Pete Shelley, RIP; or my life in punk and new wave

As I walked into my office this past Friday afternoon (December 7), I vaguely noticed our eldest daughter sitting on the sofa reading. Firing up my computer, I turned on iTunes. The 9,560 tracks contained there are sorted by artist, so I only needed to scroll down to the end of the B’s. I clicked on the track I wanted, turned up the volume, and sat back to listen.

“Well, you tried it just for once/

found it all right for kicks.

But now you found out/

that it’s a habit that sticks.

And you’re an orgasm addict,

you’re an orgasm addict.”[1]

The track continued in the same vein for an additional two minutes, tracing numerous permutations of sexual release, concluding with…

“Johnny want fuckie always and all ways.

He’s got the energy, he will remain.

He’s an orgasm addict, he’s an orgasm addict.

He’s always at it.

He’s always at it.

And he’s an orgasm addict.

He’s an orgasm addict.”

Unbeknownst to me, our eldest daughter had come into my office. And as the track ended, she asked:

“Daddy, what’s an orgasm?”

Uh-oh.

OK, that did not actually happen. But the possibility that it could happen kept me from blasting “Orgasm Addict” in response to the news that Buzzcocks co-founder and lead singer Pete Shelley had died on Thursday at the age of 63.

**********

A few years ago, I bought this book for our daughters.

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This is what is written on page 13:

“Back in foggy Londontown, things were getting really bad.

All the young kids in the streets seemed to be going mad.

They played music that was new, it was bold and it was brash.

The Damned and the Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks and the Clash.”[2]

Pete Shelley (born Peter Campbell McNeish) and Howard Devoto (born Howard Trafford) formed Buzzcocks in Bolton (near Manchester), UK in early 1976. It was they who organized the legendary Sex Pistols concert at Lesser Free Trade Hall on June 4, 1976 whose audience included future members of The Smiths, Joy Division/New Order and The Fall.

However, as deeply influential on the development of punk as Pete Shelley was, I first became aware of him through his solo work in the early 1980s, soon after the breakup of Buzzcocks.

It was most likely the fall of 1982 when my mother first signed us up for cable television, allowing my first sustained exposure to a nascent 24-hour-a-day music channel called MTV. MTV often played a video for a mesmerizing synthesizer-driven track released the previous December called “Homosapien.” Having grown up with Kraftwerk’s Autobahn while recently loving influential synthpop tunes like M’s “Pop Muzik” (I still have the original 45 RPM single) and Gary Numan’s “Cars,” I was particularly drawn to this track.

I was just 15 years old then, so while I unequivocally appreciated the more-unites-us-than-divides-us message, I may have missed the fairly overt declaration of sexual preference.

**********

By the summer of 1979, I had become aware of something called “new wave” through breakthrough hit singles by Blondie and Joe Jackson. My ongoing love of this genre—one of many pop-influenced offshoots of punk—is apparent in my own musical journey, summarized graphically below (the yellow represents new wave).

Cropped data art screen shot

But my suburban Philadelphia milieu limited my exposure to the propulsive immediacy of this music (I was a hair too young to hang out on South Street) until MTV started playing nearly non-stop in my bedroom.

A few months later, my favorite Top 40 station (WIFI-92) transformed into “I-92 Rock of the 80s” …

…and it was as though my musical existence came fully into focus for the first time (I would have much the same experience listening to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue for the first time some 15 years later—it remains my favorite album while “Blue in Green” remains my favorite song).

Among all the music by artists I was hearing for the first time (Simple Minds, New Order, B-Movie, Thomas Dolby, The Fixx, Shriekback, Ministry, Tears for Fears, Wall of Voodoo, Spandau Ballet, Freur, Falco, Talk Talk, Kajagoogoo, Burning Sensations, etc.) was a relentlessly hypnotic earworm by Shelley called “Telephone Operator.” The video released for this track features perhaps the best mens’ shirt ever.

Early that spring (1983) I learned how to drive, and I began to spend hours driving back and forth to Northeast Philadelphia to hang out with a maternal 2nd cousin who had become my best friend, listening to this station the entire drive. At home, my stereo was permanently tuned to 92.5 FM. And one day I began to tape (illegally, I know) tracks from the station onto a 90-minute Maxell cassette.

The resulting mix—cleverly (and mistakenly) labeled “I-92 All Rock of the 80s”—included both “Homosapien” (which I actually taped from MTV, along with Devo’s “Peek-A-Boo”) and “Telephone Operator,” as well as two tracks[3] by an Irish band named U2 I had only been vaguely aware previously,[4] plus two other Devo tracks[5]. They are all on Side 1.

Side 2, meanwhile, is particularly excellent:

Stand or Fall” by The Fixx

Red Skies” by The Fixx

Too Shy” by Kajagoogoo

Jimmy Jimmy” by Ric Ocasek

Talk Talk” by Talk Talk

I Confess” by English Beat

(Keep Feeling) Fascination” by The Human League

All Roads Lead to Rome” by The Stranglers

Der Kommissar” by Falco

Love on Your Side” by The Thompson Twins

Reap the Wild Wind” by Ultravox

Change” by Tears for Fears

That was in April 1983. Two months later, I taped Shelley’s “(Millions of People) No One Like You” onto the cassette mix Stuff Vol. XI, along with tracks by XTC, A Flock of Seagulls, Chris DeBurgh, Planet P, Ministry, Spandau Ballet, Fun Boy Three, Yello, Shriekback, U2, The Fixx, Duran Duran and Tears for Fears, along with “Modern Love” by David Bowie.

Unfortunately, the format change only lasted until August 1; by March 1984 92.5 FM had switched to country music (WXTU), which it remains. Even though the “rock of the 80s” format only lasted six months, however, its influence on me was such that I created not one, but two, “in honor of” mix tapes.

The first was a single-cassette mix in July 1994; note the last track on Side 1:

Side 1
Let Me Go Heaven 17
Promised You a Miracle Simple Minds
The Fanatic Felony
All Roads Lead to Rome Stranglers, The
Red Skies Fixx, The
Blind Vision Blancmange
Love on Your Side Thompson Twins
Nightmares Flock of Seagulls, A
Let’s Go to Bed Cure, The
Nowhere Girl B-Movie
Sex (I’m A…) Berlin
Telephone Operator Shelley, Pete
 
Side 2
Eyes of a Stranger Payola$, The
Mexican Radio Wall of Voodoo
Communication Spandau Ballet
Lined Up Shriekback
(It’s Not Me) Talking Flock of Seagulls, A
Reap the Wild Wind Ultravox
Work For Love Ministry
I Melt With You Modern English
Blue Monday New Order
Images of Heaven Godwin, Peter
Change Tears for Fears
Accretions Shriekback

The second mix I prepared in July 1997 for a three-week road trip my then-girlfriend (let’s call her “AC”) and I took through New York (Cooperstown), Pennsylvania (Gettysburg, Hershey, Lancaster), Maryland (Eastern Shore) and New Jersey (Wildwood). Essentially, I interspersed new tracks between every consecutive pair of tracks on the earlier mix (adding another Shelley track in the process):

Cassette 1

Side 1
Let Me Go Heaven 17
That’s Good Devo
Promised You a Miracle Simple Minds
Effigy (I’m Not an) Ministry
The Fanatic Felony
Europa and the Pirate Twins Dolby, Thomas
All Roads Lead to Rome Stranglers, The
Too Shy Kajagoogoo
Red Skies Fixx, The
Torch Soft Cell
Blind Vision Blancmange
Lifeline Spandau Ballet
Love on Your Side Thompson Twins
 
Side 2
I Love You Yello
Nightmares Flock of Seagulls, A
Saved By Zero Fixx, The
Let’s Go to Bed Cure, The
Sign of the Times Belle Starrs, The
Nowhere Girl B-Movie
Pale Shelter Tears for Fears
Sex (I’m A…) Berlin
It’s You, Only You (Mein Schmertz) Lovich, Lene
Telephone Operator Shelley, Pete
Revenge Ministry
Escalator of Life Hazard, Robert and the Heroes
My Spine (Is the Bassline) Shriekback

Cassette 2

Side 1
Eyes of a Stranger Payola$, The
Living on the Ceiling Blancmange
Mexican Radio Wall of Voodoo
Angst in My Pants Sparks
Communication Spandau Ballet
Metro Berlin
Lined Up Shriekback
Save It For Later English Beat, The
(It’s Not Me) Talking Flock of Seagulls, A
Da Da Da Trio
Reap the Wild Wind Ultravox
He Was Really Sayin’ Somethin’ Bananarama
Work For Love Ministry
(Millions of People) No One Like You Shelley, Pete
 
Side 2
I Melt With You Modern English
She Blinded Me With Science Dolby, Thomas
Blue Monday New Order
Whirly Girl Oxo
Images of Heaven Godwin, Peter
Wishing Flock of Seagulls, A
Change Tears for Fears
Don’t Change INXS
Accretions Shriekback
Doot-Doot Freur
Overkill Men At Work
Cool Places Sparks with Jane Wiedlin

Happily, when I lived in Washington DC from September 1988 to June 1989, I discovered modern rock station WHFS (99.1 FM); a handful of tracks they played appear on Washington Vol. I-III. And in 1991, I was introduced to legendary Boston alternative rock station WFNX (101.7 FM). This was my station of choice for the next six or so years, though by then I had stopped taping tracks from the radio.

And it was on WFNX I heard Buzzcocks tunes for the first time: the ebullient “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays,” the frenetic “Ever Fallen in Love?” and the looping “Something’s Gone Wrong Again.” In fact, I so loved these tunes, in which I heard punk evolving into new wave, that in January or February 1994, I purchased a CD copy of Singles Going Steady, the superlative 16-track Buzzcocks compilation first released in September 1979.

April 1994’s Stuff and Such Vol XXXIX, intended for a road trip to visit a friend in Iowa that never happened, marks the first “Stuff and Such” appearance of the three Buzzcocks tracks listed above; they are the 2nd, 12th and 9th tracks, respectively, on Side 1. “Why Can’t I Touch It?” first appears as the 9th track on Side 2 of March 2000’s Stuff and Such LXXIII (the third of three mix cassettes I prepared for the sixth—and final—trip I made with AC[6] to watch the Phillies play Spring Training games in Clearwater, FL). And the final Buzzcocks track to make one a “Stuff and Such” mix is the aforementioned “Orgasm Addict.”

And therein lies a tale.

**********

I have yet to stop dressing up as something for Halloween, even if this year I essentially just wore my new MSNBC t-shirt with a lot of “blue wave” blue.

IMG_3981.JPG

In the fall of 1995, I decided to abandon Phillies-related attire and create the more conceptual “punk becoming new wave.” I was trying to replicate the two-tone black-and-white style of, say, Joe Jackson or the Cars on their album covers. What I came up with—after scouring Goodwill and other used clothing stores—was a black button-down shirt (over a white t-shirt), an old pair of black jeans, a thin black-and-white belt held together with a safety pin, a skinny white tie, a faded black suit jacket, “new wave” black sunglasses, a motley collection of pins with band names on my jacket lapels, and one white dress shoe (with a black dress sock) and one black dress shoe (with a white sock).

That outfit debuted at a Halloween party thrown by some of AC’s fellow MIT doctoral students on October 28, 1995. I am certain of the date because we watched the Atlanta Braves beat the Cleveland Indians 1-0 (a Fred McGriff solo home run) in the sixth and final game of the 1995 World Series.

Unfortunately, I do not seem to have a photograph of me in this outfit.

I was still wearing it on Halloween five years later. Halloween fell on a weekday in 2000, so the company where I worked held a party with prizes for various categories of costume. I am still quite proud of my award:

IMG_4015 (2)

That year, I decided to prepare an accompanying Punk Becomes New Wave, 1975-80 mix cassette. The mix is roughly in chronological order and consists of key tracks and artists. Not only does “Orgasm Addict” debut as the 7th track on Side 1, two other Buzzcocks tracks return as well.

Side 1
Roadrunner Richman, Jonathan and the Modern Lovers
Pissing In a River Smith, Patti Group, The
Anarchy in the U.K. Sex Pistols, The
Career Opportunities Clash, The
Beat On the Brat Ramones
No More Heroes Stranglers, The
Orgasm Addict Buzzcocks, The
Warsaw Joy Division
Psycho Killer Talking Heads
Watching the Detectives Costello, Elvis & the Attractions
I Wanna Be Sedated Ramones
Hanging On the Telephone Blondie
Ever Fallen In Love? Buzzcocks, The
Take Me I’m Yours Squeeze
Pump It Up Costello, Elvis & the Attractions
Public Image Public Image Ltd.
Jocko Homo Devo
Hey, St. Peter Flash and the Pan
Artists Only Talking Heads
 
Side 2
Is She Really Going Out With Him? Jackson, Joe
Everybody’s Happy Nowadays Buzzcocks, The
Next To You Police, The
One Way or Another Blondie
Zerox Adam and the Ants
Gangsters Specials, The
Are ‘Friends’ Electric? Numan, Gary
London Calling Clash, The
Life During Wartime Talking Heads
Lucky Number Lovich, Lene
It’s Different For Girls Jackson, Joe
Discovering Japan Parker, Graham
Stop Your Sobbing Pretenders, The
Rock Lobster B-52’s, The
Love Will Tear Us Apart Joy Division
Pop Muzik M

I wore the outfit a few more Halloweens, but it was never quite that exciting again.

**********

AC and I spent Thanksgiving 1994 with my mother and assorted family members in the Philadelphia suburb of Penn Valley. One (relatively) warm afternoon, we ended up on a local elementary school baseball/softball diamond with a married couple. The husband (let’s call him “UP”), a close friend from Yale, and I had been playing a kind of modified game of baseball (alternating hitting and pitching with consensus on what balls put in play fair signify) since the spring of 1990. We had traditionally pretended to be some combination of Phillies or Boston Red Sox players.

This day, however, UP decided that he was going to be a team of 17th-century Anglican bishops, who did not so much run the bases as move in a stately manner about them.

Thus was born a years-long tradition of inventing bizarre and unusual “teams” when we played. In fact, I so loved the idea that I bought a special notebook in 2002 (after AC and I had split up, and I had temporarily moved back to the Philadelphia area in February 2001) in which I would create various teams.

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Sitting at night at the counter of Minella’s, my favorite 24-hour diner, I would create a team in three pages. On the first page, I would brainstorm possible players (say, musical artists I have seen live). On the second page, I would work out the positions (eight starters, a starting pitcher, six-person bench, six-person bullpen) and batting order. And on the third page, I would write out the final team as neatly as my poor graphomotor skills allow.

IMG_4021

The single best team I ever created, however, does not appear in this book (which still lives in my car, even though I have not created a new team in 15 or so years).

Knowing that AC and I would be traveling to Philadelphia in August 2000, and that UP and I would be playing our version of baseball one afternoon, I decided to create an epic punk/new wave All Star team (clearly those genres were on my mind that year). It consisted of four lineups: pre-punk (“Leading off, playing second base, Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground!”), punk, new wave and early alternative. The starting pitchers for these teams were Andy Warhol, Malcolm McLaren, Martha Quinn and WFNX, respectively, while the pinch hitters assigned to hit for these pitchers were Johnny Rotten (John Lydon), Ian Curtis, Bono and Kurt Cobain, respectively. And each position represented a kind of sub-movement within each genre. Thus, I divided the “new wave” lineup into a “batting order” of Los Angeles (and other American), ska/reggae, gothic/moody, new romantic, synth gods, Australia, “other” and one-hit wonders.

As far as I can tell, I only kept the sheets I used to organize my thoughts and not a record of the final teams/positions. If memory serves, I simply memorized it for my game. However, I do recall that in the second lineup, one Pete Shelley batted third, playing third base.

Pete Shelley on 2000 Punk to New Wave Team

As for the game itself…

UP and I dropped AC at the Lord & Taylor in the Bala Cynwyd Shopping Center (corner of Belmont and City Avenues) then drove less than a mile north on Belmont Avenue to the baseball diamonds in Bala Cynwyd Park (directly across from West Laurel Hill Cemetery).

Whatever team UP put together is long-since forgotten, but they did not score in the top of the first. With two outs and nobody on in the bottom of the first, Brian Eno and David Bowie both walked, bringing up Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hutter. His double to left center brought home both Eno and Bowie to make it 2-0 in favor of my team.

Eight innings later, WFNX nailed down the save in a 2-0 victory for Andy Warhol.

I do not remember what Pete Shelley did in his lone at bat.

The game took some two hours to play, and I envisioned AC waiting impatiently for us. However, when we found her in Lord & Taylor, it was though we had never left. Holding up two pairs of black dress slacks, she asked,

“Which pair do you like better?”

I hope she is well, wherever she is.

And rest in peace, Mr. Shelley.

Until next time…

[1] Songwriters: Howard Devoto / Peter Shelley; Orgasm Addict lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, BMG Rights Management

[2] Morse, Eric. 2015. What Is Punk? Brooklyn, NY: Akashic Books.

[3] “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day”

[4] Basically, “I Will Follow” and “Gloria”

[5] “That’s Good” and “Theme from Doctor Detroit

[6] We dated for over seven years, living together for over five years, so my wife Nell calls AC my “first wife.”

4 thoughts on “Pete Shelley, RIP; or my life in punk and new wave

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