Pete Shelley. A Pop Terrorist hiding in plain sight

It was a shock to wake up on December 7th to read that Pete Shelley had died. As a songwriter, he was one of the best that emerged from the Punk explosion.  After breaking up the Buzzcocks he enjoyed success with his solo efforts, working with Martin Rushent who produced the hit single Homosapien (which reached #4 in the Australian charts) before he had decided to move back to a full band format for the 'Heaven and the Sea' album. I caught up with him in London on the 14th May 1986 in this previously unpublished interview.

I have never been in a successful band. I have never had hundreds of fans cheer as I ran on the stage. Except once, ever so briefly, I got to see and feel first hand what is like. My interview with Pete Shelley had overran (he was very late) and we were having such a good chat that he had to be pulled away by the rest of the band to go on stage.

I wanted to see the gig from the front of house. So I grabbed my tape recorder, stuck it in my jacket pocket and followed them on. It was pitch black as we walked onto the stage until a blast of almost solar brightness lit the whole venue up, accompanied by a huge cheer. It was a tremendous adrenalin rush, which ended for me as I kept on walking and jumped off the stage next to some extremely confused audience members who were wondering why a member of Pete Shelley's band had suddenly appeared next to them.

An hour previously I had been sitting quietly backstage at the Camden Electric Ballroom waiting for Pete Shelley to arrive, watching in quiet bemusement as the two support bands 'Then Jericho' and 'Ten Ten' got into such an argument about who was higher on the bill and would play last, that I thought it was going to end in fisticuffs. Then Jericho (soon to experience major chart success the next year) won.

Pete eventually arrived, in a very bubbly mood, excited to be playing in London again after several years break.

Pete Shelley: "I am so happy to be out playing music again. It has been too long. I would love to be doing many more gigs than we are doing in fact. I also have a new band around me with John Doyle fresh from the Armoury Show on Drums".

BTA: The album is less electronic, and a bit more rock than your previous solo releases.

Pete Shelley: That had a lot to do with Stephen Hague (the producer). Really enjoyed working with him, I did really want to get back with Martin Rushent, but he was not available, whereas Stephen has ideas totally different to me which can be both fun and challenging.

I was going for a more electronic feel on the record, but he was really pushing me into a more rockier feel. Not quite Buzzcocks, maybe more like the Armoury Show (Shelley laughs as John Doyle gives him a V sign). We will keep the band going to do another record next year as well as do a tour of the US".

BTA: You have not (yet) reached the success that the Buzzcocks had. Are you happy with that?

Pete Shelley: "Happy? I don't know. I don't measure success in how many records one sells or things like that. Success is a long-term thing rather than a flash in the pan. Success to me doesn't mean being recognised in the street and selling lots of records. Success to me is like a relationship, where people respect what you are doing and it develops into more of a friendship.

BTA: We are now in the tenth anniversary of the start of the Punk movement. Did it change anything?

Pete Shelley: "I don't think it ever set out to change things, it was more a statement of expression. Sometimes we of the school of 76 are represented as social workers who failed in their quest to rehabilitate the society we came out from.

I don't think that is fair, it was more a statement of self-expression and doing the things we wanted to do. The idea that anyone could be in a band, thinking I could do that, and then going on to do it.

We were not trying to change things in the whole of society, it was just our own society we changed".

BTA: Have you ever thought of reforming the Buzzcocks?

Pete Shelley: "No, not really. I don't like resurrecting the past.

As an afterthought what I sometimes think about is the way it all ended. I really should have kicked out (Shelley stops and considers for a moment before continuing), umm,  instead of putting everything into the band, believing it was the only option, and then watching as the Buzzcocks were dissolving, I should have just changed the band.

We weren't doing anything, and I was reluctant to involve them in things that none of them were interested in doing. When I left, and we got 'Homosapien' out and it started doing things, I was so much happier. I went over to the States, played around and enjoyed it all immensely, in a way that had not happened since the very early days of the Buzzcocks".

BTA: Homosapien was a very political song, and suffered lack of airplay in the UK because of that. Was that something you actually planned?

Pete Shelley: "Well as Wilhelm Reich said, the only way to achieve true political change is by changing the personal lives of the individual members of society, rather than by attempting a blanket change at a higher level.

Without people changing their personal lives, nothing will ever change in society.

So if you change one persons perception that can multiply out into changing the whole of society. I am aiming at one to one conversations with people and it does work, people tell me that song reflects what I think, or that song has changed the way I feel.

Anyway, I have been playing around with you as a theoretical exercise! I write the songs for myself really, and if they help anyone else, then all the better. I see my songs as my children
and equally I don't believe in favouritism, whether it is Orgasm Addict, Homosapien or the new single, On your Own, they are the same to me. I don't see them as being different, or of being old.

I enjoy singing What Do I Get? now as much as I ever did. Because it's just as true.

(A member of Then Jericho, one of the support bands tonight is singing along to Sigue Sigue Sputnik's Love Missile F1-11 in the dressing room, Pete shakes his head)

I am not sure that song is going to help anybody. I have seen rather too much about them. None of it is new, I have seen people try to shock, I have seen people dressing up before. The thing with hyping a band, as seems to be happening here, is that you try and backdate hype.

The great punk records that worked got their hype after. Malcolm McLaren only thought up why he did it after he had done it, and then told everybody this made up story of how this all fitted together, and how it was his master plan working.

In reality, he was doing what everyone else does, doing things day by day. Sigue Sigue Sputnik are believing in the myth that Malcolm perpetrated, but he had no thought or vast design behind it, yet they are trying to build this vast design, and push that forward, and it does not work.

And it will not work for them, no one will remember them in a years time (spot on Pete). That is why autobiographies are written retrospectively after you have done things, not before you do things. You can't write them before as they seem to be trying to do.

Anyway, I want to talk more about me and not Sigue Sigue Sputnik! On your Own, the new single is coming out, and we are doing the video now. After the soundcheck, we went over to play in it. So far it looks really good and has a lot of animation in it. Its been done by the Film Garage. Its got aliens and has eggs playing guitars, which you don't see every day.

It is a different song to the last one Waiting for love, it shows another side, maybe it has a more New York influence as I did a lot of the demos for the album over there. I loved New York, and it was really unusual in that I had people coming up to me telling me how much they loved my songs, which you don't get in Manchester, or here (London).

I am not sure I want that every day, but it does a lot for your confidence (Shelley giggles softly). Anyway, it is a taster for the new album (Heaven and the Sea) which has lots of different facets to it, I have not just got one string to my bow as the critics seem to believe. There's lots of things I do
and there is lots of things I do well.

I enjoy writing pop music, due to its subversive possibilities. It's like being a terrorist but hiding in plain sight".

At this point, Pete is hauled away by the other members of the band, and they walk towards the stage.

Vale Pete Shelley.

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