My Time Recording the Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley During his Lower East Side Years
Beloved Buzzcocks frontman Pete Shelley passed away of a suspected heart attack last week (December 6). Ken Lockie, singer-songwriter and sometime collaborator with John (Rotten) Lydon of Public Image Ltd., fondly recalls his time behind the board with Shelley thirty years ago in Williamsburg and on the Lower East Side.
Pete Shelley was a charming, likable, and talented guy who’d written some genre-defining kick-ass songs only a few years before I worked with him. I knew his manager, Raf, from my time as a recording artist at Virgin Records in the UK (Cowboys International); he was the manager of Magazine at the time and was often around the Vernon Yard office. I was friendly with several of the Magazine boys, John Doyle, Dave Formula, and John McGeoch.
Later, while in New York, I’d introduced John McGeoch to John Lydon at Lydon’s request when he was looking to replace Keith Levene. In retrospect, that was probably the single most constructive thing I did during my 18-month time with Public Image Ltd.
Anyway, Pete Shelley and I recorded six demo songs together in 1987. We spent most of our time in a little studio in Williamsburg. Pete was looking to get a different approach toward his sound and engaged me to work on his new material. In the studio, it was Pete with his acoustic guitar and his voice while I did the MIDI programming. We’d rented a Roland TR808 for the sessions, which is what I used to program the rhythm tracks. Pete played all the songs acoustically so the arrangements were his as he presented them. The studio had a 16 track mixing board and used a Macintosh as a hard disk recorder running Vision Opcode, it had a large room for a full band set up, an isolation booth for vocals and enough outboard gear to provide adequate quality for demos.
He was staying in Midtown as I recall, and the mix of Lower East Side, Williamsburg and Midtown gave him plenty of contrast. Williamsburg back then was a broke down neighborhood where Dominicans and Hassidic Jews seemed to be the primary constituents. Basically everyone was avoiding everyone else. Michael Stewart, a Lower East Side artist, had been beaten and killed on the LL Train a few years earlier which made every trip on that line seem hostile and cold. I’d leap up the stairs out of the station on the Williamsburg side, glad to get out onto the street. New York City was bumping to beatbox sounds and those sounds made their way into our recordings with Pete.
The songs we worked were “Crystal Night,” “Your Love,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Dreaming,” “Give It To Me,” and “Last to Know.” These were pop songs, with themes of love, unrequited, satisfying and secret. For each song, Pete had harmonic structure and melody worked out where he’d provide expected and unexpected harmonic changes in a compact pop song structure. Everything he brought to those sessions was some kind of wonderful.
He is sadly missed by all who knew him and his music.