The early 80s was a golden era for the synth-pop faction of the new wave movement, with the likes of Visage, Ultravox, A Flock Of Seagulls, Flowers (Icehouse), Mi-Sex and Johnny Warman regularly breaking into the Australian and British charts. Many of the more successful artists in the synth-pop faction had roots firmly planted in the punk scene that had exploded during the latter half of the 70s. The straight forward melodic minimalism of punk crossed over relatively seamlessly into many of the elements of new wave. It proved to be more commercially accessible, via the slickly produced dressing of synthesizer driven instrumentation, applied to the same stripped-down song arrangements.
One former punk pioneer, who turned his attention briefly to synthesizer rock, was the one time front man for seminal British punk outfit the Buzzcocks. Pete Shelley (not to be confused with Peter Shelley of ‘Gee Baby’ fame) was a co-founder of the Buzzcocks with Howard Devoto (Shelley was born Peter McNeish). The bands roots were laid in Manchester during 1975 and they played their first major gig in July ‘76 as support for the Sex Pistols. Devoto left the band in 1977 and went on to front Magazine (who later on provided several members of Visage - see earlier post), whilst the Buzzcocks continued on with Pete Shelley taking over lead vocals and song writing duties. After a couple of British top 20 albums (‘Another Music In A Different Kitchen’ and ‘Love Bites’) during 1978, the Buzzcocks commercial returns began to wane. Despite a huge fan base at home, and a cult following gained from their 1980 U.S. tour, the Buzzcocks eventually folded, in part due to their frustration at not being able to crack it for a big hit, but also due to a dispute with the parent label EMI over the release of their fourth album. Guitarist Steve Diggle and drummer John Maher went on to form the band Flag Of Convenience, whilst Shelley turned his focus toward kick starting a solo career.
Shelley signed with the Island label in Britain (Arista in U.S.) and recorded his debut solo set during the first half of ‘81, with ex-Buzzcocks bassist Steve Garvey lending a hand. ‘Homosapien’ was released in Britain during September ‘81, but failed to make an impact on the charts. The title track was issued as a single but also missed in the U.K. I recall seeing the promotional video for the single ‘Homosapien’ on the ABC’s Countdown in late ‘81. By the time Countdown returned to our screens for the new year, ‘Homosapien’ was featured as a ‘chartbuster’ as it began rocketing up the Australian charts. In sharp contrast to the blistering punk-rock tempos of the Buzzcocks, Shelley had come up with a very catchy synth-laden, dance-oriented pop song, and a very clever video (lots of 80s cutting edge chroma-key and blue screen effects). Before long ‘Homosapien’ had evolved into a fully fledged top 10 being, peaking at #4 during April of ‘82, whilst the album climbed to #42 (US#121). The single was reissued in Britain but yet again failed to find an audience, though it received solid airplay in the U.S. and managed to notch up #14 on the Club Play Singles chart. ‘Homosapien’ was banned by the BBC (join the club) due to its lyrics being interpreted as sexually explicit. Shelley later explained in interview that it could be interpreted any number of ways, but essentially it was about being a human being, and falling in love with someone. Musically, the evolutionary roots of ‘Homosapien’ can be traced to an album of music Shelley recorded pre-Buzzcocks. In 1974 Shelley laid down a collection of tracks heavily laced with electronic instrumentation. The little known set eventually surfaced in early 1980 as ‘Sky Yen’.
Shelley dialled up his first hit single in Britain (albeit a minor one) with ‘Telephone Operator’ which debuted in the charts during March ‘83 and peaked at #66. Despite the previous success of ‘Homosapien’, Australia didn’t answer the call on ‘Telephone Operator’. The single was lifted from Shelley’s sophomore set ‘XL-1’, which attracted mild interest in both the U.K. (#42) and Australia (OZ#55)(US#151). He released a one off single ‘Never Again’ during 1984 on the independent Immaculate label, then signed a new deal with Mercury Records. Shelley’s only album for Mercury appeared in June ‘86, but ‘Heaven And The Sea’ sunk without a trace, leaving Shelley’s solo career effectively high and dry. In 1988 Shelley formed the short lived outfit Zip with Gerard Cookson (keyboards) and Mark Sanderson (bass), but it was likely that the only thing that was going halt Shelley’s career slide was a Buzzcocks revival.
In 1990 former Buzzcocks’ members Pete Shelley, Steve Diggle, Mike Joyce (drums, Ex-Smiths) and Steve Garvey (bass) reunited for a well received U.S. tour. Three years later (having been credited as being a major influence on the exploding grunge movement) the Buzzcocks released an album of new material titled ‘Trade Test Transmission’, with yet another U.S. tour following. A live album titled ‘French’ hit the stores in November ‘95, followed by 1996’s ‘All Set’. The Buzzcocks stability as a unit during the late 90s exceeded that of their earlier 70s incarnation. Over the last decade Shelley and Co. have continued to release albums with reassuring regularity, from 1999’s ‘Modern’ to 2008’s ‘30’, and in 2002 Shelley collaborated with Howard Devoto on the album ‘Buzzkunst’. But in terms of chart success here in Australia, ‘Homosapien’ remains the most evolved of Pete Shelley’s work to date.