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I Hate Finishing Things When I Don't Have To: Pete Shelley Interviewed
Taylor Parkes , March 30th, 2015 15:09

Everybody's looking for something - but what does Taylor Parkes find when he spends the evening with Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks?

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Out of the drizzle... and gingerly, I step into the Cafe Royal. Gold leaf and marble. Candles in glasses. Expensive-looking five-foot flowers, rising from vases that are shaped like swans' necks. A sign on the wall points the way upstairs, to three destinations: "Club." "Domino Room." "Pompadour Room." A strange, dim, flattering light. Old books locked in a glass case, where they belong.

Almost everybody's looking for something, right? A chance to do some living. A 5-star hotel in central London – for some people, this is the end of the line. The life we've all been looking for!

The staff are simultaneously servile and snooty. That's what people pay for, I vaguely assume. But what do I know? None of the guests stepping out of the lifts look classy – they're just rich. Backpacks and jeans and crap shoes and well-hidden money. This is not the life I've been looking for! In a small lobby near the front door, where I waste ten minutes watching rain come down on Regent Street, all three of the antique clocks have stopped at ten to two.

I'm looking for Pete Shelley, and finally I find him in a room called "The Studio", an oatmeal-coloured oblong with tall windows at one end, overlooking listed buildings and huge amounts of someone else's money, and down at the other end, a bar. I head for the bar. (On someone else's money.) Pete's here to play what he calls a "giglet", a brief solo set; a show so low-key that he doesn't appear to have told anyone.

"No," he chuckles, "A few people have been saying to me 'Why didn't you tell me you were playing?' And I said, 'Oh it's nothing, I'm only doing a couple of songs.' But we managed to swing it so I could stay in the hotel for a couple of nights, so..."

The bar staff talk amongst themselves – more "fucks" than you've heard in your life – while Pete runs through a soundcheck, which doesn't take long because it's only him, his microphone and a practice amp. He plots a course through 'You Say You Don't Love Me', one of Buzzcocks' slightly lesser-known classics, then shrugs and walks away.

Everybody's looking for something. A living... a chance to do some living. Pete Shelley sits down and talks to me. He isn't lost, or stupid, or angry. His life does not seem, at first or second glance, particularly turbulent, or bleak, or explosive. From here, it looks like quite a nice life. Is it good, I ask him, living your life?

"Yes, yes," he shrugs. And he smiles.

Next month, Pete Shelley will be 60.

"I've got the 'flu," says Pete. I think he's exaggerating.

"We've just started our first outing of the year, and I've been well all winter, and all through the New Year, but of course, as soon as we start working..."

He starts coughing. We're huddled together on the soft chairs, trying to hear each other over the chatter and the clatter in the room. I'll be catching that tomorrow, then – cheers.

"I got it in Germany."

Pete's on champagne. He says he's just finished a complimentary bottle, but that might be a joke; I don't know. I'm off fizzy things at the moment, so I stick to whisky. The freshly-borrowed recording machine looks suspiciously broken – later I'll discover that in fact, it's recorded nothing at all – so I use my phone as a backup. Pete, half in jest, gives me permission to make up his answers in the event of a double disaster.

OK, I say. If the 21st century lets us down, I'll pass off my thoughts as yours.

Pete coughs again. You really wouldn't want that, I think to myself.

But the 21st century has not let him down.

Primarily – obviously – we're talking about Buzzcocks. This is partly because Buzzcocks have a new LP coming out, which sounds exactly as you'd expect, and it's partly because at one point Buzzcocks got as good as you can get at doing one particular thing, or a collection of contrasting things: the miniaturisation of colossal feelings, and the careful expansion of detail. The neat, compact form; the broader effect. Mild and frenzied, fluorescent and low-key – those original Buzzcocks offered one possible way forward for pop, though in the end, as usually happens, it was only the easiest and least interesting elements which other people followed up.

"But," smiles Pete, "it keeps me in a job, doesn't it? If they can't get it perfect."

It's a living. And if Buzzcocks were, or still are "about" something – something other than love – then it was this: almost everybody's looking for something. A living, or a chance to do some living. All that aggressive vulnerability, the strange precision of the playing (never slick but always tight), the agonised petulance of Pete's clogged whine... Buzzcocks were a constant challenge, but all they wanted was to be allowed to live.

Simple songs by bright people: it was quite a novel concept in British music, then. Once that early 60s pop had started to expand, it was assumed that the smarter you were, the more grandiose and convoluted you'd want to make your "art". In response to that, a lot of early punk emerged self-consciously naïve and cloddish. But like all the best original punk bands – those whose legend has lasted – Buzzcocks were articulate, in unorthodox fashion.

"Well," frowns Pete, "when we started out we were trying to be as dumb as everybody else. But there was a lot of humour in it, which was a big part of what originally appealed to me about the Sex Pistols. The fact that they were so funny. We were acting dumb, like the song says..."

Has too much been made of Buzzcocks' "intellectual edge"? When you were writing pop songs, were you only writing pop songs?

"Yes! I wasn't trying to bamboozle people. To me it was just like the stuff I'd grown up with in the 60s, you know, like With The Beatles. I mean, we wanted to be intelligent, but not intellectual. We wanted to be entertaining, but not entertainers..."

How long did it take to write these songs? The best of them sound instinctive, spontaneous; when you look closer they're carefully constructed. Did it take a lot of editing and polishing?

"I find it easy coming up with ideas for songs," shrugs Pete. "Finishing them is where the work is. It's lyrics which take the toll on me. It's because I'm trying to do something which seems so natural and throwaway – and because faking sincerity is the hardest thing to do, unless you're a psychopath. You write something down and you look at it and just think 'This is too contrived.'"

Oh, yeah.

"See, with me, I'm never really happy unless everything sounds like it's conversational. That's why I find it hard to write lyrics, to simplify it to the point where it sounds like there's no writing there. So a lot of time and effort goes into me rejecting things. I've always got a lot of songs lying around, half-baked."

Abandoned?

"Well, if I die they'll be abandoned, but no."

Postponed?

"Yeah. The song 'Homosapien' I wrote in 1974, pre-Buzzcocks. 'Love You More' was 1975. So I always have songs in various stages. The track 'The Way' from the new album, I wrote that in 1987. I took out a reference to 'neutron bomb' and replaced it with 'suicide bomb', so I've updated it! But there's no such thing as an 'old' song – every song exists when you perform it and it exists when people hear it. So how long it takes from the initial idea isn't important, really. I've still got songs that I've been writing for four or five years."

Is it just that it doesn't feel like the right moment, or you can't find the time, or...

"Well, I hate finishing things when I don't have to. I'm very..."

Lazy?

"Well, I procrastinate. And in some ways it seems like there's a time for things. It's pointless me having loads of songs, because then they would be abandoned songs, if you finish them and you don't have an album coming out for three years or something. You'd be bored of them years later, and they'd be thrown away. It'd be a pointless exercise. But even when we were doing this new album it was a case of bringing together half-finished things...

"But we did it on PledgeMusic, which is a crowd-funding thing, so we got all that sorted out and raised the money, then we thought OK, we have to actually do it now. That was a fun thing because we suddenly had a deadline, and I tend to respond better to that than to potentially infinite time. I'd rather just do things at the last minute. It's quite pressurised actually, having a deadline – as I'm sure you know – but it does work."

Yes. And in time, it's the only thing that does. Otherwise, life will stop you – every day – from coming up with something new.

"Part of the punk experience, for me, was that you could play to your strengths and make your weaknesses virtues. That's not necessarily how it came to be seen in later years, but..."

Yes! And at 15, Buzzcocks seemed the perfect music for 15 year olds who were classically randy and anxious and brash and uncertain, and definitely looking for something, but not inclined to heavy metal posturing, nor – that much – to the deep-and-meaningful pose. Fast, rude songs about the urgency and horror of new hormones; a way to come to terms with your preposterous new self, without so much of the narcissism or the ludicrous bravado. I'm not sure I could ever love Buzzcocks quite as much as I did when I was 15. And for some bands that would constitute a diss, but in this case I think it's a compliment.

Pete, too, is thinking back, but further: "We didn't expect anyone to take us seriously when we started. Punk was a fluke – there was no precedent in terms of what was popular. It was like the greatest marketing campaign in the history of music to convince the world that we were worthy of being listening to! We just wanted to do it this way, we knew it wasn't gonna be the quick road to stardom – but in fact, within two years we were doing Top Of The Pops."

This middling level of fame did not turn out to be the life that Pete had been looking for.

"It all became a bit difficult after the second album. A bit tabloidy. I mean, not as harsh as it would be now, but it wasn't really what I signed up for. I remember having lots of conversations with our manager all the time, over whether or not I wanted to pack it in. And I'm still not certain!"

No?

"You know, in moments of quiet contemplation I'll listen to one of the songs we've done and think 'That's really really good, that is' – but normally I don't see that. And I like to live the more anonymous life."

So what does a boy do? You got quite into drugs back then, on the sly...

Pete coughs again. "Ooh! Well! Everybody did, really."

Did it alter you? Or at least your approach to music?

"Oh yeah, definitely. I mean, when I did 'Are Everything' with Martin Hannett producing, one of the last sessions as Buzzcocks, every time we recorded a track I was taking acid. So doing the vocals, for example, weird things were going on. There was this kind of golden trail coming off me... everything on that record we did on acid, the vocals, the mixing – and of course, the way Martin was, he was well into that stuff as well. On those last tracks, we were doing Frisco speedballs."

How are they different from normal speedballs?

"There was acid in it – which would have been the Frisco bit, I suppose. So that would have contributed to the..."

OOF! Some greasy jazz-pop blasts out of the speakers overhead, no warning – a warm-up for Pete? Good grief – and we lose our thread. Could you turn that down, please? We're doing an interview here. Cheers. More drinks! And we end up talking about something else.

"'White Light / White Heat'... I couldn't work out what he was on about..."

One more thing which separated Buzzcocks from their now long-buried peers was a tendency to musical experimentation, which didn't always amount to much, but stopped them getting boring. Shelley's favourite guitarist was Can's Michael Karoli (he could never play like that, of course, but there are other ways to be influenced); early demos show that 'Sixteen' started life as something else, something with the vaguest resemblance to Captain Beefheart's 'I Love You, You Big Dummy'.

And Shelley's first known recording was not, in fact, with Buzzcocks – it was something called 'Sky Yen', a home-made reel of electronic experiments from 1974. Directly inspired by Cluster and Tangerine Dream ("I used to listen to John Peel, he was always playing a whole side of Phaedra and stuff like that"), 'Sky Yen' sounds amateurish by comparison, but its radiophonic swoops and swirls are still good fun today. Pete sits up when I raise the subject.

"I was into electronics at college," he explains, "and you'd buy the magazines with diagrams in them of things you could make, one of which was a simple thing where you could get one of those etch resist pens and a sheet of plastic with copper on one side, and you could draw your circuit on this, then put it in an acid bath to dissolve the copper, except for the bits where you'd drawn this thing, and then you could solder your components in, and you ended up with this thing that made a siren noise...

"Anyway, I thought I'd experiment and make an oscillator. So I put a potentiometer on it, a good resistor, so I could alter the pitch. And I got a two-track Tandberg tape recorder, which was stereo, and you could do sound on sound by bouncing from one track to another. Then I found out that if you put your fingers in – it was only a 9-volt battery so there was no risk – you'd actually become part of the circuit... the sweat on your fingers, or which bits you'd randomly touch, it would all affect the sound and you could get all these weird tones. So one Saturday morning I just wired it all up and started messing about, changing the speed and the pitch, and built up this thing. I used to play it to people – it was great at clearing parties – and lying in the dark, as you would do as a student, with headphones on, listening to it... then when Buzzcocks had control of the means of production and I started my own record company, I put it out. And of course it sold loads, because people were expecting it to be me singing pop songs and they weren't expecting this noise that came out."

Pete's first solo record proper – the glorious 'Homosapien', which must have raised a few punky eyebrows with its ping-pong electronics and its lurid, leering lyrics – reintroduced him to synthesised sound. Made in a day with Martin Rushent, soon to hit it very big as producer of The Human League, it's one of the very best electro-pop singles of the 80s; only its subject matter, one suspects, has kept it out of the conventional canon, but well, boo hoo to that.

"'Homosapien' was originally supposed to be a demo for a Buzzcocks track," he remembers. "But when we'd done it, Martin was sat there listening to it on repeat, as he often did, then suddenly he swung round in his chair and said 'That's finished, that is. You could release this as it is if you wanted'. So we went to Andrew Lauder, who'd been our A&R guy at United Artists and who was now at Island Records, to see whether we were mad or not. Because it was just two of us in a studio messing round with machines and stuff. I was writing computer programs where I'd tell it the notes I wanted it to play, and then it'd tell you the input you had to enter, all that stuff – it was really flying by the seat of your pants – and we didn't know if we were just fooling ourselves. But Andrew Lauder heard it and said 'Wow – are you doing any more of these?'"

Did you – do you – never want to incorporate a little bit more of this reckless adventure into Buzzcocks? There was always something tantalising about those moments when you started messing with the form, as though you could have taken it further...

"Ummm... well I did it more on the solo stuff because the whole idea of Buzzcocks was, and still is, just the joy of four guys on stage making a racket."

Others take another view: that Shelley's growing restlessness with the pop-song format actually started to pull things apart in the last days of the original band.

"No, that was probably the drugs! I don't know. I mean the reason I left Buzzcocks and went solo was just because it was easier. Artistically and financially. Whenever we tried to get money from EMI it was a problem, because Buzzcocks were in a financial bind at the time so they wouldn't release any money, and it was all... I dunno."

You dunno?

"Well, I thought 'What can I do?' and the easy answer was just to leave the band. So I did that. And it was like suddenly having a clean credit rating. But also, suddenly I had a blank canvas. It was like I'd painted myself into a corner, and suddenly a door appeared. All I can say is that it was a very strange time, the early 80s."

That's all he can say. Pete starts coughing again.

"It's my 60th birthday next month!"

How do you feel about that?

"Well, you know... me mum, who lived till she was in her eighties, she always said she never felt any different. Always 18. I suppose I'm like that too. But I was reading an article which said that if you ask people who are 18 how they see themselves in ten years time, they always imagine being more or less how they are now, just moved on in time. They can't imagine any drastic change. But people do change... and any ideas about how you're going to be in ten years are just self-deluding."

So, delude yourself – are you still going be doing this at 70?

"If I can actually get up on stage. That I've got away with it so far beggars belief..."

I suppose that if you get simplicity right, in some ways it doesn't date.

"In the punk days, people were always going, 'Oh, you're not really all that punk,' and we didn't know what they were on about. But in retrospect, 'not being all that punk' was a saving grace."

But I knock back my Scotch and I harden my heart, and I say it: to what extent are Buzzcocks now a comfort band? A cosy old shoe?

"We are, but I hope there's enough on the new album to take people out of that comfort zone. At least a little bit."

You're not exactly a nostalgia act, but... well, let's say you give people what they're looking for.

"I know," shrugs Pete, unfazed. "But that's what we do! It's not a conscious thing – I mean, it's not that we've found our niche and we're sticking to it. But it's where our comfort lies, as a band. That's where our strength is."

Buzzcocks have a new LP coming out, which sounds exactly as you'd expect.

"Mainly we function as a live band, not a recording band. We only did this album because it came up that we could do the crowd-funding thing, so we raised the money we needed that way, and just did the album we wanted to do, how we wanted to do it. I mean, whether we do it again next year I don't know, but... I just thought 'Well – we could do this.' I like those ridiculous things you say yes to on a whim, and then you're actually obliged to do it" – he looks around, half-amused – "rather like this gig. It's almost like 'Nobody's going to be there, nobody's going to notice. Let's just see what happens...'"

I'm not asking about this stuff because I think it's bad, or funny. God knows I'm in no position to criticise middle aged people doing – more or less – what they were doing at 21, and I wouldn't. I'm just interested in different people's thinking. Why they decide to go on. Why they don't just stop. Is it just that sooner or later it's easier to keep going? Or is there a better reason? Or a darker reason?

Pete's not falling into that one. He gives me a businesslike response.

"Well, even though we stopped making albums we've been working constantly for a long time. Playing gigs everywhere. Just not necessarily in Britain, so people don't always notice."

You're a working band. You're a bit like Foghat, or The Climax Blues Band. Life on the road. Checking in and checking out. It's a better way to live than most, I would imagine. In a way, it must be like freedom.

"Well yeah!" (The "yeah" comes out peculiarly loudly, and very high-pitched.) "Since the band started I've never worked – never wanted to, never needed to. Steve Diggle always says we're 'conscientious objectors to work'."

Steve Diggle is onto something!

"I'm not a millionaire... but by all reason, we should have outlived our use. But maybe that's the myth of the 'now' culture, the 'new' culture. New! Latest! I do baulk at the idea of being a nostalgia act, because people still find the songs an inspiration."

Buzzcocks once were a constant challenge. Now, are you finally allowed to just live? You do what you do...

"And it's hard to do it well. And if you look around, how many other bands are there like Buzzcocks, anyway?"

I start coughing. Have I caught this German 'flu?

"Hardly any. So if we don't do it, who will?"

It's not as if you're just playing in bars or whatever...

"No, three years ago were playing Coachella Festival, and one of the online music mags called us one of the Top ten acts of both weekends. We've just played sold out gigs in Germany, tomorrow we fly to Amsterdam, then on to Belgium. Four days in Spain later this year. Then we go to the States again, doing late-night TV for the first time in years, the Craig Ferguson show..."

Is this the life you were looking for, back in the old days when you had to keep coming up with something new?

I don't actually ask this, because I've run out of time. So I'll make up an answer, because Pete said that would be OK.

"In a way."

At the end of the interview, with some peculiar gleam in his eye, Pete mentions that he likes talking to French magazines, "because they ask you philosophical questions, and you really have to think. You find out more about yourself than they do about you." Interpreting this as a veiled grumble that I haven't asked him enough philosophical questions, I ask Pete Shelley – half in jest – how seriously he takes his life.

"Well," he shrugs. "I dunno."

Oh!

"I mean, I look both ways before I cross the road..."

Everybody's looking for something.

It's time for the giglet. Before he disappears into public view, Pete and I survey the tables of glossy young women and expensively-shod young men – which of them are the trendy socialites, here to check out the living legend, and which are just the Cafe Royal's usual clientele? We'll be able to tell once the music starts, I joke, by who gets up and leaves. Pete grimaces slightly, puts down his glass and ambles over to the microphone.

'I Don't Mind'; 'Love You More'; 'What Do I Get?'; 'Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)?' All fantastic, even solo, interspersed with coughing fits.

Somewhere in the middle Pete plays 'Homosapien' – which sounds great all naked and wailing like this – and a couple of tables of beautiful people scowl and drain their champagne flutes, and hurry off to another part of the building where Pete Shelley isn't singing. I wonder what their world is like. I'll make up an answer for them, too: "It's like punk never happened!" I suppose not everyone's looking for something... for some of them, this must be the end of the line. To them, does this even sound like music at all? I wonder, what do they imagine it's for?

For those of us left – maybe forty or forty-five – night comes on, and whisky goes down, and there's a small man bashing away at a guitar, and behind him a row of tall windows, through which the glow of someone else's money is seeping in from the street. No one on the street turns their head; there's nothing seeping out. But still, Pete Shelley is singing.

Buzzcocks new single 'In The Back' is available now. They tour the UK in May

Jake Sorich
Mar 30, 2015 6:28pm

You gotta respect a band that's honest about being a "live band" vs. a recording studio one.
It's rare to find a group that claims to be one or the other these days.

If you're looking for more music interviews and reviews, check out Big Sky State Buzz.
We're legitimately independent and dedicated to providing up-to-date information on all things music related. :-)
www.bigskystatebuzz.com

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Francois
Mar 30, 2015 7:22pm

Always were a great live act, and they produced some of the best 3 minute pop music if the 70's

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Mark
Mar 31, 2015 9:09am

What a sour interviewer
Pete Shelley deserved better than that

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Kofi
Apr 2, 2015 12:03pm

In reply to Mark:

Oh I don't think so. A friendly interrogation's more interesting, isn't it, than hagiography?

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Stuart
Apr 4, 2015 5:50pm

New album? It came out ages ago.

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doctor george
Sep 10, 2015 4:14pm

buzzcocks got it right. always thought of shelley as a blues man.

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