An interview with Pete Shelley
by Martin Popoff
Buzzcocks were the original – THE – pop punksters, leaping out of the Manchester scene with the rough ‘n’ nibble Spiral Scratch EP in ’77, followed by a very cool record called Another Music in a Different Kitchen in 1978, a superbly produced album that came wrapped smartly in a metallic ink sleeve housed within a custom silver plastic bag. After three more seminal albums, the band took the ’80s off, returning sporadically to lay claim to a legacy of hook rivaled only by the Ramones. The band return with a new self-titled record that is surprisingly tough, nasty, heavy, vibrant, steadfast in its portrayal of the original, irresistible, charming sound. ‘Ere’s a wistful, witty – if often halting – chat with main buzzer Pete Shelley.
What are some of the differences between this new self-titled record and some of the other recent albums, say Modern (’99) or All Set (’96)?
I don’t know; we haven’t tried anything that we haven’t tried before. I mean, with Modern, we tried to make an un-rock album, and All Set, we recorded in America, so we were trying to do our American album. (laughs) And this one, we did in North London. It was quite a low-key affair. We just went in and recorded the songs and tried to make them as tough-sounding as possible.
Yes, I noticed that. Do you think it’s grittier, heavier?
Yes, it definitely is, yes. There’re no semi-ballads on there. (laughs)
What are some of the main ingredients of your sound? What sets you apart from the other bands of the punk era?
Well, you know, it always amazes Steve (Steve Diggle; guitarist and original member) and me… We never try to really do anything. There’s nothing we give much conscious thought to. We just plug in our guitars and play, really. That’s the way it works.
Was this album then, fairly easy to make compared to other ones?
It was, yes. It was quite easy to do and what also helped is that we did it in two sections. We recorded one batch of songs and went back into the studio four, five months later and recorded a second batch. And therefore, we had a little bit more breathing space to learn to live with the album and to decide which songs were actually making the grade and which ones weren’t.
Did those two batches have slightly different personalities?
I suppose so, because in a way, we were still trying to find out how tough we wanted the album to be. I mean, there’s always that fear that maybe you’ve turned it up too much, that the distortion will start to grate after awhile. (laughs) But quite on the contrary, we found we can up that level a few notches more.
And in general terms, what are your lyrical concerns?
Some of the things that make me the most angry are the things that haven’t changed. (laughs) I’ve been writing songs for so many years, it’s something people should’ve noticed by now. (laughs)
Is there a noticeable difference between what you and Steve do on guitar?
Yes, but to the proverbial man on the galloping horse, probably not. I mean, it’s really strange. We don’t really have a lead guitarist in the band. Perhaps that’s Tony (Tony Barber; the band is rounded out by drummer Phil Barker), the bass player… (laughs) Steve and I alternate; we do a bit of everything, really. There’s a lot of rhythm and then the occasional solo, and then a few noises off. (laughs)
Is there more of an affinity between you guys and someone like the Ramones versus the British bands?
I suppose so, because of the guitars. But then again, The Clash and the Pistols… The Ramones influenced everybody, really. Jonathan Richman was a really big influence as well. The whole idea was writing songs about things which we actually knew about, rather than dreaming up about some distant land.
What about the MC5?
Well, mainly because it was noisy guitar. But nothing beyond that. And they still seemed a bit hippie-ish, I think. (laughs)
How did you guys get on the Pearl Jam tour?
I don’t know. That amazes me as well. I mean, we think it may have something to do with… years before Pearl Jam, I believe Eddie Vedder used to come to the shows and hang out with Steve. But I don’t know if it’s because of that or not. But they were just on the lookout for a very good band with a bit of credibility that we could lend him. (laughs)
Do you also know Eddie to any extent?
No. I mean, I have no recollection of actually formally meeting him.
But Steve is kind of a buddy?
I don’t think Steve has all that clear a recollection. (laughs)
What are your worldwide sales up to?
I don’t know about that. The only thing I know is that we received a silver disc for Love Bites. That’s the only award. Martin Rushent (producer) was presented with a silver disc for Ever Fallen In Love, which is for a quarter of a million sales. But none of the band got one. (laughs)
Did any of you guys ever do any work outside of the music business?
No, we’re both conscientious objectors to work.
You had a solo career…
Well, that’s hardly work, is it? (laughs) Steve did a little bit acting, but then again, that’s hardly work either.
How about a few words of contrast on the original three albums, starting with Another Music In A Different Kitchen.
Well, it was exciting being in the studio and actually getting a chance to do an album. I mean, we’d done two singles by then so we went to the same studio we recorded the singles in, Olympic Studios. And we recorded in the room that they filmed “Sympathy For The Devil.” It was a nice space to be in, and we did about three or four songs a day.
What changed so drastically from the earlier material? I mean, that was a really clean album.
It sounded dirty to us at the time. (laughs) But it’s a strange thing. If you actually play albums from the past, you find out how clean they do sound. I think people were more conscious of watching meters in those days. But nowadays, you know, they have to be lighting up red to show that they’re working.
Any recollections of Martin Rushent, things he did as a producer?
When we started recording Love Bites, we stopped at his house and we found all these hats. So we had a few days in the studio where we all wore hats. But apart from that, it was all fairly workmanlike. One of his normal comments was, “Are you going to do the vocal in here or out there?” (laughs) He actually appeared once on Top Of The Pops with a solo album.
What about Love Bites? That, to me seemed like a real pop album compared to the first one.
It was just the songs. If you think about it, there was quite a bit of experimental stuff on there. It isn’t just a pure pop album. But people remember it that way perhaps because of “Ever Fallen In Love,” which, unfortunately, is part of the human condition. (laughs)
And moving on to A Different Kind Of Tension, what kind of album was that?
That was a bit darker. I mean, the whole of the second side, five or six songs, started off with “I don’t know what to do with my life,” and then ended up on the lower note of “There is no love in this world anymore,” and I believed it. (laughs)
What is Howard Devoto up to now?
I’ve seen copies of a solo album he’s put together. It isn’t released yet and I haven’t heard it, so I can’t comment on it beyond that.
Why did he leave the band?
He left because he was finishing his degree in college. He was told, if he didn’t do the work, he wouldn’t get his degree. And seeing as there was no future in punk (laughs) – and still isn’t, really…
But yet he moved onto Magazine, instead of going into a career that would make use of his degree?
Yes, and I can’t remember whether he had gotten his degree or not.
What’s the story of the two co-writes with him on this album?
“Lester Sands” is a song we wrote originally with Buzzcocks. The only time it’s actually been recorded, before now, was when we did our first demo sessions. And a bootleg came out of that demo session, which then became the Time’s Up recording. And the other one, “Stars,” with 2001 being our 25th anniversary, we met up and we were discussing whether or not we’d have some special gigs or series of gigs and we asked if Howard would like to come along and sing a couple of songs. We thought, well, maybe we can write some new songs as well. So we started by collaborating and the first one we came up with was “Stars.” And then all the other songs, they weren’t really Buzzcocks songs, but we carried on doing them anyway, and it came out as the Buzzkunst album, as the Shelley/Devoto Buzzkunst album.
Was there some point along the original run where you looked around and said, “Hey, we’ve made it?”
Playing Santa Monica Civic Center once, as a headliner. There were far too many people. The thing is, there was a bit of trouble and the security people were being far too brutal, and they hauled somebody off and I said we’re not playing until they’re brought back. (laughs) So anyway, they’re brought back and in the meantime, everybody got up onto the stage because there was a huge stage in front of us; we were set quite far back. In order to carry on playing, rather than clear the stage, they just made everybody sit down so the people who were still in the hall could see. It all went really well and we had a great gig.
Was there a point in time on one of these records where you could play to thousands and thousands in America?
That would’ve been on A Different Kind Of Tension. When we came over, Singles Going Steady and A Different Kind Of Tension were the two records at the time. I hate really big places, to be honest. I like to be able to smell the crowd.
What was one of your favorite tours, as a headliner or opener?
The last tour we did in Australia, quite recently, with a band called Mack Pelican, like a Japanese version of the Ramones.
What is one of the weirdest bills you’ve played on?
In the early days we went out with Sad Cafe. We played at a place called the Golden Palms in Queensland; it was like a little nightclub. And Sad Cafe had so much equipment, we had to play on the floor. There wasn’t room for us to set up on stage so we had to play on the floor.
Singapore. We had people jump around and enjoy themselves and apparently that’s banned; there’s some law against it.
What about interesting fan interactions or gifts you’ve been given?
Fan interactions, the most interesting one was when we were playing in Newcastle, at the City Hall. And during those days, there were so many people hanging around outside at the stage door, that we used to sometimes rush out the front door and get into the car. So this night we rush out the door and there was this girl and she had a tortoise. And she said, “Could you sign my tortoise’s shell?” She said her tortoise is called Pete Shelley. So I signed a tortoise. In the meantime, we’d been spotted, and the door nearly got ripped off the car.
What about any big misconceptions about the punk era? What has been misreported in the press?
It’s strange, when I do interviews and people ask about the past and they like, they think it was an extremely wonderful place and that we all must’ve lived charmed lives. But at the time, we didn’t expect anybody to notice what we were doing. It’s strange to have those things happen and have them looked upon as wonderful or miraculous, whereas at the time it was just what you were doing.
Were you noticed? Were you selling lots and lots of records?
At certain points, yes. But all the singles, which became Singles Going Steady, were all released before the album came out, before 1979. So that’s two years of output. In the meantime, we’d done three albums as well. It was a lot easier to put out records in those days, which made it more exciting being a recording artist, because it was something to do. (laughs)
What was your reputation as a band?
Everybody reports that we were well liked by everybody. I mean, we weren’t very yobbish.
I guess everybody thinks everybody was buddies, but there really was a lot of competition between all you guys, was there not?
There were certain groups… I mean, The Damned fell out of favor with other bands. Because during the Anarchy tour, you see, they said that they would play, even if the Sex Pistols weren’t allowed to play. And they played in front of some counselors who said, “Well, play the songs, and we’ll tell you whether or not you can play tonight.” And they did that. And there is also something about some punk festival in France where there was a bit of bad blood. But apart from that, everybody got on.
What are some interesting things we might not know about The Clash?
That most nights on the White Riot tour, they thought they were rubbish. They used to come off stage and argue all the time at shows and say, “You were rubbish! You played that wrong!” But they weren’t bad. (laughs) I’ve seen worse.
What about the Boomtown Rats? Any interesting recollections about those guys?
Once, they had a night off in Aberdeen and we were playing at The Playhouse. In those days, it could get a bit riotous with people getting hurt down in front; people are pushing forward. So I stopped the song and told everybody to move back. And because I was just doing the sensible thing, then everybody broke into applause. And I said, “Oh no, don’t carry on, you’ll have me… you’ll make me out like a Bob Geldof.” And he was in the balcony and that’s when he decided to walk out. (laughs)
Looking at the entire catalog, what is one of your favorites and what is one of your least favorites?
It’s always changing. It’s usually the ones done a long time ago that are seen as being better than the newer ones, yeah? I mean, it was ages before A Different Kind Of Tension was seen as a classic album. And now it’s started – I’ve seen in a few reviews – that people are saying Trade Test Transmissions is now a classic. And a few years ago, it probably wouldn’t have been seen that way. I think after a certain amount of time, people say “Yeah, yeah, I’ll give you that one.” (laughs)
Well, it will be great seeing you on those big stages with Pearl Jam.
Bring your binoculars.
Have you ever been on a tour that big?
No, not really. Well, we did a tour with Nirvana in Europe in ’94…
Did you hang out with those guys?
Yes, it was required.
You must have some great stories. When will we see an autobiography from you?
Oh, I don’t know about that. All I have so far is the title: What Do I Get?