Pete Shelley asked all the right questions

Pete Shelley, who died last week at the age of 63, singing the hell out of a song.

Pete Shelley, who died last week at the age of 63, singing the hell out of a song. Associated Press

My first car was a 1991 Toyota Corolla with precisely two add-on features: a moon roof and a cassette deck. I meant to stock it right away with a whole library of tapes, but the first one I bought, Buzzcocks’ Singles Going Steady, remained lodged in the deck for months. Not through any mechanical mishap; I just never had any reason to take it out.

I barely needed another tape. Pete Shelley and company’s first compilation was an entire self-contained world of an album that sounded and felt great blaring from factory speakers on an unending loop. The only thing that would have endeared the album to me more would have been if it included “Fast Cars”—a great driving song about how lame cars are. Pete Shelley, who died last Thursday at age 63, had a gentle way of upending pop music conventions.

I’d had my conversion to punk rock in high school, right on schedule, and adored all of the class of ’77 stalwarts. That said, a lot of them already seemed like museum pieces. I loved the Sex Pistols, but what did I know about the House of Windsor or the Ulster Defense Army—or even the NME? I knew Johnny Rotten was angry about something, and I felt pretty sure that I’d have been angry about the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in his position, too, but the specifics were unclear to me.

Buzzcocks, on the other hand. Singles Going Steady required no specific background information other than an awareness of how alternately horrifying and euphoric it was to be trapped inside the body of an adolescent. What 19-year-old driving aimlessly around after dark couldn’t relate? Like the start of “What Do I Get?,” where there’s just a little too much silence that goes on for just a little too long, you barely know all of those hormones are coming and then they all arrive at once, like a smack upside the head. (In fact, New Hormones was the name of the Buzzcocks’ pioneering indie record label.)

As all of those middle school sex-ed videos about your changing body suggested: You might have some questions. So many of Shelley’s songs for the Buzzcocks were posed as questions: What do I get? Whatever happened to you and I? Ever fallen in love? The fact that all of the songs were so inviting to yelp along with put you in the position of shouting those unanswerable questions out at the universe. You probably didn’t get any answers in return, but it felt great.

A lot of the wounded adolescent yearning expressed through fast, catchy pop songs—especially from the hundreds of bands that later borrowed the Buzzcocks’ formula—scans from the perspective of adulthood as maudlin, sad-boy self-pity. Never Pete Shelley’s songs, though. Part of it was the delivery. Shelley had one of pop’s great vulnerable-sounding voices, more Gene Pitney than Henry Rollins. The lyrics rarely blamed someone else or turned inward to self-loathing. They just sort of documented a condition of existence, and so joyously and succinctly it was hard to be bitter or angry about any of it. And they went even deeper than I realized at the time: Shelley identified as bisexual, and “Ever Fallen in Love?” could be heard as yearning for something beyond pop’s standard boy-girl binary understanding of romance.

Flipping the cassette over to the second side, the short, energetic bursts spun out into longer, knottier songs like “Why Can’t I Touch It?” and “Something’s Gone Wrong Again.” Shelley had messed around with electronic music while in college, before Buzzcocks had even formed. He brought a lot of that into the later Buzzcocks work, and especially his early solo albums, where the music would draw on broader electronic, European, and avant-garde influences.

That’s part of the pleasure of Singles Going Steady as a single document covering four years’ worth of material: It runs from “Orgasm Addict,” a fast, funny song about masturbating, to “Something’s Gone Wrong Again,” a slow, ominous inventory of petty annoyances that feel more ominous than just the lyrics would suggest, coolly articulated over a banging one-note piano. And throughout that progression, Pete Shelley’s voice maintains a type of emotional continuity: vulnerable, quavering, and crying out in joy.

I recognized it right away.