It's not often that a musician who never charted* in America reaches the upper echelon of Twitter's United States trends, but that happened yesterday after it was reported that Buzzcocks' frontman Pete Shelley had died of a suspected heart attack at his home in Estonia at age 63. That overwhelming outpouring of social media love—reflected just as intensely and expansively on my and possibly your Facebook feed—indicates how profoundly Shelley's music and lyrics affected fans of Buzzcocks, his vastly influential and excellent pop-punk group, and his sporadically brilliant solo career.
Shelley, of course, was the primary songwriter for Buzzcocks, a Manchester-based group who flourished during England's original wave of punk. His frenetic yet vulnerable songs possess some of the keenest indelible hooks and most heart-punching lyrics about romance from an oft-thwarted, young queer person's experience—although Shelley's words resonated vividly no matter what your sexual orientation. Whether waxing concise ("Love You More," "I Don't Mind") or verbose ("I Believe," "Why Can't I Touch It?" "Moving Away from the Pulsebeat"), Shelley made you feel deeply, and his sentiments unerringly comforted you. (Here let's take a moment to utter a consoling "There, there" to Steve Diggle, Buzzcocks' other songwriter, whose work can't help seeming earthbound by comparison—though "Mad Mad Judy" and "Why She's the Girl from the Chainstore" are aces.)
Buzzcocks set the bar so incredibly high for pop-oriented punk that nobody's ever surpassed them, though thousands have tried—oh, how they've tried. Better than almost any other composer of his or any era, Shelley mastered the paradoxical art of wrapping poignant observations about heartbreak, sexual frustration, existential matters, and the awfulness of fast cars with some of the most ebullient and memorable melodies ever conceived. If you need a quick primer on Shelley's art, listen to Singles Going Steady, regarded by many intelligent listeners as the best best-of in rock history—and, incidentally, the inspiration for a Seattle record store by that name. Singles Going Steady's pleasures are abundant and inexhaustible, and its lead-off track, "Orgasm Addict," is a peak example of the witty masturbation tune—a niche so hard in which to excel that few have attempted it. (Respect also to the song's co-writer, Howard Devoto.)
Besides his formidable work in Buzzcocks, Shelley maintained a solo career that skewed toward electronic pop, as exemplified by his deathless 1981 cult hit, "Homosapien," which has become a gay-culture anthem while appealing to folks of all persuasions; there's that special Shelley gift again. He also dropped a far-out experimental opus, Sky Yen, that sounds like a modulated Emergency Broadcast System siren or something from Nik "Pascal" Raicevic's catalog. Call it Shelley's Metal Machine Music; I'll take two copies, please. And this bit of trivia is not insignificant: Shelley wrote liner notes for Cannabilism, the 1978 compilation for krautrock kings CAN.
While his death may not have the global impact of those of Prince, Aretha Franklin, or David Bowie, Pete Shelley's passing triggered a rare gushing of mourning and tributes for a relatively obscure figure. His music will be uplifting misfits and their allies for a very long time.
Buzzcocks = one of THE greatest bands. Largely due to Pete Shelley's genius for saying just enough in his lyrics - not a word more - to let us know what he meant, sexually. (And that, in the often-macho world of Punk, took balls.) His music had that same exquisite terseness. RIP
— Simon Price (@simon_price01) December 6, 2018
*"Homosapien" reached #14 on the Billboard Club Play Singles chart, but that's it.