When Pete Shelley died in December 2018, a universal acknowledgement of just how much we’d lost soon followed. While Buzzcocks were a crucial component of the first wave of British punk, many of his other achievements were largely unsung while he was still alive.
Absent from many of the mainstream obituaries was Shelley’s adventures in electronics. The single ‘Homosapien’ was mentioned in passing, but his synth period in the 1980s was twice as long as Buzzcocks’ first incarnation, and he bookended his career with two experimental electronic outings: ‘Sky Zen’, an exploratory drone album made in 1974 and released on his own Groovy Records in 1980, and ‘Cinema Music And Wallpaper Sounds’, an avant-garde montage of serene noise that quietly slipped out in 2016.
Shelley’s tastes were also left field. As well as the usual Bowie and Roxy Music that punk paid homage to, he was an enthusiast for imported German experimentalists like Can and Faust. It made sense then that he’d pursue his love of electronic music when synthesisers became more accessible, the only surprise being that his solo career didn’t end up a wildfire success.
The BBC’s ears pricked up at a lyric on the aforementioned ‘Homosapien’ (“Homo superior / In my interior”) restricting its radio play and ultimately its sales potential. Martin Rushent, who produced the ‘Homosapien’ album, won international acclaim for his work on the Human League’s ‘Dare’ (recorded at the same time at his Genetic Studios), while Shelley was left to rue his luck.
Indeed, ‘Homosapien’ was intended to be Buzzcocks’ fourth studio album, at least until Shelley and Rushent demoed some of the songs and became enraptured with the musical possibilities. Personally I would take it over any Buzzcocks studio album, as heretical as that might sound, and I’m willing to go one further and take the follow-up, ‘XL1’, to my desert island too.
The good news is you can pick up a copy, named after its own catalogue number, for less than £20 from any vintage record retailer, the bad news is, at the time it was another record that largely inspired indifference. It’s hard to see why. Aside from the extended experimental outro of ‘Many A Time’, it’s an album that fizzes with potential hit singles. ‘Telephone Operator’ landed well outside the Top 40 and ‘(Millions of People) No One Like You’ barely scraped the Top 100, but these songs stand up now, not that there are many telephone operators around these days. Another anachronism is the final track, which is made entirely of Sinclair ZX Spectrum code.
‘XL1’ highlights, although it’s all highlights really, include the dark, loping, locomotive-like ‘What Was Heaven?’, with Shelley and bassist Barry Adamson meandering sparingly within the grooves, allowing the percussion to do the work; the busier Buzzcocks-like ‘You Know Better Than I Know’ and the moody ‘If You Ask Me (I Won’t Say No)’, a track that could have been plucked from a mid-90’s downtempo classic, but for the bells and blasts of synthetic brass that really place it within its own era.
Although Shelley is no longer with us, there’s plenty to explore that rarely gets written about, and ‘XL1’ is a larger than life recording just waiting for you to get lost in.