The joker behind punk

Pete Shelley of The Buzzcocks talks with almost 30 years after they first became famous and revolutionized the music industry

The Buzzcocks at a concert in Barcelona

The Buzzcocks at a concert in Barcelona

In 1975, Pete Shelley, then a philosophy student at university, came across an advert, posted by fellow student Howard Devoto, wanting to start a band. 35 years later, despite an eight year split and a shuffling of band members, The Buzzcocks are still going and are seen by many in the music world to be among the pioneers of the punk genre.

Shelley’s friendly “Hello!” throws me off guard – this cheery Mancunian voice fuelled a cutting-edge, anarchic trend of modern culture?

He is unfazed by my apprehension at his constant jokes and digressions into talking about things he’s seen on TV; he is clearly aware of the preconceptions of our generation. “The original punk was a good laugh and that’s what life’s about isn’t it? Going out and meeting people, and having fun, playing loud music.”

Of course to many of the younger generation today, ‘The Buzzcocks’ means half an hour of Simon Amstell and Bill Bailey humming and quizzing (of which Shelley is quite aware: “it doesn’t half make trying to find clips on YouTube frustrating!”).

You get the punk Taliban as well – the people that go about punk as no smiling; you’re not meant to enjoy yourself.

However, 30 years ago they were the focal point of the new wave music scene domineered by Tony Wilson, club-owner and record producer. The recent film 24 Hour Party People revived the memory of this eclectic movement, and reasserted the influence it had upon modern culture.

Shelley, again, addresses a topic of great hype with an unexpectedly jovial tone. “Tony Wilson was great, yeah. I went round to his house at Christmas; we used to have a great time.”

This casual, spontaneous attitude initially attributed to punk has developed and changed over the years, and Shelley has watched the genre convert from non-conformity to strict rebellion: “there are lots of people in punk that are very…” he deliberates carefully, “…strongly committed.

You get the punk Taliban as well – the people that go on about punk as no smiling; you’re not meant to enjoy yourself.”

Evidently this is a concept that Shelley finds amusing and is surprised when I ask if The Buzzcocks’ music is still punk, or whether it is now classed as a less hardcore genre. “We show them how to do it properly,” he laughs. “Punk is an ideal, an attitude, it is instead of being a passive consumer. You become an active participant in culture and you do something to make things change.”

They are currently touring, having been to Italy, England, and America. What are they looking to achieve now, 35 years on? “The same kind of thing, a reaction out of an audience. Thankfully it’s a lot better than we used to get. People have had the time to find out about us and learn some of the songs, it was really surprising playing in Italy because it was a very young audience but they were all singing along, so we must have done something right.”

Shelley is firm in his belief that this is the kind of reaction music should provoke: “It should be easy but music has drifted away. When we started, in order to be a musician you needed to be able to play a thousand notes a second or something stupid like that, and you had to be a ‘virtuoso’ to form a band – or at least that was the accepted thinking.”

“Punk was different to that because a lot of people enjoy music; music is the people, it’s not just the rock stars and the corporations.”

It is for this reason that Shelley cites The Beatles and T-Rex as his musical influences in starting a new wave: “They were, of course, a whirlwind in themselves, and it was good because the songs were accessible so I could learn how to play them on my guitar.”

On the subject of today’s popular music, he thinks hard before admitting: “Ever since they stopped doing ‘Top of the Pops’ I don’t know at all what’s going on!” However, this detachment from the charts is hardly a sign of Shelley’s detachment from advancements in the industry.

He talks at length about the need for record companies to keep up with rapidly advancing technology: “I suppose it would be nice to record an album, but record companies don’t know what they’re doing yet.”

“In 1999 we released an album with EMI and we went in asking who was in charge of the Internet and they were head in the sand, ‘if we ignore them they’ll go away’, which is outrageous.”

This aggravation at the business is unsurprising in a band that has often been seen as politically reactionary. Shelley mulls over this label: “Well, it depends. We won’t be standing for the next election; its not that kind of political. Anything you do or say about what’s going on is political.”

“Steve [Diggle, guitarist] has a bee in his bonnet against big corporations and globalizations, and my songs have talked about ‘big’ questions, like what is life? When I write things that are political it’s because the most important political things now are the things that individuals do to each other in society. So I am political but I’m not a patron or electionee or anything like that.”

He chuckles, making clear that punk, as a force and an influence upon modern culture was relaxed, and spontaneous driven by a bunch of musicians “doing it because it’s doable”.

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