Written by Alica Lanides
It’s been 5 years since Pete Shelley, lead singer and songwriter of trailblazing
protopunk UK band the Buzzcocks, passed away at 63 from a suspected heart attack. The love
from inspired musicians and fans alike poured out, noting his brutally honest songwriting genius
often condensed into catchy, repeatable, 3-minute songs that lamented of adolescent love,
frustrated sexuality, and desire. When you hear a Buzzcocks song from the album “Singles
Going Steady”, for example, you can’t help but notice how influential it was on modern music
today, with artists like Olivia Rodrigo rehashing its longing, emotional lyrics and guitar-driven
power pop sensibilities.
Take It magazine labels Shelley “the eternal loser in love”, complete with a high, whining voice to match (Kirsch 1978). “I was so tired of being upset/Always wanting something I never could get/Life’s an illusion, love is a dream/But I don’t know what it is/Everybody’s happy nowadays” croons Shelley over loud, driving guitar riffs, a driving baseline, and catchy, fast drum fills. The balance of musical chaos and order successfully reflects a young generation’s apprehension towards conforming, questioning the false sense of security provided by the rapid development of 1970’s Britain. “Everyone’s saying things to me/ But I know it’s ok, ok!” This questioning of reality carries into other songs such as “Why Can’t I
Touch It?”, a standout track complete with an unforgettable bassline and lyrics that bring you
into Shelley’s world. “Well, it seems so real/ I can see it/And it seems so real/I can feel it/And it
seems so real/I can taste it/And it seems so real/I can hear it/So why can’t I touch it?”
Although all his senses play a role, Shelley can’t seem to fully grasp, literally and figuratively, what’s right
there in front of him. Isn’t that how we all feel? In a world of simulacra and repetition, it’s easy
to get caught up in the illusion of modern life. Copies of copies of copies, all supposedly
representative of the real thing. Frozen meals replacing fresh foods, tv screens in lieu of real
experiences. These are the externalities of economic and technological development. Billie
Eilish’s album “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” takes a page from Shelley’s
playbook and expands this use of the hyperreal with her incredibly intimate vocals, soul bearing
lyrics, and immersive production (Nair 2020).
Shelley sublimated the growing pains of a whole generation into some of the catchiest, most memorable songs of the 70s, perhaps even the 20th century. Before Shelley, no one critiqued consumerism in such a catchy way, let alone in such short, sweet songs. He leaves behind a legacy much greater than himself- he bore his emotions onto pen
Pete Shelley performing with the Buzzcocks in Manchester, 1977, by KevinCummins.
Dass, K. (2018, December 9). Rip Pete Shelley: Punk, lover, homosapien. The Spinoff. Retrieved
October 25, 2022, from https://thespinoff.co.nz/pop-culture/09-12-2018/rip-pete-shelley-
Kirsch, M. (1978). Ever Fallen In Love? TakeIt! Magazine, (B), 13.
Nair, N. (2020, June 22). Hyperreality in Billie Eilish’s ‘When We All Fall Asleep Where Do We
Go’. Medium. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from
Starkey, A. (2021, December 6). The groundbreaking influence of Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley on
alternative music. Far Out Magazine. Retrieved October 25, 2022, from