Sunday, December 09, 2018

P.S. we love you

Here's my tribute at Pitchfork to Pete Shelley and the timeless newness and nowness of Buzzcocks.

Getting older, as a person and as a writer, means having to get used to not just losing people, but writing about the loss of them.

The last month for me has been substantially taken up with commemoration of Mark Fisher and now Pete Shelley.

Strange indeed that the last time I should have seen both of them alive was at the same place - the Incubate festival in Tilburg, Holland, September 2012.

Writing about a dead person that mattered to you - personally known or not - is a odd business.

On the one hand, you're confronting loss, and trying to measure and convey in words the dimensions and the particularity of the loss.Which is a gloomy business. But on the other hand - being a writer and all - there is joy and satisfaction in finding the right words. A pride that can feel inappropriate, given the context, but in its own way is a defiant flexing of the life force.

Well, eventually there is joy and satisfaction. At first there is struggle - the usual struggle, but more severe in this case, because more is at stake: this is a life, and a life's work, in review, not just a recording or a performance.  There is a sense of gravity. The Shelley piece was an all-nighter. That used to be how I wrote everything that was larger than a record or gig review, back in the Eighties. But over the last 25 years or so, this kind of all-night ordeal became a vanishingly rare occurrence for me. This was a flashback and... well, let's just say it was touch-and-go for a moment there.

It's sobering to consider that I'll be doing more and more of this kind of writing in the years ahead. That's just the way life will be going, from here on out. It'll be.. going. More and more gaps will appear in the company of the valued and meant-a-lot. Life, increasingly replaced by death. Presence, outnumbered by absence.

Alongside public memorials, there'll be private occasions for writing about lost people - eulogies addressed  to smaller, more intimate and exclusive audiences. Twice in the last three years I've faced the challenge and the duty of summing up, or catching aspects of, a life.

When we write these things, or read them, we are of course mourning ourselves too, as well the lost precious individual. Confronting the passing of our time. All the things that mattered, all the people who kept us company on our journey -  in real, first-hand ways, or in remote and mediated ways that are nonetheless just as intimate and essential.


This is the first Buzzcocks song I ever did hear -  when my brother Tim (another person who's gone, eight years now) brought the single home. There's still something wonderfully insolent and adolescent and bratty about "when your mummy says 'noise annoys; - GO" and the blare of guitar that follows.

I love all the obvious Buzzcocks classics, of course, but this one is a fave that I haven't seen other people posting. Love that endlessly cycling guitar figure needling away like a twilight-zone thought-beam.  Apparently "ESP" has the longest fade in recorded history.

This is such a strange and lovely piece of music - such a gorgeous yearn. I can't think of anything else quite like "Why Can't I Touch It?". Love the super-stereo-separated jousting of guitar-riffs, with that unique Buzzcocks feel of clumsy and delicate, stiff and graceful.

Another of the killer B-sides

Late gems on A Different Kind of Tension

What makes first-wave punk-pop like Buzzcocks so different from the melodious emo-punk of the Nineties, its ostensible descendant, is that the Nineties lot (G.Day etc) can really play but are choosing to restrict themselves within an established genre format. Whereas Buzzcocks you can hear them straining against the limits of their ability - and creating that genre template as first-time cultural event. You can feel the freshness still.

Sung by Shelley, written by Diggle

Here's the performance of "Harmony In My Head" from Tilburg with the declamatory middle-bit and guitar-hero poses from Diggle. It doesn't sadly capture the incredulous Shelley comment.

Shelley and the band were staying in the same hotel as me and on the last morning I saw him and a young friend having breakfast in the basement parlour. I did toy with the thought of going up and saying "great concert, thanks for the music" etc etc. But Shelley seemed so quiet, so inwardly focused, that I decided to respect his privacy. Regrets, I've had a few...

Some great TV documentary clips about Buzzcocks and Manchester punk.

Love the way Tony Wilson has gratuitously shoved in some Situationist graffiti slogans at various points throughout.

Pete Shelley as fan - pages from his fanzine, NME Portrait of a Consumer, his testimonial about Can from the 1978 compilation Cannibalism.

His Krautrock fandom also surfaced in this side project with Eric Random - The Tiller Boys. "Big Noise From The Jungle" was in regular rotation on the John Peel show and I was pleased to pop it in an imaginary list of the DJ's favorites of the postpunk era in Rip It Up, although I have no idea if Peelie would have agreed about any of the inclusions. In the book I described "Big Noise" as a clangorous Neu!-like stampede or words to that effect. But of course in 1980, sixteen-year-old me would have had no idea of Neu! existence or what the record's makers were aiming for or inspired by. It was just a glorious clamour. There are advantages to knowing nothing.

Here's a great interview with Shelley by Taylor Parkes from only a few years ago, for the Quietus.

Shelley: "We wanted to be intelligent, but not intellectual. We wanted to be entertaining, but not entertainers..."

Parkes: "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."

And here's an interview with the whole band from 1979 on Canadian television.