Rock On

How one bisexual punk rocker created the ultimate queer anthem

· Updated on April 19, 2024

Pete Shelley, Steve Diggle and Garth Smith (Photo by Erica Echenberg/Redferns)

If you’ve seen the Michael Winterbottom classic 24 Hour Party People, you’ll already know that Manchester from the 70s to the 90s was quite the gay old time. To be fair, it was also quite the straight old time—pretty much every sexuality under the rainbow was enjoying the fun and licentiousness of a new, exciting era in British rock. And one of the bands that helped create these pansexual vibes was the punk band Buzzcocks.

Even if you know nothing about the Mancunian foursome, you’ve probably enjoyed several of their hits without knowing it, and you’ve probably noticed something more than usually queer about the lyrics of those hits. That’s because the group’s lead guitarist and songwriter, Pete Shelley, was openly pansexual at a time when it wasn’t always the easiest thing to be, even in the punk scene.

In 1978, Shelley’s song “Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t)” was released, and through the years it would become one of the punk era’s most memorable anthems. The lyrics—like all Shelley’s songs—didn’t use gendered pronouns to address an uninterested potential lover, but was written completely in the second person. “You make me feel like dirt, and I’m heard,” Shelley sang, and queer folks everywhere knew just what he was talking about.

As it turns out, steering clear of gender-specific pronouns was a Buzzcock special. “I tried to be as gender neutral as possible in writing songs, because for me I could use the same song for either sex,” Shelley told a British DJ. That wasn’t all: during a 1970s interview for Sounds magazine, Shelley proclaimed all the Buzzcocks’ songs to be “bisexual.”

“There isn’t any implied gender in our songs now because we think it’s boring singing about one thing when it could apply to both sexes,” Shelley said in 1977. “Our songs are bisexual.”

In a pre-Morrissey era, this was a big deal. Even though the Buzzcocks usually sang about the things every other pop/rock/punk band sang about—love and loss, having fun—Shelley’s music was termed “vile and obscene” by people who weren’t down with his advanced gender politics.

Shelley’s own bisexuality was known to most, and for a while he dated musician Francis Cookson, who hurt Shelley by going off and “get[ting] married [to a woman] in Switzerland.” During an era of extreme compulsory heterosexuality, people like Shelley had to contend not only with the stigma of being openly queer, but the pain of dating other bisexual men who weren’t as comfortable with their own queerness. You can feel Shelley’s pain in so many of his lyrics, which infuse a masochistic sensibility with sharp, energetic punk beats.

That said, Shelley also seems to have had a pretty good time, all things told.

“It didn’t really matter what you were, what sexual persuasion you were from or what gender you were,” he said to Outpunk Magazine in 1994. “It didn’t really matter, it didn’t raise eyebrows if someone was gay.”

Perhaps that’s how we got Shelley’s openly-gay 1981 headbanger in “Homosapien,” a single Shelley created after branching out as a solo act.

There’s so much gayness embedded in the Shelley persona: the name “Shelley” was in fact taken from the great (bisexual) romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the Buzzcock hit “Ever Fallen In Love” was inspired by perhaps the queerest thing of all, a lonely night of watching the musical Guys and Dolls while on tour in Edinburgh. As Shelley explained in a BCC documentary, “One of the characters, Adelaide, is saying to Marlon Brando’s character, ‘Wait till you fall in love with someone you shouldn’t have.’ I thought, fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have? Hmm, that’s good.”

Being lonely, dating people who hurt you, watching old Hollywood musicals in hotel rooms on lonely nights…yup, sounds about bisexual to me!

We lost Shelley in 2018 to a heart attack, but he managed to pack a lot of living, art-making, and bisexual chaos into 63 years of life. “Punk is an art of action,” he once told the Guardian. “It’s about deciding to do something and then going out and doing it.”

Pete Shelley certainly went out and did it, and the world will always remember him for it.

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