Pete Shelley: “Punk Isn’t About Prescribing”Posted December 8th, 2009 At 6:05 am By MTV ASIA
Text and interview: Lennat Mak
Pete Shelley hasn’t lived in Manchester for the past 25 years. “In fact,” says the lead singer and guitarist of Buzzcocks, a band widely heralded as the godfathers of pop-punk, “No one in the band does.”
Funny how the band that kickstarted the whole “Madchester” scene is far removed from the whole shebang than one would have thought. But being relevant to a scene of the past is not something on Pete’s to-do list. He doesn’t quite mind not being as famous as his peers back in the heydays of punk. In his own words, he’d rather that no one knew who he was. But judging from the hordes of people waiting to meet the band backstage after their blistering set at Zirca last month, no one can undermine Buzzcocks’ influence on the teenagers as well as the older folks who grew up on ’70s punk.
Right before Buzzcocks play their second show in Singapore (their first was “17 and a half years ago,” says Pete who still remembers his first Singapore show in “snapshots”), John Robinson, the gig promoter, took both me and my good friend Jonathan, who’s doubling up as the photographer, backstage for a short chat with Pete.
There’s an article in Guardian that talks about how despite a whole 30 years later, people are still raving about “Madchester” and it seems that no new bands can take over this phenomenon. What’s your take on that?
There are always plenty of new bands. You can’t tell if they are going to be legends – you can only tell by looking back. At that time, nobody thought Joy Division were legends. It was only after he (Ian Curtis) died that they became really well known.
It’s the same with any city, be it Manchester or London. London is a bit more skewed because that’s where the music industry is. There will always be new bands coming out from London. But in Manchester, it’s always a bit more special when a band emerges.
Will we see another Oasis or Kasabian soon?
Can’t say really. They would probably be identical copycats!
Are there any bands that excite you nowadays?
There are! But the unfortunate thing is that they break up two to three years later, before anyone gets to hear about them. I think it’s very hard for people to get exposure now. It was a lot easier back then.
There were fewer bands as well. Now there are bands everywhere.
Yeah. But that’s a good thing.
What do you think of the punk mentality in modern day context?
People always say that punk started because the political climate was right and people were disaffected. I think people are more disaffected now. When Buzzcocks started, we were the only people we knew that thought the way we did. It’s only by playing in bands that we met all the people who also thought the same way. That was the good thing about punk – it’s more of a networking idea and it enabled people do what they wanted to do. And it’s one of the most dangerous ideas!
It was dangerous back then. Do you think punk bands, like Green Day, are dangerous now?
I don’t think Green Day is very dangerous. [Laughs]
Where did you think the “edge” of the music went?
I don’t know really. It’s up to the individual. Punk isn’t about prescribing. It doesn’t say you have to do this or you have to do that. It’s just saying, “Here’s what you can achieve if you put your mind to it.”
Do you think punk rock is still relevant today?
I don’t know about punk rock. But I think having people who are willing not to be complacent and to do things they want to do with passion and spirit, will always be relevant in any times.
Your songs are largely about tales of adolescence. Being older in years, how do you re-interpret the songs?
The songs are more like a recipe. As with any performance, you put yourself into the character that you are singing about. But really, it’s just the same character as it was back then. Unfortunately, I never grew old! [Laughs]
That’s what I like about playing music. It’s like one never really grows up and you will always have the teenage spirit to do it. Is it the same for you?
Yes, but not so much about the teenage spirit. It’s actually the human spirit, keeping things fresh and alive for yourself.
You and Steve Diggle have been together for 33 years. How did you guys manage to stay together for so long? Even Oasis broke up, despite them being brothers.
We used to say that even if you commit murder, you only get 30 years! [Laughs] We are both different people but we both understand each other. And we can argue like the Gallagher brothers.
[Laughs] It rarely gets to that!
After doing music for so many years, what is it about music that you like so much?
Oh, I hate it!
You are joking!
If I could do a near extinction event and get rid of 99% of music, it would be quite easy for me to do it.
Why are you still doing music then?
Because I like what happens when you get it right. But I think most music is rubbish. It’s just people making noise and I’ll go, “Why do I have to listen to this?”
How do you feel about bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash having their own action figures? Do you feel that the Buzzcocks are missing out on that?
Well, the thing is, I don’t really play with dolls! [Laughs]
Being peers, the Sex Pistols and the Clash are kind of more famous, in a way. Do you ever feel the need to match up?
No. With fame comes separation from the person that you are and the person that people think that you are. I’d rather it be that nobody knows who I was.
Are you still in touch with the punk community that you were once in? Like John Lydon?
I saw him last summer when we played in Belgium.
Has he changed much?
No, no! He’s the same old guy. We had a good chat.
Have you changed much?
Not really. Less troubled with things, nevertheless!
Shortly after the interview, Pete and co. would take the stage by storm and they practically turned their amps up to 11. It was loud and it seemed to be never loud enough for the four guys sweating and giving their all on stage. Culling the set list from all three of their albums (“This is what we call the ‘festival’ set,” explains Pete during the interview), they blasted their three-chord punk brio (“Boredom,” “Sick City,” “What Do I Get,” and “Orgasm Addict” for the encore to name a few) to much fervor.
According to Satish, a friend who was smacked right in the middle of the mosh pit, “It was cool to see the old folks showing the kids how it’s really done.”
How else would be it, really?