The band's name was the greatest uni-word translation of pubescent sexuality ever, its singer was an out-of-the-closet (long before it was trendy) U.K. punk rock "star" whose songs rose from a grim Manchester basement to American TV ads pimping Toyota ("What Do I Get") and — gasp! — AARP ("Everybody's Happy Nowadays"). You'll recall how hugely influential the band was, from Nirvana to Green Day, etc. — and that theirs is an unlikely story of an unlikely band whose unlikely singsong tunes were always smarter than they came off, and teen sexual torment never sounded (or will ever sound) so loud, fast and sugary, and so honest. (There's a reason "Orgasm Addict" — a 33-year-old song — still rears on a million pubertal playlists.) Here, from his Toronto hotel room, Buzzcocks cherub–cheeked singer-songwriter Pete Shelley gets five questions dirty about Buzzcocks and its current North American tour (on which the band plays its first or second albums whole).
1. Metro Times: What album absolutely caused a major shift in your life?
Pete Shelley: The first actual album I owned was Sgt Pepper's. So I suppose that was the pivotal one. But it was the Beatles, Kinks and Stones, and long list of others in the mid-to-late '60s and then into the '70s with T. Rex and David Bowie. And if we're dropping names, there was the Velvet Underground and the Stooges, which got me into punk.
2. MT: What's it like to play your whole first album, Another Music in a Different Kitchen, as an elder statesmen?
Shelley: It's remarkably good [laughs]! In some ways, we've been blessed with more than our share of good tunes.
3. MT: What's the story behind "What Do I Get," perhaps the greatest pop song to rise from punk rock. It has been good to you over the years — covered by many, appeared in films and, oddly, on an American TV ad for a Toyota SUV. I thought if any songwriter deserves a hefty royalty payday it's Pete Shelly. When you wrote it, were you sitting around your bedroom at your parent's house, strumming on an acoustic guitar?
Shelley: No, no. I was in a windowless basement flat [laughs]. I was 21, living on my own. But, it was something I did for myself; that was the real secret of it.
When the song was in the Toyota ad, at least it wasn't Phil Collins! It seems there was a generational tide that came along among those who were growing up hearing the Buzzcocks and then became of age when they were in positions to decide the tracks (for TV spots).
But it was like most paydays; it didn't take long for the money to get spent.
4. MT: During the band's early Manchester days, were you aware there was a scene bubbling up in London with the Sex Pistols and Damned?
Shelley: No. The first we heard of it was when we read a review of a Pistols gig at the Marquee club in London. And it said they did a Stooges song. And because me and Howard [Devoto], the Buzzcocks' singer on its 1976 EP, Spiral Scratch, enjoyed the Stooges, we went that evening to London and tried to find if this band, the Sex Pistols, were playing anywhere. We met up with them and saw them for the next two nights. In conversation, we said "Oh, do you ever fancy playing up north?" And they were interested so we said, "Why don't we just hire a hall and put on a gig?" And that's what we did — July 20th, 1976, at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester.
5. MT: What other Detroit music besides the Stooges did you like growing up?
Shelley: Well, I suppose the MC5 counts [laughs]! Yeah ... I mean I was always interested in music that made a statement by appearing to be dumb and noisy. When I was growing up, people were listening to progressive rock. I wanted anything that had an attitude to it. I liked it because it annoyed the hell out of my friends and that made me feel good. Motown was on the radio. And earlier, like '68 or '69, I had friends who listened to Motown. I'd hear it at parties. We'd sit around and drink cider [laughs].
Saturday, May 22, at St. Andrew's Hall, 431 E. Congress St., Detroit; 313-961-MELT, 8 p.m.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.