Pete Shelley (1955-2008): A Different Kind of Pioneer

The Buzzcocks vocalist and punk icon represented the beating heart and soul of the punk ethos.

It’s actually quite easy to understand just how pivotal the late Pete Shelley—who died yesterday at the age of sixty-three—was to both the punk and LGBTQ communities in the UK. Beyond his seminal work as the frontman of the Buzzcocks, and later as a solo artist, Pete Shelley represented the beating heart and soul of the punk ethos, a human embodiment of the DIY aesthetic. His attitudes toward sexuality and overall approach to life were just as influential as any of his songs.

About halfway through Jon Savage’s essential BBC 6 broadcast Queer as Punk,” the esteemed music historian breaks down the specifics of how queer and punk cultures collided through the ’70s and up until the present day. Savage details how growing violence and anti-gay sentiments rippling through the original punk scene in London inspired the next wave of pioneers to bring energy and spirit to surrounding areas.

“It’s hard to overestimate the influence of Pete Shelley,” stressed Abigail Ward, a co-founder of Manchester Digital Music Archive, on Savage’s podcast. “He was openly bisexual. He spoke about his sexuality in the mainstream music press. And to me, he had a real humor and lightness of touch about that. He often said that his lyrics were deliberately non-gender specific so that whoever was listening would feel included.”

Ward adds that while Morrissey would find himself haunting the more traditional gay bars of Manchester, Shelley was drawn to the wilder side of life found at places like The Ranch Bar. Shelley himself explained that for his group of friends, they “thrived” on the decadence.

Another commenter added that Shelley would go to more subtle extremes to get his message across: “He would wear a plastic badge on his guitar strap, and one of them said ‘I Like Boys,’ and the other one was ‘How Dare You Presume I’m Heterosexual.’”

And then there is the music. Timeless Buzzcocks classics like “What Do I Get?,” Orgasm Addict,” Why Can’t I Touch It and Ever Fallen in Love became cornerstones for the punk movement that inspired generations of artists around the world.

The public outpouring of affection directed toward Shelley since his passing has been a who’s who of rock and punk royalty. Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols paused his brilliant Los Angeles radio show, Jonesy’s Jukebox, to honor the fallen hero, while Billy Idol, Duff McKagan, Peter Hook, Captain Sensible, Pearl Jam, and Irvine Welsh were among the other musical luminaries inspired to pay tribute to Shelley’s enormous legacy.

One of the most heartfelt and genuine tributes to the spirit of Pete Shelley came via indie icon Lou Barlow, with a story he shared on his Facebook page:

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