Friday 7 December 2018

Pete Shelley RIP - A legend and a lovely bloke and a huge influence on me

One of the true pleasures of my job (I run Mill Hill Music Complex Music studios) is that I get to meet some of the worlds greatest musicians. The studios are 40 years old next year, but there are some musicians who's influence at the very beginning was absolutely key. One of absolutely key figures in my development from being a snotty nosed teenager to the owner of a successful studio was Pete Shelley of The Buzzcocks.  Until I was fourteen, I had little interest in music. As a kid, I'd loved the poppy tunes of the 1960's such as the Beatles (before they discovered acid and experimentation), I'd loved the sounds of ska, I'd loved the music of Bowie and Bolan, but by 1976, this had largely gone out of vogue. The behemoths of Rock such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd ruled the roost and to be quite honest, it left me rather cold. Many of my mates would sit in their rooms, endlessly spinning Led Zep IV, but it did nothing to me. When I said things like "I prefer 20th Century boy by T Rex" they'd treat me like the sad fool I had started to realise I must be.

I first heard about Punk Rock watching the Bill Grundy show. The Sex Pistols were on it. They didn't play any music, but I was fascinated by their complete lack of respect for Grundy and the naughty smirks. Sadly, there was no records in the shops. The outrage at their interview effectively ended their gigging career. I was 14 at the time. In June of 1977, my sister asked me to come along to see The Ramones. Her record collection had the obligatory Zeppelin records in, so I held little hope that I'd enjoy the show. I was blown away. In the 32 minutes of their set, the path of my life changed. I started going to every punk gig I could. Sadly few of my school mates at FCHS the time were interested. A tiny band of us started bying the records, adopting the fashions and generally getting a hard time from the majority of our classmates etc, who saw punk as something revolting. I sort of fitted into the whole scene by default. In our class, form 5B, we all had nicknames. The slightly rotund kid was Nelly (the Elephant), the one with German background was Fritz (on a good day) and there are some that are so un PC, I can't possibly mention them here. My name had been Tramp. This had been acquired as my Mum didn't really believe in buying new clothes for kids, so most of mine were hand me downs from my cousins. Whilst for the first four years at school, this had been a burden, when Punk took off, it was a badge of honour. I'd been punk before punk. I started acquiring other items. The pink socks caused the headmaster to have a fit. Years later, my Father informed me that the head had told him that I was effeminate and had homosexual tendencies. This was a huge shock to my parents. When my father asked why, he was told "He is bad at football, he hangs around with a bunch of poofs and he even wears pink socks". My father had been devastated by this. He was old school. He told me that after they left, he was close to tears. When they got in the car, my mother simply said "That man is a complete idiot. Elvis Presley wears pink socks and you can't get more heterosexual than him". My Dad confessed that he'd snuck into my room, got the socks an burned them.

At the gigs, there were so few punk records out, that the DJ's usually played reggae and Ska, which was fine with me. Every couple of weeks, a new punk record would come out. The next day, we'd all go out and buy it. There was however one mythical record that was unobtainable. This was the Buzzcocks self pressed EP Spiral Scratch EP on New Hormones records. It was the first self released UK single and was impossible to get a copy of.  I would guess that after its release in 1977, it was probably played at every punk gig with a decent DJ for at least a year. The track everyone new was "Boredom", however my favourite was "Times up", a tale of alienation. By the time I'd really discovered the Buzzcocks, original frontman Howard Devoto had left. Pete Shelley had taken over.

The members of The Buzzcocks had seen the Sex Pistols legendary gig in Manchester and thought "We'll have some of that". As I decided that forming a band was the thing for me and set about recruiting other members, we discussed the ethos of the fledging False Dots. Myself and Peter Conway (an FCHS friend) bought guitars and started to practice and write songs. This proved to be harder than we'd expected, given that neither of us had much natural talent. We spent as much time discussing our image and political agenda as we did writing. Central to this was that we would emulate The Buzzcocks and release our own records. The influence of The Buzzcocks in setting up New Hormones cannot possibly be understated. It persuaded a whole generation of musicians to "do it yourself". Like many people, I used to tape John Peel Shows on casette. I'd then transfer the tracks I liked to another cassette. That is how I learned to play Boredom by the Buzzcocks, probably the first song I ever managed to successfully play.

Buzzcocks - Another Music In A Different Kitchen album cover.jpg
In March 1978, The Buzzcocks released "Another Music in A Different Kitchen". John Peel announced that he was going to play eight of the tracks back to back. I was listening in my room. The next day, Pete Conway collared me at school and said "Did you hear that last night?". I said replied yes. He said "That is the perfect Punk rock record. We can do that!".  Songs like "Fast Cars" and "What do I get" were short blasts of energy, full of subversive messages. I bought the album the next day. I loved everything about it. The cover, the smell of the vinyl, the way that it doesn't end (the final groove repeats for ever).  The band also had a brilliant logo with the offset Z's.

In May 1978, the band released "Orgasm Addict". For reasons I can't quite understand, the powers that ran FCHS took a dim of me decorating my biology book with the Buzzcocks logo and the legend "I'm an Orgasm Addict". The Headmaster asked me publicly in a lesson if this meant that I enoyed Masterbating. A fellow student in another form had confessed to masturbating in a biology lesson. He'd been beaten up and called a pervert by his class mates. I wasn't going to make the same mistake. I replied "I wouldn't know sir, what is masturbating?", this may seem like a very strange thing for a 15 year old boy to say, but at FCHS in 1978 such things were never, ever discussed. The headmaster was taken aback "Why did you write that on your book then, Tichborne?". It's the name of a song by a band. It is number 56 in the charts sir". He said "It's disgusting, how could you write that?". I replied that I didn't know what it meant, I assumed it was something to do with liking animals. I then helpfully showed him a copy of the charts. "Surely sir, if it was a rude word, they wouldn't print it in the chart?" He was flummoxed. After the lesson, my classmates were in hysterics. They couldn't believe that he'd fallen for such a ridiculous load of flannel. The schools biology department then decided to give all of the fifth formers a special lesson in sex education, explaining what the terms "orgasm" and "masterbation" meant. The blinds were drawn. I daresay that wherever Pete Shelley is now, he's sniggering at this. Mr Wynne, the biology teacher told us that we mustn't share this information because Catholic schools didn't teach such things, but as we were 16 we really should have some idea. Our class were extremely mischievious. Mr Wynne asked "Does anyone know what Masturbating is?" The class all said "no sir". When he explained, we all let out a rather theatrical "yuk". In hindsight it is quite amazing that we all turned out almost normal!

This was one of many events that propelled me towards the exit door at FCHS. The following September, I started at Orange Hill Senior High School. There, punk had been embraced, it seemed like everyone was in a band. That is where I first met legendary Morrissey side man Boz Boorer. Boz loved the Buzzcocks. I used to go around to his house, listen to records, and he'd just jam along. I was in awe.

The Buzzcocks second album "Love Bites" is perhaps their best known. It has many of the hits, including "Have you ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn't have fallen in love with", which is perhaps their best known track. It shows Pete Shelley's songwriting at its best. It isn't however my favourite track on the album. I've always loved Sixteen again, which is perhaps the most melancholic punk rock song ever written. The Buzzcocks seemed to be able to churn out hit after hit. Pete Shelley was dismissed in the ever hardening world of punk rock as a bit too romantic. I would always see the band when I could. The last gig I saw was amazing. It was a 40th reunion, and featured Howard Devoto sining the Spiral Scratch EP. I regret not seeing them recently.

As I mentioned, one of the honours of my job is meeting my heroes. I try and stay cool and professional, but how can you stay 100% cool when you meet Pete Shelley? A few years ago Pete came in to record a video for Classic Rock magazine in Studio 7. Some stars are approachable, some not so. Pete just ambled in and struck up a conversation. I said "I would never have started the studio if it wasn't for Spiral Scratch, I really got the do it yourself vibe". Pete laughed and said "We oonly did that because no one else would have released it!".  Pete was really quite humble, but had a naughty sense of humour.  I told him that I'd nearly been expelled for writing their song name on my schoolbook, he laughed and said "only nearly, you must have gone to a terrible school".

Some say "Don't meet your heroes", I have to say that it was such a pleasure to meet one of mine. He's gone off to the big jam in the Sky. I suspect that heaven will be a little bit of a happier place with Pete up there.

If you had any doubts that Pete was a great poet/wordsmith, check this out

Sixteen Again

Feeling like I'm almost sixteen again
Layin' 'round doing nothing like all my friends
Play it cool don't get angry, count up to ten
Just like I was sixteen again

No one gets the lowdown right from the start
Everybody gets the showdown right from the heart
But that's all that's on the menu and life's a la carte
I don't know

Things in life are not played for keeps
If it makes you happy it'll make you weep
And if you want some more practical advice
If you can't think once then don't think twice
'Cause things won't seem so nice
You'll wish you were sixteen again, oh no
Feeling rather strange when you're sixteen again
Things don't seem the same, the past is so plain
This future is our future, this time's not a game
This time you're sixteen again

Always on your own when there's nobody else
Asking myself would I be someone else
But after all life's only death's recompense
I don't know

Pete Shelley RIP.

---- Don't forget to make a date in your diary for The Barnet Eye Xmas party and Community awards at Mill Hill Rugby Club on Fri 14th December at Mill Hill Rugby Club at 8pm. We really hope you can come down and say Hi. Admission is Free.

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