We Won’t Be Together Much Longer

Remembering the Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley.

The Buzzcocks were the first emo band. Not a progenitor of indie emo like Rites of Spring or Cap’n Jazz, or even mainstream emo groups like Dashboard Confessional and Panic at the Disco. The former were basically continuing the deconstruction of post-rock with their jagged edges and icy attitudes, the latter reconstructing it by applying eyeliner and writing stadium anthems. Truly, the Buzzcocks were the godfathers of ‘90s pop-punk groups like Green Day and Jawbreaker who got rich—some more than others—singing about hearts broken rather than states smashed.

It makes sense that punk evolved into emo, but it may be surprising to remember that it happened in a little over a decade: A musical style that was birthed as something loud, snotty, and vaguely political sprouted a limb that was still loud and snotty yet also highly sentimental. MC5 were a cult; the Sex Pistols were a cult of personality. Pete Shelley and the Buzzcocks were at the base of said new limb presenting something more down to earth: personal personality. Shelley sang about love and desire and feelings when most of his peers were ranting about hate and war and sniffing glue. Sure, the Ramones could be sensitive, too, but they’re definitely in the cult corner. Their hearts may have been on their sleeves but their sleeves were covered in cartoon leather. Pete Shelley was the punk frontman as real boy: a living, breathing human being whose persona was both relatable and obtainable.

I first heard “Orgasm Addict” when I was 22—already an old man in the world of punk rock. I had been raised on a random smattering of punk bands—Minor Threat, Misfits, Bad Religion, the Exploited, Subhumans—that were from what I would call punk’s second wave in the early ‘80s. I came of age in the ‘90s with the groups of my state of California: Operation Ivy, the Descendents, and of course Jawbreaker and Green Day. When I arrived in Portland in 1998, I still had a few gaps to mind in my knowledge of punk that were thoroughly filled in by Martyn Leaper when I started playing drums in his band the Minders. Martyn was a true lover of rock and roll, especially of the British variety, as he is British himself. He would even prepare English breakfasts before band practice: eggs with baked beans, tomato slices and veggie sausage links, as this was Portland in the early aughts and we were all still (barely) hanging on to our vegetarianism. English breakfast was usually soundtracked by one of two classic records: Bowie’s Hunky Dory or Singles Going Steady by the Buzzcocks. Then and now, Singles is the perfect introduction to the band. If you’re gonna have a record that resembles a greatest-hits LP, you better have the hits lined up as well as they did.

“Orgasm Addict” would be bold and brash start to any band’s career, even now. But it was “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” that really caught my ear. Obviously I’m not alone here, as the track is one of the Buzzcocks’, and punk’s, most beloved—if unlikely—songs. As pointed and driving as the best of them, its unabashed sentimentality and parentheses place it closer to the world of Meatloaf than the Sex Pistols. And with two apostrophes in one word in the title, you have the band that put the punk in punctuation.

So why do we buy it? Why do we believe Pete Shelley when he tells us we make him feel like dirt? Why do we listen when we asks if we’ve ever fallen in love with someone we shouldn’t’ve? What do we get?

We buy it because we know that it’s authentic. We believe Shelley because we know we have made someone feel like dirt at some point in our messy lives, whether we meant to or not. We listen because of course we have fallen in love with someone we shouldn’t’ve! Just about every time. Been there, done them, will do it all again. 0/10 sucks every time. 10/10 would recommend. What do we get? We get it. Validation. We are seen and heard. We loved Pete Shelley not because we understood him, but because he understood us.

In all the moving tributes I’ve read about him in the past few days, one thing keeps coming up: his lyrics. When an iconic artist passes away, they are sometimes remembered for everything but their art. They are celebrated for their kindness and generosity, or perhaps their drug use and romantic pursuits. The specifics of their craft tend to fall through the cracks. Not so with Pete Shelley. Critics and fans alike have been praising him for lyrics that are not just honest and heartfelt, but universal. Most of Pete Shelley’s lyrics were ambisexual, like Shelley himself. Only a few Buzzcocks songs use He or She: Most use only You and I or You and Me, making the bulk of the discography not just ahead of its time, but timeless. This is a songwriting tool I have used myself, and I have close to the same ratio of hes and shes to yous and mes in my own work. By not specifying gender, none are excluded. Pete Shelley sang songs for all of us, songs we can all sing to each other.

The second verse of “Ever Fallen in Love” sums it up: “I can’t see much of a future/Unless we find out what’s to blame, what a shame/And we won’t be together much longer/Unless we realize that we are the same.” Pete Shelley’s 40-year-old lyrics sound more relevant than they ever did in this new age of tearing down gender constructs for the good of the human race. If we do have a future, it is one in which there is no he or she, only you and me. Realizing we are all the same will not just save our love, it may save our lives.

Hutch Harris was born in New York City, raised in Silicon Valley and has resided in Portland, Oregon for the past twenty years.  Harris founded and was the lead singer/songwriter of the Thermals. He is currently working on his first solo LP. Follow Harris on Twitter here.

(Photo Credit: Westin Glass)