It’s the coy half-smile. The knitted jumper. The diminutive stance, the thatch of brown hair with just the whisper of a mullet, the huge, plaintive eyebrows. What else? The voice, full of humour and heartache. The lyrics, most of all: fiercely funny and searingly sad, defining what it means to be bored, young and broke, whether you find yourself listening in 1977 or 2007.
There are lots of different reasons why Pete Shelley’s death has been felt so keenly among music fans. When the news broke, there was an immediate outpouring of grief and tributes online. The common theme was that Pete Shelley and Buzzcocks had impacted all of our teenage lives, no matter when we were living them.
This rang true for me, and I doubt I’ll love many things more in my life than I loved Buzzcocks as a teenager. When I first heard them, they were less of a band and more of a signpost. They came into my life at a crucial point. At 15, it seemed like everyone else was living life at a faster pace than I was. I hadn’t yet realised how universal that feeling was among teenagers, so when I first heard What Do I Get? it wasn’t a question, but a mantra, a means of explaining the humdrum of supermarket car parks, microwave meals and walks to school in the rain.
If he was a punk, then maybe I’m a punk, I thought. Maybe it didn’t matter if you did things like swearing at bus drivers and giving the finger to old people in the Grainger Market. It didn’t seem like Pete Shelley would do that sort of thing, either. I rammed a metal hoop through my nose like a lifebelt.
Of course, I wasn’t a punk. It just hurt. A lot.
But I saw in Buzzcocks what I would never have seen in The Sex Pistols with their blood, spit and chains, or The Clash with their grand, world-changing aspirations: a simultaneous rejection and celebration of the mundane, a sheer joy in the power of words, a deep understanding of love, of lust, of loneliness. You can keep your Anarchy in the UK, I’m a Fiction Romantic until the end.
The songs Buzzcocks wrote were witty, intelligent, poignant three-minute pop songs, a wall of guitars that bands still emulate today, an intuitive understanding of how to write instantly catchy, soaring choruses, an infinitely danceable despair. Listening to Another Music In A Different Kitchen now is nothing short of joyous: it’s a searing run of perfectly crafted pop. It’s staggering to think that they didn’t enjoy even more fame and success when song after song relentlessly wallops you right in the middle of your tank top (76 per cent acryclic) in a way that I’ve rarely come across elsewhere.
And despite their non-threatening dress and pop sensibilities, I’d argue that Shelley and Devoto’s take on what it meant to be a punk band was even more subversive for its subtlety. The repeated two note guitar solo of Boredom has to be one of the cleverest moments in pop. And surely Orgasm Addict – the pair’s hymn to obsessive compulsory masturbation – is one of the most shocking, unexpected and hilarious two minutes ever committed to vinyl. And that’s before we get to that iconic Linder artwork. You can walk down any aisle in any ASDA in the country and hear Rihanna singing about her prospective lover’s suspected erectile dysfunction, but I doubt you’ll ever hear Orgasm Addict in your local Harvester.
He may be gone, but Pete Shelley will be an eternal friend to disgruntled youth. The songs will ring true to generation after generation of 15 and 16-year-olds. A true poet of back lanes, bus stops, box bedrooms and boredom.
As Tony Wilson once said of Buzzcocks: to acknowledge the past is the best way of meeting the future, which is theirs. Ba-dum, ba-dum.