Pete Shelley – 17 April 1955 – 6 December 2018

In this article we fondly remember Pete Shelley, founder member of ‘punk’ band Buzzcocks, who died on 6th December 2018 at the age of 63.  Shelley’s legacy includes a memorable list of classic pop songs, as well as his part in evolving the ‘punk’ music around his home-land of Manchester.  As a 20-year-old he travelled with two friends to see a Sex Pistols gig at High Wycombe College.  What they saw that evening provided the catalyst for what would become two iconic gigs at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in June and July 1976 and pave the way for the likes of Factory Records, Joy Division, The Fall, The Smiths and of course Buzzcocks, to help shape the future of British music.

Shelley (real name Pete McNeish) had tentatively formed a band in late 1975 with 23-year-old fellow Bolton student Howard Trafford (later to become Howard Devoto).  On Wednesday 18th February 1976 they saw a first ever live review of a Sex Pistols gig in the New Musical Express and it inspired them to travel to London to track down the Pistols’ next gig.

Hence, with the help of a borrowed car, the pair, plus to-be band Manager Richard Boon, would travel the 180 miles south and learn that the Sex Pistols were due to play support to Lord Sutch in High Wycombe at the Buckinghamshire College of Further Education on Friday 20th February 1976.

It was also while they were down south that they would pick up a copy of Time Out magazine where the headline for the review of TV programme Rock Follies, ‘FEELING A BUZZ, COCKS’, gave them the idea for the name for their yet to be seen band –.  After seeing the Pistols in High Wycombe they would return to Manchester to form Buzzcocks and promote the famous gigs at The Lesser Free Trade Hall.

Buzzcocks would play one of their first ever gigs at the latter of these two dates.  Devoto took on lead vocals, while Shelley played guitar, aided by Steve Diggle on bass and John Maher on drums.  In January 1977 they would release their debut EP, ‘Spiral Scratch’, on their self-funded New Hormones label – one of the first truly independent record releases in the UK.   The EP included the now iconic ‘Boredom’ but the other three tracks, ‘Breakdown’, Time’s Up’ and ‘Friends of Mine’ had the same fresh sound and catch riffs.

Spiral Scratch EP – released January 1977

soon after the release of ‘Spiral Scratch’, leaving founder member Shelley with decisions to make.  Rather than recruit a new singer, Shelley bravely took on the front man role himself and the distinctive Buzzcocks sound was cemented with Steve Diggle moving to second guitar and Steve Garvey eventually becoming the permanent bass player.

With song-writing duties firmly on his shoulders, Shelley developed a way with lyrics that was virtually unique amongst his punk counterparts.  Back in those formative years of punk rock, rather than tap into what was fast becoming clichéd lyrics referencing such topics as hate, war, crime, anarchy and violence, Shelley wasn’t afraid to mention love and write songs that included backing vocals of grown-men going ‘ooh, ooh’.

Also, unlike some of the other early London ‘punk’ bands who morphed out of the ‘pub-rock’ scene, Buzzcocks genuinely struggled to play their instruments during their early outings on the live circuit.  Their early gigs would see the band muddling their way through primitive incarnations of their hits in the making – Shelley, in particular, with his sawn-off cheap guitar.  However, the sound quickly developed into something unique and one that was enhanced to a new level in the studio.

Buzzcocks would eventually sign for United Artists in August 1977 – releasing their debut album, Another Music in a Different Kitchen in March 1978 – their rise to success would be fuelled by a series of consecutive pure punk pop singles – ‘Orgasm Addict’, ‘What Do I Get?’, ‘I Don’t’ Mind’, ‘Love You More’, ‘Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve Fallen in Love With)’, ‘Promises’, ‘Everybody’s Happy Nowadays’, the list goes on and on.

It is relatively sad to look back to see that while many of the other original iconic British ‘punk’ bands played High Wycombe – including, Sex Pistols, Damned, Clash, Stranglers, Jam, Siouxsie and The Banshees and Generation X – Buzzcocks were never to perform on a High Wycombe stage – perhaps they weren’t ‘punk’ enough in the eyes of the promoters of the time?  The nearest they came were appearances at Aylesbury Friars – first on 6th May 1978 and then on 28th March 1979.

It was at the latter of these two appearances, while still at school, that I was lucky enough to see them for the first time.  I’d been captivated since seeing their Top of the Pops appearance of ‘I Don’t Mind’ in April 1978.  I remember being amazed that it was possible to write a song that included the lyric ‘pathetic clown’.  A couple of months later I heard their follow-up single ‘Love You More’ for the first time – lasting less than 2 minutes, I had to hear it again as soon as possible – hence a trip to town to buy the single in, by this time, its easily recognisable Buzzcocks style graphics.

My Buzzcocks memorabilia.
Including song book, badges, bootleg tapes and flyer from Aylesbury gig, March 1979

I took the cover to the Friars gig in March 1979 in the hope of an autograph. At the end of the gig those with similar thoughts patiently waited to the left-hand side of the stage for the band to return.  There was not much of a delay before Pete Shelley and fellow band member Steve Diggle emerged and happily signed autographs and chatted with their fans.  At this point some random meathead security man decided he wanted to clear the hall and claimed the band had ‘gone home’ and there was no point in waiting.  At which point Pete Shelley said in his distinctive high-pitched voice, ‘I’m still here!’.  The intellectually challenged security man then repeated his claim that the band had ‘gone home’.  Shelley responded with a slightly louder, ‘I’m still here!’  I can still hear his voice in my head saying those words.

In my youthful craze to hear more, I began accumulating live and early demo recordings of the band and soon discovered that Shelley’s pop songs were not limited to singles, or just three-minute songs. ‘Fast Cars’, ‘Moving Away From The Pulsebeat’, ‘Fiction Romance’, ‘E.S.P.’, ‘I Believe’, to name just four.

The band split in 1981 leaving a hole for many of their followers.  The records and tapes were stored away and we all moved on (for a while).  Then in 1989 they re-formed and we were reminded what an incredible back catalogue of songs they could call on.  The live shows were more powerful than ever.  They recorded new music and also gigged until the point of Pete’s death and had arranged a 40 year anniversary gig at The Albert Hall in June 2019.  I’d already got tickets and was in the process of going through the Buzzcocks archives when the tragic news arrived.

‘Oh Sh*t!’ was my one of my first reactions on the evening of Thursday 6th December 2018.  Shelley had a song title for almost every emotion and in this case, the ‘B’ side of the 1977 Shelley penned classic ‘What Do I Get?’, seemed the most apt.

If by chance any family or friends of Pete read this, I send them my sincere best wishes and thanks for Pete’s life.

Love You More – from Paul

My signed ‘Love you More’ cover, ‘To Paul’ from gig at Aylesbury, March 1979

For your listening and viewing pleasure

Breakdown – Buzzcocks – Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall – July 1976

I Swear I Was There – Granada TV documentary 2001
Listen from 3:16 for Devotto and Shelley recalling the trip down south in February 1976

Buzzcocks in their own words – interview at British Library – 9 June 2016
Listen from 13:50 for comments from Shelley and Boon about Sex Pistols gig at High Wycombe February 1976

I Don’t Mind – Buzzcocks – Oxford Zodiac – March 2006 – first published December 2018

4 April 2018 – Talking punk on Emperor’s Bits for Wycombe Sound

Not put off by my guest appearance on 21st February 2018, Andy Aliffe invited me back on to his ‘Emperor’s Bits’ show on Wycombe Sound on 4th April 2018 – this time talking about the early days of the ‘punk’ scene in High Wycombe.

The Emperor’s Bits – Wycombe Sound radio show featuring Andy Aliffe (right) and Stevyn Colgan (left).

This was another hugely enjoyable hour were I was joined and helped out by friend and Wycombe Sound’s Punkarolla host, Andy Chalk.

We got a chance to remind listeners that the likes of The Sex Pistols, Damned, Clash, and Stranglers all played the legendary Nag’s Head back in 1976 – while the following year the same venue hosted The Jam, XTC and Elvis Costello.

Of course, we couldn’t leave without a mention for ex-High Wycombe Grammar school boy Ian Dury, who played High Wycombe during his early career with Kilburn and The Highroads, before returning with his Blockheads on the Bunch of Stiffs tour at The Town Hall in October 1977.

Highlight of the show for me was hearing former Bucks Free Press junior reporter Janice Raycroft talking about the iconic Sex Pistols at High Wycombe college in February 1976. Janice, now editor of Buckinghamshire Life magazine, recalled in vivid detail her interview with Johnny Rotten, seeing Sid Viscous wielding a knife and the mixed reaction of the audience.

The show also briefly touched on the 50th anniversary of the first ever ‘Blues Loft’ gig at The Nag’s Head and it’s hoped a further edition of The Emperor’s Bits will be dedicated to the history of this sadly lost venue.

The show is available on the listen again function until 2 May 2018.

http://listenagain.wycombesound.org.uk/index.php/shows/the-emperors-bits/

Emperor’s Bits line-up 4th April 2018 – Stevyn Colgan, Andy Aliffe (nice hair), Andy Chalk and Paul Lewis

February 1976 – Rag Week preview

February 1976 – Rag Week preview

Just after the 41st anniversary of The Sex Pistols appearance at High Wycombe College on 20th February 1976, I discovered a preview of The Rag Week published in the Bucks Free Press Midweek on 10th February 1976.  The preview lists the event for the forthcoming week and leads off:

High Wycombe Rag Week 1976 kicks off on Friday morning with a Conga through the town. What follows is the now almost traditional week of pub crawls, races and dances in aid of charity.

The event is run by students at the Buckinghamshire College of Further Education – the former College of Technology and Art – and follows much the same line as in previous years.

Friday 13th February 1976 -Kilburn and The High Roads –Main College Hall

“Pre-Rag Ball where the Rag Queen will be chosen”

You can’t mention Kilburn & The High Roads on a High Wycombe related publication without recalling the fact that lead singer Ian Dury was a former pupil at Wycombe Grammar School.  The then 33 year old Dury had formed K&TH back in 1971. There line-up included guitarist Keith Lucas (later to become Nick Cash, lead signer for punk band 999).  Dury would go on to form Ian Dury & The Blockheads in 1977.

Monday 16th February 1976 – Kokomo – Town Hall

“A popular funky soul band led by the three Arrival vocalists will appear with supporting groups”

A quick internet search reveals Kokomo released their debut album in 1976. At the time of this post, they were about to embark on a March 2017 tour.

 

Wednesday 18th February 1976 – Brewer’s Droop – Student Union Bar

“Local and favourite band, Brewers Droop are performing at the Student Union bar”

Ron Watts’ band make an appearance two days before Watts return to bump into The Sex Pistols.

 Friday 20th February 1976 – Screaming Lord Sutch and Kites – Main College Hall

“The Rag Week climaxes in The Rag Ball at the college main hall.”

This gig infamously including an early appearance for The Sex Pistols. It is often referred to as being the ‘Valentine Ball’ and in some cases a ‘Ron Watts promotion’.  Neither is true.  By Watts’ own admission, he was there to book a stripper. Valentine’s Day was the previous Saturday.

Another myth is that the Sex Pistols turned up announced; gate crashed and pretended to be the support act.  In fact, The Sex Pistols were a late addition to the line-up – arranged with full knowledge of the Student Union Social team who had agreed a half crate of Carlsberg as the payment for their appearance.

Read more on the 20th February 1976 gig….

 

 

14 February 1975 – Brewer’s Droop – Technical College

Friday 14th February 1975 – Brewer’s Droop – Technical College

Ron Watts’ band, Brewer’s Droop were guests at the 1975 Valentine’s Ball at High Wycombe Technical College.  If I am reading the advert correctly, your romantic night out would have started out with the charmingly named Dildo Kids!!  Although that may have been a strap line for The Droop?

Music paper advert for Brewer’s Droop mini tour – February 1975, including Wycombe, Birmingham and Bognor

By the time of this gig, ‘The Droop’ had been gigging for more than four years, clocking up more than a 1,000 dates but regular gigs were on the downturn, leaving a then 33 year old Watts to concentrate on promoting.

The Technical College was also set for a change, when in September 1975 it was renamed (or in modern jargon, ‘rebranded’) to Buckinghamshire College of Higher Education.  Under both banners it would regularly host gigs throughout the 1970’s and beyond, while ‘rock concerts’ at the nearby Town Hall gradually became less frequent.

It was just over a year later that Watts returned to the venue (to help book a stripper) and bumped into a ‘bunch of scruffs’ called ‘The Sex Pistols’. The rest is..etc…

20 February 1976 – Sex Pistols and Lord Sutch – Wycombe College

Friday 20th February 1976 – Sex Pistols support Lord Sutch at Wycombe College

My research for this infamous gig provided much of the inspiration for this website.  An article published on chairboys.co.uk to mark the 40th anniversary included my findings from this chaotic evening.

More to follow on the myths surrounding this gig – in the meantime, you can read my original article published in February 2016.

http://www.chairboys.co.uk/history/1976_02_never_mind_the_bb.htm