I thought Pete Shelley was going to die the night Buzzcocks played the Double Door in May 2010. The temperature hadn’t dropped much from its afternoon high of 90 degrees, and the club felt like a steam bath. Shelley’s hair had thinned and he’d put on a ton of weight since I’d last seen the British punk legends seven years earlier. He seemed to be suffering badly under the lights, and as he sweated through the band’s early punk-pop classics—”I Don’t Mind,” “Love You More,” “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)”—I wondered how many times he’d sung them since they first hit stores in 1978, and where his mind went while his body was tearing through them at breakneck speed.
Shelley—who really did die last week, felled by a heart attack at age 63—is being celebrated for those sublimely catchy singles of romantic angst and confusion, and for his open, matter-of-fact bisexuality, which bloomed in his solo dance-club hit “Homosapien.” But while his songwriting traded heavily in romantic lament, always delivered in the gender-neutral second person, from there he might lurch into pure raunch or high-minded philosophy. No track summed up this dichotomy between the carnal and the metaphysical better than “Why Can’t I Touch It?,” a Buzzcocks B side from 1979. Its mischievous title suggests the complaint of a horny teen, but atop its loping bass riff and crisp rhythm guitars, Shelley longs for transcendence: “Well it seems so real I can see it / And it seems so real I can feel it / And it seems so real I can taste it / And it seems so real I can hear it / So why can’t I touch it?” The word why stretches out over nearly two measures.
“Orgasm Addict,” the band’s first single after their 1977 signing to United Artists Records in the UK, is still too hilariously lewd to get played on commercial radio, boiling over with teenage lust. The title character masturbates compulsively, then graduates to back-alley one-offs with butcher’s assistants and bellhops. “You’re making out with schoolkids, winos, and heads of state,” Shelley sings. “You even made it with the lady who puts the little plastic bobbins on the Christmas cakes.” In the middle of the song, where you’d expect a guitar solo, Shelley’s wordless vocal builds to a shrieking climax.
The body’s demands percolate through Another Music in a Different Kitchen, the band’s 1978 debut LP, with such feverish rockers as “I Need” and “You Tear Me Up.” Shelley was still in his early 20s when he wrote these songs, but as late as 1993, on the excellent Trade Test Transmissions, he was still working that vein: on the witty “Palm of Your Hand,” he begs a lover for “Executive attention, yes, the kind that relieves / You’ve got the instruments of pleasure at the end of your sleeves.”
For all the lust in Shelley’s songs, he was also preoccupied with the great questions of existence, which began to invade his lyrics as Buzzcocks branched out from two-and-a-half-minute blasts of melody into a more psychedelic sound. On Love Bites, the band’s second LP, Shelley revels in paradox, pondering the nature of consciousness (“Only in the real world do things happen like they do in my dreams”) and of time (“Although this may sound strange / My future and my past are presently disarranged / And I’m surfing on a wave of nostalgia for an age yet to come”). Musically he began to favor chiming guitar riffs, repeating endlessly over John Maher’s edgy drums—their grooves reached for hypnosis on such cosmically inclined songs such as “E.S.P.” and “Are Everything.”
“I was doing philosophy and comparative European literature when Buzzcocks started,” Shelley told the Quietus in 2014. “As [Buzzcocks guitarist] Steve Diggle says, we were punks with library cards. We found this whole other world of ideas, but tried to temper all that meaningful stuff with humour.” This intellectualism became more overt on the band’s third LP, 1979’s A Different Kind of Tension, whose title song is an epic litany of conflicting commands: “Be good! Be evil! / Be wise! Be foolish! / Be safe! Be dangerous! / Be satisfied! Be envious!” By the end of the song, the commands come at you simultaneously, on the left and right stereo channels.
“A Different Kind of Tension” is followed by the seven-minute “I Believe,” which is even more grandiose—it became the band’s show closer for years to come. Fans would go home chanting the climactic chorus (“There is—no—love—in—this—world—an—y—more!”), yet the buildup to that release is an encyclopedia of competing belief systems: communism, fascism, futurism, absolutism, Christianity.
Bored with the Buzzcocks formula, Shelley broke up the band in the early 80s for a solo career, helping to lay the foundations for electro-pop with his Homosapien LP. But on the chugging, otherworldly “Qu’est-ce Que C’est Que Ca?” the questions still tumble out of him: “Is there anybody out there? / I’ve been thinking / Do we really have a soul? / Is there a heaven?”
Buzzcocks reunited in 1989, and Shelley and Diggle fronted a shifting lineup for another three decades. As late as 2006, on the title song of their album Flat-Pack Philosophy, Shelley was still looking for answers: “Why am I here, what are we living for? / All of my hopes, dreams and desires / Assembly required.” Now that Pete Shelley’s mind and his body have parted company, I hope he finds what he was after for all those years and, at long last, gets to touch it.