Dec 122018

In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.

pete shelley covers

The world of rock lost a uniquely talented songwriter on December 6th, when Pete Shelley died of a heart attack, aged 63. He was best known as the lead singer, guitarist and principal songwriter of Buzzcocks, a late-’70s Manchester band that brought the fierceness of punk to catchy guitar pop, or possibly the other way around.

Buzzcocks never made a huge dent in the charts, only cracking the UK top 20 once, but they were nonetheless hugely influential. Their sound—which owed as much to ‘60s power pop and Krautrock as it did their punk contemporaries—and the DIY approach they helped pioneer would become a template for the guitar-driven indie-pop of the ‘90s. Nor was the band itself resigned to become mere history; disbanding after three much-loved albums and 1979’s near-perfect compilation Singles Going Steady, Buzzcocks reformed in 1989 and never really stopped going until Shelley’s death. Throughout, they showed a sense of humor that would become one of the band’s vital organs, an innate lightness and candor that set them apart from their rageful and self-regarding peers and endeared them to a devoted following the world over.

Whereas punk’s nihilist ethos demanded that performers cloak their vulnerability in stylish rage (if they acknowledged it at all), Shelley’s best work was emotionally direct, self-effacing, and playful. If romance was his focus, it was a very workaday, street-level version of love. No sweeping strings, breathless confessions, or undying devotion here; Pete Shelley’s songs chronicled the lust, angst and diffidence of modern love with insight and a winning charm. In writing about the complexities and near-misses of love, he made it sound less like the province of a dramatic few, and more like a basic human right.

With Shelley’s songwriting eloquence, there wasn’t much call for him and his bandmates to play anyone else’s music. Still, the few samples that exist show that Shelley knew his way around a good cover, too.

Buzzcocks – I Can’t Control Myself (The Troggs cover)

The Troggs’ “I Can’t Control Myself” was, much like “Wild Thing” before it, a frank and unabashed come-on, as musically and thematically primitive as one might expect of a group named for a pack of cavemen. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Pete Shelley’s singular focus, the song found a welcome home with the nascent Buzzcocks. Before the release of their debut EP, Spiral Scratch—a self-pressed release that would go on to sell some 16,000 copies, itself a watershed moment in UK punk and indie—the band recorded a rough and hyped-up version with original singer Howard Devoto, puncturing its swaggering machismo with ironic humor. A few years later, Devoto reunited with the Buzzcocks in concert for an encore. Their “I Can’t Control Myself” falls apart at the end, but it’s great to watch both artists at their peak.

Buzzcocks – Here Come the Nice (The Small Faces cover)

Long Ago and Worlds Apart was a Small Faces tribute released in 1996, at the height of that very specific covers craze. While one reviewer complained that most artists on the album had only encountered the band thanks to the Jam’s Paul Weller, he made an exception for Buzzcocks. As Steve Diggle’s highly readable Harmony in My Head makes plain, his love of the Small Faces and Mod culture predated his own musical career by years. Though by the late ’90s they were well into their second act, Buzzcocks performed “Here Come the Nice” with more verve than many bands whose members hadn’t yet been born when the original single came out.

Pete Shelley – Think For Yourself (The Beatles cover)

In 2012, MOJO magazine released Yellow Submarine Resurfaces, an all-cover version of the Beatles’ movie soundtrack. It’s a high-quality pun, referencing either a return from the Sea of Green or the gift of new life for the beloved original recordings. Shelley lets rip on “Think For Yourself,” a song that barely makes an appearance in the film (six seconds of a cappella rehearsal). It’s a fascinating periscope view, so to speak, into Pete Shelley’s own songwriting, the surprise of George Harrison’s idiosyncratic chord choices sounding like second nature in Shelley’s capable hands.

Pete Shelley – Better Off Without a Wife (Tom Waits cover)

The narrator of Pete Shelley’s songs was notably genderless, singing instead from a generous first-person perspective that allowed for any number of interpretations. (By most accounts, Shelley was far less conflicted by his bisexuality than was the BBC, which banned his 1981 solo single “Homosapien.”) On the Tom Waits tribute Step Right Up, Shelley contributed his take on “Better Off Without a Wife,” an ode to the joys of the single life. It’s fun to hear a stumbling piano ballad transformed into a cheery lope of a power-pop song. If Tom Waits was a lone wolf “midnight howling at the moon,” Pete Shelley instead was a yawping, lovelorn—but never truly loveless—troubadour. The world is a quieter and less inspired place without him.

For more covers of and by Buzzcocks, check out our archives.

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