Obituary: Pete Shelley, influential songwriter who brought melody to punk rock

Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks has died at the age of 63. Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire
Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks has died at the age of 63. Picture: Yui Mok/PA Wire
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Pete Shelley, singer, songwriter and guitarist. Born: 17 April, 1955 in Leigh, Lancashire. Died: 6 December, 2018, in Tallinn, Estonia, aged 63.

It was November 1977, the year punk rock groups spat their ­frenetic chords and lyrics all over a stunned music ­public and the Buzzcocks were just one of many new bands ­hitting the road. They were touring to promote their first ­single Orgasm Addict and they were staying in a little guest house near the Playhouse in ­Edinburgh.

They had a gig, not at the ­Playhouse, but at the much smaller Clouds venue in ­Tollcross. Filling in time, frontman Pete Shelley settled down in front of the television to watch a romantic ­Hollywood musical – Guys and Dolls – suggesting a more sensitive side than some of his punk rock contemporaries.

“One of the characters, Adelaide, is saying to ­Marlon Brando’s character, ‘Wait till you fall in love with someone you shouldn’t have,’” he recalled later in an interview for a Radio 2 documentary. “I thought, fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have? Hmm, that’s good.”

The following day Shelley began writing the song that would become the band’s most famous contribution to the era – Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve).

It had the pace and the energy of punk, but more melody and certainly more sensitivity and empathy than the songs being turned out by the Sex Pistols and The Damned.

Shelley was bisexual and the song was inspired by his love for a male flatmate, ­Francis Cookson, who was later in a post-punk band called The Tiller Boys with Shelley. Ever Fallen in Love echoed the Beatles song You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away, reputedly written by John Lennon for manager Brian Epstein.

It was of course the Buzzcocks’ biggest hit, though that was not difficult. They had only five Top 50 singles and Ever Fallen in Love peaked at No 12, but its success could not be measured merely in chart positions. It became one of the standards of the era.

A version by Fine Young ­Cannibals for Jonathan Demme’s 1986 film Something Wild made it into the Top Ten and the royalties financed a Buzzcocks reunion. Kurt Cobain was a fan and invited them to support Nirvana on their final tour, before his ­suicide in 1994.

Versions of Ever Fallen in Love also appeared in several other films, including one by Pete Yorn in Shrek 2 in 2004. Shelley rerecorded it himself as part of a supergroup tribute single in 2005, ­following the death of DJ John Peel who helped promote the ­Buzzcocks in the early days. The group included Roger Daltrey, Dave Gilmour, ­Robert Plant and Elton John, with proceeds going to Amnesty International.

Of solid working class stock, with Scottish ancestry, Shelley was originally Peter Campbell McNeish, born in 1955 in Leigh, Lancashire. His father was a fitter at a local colliery and his mother worked in a mill. He went to grammar school and enrolled on an electronics course at Bolton Institute of Technology (now Bolton University) before concluding that he was not cut out for life as a TV repair man. He revealed in one interview that he switched to Philosophy and European Literature.

Another student Howard Trafford advertised on the college notice board for musicians to join a new band and McNeish responded. Howard Trafford became Howard Devoto and it is interesting that, while John Lydon became Johnny Rotten when he fronted up the Sex Pistols and Simon Ritchie became Sid Vicious, McNeish adopted the surname of a tragic 19th century English Romantic poet.

After reading a review of an early Pistols gig in NME, ­Shelley and Devoto went to London see them and arranged for them to play in Manchester in June 1976. It had been intended that the Buzzcocks would support, but other group members walked out and it did not happen.

The Buzzcocks did support the Sex istols at a second Manchester gig a few weeks later and they also performed with the Damned, Clash and Siouxsie and the Banshees in London. They borrowed £500 from friends and family and recorded and released an EP called Spiral Scratch, with an initial pressing of 1,000 copies, which sold out within days.

John Peel played it on his show and although it was an EP (extended play), it made it into the singles chart, leading to a contract with United Artists, though Devoto went back to college, leaving Shelley as singer, lead guitarist and leader. Following the lead of the Buzzcocks, ­dozens of ­provincial punk rockers started bringing out their own records.

Their debut single, Orgasm Addict, was unsurprisingly banned by the BBC when it came out in 1977. The follow-up What Do I Get? made it to No 37 the following year. Ever Fallen in Love was their sixth single. The group disbanded in 1981 after a string of singles and three albums. Shelley pursued a solo career, though there would be several ­Buzzcocks reunions as well.

At times Shelley struggled with his sexuality and with relationships. He married twice, firstly to a Japanese fan who he met at one of his gigs. They divorced and she returned to Japan with their son. He married for a second time in 2011 to an Estonian artist and moved to Tallinn.

The influence of the Buzzcocks was underlined in 1996 when the BBC launched a new pop music panel show called Never Mind the Buzzcocks, the title of which was also a play on the Pistols’ album Never Mind the Bollocks. It was to run for 20 years.

Shelley appeared on the show in 2000 and presenter Mark Lamarr told him that without his group “There would be no Smiths or Radiohead and this show would be called Never Mind Joan Armatrading.”

BRIAN PENDREIGH