It does him proud. Death, like nostalgia, can be a full stop, fixing what was once vital firmly in the past, but this celebration of the sometime lead singer of Buzzcocks, co-curated by long-time graphic accomplice Malcolm Garrett, has the wit to pulse with life, to anticipate the future Shelley might have lived.
These days, the death of a pop star – and there were Smash Hits years when that was precisely what Shelley was, bemused and insouciant on Top Of The Pops – is marked by a chorus of obituary Tweets, quick to canonise, but often overlooking the human at their core. Shelley’s death, barely a year ago, seemed different; his quicksilver turn of mind and deceptive way with commonplace phrases were aptly eulogised, but so, too, was the generous soul born Peter Campbell McNeish. Even noted bass curmudgeon Peter Hook was moved to acknowledge that Shelley was a “true gent”.
Garrett’s decision to stage the exhibition in Shelley’s native Leigh is exactly in keeping with Shelley’s everyday genius, his unstarry stardom. The town’s Turnpike Gallery, at the margins of the metropolitan, is a sympathetic space for a singer who, at his best, left the mainstream in his slipstream. Like punk itself, the exhibits – captioned with just enough context – bristle with the friction between accident and design.
Sometime after Buzzcocks brought the Sex Pistols to the Lesser Free Trade Hall, catalysing the non-doctrinaire Northern front of punk, sometime after they self-released the Spiral Scratch E.P., marking out the route to the independent label, and sometime after founder member Howard Devoto decided to leave music behind, Shelley the singer met Malcolm the graphic designer at a party. It was at the same party that Malcolm the graphic designer introduced Howard the ex-singer to John McGeogh the guitarist, and so back to music again, out from under the floorboards of Magazine, but that’s another story.
The association between Garrett and Shelley frames (but never contains) the latter’s life. Entering the gallery, one of the first works the eye is drawn to is Malcolm’s last design for Shelley, the cover for a book of collected lyrics that were never intended to be Shelley’s final words, but became them, nonetheless. The design beats with a familiar heart, the same one which throbs from the sleeve of his anthem to what Shelley termed the ‘ambisexual’, Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve).
Between the heartbeats, within the walls, there’s never a dull moment. It’s multimedia in the best sense of the word, leaving the viewer – for the most part – to make their own connections, feeling the firing of Shelley’s synapses, joining the dots between duotone Constructivist music paper adverts and photocopied fanzines by the first Shy radicals (the wonderful Shy Talk), pointing the way to something more interesting than now.
In hindsight, it’s more interesting than then, too. Informed though the artefacts might be by the usual suspects of 20th century-isms, whether it be drawing board overlays of Suprematist shapes or mass-manufactured carrier bags proclaiming, in Situationist fashion, that they are ‘Product’, there is a playfulness about them that defies such categorisation. There’s no better explanation for launching your debut album with a balloon race (offering prizes of a poster, sticker and badge) than joie de vivre.
And what better metaphor than a balloon for a refusal to be pinned down? Almost from the first, Shelley was wriggling out of the past’s straitjacket, singing instead of “nostalgia for an age yet to come”. Understated manages to capture just that feeling.
“Keep the new wave new.” Pete Shelley, April 17, 1955 – December 6, 2018
Understated: Celebrating the Creativity of Pete Shelley is on at The Turnpike in Leigh until December 14, 2019.