The light wanes from the sky as another headline about corrupt leaders doing what they have always been doing hits the news yet again. It only gets worse as they die, as if the mere, uniform act of death is an automatic baptismal cleansing of sins like illegal arms dealing, war profiteering, and further crushing liberty and the working poor under their shiny black shoes. While the United States celebrated short-term historical memory in the form of a newly dead president, the entire planet lost a truly great man whose creative mark did nothing but inspire things like art, love, and knowing that none of us are ever truly alone.
Pete Shelley was an angel. Let’s make no bones about it, he was one of the rare birds whose charisma and innate understanding of the human condition, even when he was a mere twenty years old when forming one of the strongest punk bands in history, The Buzzcocks, he was no imitator. When I use the word angel, it’s less clean-sheets, religious antiseptic-ness and more denoting a powerful creature whose glance and touch can alter and heal so many.
This is exactly what Pete Shelley did.
So much already has been written about his work with the Buzzcocks and rightfully so! They served punk rock ingenuity with irreverent humor (“Orgasm Addict” being a super obvious and glorious example) coupled with a poignant and gut-truth insight into our own fragile existence. If a song like “What Do I Get” does not resonate you with at some juncture of your life, then you better get your aluminum ass back to the lab, cause you’re a hot-wired, cold-blooded robot. This was a man whose wit and heart transcended all social-status-quo boundaries. Male, female, gay, straight, young or old, Shelley gave some and then gave some more for all of us outsiders and misfit elves. It’s that kind of light that is downright life saving. It’s a beacon letting us know that hey, you might be going through some bullshit but you are never alone. I know it is art like this which has gotten me through more than one or thirty depressions.
But the real lightning bolt for me personally was Shelley’s solo career, which deserves near equal praise with his Buzzcocks-era work. “Homosapien” is the big-daddy standout and with good reason! Even though I hadn’t heard or seen the equally epic video until the late 1990s, several years after its original 1981 release, “Homosapien” was like a gift from the ever-shapeshifting elder gods. I was already familiar with the Buzzcocks and adored them, of course, but this was something entirely new.
Music-wise, there’s the absolutely exquisite integration of the hard, edged-up synths with an undercurrent of crunchy guitar. When one is able to successfully integrate instruments viewed as “earthy” with something wholesale on the electronic spectrum, the end result is often the sonic sweet spot. While the critical view at the time of early 1980’s electronica often didn’t give heavy synth music with pop sensibilities a lot of respect, “Homosapien” is a prime example of a pop song with teeth and texture. (No shock, given both Shelley’s Buzzcocks era work as well as his early experimentations with synthesizers.)
It’s this harmonious mesh that gives a number of Shelley’s early solo works (“Telephone Operator” is a good example, especially the live version from the TV Show Switch, which you c an see on YouTube) the vibe of skating right near the county line of industrial. Industrial pop was quite the amoebic creature in the early 1980s, giving us further proof that Pete Shelley was a sheer pioneer. Unlike other punk fixtures whose genre switches felt more like a whiplash-slap–Feargal Sharkey from the stone-cold-classic Irish punk band The Undertones being one of the top offenders–Shelley’s move is so exquisitely equal but different. All of the things that made him such a force in punk are the same things that makes him a synth-pop-rock-punk zeitgeist maker too.
I would be totally remiss if I didn’t mention the music video for “Homosapien,” which is a visual totem to the great song. Mirroring the titular album’s cover art, we see Pete in this large, white neo-modern room all throughout the video. His surroundings are all medical-geometry and items of human history, many of which are defined for us via computer-style graphics of the time. Dressed so nattily in a white suit & tie and a dark, forest-green men’s collared shirt and boutonniere, he looks like the James Bond villain of my epochal dreams. His presence nails this sexy-sinister vibe even more so, with Shelley’s impish good looks being taken to a new swanky level. There’s even a bit of a Crowley-ian vibe, between the references to Egyptology and at one point, Pete pulling out The Fool card from Aleister and Lady Frieda Harris’ Thoth deck when he sings the word “loser.” It feels so rewarding to have one of the greatest singles from the 1980’s attached to one of the equally greatest music videos of an otherwise bloated and rife with nuclear fear, economy woes, and hideous political leaders era. (The more things change….)
63 is far too young to leave this plane of existence, but boy howdy, what a legacy and what a man. Pete Shelley moved and transcended to the next thing and we here are left with much sadness knowing that another great and beautiful innovator has gone with so much great and needed-now-more-ever art to give us some sun-star-light and comfort.
Wherever you are, Sir, thank you for being you and for giving so many lives a heartstrong sonic booster shot that we all needed and will always need.