Pop punk legend Pete Shelley on Buzzcocks, Malcolm McLaren and falling in love with the Velvet Underground
Best known for their 1978 pop punk classic 'Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)' frontman Pete Shelley maintains that Buzzcocks were always more than just another chart band.
'I think there's a lingering misconception that we were just a singles outfit, but if you listen to the albums, they contain lots of things beyond three minute love songs. As well as people like The Beatles, Bolan and Bowie, I always enjoyed more challenging stuff like Can or Yoko Ono,' he says.
Belfast audiences will be able to make up their own minds when the band play this month's Belfast Festival. The show will see the band scorch their way through their first two classic albums, Another Music in a Different Kitchen and Love Bites, after which they'll play old favourites.
Since reforming in 1989, Buzzcocks have played a seemingly endless series of international shows without coming over like a punk cabaret act - largely thanks to timeless tunes and the obvious pleasure they take in performing.
'Yeah, the lucky thing with us is we have all these songs that we never tire of playing. They're just like old friends for me, so when certain ones come along I'm thinking: "Oh, I really enjoy doing that one,"' Shelley remarks.
Luck figures in the formation of all great bands, but Shelley's meeting with Buzzcocks' eventual guitar player, Steve Diggle, sounds like the stuff of French farce.
It all started in February 1976, when Pete Shelley and Buzzcock's co-founder Howard Devoto read a review of a Sex Pistols gig. While the pair were excited to learn that the Pistols liked Iggy Pop's band, The Stooges, it was the Sex Pistols' quote, 'We're not into music - we're into chaos', that really got them going.
The following weekend, having borrowed a car and driven to London to see the band, they told Sex Pistols' manager, Malcolm McLaren, they would try and get a show for them in Manchester. Soon they had arranged for the Pistols to play the town's Lesser Free Trade Hall - a gig the fledgling Buzzcocks couldn't play due to their lack of a bassist and drummer.
The date of the historic show was June 4, 1976. 'I was in the box office selling tickets for Malcolm, and he went outside to find an audience for the show. Apparently Steve Diggle, who we'd never met, had answered a newspaper advert placed by a guitarist who needed a bass player. By sheer chance, they'd agreed to meet outside the hall that night,' says Shelley, laughing at the randomness of it all.
'So when Malcolm, who knew that me and Howard had placed our own advert for musicians, got talking to Steve, it became clear that he'd answered an advert. Well, Malcolm just assumed that this was our new Buzzcock. He brought him into the hall and introduced him to me as my new bass player. That's how I ended up with the wrong musician!
'Then, while we were trying to work out what was happening, Malcolm comes back in with the guy Steve should have originally met and announces: "Here's your new guitarist." Once the penny had dropped, I said to Steve: "You might as well hang around and watch the Sex Pistols - we want to start a band like this." So he stayed and then came to rehearse with us the very next day. It was one of those ridiculous quirks of fate.'
The gig has been called one of the most influential shows in rock history: among the audience members who had their destinies hijacked by Rotten and co were Manchester pop impresario Tony Wilson and future members of Joy Division and The Smiths.
Buzzcocks appeared to incendiary effect when the Sex Pistols returned to the Free Trade Hall six weeks later, thereby lighting the blue touch paper for punk in the North of England. They also borrowed £500 from Shelley's father and some friends and formed Britain's first independent record company, New Hormones, to release their era-defining Spiral Scratch EP. However, bored by what he saw as punk's limited musical vocabulary, Devoto left the band before the record's release and formed the highly influential Magazine.
But Buzzcocks also influenced popular culture in subtler ways. Just as the band's thrashing Beatles sound developed into something more adventurous, their randy nihilism soon gave way to Shelley's lovelorn self-revelation, tempered by Steve Diggle's bolshy political songs.
Rumour has it that Shelley was engaged to a fellow college student and, when the relationship ended, his distress found an outlet in the joltingly honest songs that made him famous. Meanwhile, young punks who may have baulked at Shelley's bisexuality or lines like 'I'm in distress, I need a caress', found themselves seduced by the gorgeous tunes that lay beneath the chainsaw guitars. Did he worry that his romantic vulnerability would alienate his audience?
'Well,' he reflects, 'I never knew there was a law against sounding vulnerable, and I was just expressing what came naturally. As for the love songs, personal politics are part of the human condition and what could be more political than human relationships? Many of those songs are more about not having love, anyway, the downside of things.
'I heard that Joe Strummer once told Paul Weller that he should write songs about life as it's lived, rather than singing about driving around the freeway in convertibles. I mean, in England we didn't have convertibles, or even freeways, so we had to do something else. We were sick of those boring old farts from America and, if our songs sounded bleak, well that's just normal if you live in Manchester. It's grim up North,' he jokes in his best Jack Duckworth voice.
Like an episode of Corrie scripted by Alan Bennett, Buzzcocks combined homeliness with a talent for expressing life's sterner home truths. Songs like 'Fast Cars' ('They may win you admirers, but they'll never earn you friends') essayed a northern disdain for flashiness while boasting tunes that held their own with the edgiest New York outfits.
As the band matured, Shelley's seering torch songs began to share stage space with more philosophical numbers. Again, the frontman is keen to stress that there was more to his band than perfectly-crafted pop songs.
'Both me and Howard Devoto did humanities at Bolton Institute of Technology [from where they received honourary doctorates last July]. I was doing philosophy and comparative European literature when Buzzcocks started,' he says sniggering at the very idea.
'As Steve Diggle says, we were punks with library cards. We found this whole other world of ideas, but we tried to temper all that meaningful stuff with a bit of humour. Really, punk was about questioning things: it wasn't just about short hair, loud guitars and shouting - although all of that was fun too.'
Talking to Shelley there's a sense that before he met bandmate Howard Devoto - a man once described as 'the Orson Welles of punk' - he felt marginalised in Manchester's decaying vistas. On Saturdays when everyone else went to the football, he would visit music shops and ogle unaffordable guitars, or rifle through racks of records. Did Shelley have the sense of meeting a kindred spirit when he bumped into Howard Devoto?
'Well, yes, it was fun meeting him because he wasn't some macho rugby player, and we had shared interests. Before that, I felt like a bit of an alien, to be honest. I first spoke to Devoto when I happened to be visiting friends in some local flats. As I walked through the corridor, I heard this strange music playing behind someone's door, so I just knocked to ask what it was. We chatted for a while and got on really well.
'Soon after that, he left an advert on our college noticeboard asking if anyone wanted to work out a version the Velvet Underground's 'Sister Ray'. I liked the song, so I immediately thought "Yeah!". Most people thought the music we were into was just noise, but we thought it was the future. Even now, I think the Velvet Underground are more influential than they're given credit for.'
When I mention that the same is often said of his band, Shelley squirms with embarrassment.
'Well, I'm probably as bemused as Lou Reed is in that case,' he splutters. 'It's something I try not to dwell on, because it would become a burden. Also, there'd be lots of other things I'd be blamed for too.
'Actually, one of the early Detroit house music guys, Kevin Saunderson, said he was influenced by my solo work. So, apparently, I'm responsible for the house music movement as well!'
Shelley's refusal to take his contribution to pop too seriously, even while he asserts Buzzcocks' status as a serious albums band, seems contradictory. But then, we are talking about a former philosophy student whose career was launched by two chance meetings and a broken heart. And that's enough to make anyone question the whims of fate.
Buzzcoks perform at the Queen's University Students Union, Belfast, on October 24. Click here for full details and booking.