Song of the Day: Buzzcocks “Why Can’t I Touch It?” (Pete Shelley, 1955-2018)
The Buzzcocks were one of the truly great first wave English punk bands. The Bolton-based group was absolutely seminal in its mixture of aggression with a certain pop sensibility that shone through. Part of their quirky charm rested with their highly distinctive singer, Pete Shelley. As such, it is with the greatest of sadness that we must remark upon the sudden death of Shelley yesterday from a suspected heart attack.
The Buzzcocks were founded in 1976 by singer-songwriter-guitarist Pete Shelley and singer-songwriter Howard Devoto. While British punk is most commonly associated with London, the North of England had a strong claim to helping to craft the new genre as well. Emerging from the crumbling council estates of Bolton (in upper Manchester) the Buzzcocks were one of the first bands to take up the mantle of punk for the ostensibly working class North of England. While many of the early punk bands were self-serious or, in the case of the Sex Pistols, built entirely upon a need to provoke, the Buzzcocks always mixed in a certain tunefulness and pop craftsmanship that was lacking from the work of many of their peers.
This was already apparent on their debut release, the fabled self-released Spiral Scratch EP in 1976. The EP, which managed to squeeze in 4 masterful pop-forward punk songs across a mere 10 minutes and 13 seconds proved to be an enormously important artifact within the burgeoning punk scene and became a rallying point for future bands. The EP was produced by brilliant madman producer Martin Hannett, who would subsequently go on to produce Joy Division and become something of the house producer for Factory Records a couple of years later. The music itself, though roughly recorded proved to be oddly tuneful and infused with a seemingly relentless energy. By releasing the EP themselves, the group also showed that they could figure out regional distribution, recording and pressing on a shoe-string budget. More than any other punk band, the Buzzcocks showed people that, as long as you had the songs, anyone could release a record.
After some line-up juggling, the band was signed to a major label, United Artists Records, on a date of massive significance to the world of popular music: 16 August 1977, the day Elvis Presley died. Leveraging their label, The Buzzcocks rapidly proved themselves to be anything but flavors of the month, launching an all out attack on the pop charts. Their first single, with UA, the brazen “Orgasm Addict”, proved to be a little too much for British radio of the era as the BBC refused to play the song. Learning from this miscalculation, the group would record more ambiguous songs that examined singer/songwriter Pete Shelley‘s bisexuality and punk’s general aversion to serious examination of human sexuality. Subsequent singles, including “What Do I Get?” and “Ever Fallen In Love” proved more successful, even propelling the band into the UK Top 50 charts and getting the band on to the TV program, Top of the Pops.
While The Buzzcocks‘ broke-up and reunified several times over the years, following their initial split in 1981 (which would last until 1988), Pete Shelley also forged a solo career for himself. Digging back both into New Wave, his pre-Buzzcocks interest in early electronic sounds (including a self-released 1974 LP of oscillator-driven electronics), Shelley married the tunefulness of his best Buzzcocks songs to his love of electronics. His 1981 single, “Homosapien” proved to be an enormously important record for electronic music. The song was produced by Martin Rushent (who had also previously worked with Shelley during his Buzzcocks days) and together the pair developed the synthesizer and drum machine programming that Rushent would replicate on his next project: The Human League‘s Dare LP.
My personal favorite Shelley-penned song remains the Buzzcocks classic, “Why Can’t I Touch It?” Built around a pile driver of bassline with the drums locked tightly into the groove and punctuated by the odd fuzzy guitar stab, the song is a platform for some of Shelley‘s most confessional lyrics. I have included it below.
Shelley both released another solo LP, reformed the Buzzcocks in 1988 and both recorded and toured sporadically over the years. He had apparently been living in Estonia (where he had resided since 2012) with his Estonian-Canadian wife, Greta. He had largely tired of the public-eye and fast pace of London and had sought out a quiet life for himself.
RIP Pete Shelley. You were one of a kind.