debut single “Orgasm Addict”. Now, marking a switch from guitar-driven angst to danceable, Kraftwerk-inspired synths and drum machines, it was “Homosapien”. Shelley, having come out as bisexual, sang “Homosuperior in my interior” which the corporation saw as “an explicit reference to gay sex”. In 2014 Diggle talked of “a little phase Pete was dabbling in”, adding: “He’s been married twice with kids.”

When the Fine Young Cannibals’ cover of “Ever Fallen in Love” – whose full title Shelley took from a line in the musical Guys and Dolls – became a best-seller in 1987, Shelley used the royalties to finance the re-formation of Buzzcocks. They gigged extensively, supporting Nirvana on their final US tour at mega-fan Kurt Cobain’s invitation, and added six studio albums to the three recorded in the 1970s.

Shelley also pursued solo projects, the most recent being 2014’s Cinema Music & Wallpaper Sounds, and in 2002 reunited with Devoto to make the album Buzzkunst. In 2005 he collaborated with Roger Daltrey, Elton John, Robert Plant and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour on a revamped “Ever Fallen In Love” as a tribute to John Peel, who had championed Buzzcocks.  

In a media interview in his mid-forties Shelley appraised his craft and the rewards. “The worth of a song is measured by the effect it has on people. I’m not a millionaire, but then again, I’m not starvingly poor. The love of the music around the world is worth more than money.”

He died in Tallinn, where he enjoyed “tranquillity” between Buzzcocks tours with his wife Greta, an Estonia-born Canadian artist.

Peter Campbell McNeish, aka Pete Shelley, singer, songwriter, guitarist, born 17 April 1955, died 6 December 2018                   

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