“We both had the same fear, me and Joe Strummer” says Pete Shelley. “In the old days, the punk rock days, cars had big chrome bumpers. We both had the fear of standing on the corner and a car whipping round and catching your kneecap!” It certainly conjures up an odd image – Shelley and Strummer, godfathers of punk, cautiously walking down the middle of the pavement, suspiciously eyeballing passing cars, lest one mount the pavement and attempt a kneecapping.
We’re sitting in the spartan backstage hospitality area (plastic chairs, warm beer) at Canterbury Fayre, possibly the UK’s hippiest festival, Buzzcocks definitely being the coconut cream in a box of toffee squares on the bill. “Yeah, certainly an eclectic mix, but a good weekend all the same.” Having just finished a lightning-speed romp through some of the highlights of his impressive song canon, the Buzzcocks’ frontman is in affable mood, relaxed and unpretentious as befits an elder statesman of punk.
Buzzcocks importance in music is undeniable. It was they who brought the Sex Pistols to Manchester for the legendary Free Trade Hall gig depicted in the movie ‘24 Hour Party People’ (“Scandalous! It looks nothing like me!”). Their self-financed ‘Spiral Scratch’ EP opened the floodgates for the whole of the indie movement. But most importantly, Buzzcocks, and specifically Shelley, created a slew of unforgettable pop gems. Legions of bands have learned from the nagging melody and quirky angularity of the punk pop blueprint laid down by Shelley and his bandmates. But few have so effortlessly mixed urgent, insistent pop with and edgy abrasiveness. And besides why go see the imitators, when the originals are still alive and well with a punishing tour schedule? “We did a month’s tour in Britain, then to Europe, then we went to America where we played with Pearl Jam on some of their concerts. We’re off to Spain in about two weeks’ time, then we’re doing another tour of Britain and America in November/December time. Then next year we’re gonna concentrate on getting a new album ready”. Will the Buzzcocks go on forever? “Yeah, I can’t see any reason why not. People out there were enjoying it. I still get a charge out of playing live – eventually. I lost sight of the crowd a few times coz of the smoke machines up there – the bubbles were a nice touch, though!”
When I ask if punk rock can still be revolutionary, if the electric guitar still be dangerous, Pete answers immediately “Yes, In the right hands, definitely.” So who does he rate among today’s crop of bands? “There’s quite a lot of interesting stuff around, but coz I listen to the radio, they back announce everything, so I don’t know who it is I like!”. Oh well, then… what of his own recent collaboration with his former comrade at arms Howard Devoto? “Howard’s a very funny guy, it was a great laugh making that album. The idea was to make something so ridiculous it must be good. Always has been – the guitar solo on ‘Boredom’ is two notes; it was about the nature of the guitar solo,” laughs Pete. “Oh and Howard never slept with Tony Wilson’s wife!” (as depicted in ‘24 Hour Party People’ – Rumour has it that it was another famous Manchester frontman who was curiously written out of the movie…)
Finally I ask if Pete if there have been any gigs which have particularly stuck in his mind over the years. “There’ve been lots. Sometimes it’s what happens after the gig that’s more memorable.” Any rum stories from the road then? For once Pete Shelley is speechless. Anything he dare tell us? More silence. Finally, after a lengthy pause “My silence speaks volumes” he says with a knowing grin, leaving us only to wonder what antics Buzzcocks get up to on their never-ending tour. But let’s hope they carry on, and let’s hope whatever Pete Shelley does backstage it keeps on fuelling his genius for those perfect pop, amphetamine love songs, because the world would be a colder place without the Buzzcocks.