ALBUM RESCUE SERIES: PETE SHELLEY ‘HOMOSAPIEN’

I was born in 1962 in the city of Hull, or to give it its full name, Kingston upon Hull, which is located in East Yorkshire in the north east of the UK. The city of Hull sits on a vast flat barren clay wilderness called the Plain of Holderness. This Plain was one huge marsh up until 1240 when the Dominican monks established a Friary in the market town of Beverley. From across the North Sea, these Dominican monks brought in the Dutch to drain this large swathe of land to make it habitable and suitable for farming. To this day you can still see the ditches and dykes built by the Dutch to drain this great plain. Easily sourced fresh and clean water filtered through the chalk of the Yorkshire Wolds also made this area desirable for habitation. I can’t prove my theory but it’s my contention that something was added to this water during the late 1970s and 1980s. The result was a noticeable, unprecedented outbreak of artistic and musical creativity in Hull during this period the likes of which have not be seen since. Whatever was in the water during this period was obviously good stuff and did the trick.

From the mid 1970s through to the late 1980s, Hull, and in particular the Polar Bear pub, seemed to attract artists and musicians from all corners of the UK. The Polar Bear pub was on a road called Spring Bank so called because this road followed the course of the original conduit which brought fresh water from the Yorkshire Wolds’ springs into the city. One person I casually befriended during 1981/2 was art student Philip Diggle from Manchester, who was studying fine art at Hull College of Art and Design. At the time, Philip was a poor starving eccentric artist (he still is) who told me one night, after way too many beers in the Polar Bear pub, “I’m drawn to action painting and I’m going to make it my vocation”.

Back then this Victorian pub had a long public bar, a lounge and a very strange liminal space referred to as “the café bar”. This was a small wood paneled room that held approximately 20 odd people and was wedged between the bar and lounge. This was the city’s only arty bohemian safe spot and every night of the week it was filled with poor starving artists and musicians such as Roland Gift, Eric Golden aka Wreckless Eric, Lili-Marlene Premilovich who would later morph into Lene Lovich, her lover and musical partner Les Chappell and just about every other local indie band, would be record producer, fine artist, architect and other assorted creative wannabes. It was here that I made the connection that Philip Diggle was in fact the younger brother of Buzzcocks rock God guitarist Steve Diggle.

A few years earlier, I’d seen the Buzzcocks play a couple of times at the Wellington ‘Welly’ Club in Hull. Most punk bands at the time hailed from down south, specifically London. Buzzcocks were different as they came from Manchester, located a couple of hours away along the M62. Most southern punks bands that I saw live, more often than not at The ‘Welly’ club, were like peacocks e.g. lots of expensive bondage trousers, leather jackets with studs and other flamboyant touches. Bands from the north, and especially Manchester, dressed down; it was more second hand thrift shop punk as opposed to the highly stylized Vivian Westwood/Malcolm McLaren look. The northern look was much more accessible. An Oxfam or second hand thrift stores allowed the poor working class of Hull to emulate this dressed down punk look.

With their dressed down punk look, the Buzzcocks had the musical chops to match. Pete Shelley, the band’s lead singer, looked like the weedy kids at my school, the ones that got bullied and never got picked for the football team. His vocal style was quiet, limp, whiney, camp and often out of tune. It wasn’t the classic punk rock loud, proud, macho and shooty vocals you associate with this genre. Shelley was unique and he was certainly not a lead man in the classic punk rock mold like Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer or Dave Vanian. Northerners like myself loved the Buzzcocks and Pete Shelley; we identified with them and claimed them as our own.

Their 1977 Spiral Scratch EP was the first ever self-release punk record. It sounded fantastic and was 100% Punk Rock. Track one, side two; Boredom was a call to arms. For me it was this record, not The Sex Pistols’ Anarchy In The UK, that signalled Punk Rock had arrived. This EP announced punk’s rebellion against the status quo whilst also providing the strident musical minimalism template (the Steve Diggle guitar ‘solo’ consisting of only two notes but repeated 66 times!) that all future punk records would measure themselves against. Martin ‘Zero’ Hannett quickly recorded and mixed the music in a single day and it was perfectly insistently repetitive and energetic. Jon Savage states in England Dreaming (2001: 298) that this record was instrumental in helping establish the small record labels and scenes in both Manchester and Liverpool. Following on from this EP, the Buzzcocks released three fantastic albums; Another Music In A Different Kitchen in 1978, the superb Love Bites also in 1978 and A Different Kind of Tension in 1979. Martin Rushent expertly produced all three albums, none of which need rescuing here.

For the traditional Buzzcock fans, Homosapien was a super-sad and disappointing event upon its release in 1981. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre maintained that the concepts of authenticity and individuality have to be earned but not learned. We need to experience “death consciousness” so as to wake up ourselves as to what is really important; the authentic in our lives which is life experience, not knowledge. As he wrote in Being And Nothingness (1943: 246), “We can act without being determined by our past which is always separated from us“. Many artists reach this point in their careers; this is the moment when Pablo Picasso swaps expressionism for abstract cubism. Sartre would probably concur that Pete Shelley experienced his ‘death consciousness’ moment when he recorded this album. Homosapien is the moment Shelley and Rushent swap electric guitars for synthesisers; they are both acting without being determined by their collective and individual Buzzcock pasts.

Much of the material contained on this album were songs originally intended for the Buzzcock’s fourth album. Some of the material on Homosapien even pre-dates the Buzzcocks and had been cryogenically stored for a number of years. This wasn’t Shelley’s first solo album as he had recorded, but not released, an album called Sky Yen way back in 1974. Some of this material was re-worked on Homosapien. The Buzzcocks had fully committed to recording a fourth album. It’s pure conjecture, but this album was probably set up to continue their intriguing, strange and powerful direction they had taken on their third 1979 album A Different Kind of Tension. Rehearsals for the fourth album were underway in Manchester when the record company (EMI/Fame) refused to advance the money needed to make the record. Tensions were running high, so producer Martin Rushent called a halt to rehearsals and returned to his newly built barn studio, Genetic, on his property near Reading in Berkshire.

Shelley followed Rushent down to Berkshire and the two settled into Genetic studios with the intent of working on Buzzcock demos. This was no ‘home’ studio; technologically it was cutting edge and years ahead of its time. Rushent had predicted the future of record production, investing a considerable sum of money on audio equipment such as a Linn LM-1 Drum Computer, Roland MC-8 Microcomposer and a Roland Jupiter 8 keyboard with the intent of teaching himself the new art of music programming. Once Rushent had confirmed that ‘sequencing’ was the future of record production, he equipped his Genetic Studio with the very best and most expensive audio equipment. This included a MCI console, one of the first Mitsubishi Digital multi-track records, at an eye popping £75,000 ($153,000), a Synclavier and a Fairlight digital synthesiser, where most people would buy one or the other.

Very quickly Shelley and Rushent fell in love with the sound of the ‘Linn Drum’ demos at the exact moment where mainstream electro-synth pop was just taking hold. Rushent used his studio as a research and development laboratory, perfecting his new way of producing records. Homosapien is the sound of one musician (Shelley), one record producer (Rushent) and lots of early, expensive computer technology. Visionary Island Records’ A&R Executive, Andrew Lauder, heard the early demos and instantly offered Shelley a solo deal. Tired of the Buzzcock’s near bankrupt financial state, Shelley abruptly disbanded the band via an insensitive lawyers’ letter mailed to his band-mates.

Virgin Records’ A&R Executive, Simon Draper, listened to the finished Homosapien album; he’d heard the future. Martin Rushent was instantly hired to produce the Human League’s 1981 hugely popular masterpiece album Dare. By the time Rushent set to work on Dare, he had perfected a new way of sequencing and programming synthesiser-based music. In this process, he had pioneered the technique of ‘sampling’, skills he first practiced on Homosapien. This, said Shelley, marked a departure from the baroque flourishes of the outdated progressive rock era: “Martin wasn’t content that synthesisers produced weird noises; he did his best to use them to convey musical ideas. These days when you listen to music you don’t even hear the synthesisers. That is due to Martin, who was at the vanguard of making electronics work for the music“.[1]

The Buzzcock fans’ shock had barley dissipated from the unexpected news of the break up when Homosapien was released. A great number of Buzzcock fans were disappointed and disenchanted by what they perceived as Shelley jumping on to the Gary Numan synth-pop bandwagon. Shelley’s lyrics remained just as cold, disjointed and disgruntled as they ever were on a Buzzcocks’ album, only now they’re placed much more in the forefront of the soundstage instead of being just an afterthought. The album confirms that Shelley’s wry, witty, lovelorn pop songwriting ability was still perfectly intact. As you would deduce from the album’s title, this work is as narcissistic as anything that David Bowie could ever write, “Homosuperior in my interior“; it doesn’t get any more narcissistic than that.

Despite the new method of computer-sequenced production Rushent manages to retain the tight compressed, hard vocals of Shelley’s band work. The ten tracks on this album are magnificent, modernist abstract electronic works of art. The opening track and first single, Homosapien, was rejected by British radio due to the song’s apparent homosexual overtones, even though taken at face value, its controversial nature seems less evident. Regardless, it was a worldwide club hit, especially in gay clubs, and was the blueprint for many synth-pop dance tracks that followed. Tracks like the fabulous experimental I Generate A Feeling and the relentless I Don’t Know What It Is are confirmation of this testament. If this album was a painting it could easily be one of Philip Diggle’s modernist pieces of abstract expressionism. The similarity between this album and Diggle’s paintings are very similar i.e. Diggle’s paintings are complex 3-D abstractions, they go beyond texture, and some of them are inches thick as is Shelley’s music on this album.

With the lack of mainstream radio play, and poor reviews, this album was largely unloved upon its release. The NME said that “Homosapien is the first chance to examine the solo Shelley over the full range of interests and emotions but it is a disjointed album… the problem is the bulk of the raw material is too ineffectual, often embarrassing and half realised, to give the songs a focal point which binds, injects or drives them with the necessary conviction or resolution… It lacks energy, urgency and desperation, something to grab on to: the power to wake you or make you or shake you up. A shame because Shelley still has a lot to give”.[2]

When Homosapien was originally released, it pushed the technological envelop on all fronts. As a cassette, there were ten tracks on one side, while the other side was a computer code that could be loaded onto your Sinclair ZX Spectrum home computer. I often wonder how many people played the wrong side of the cassette on their HiFi system and heard the garbled cacophony of computer code, thinking this was the album? I bought the cassette version upon its release in January 1981, but could never get the computer graphics to work properly. My cassette version was quickly replaced by the sonically much superior CD version, which came out a few months later in June 1981.

I would also suggest that this album suffered from some unwarranted homophobia. Pete Shelley was punk’s version of heavy metal band Judas Priest’s lead singer Rob Halford. When both artists came out, the press had a field day resulting in many fans deserting both artists; not that it made one iota of difference to the music. Judas Priest was still a kick-ass heavy metal band no matter the lead singer’s sexual preference. The one positive of Shelley’s ‘coming out’ was the attention Homosapien received by a totally new demographic that never heard of the Buzzcocks. As a stupendous club dance track, the single Homosapien, was a huge success in gay clubs around the world even if it didn’t generate high retail sales.

In recent times, the genius of Philip Diggle’s modernist action paintings have been recognised by the American corporate business world who are buying his work as part of their investment portfolios. Diggle’s works can now be found hanging in the Rockefeller Centre and corporate headquarters of the Chase Manhattan Bank; both located in New York City. In many ways the Shelley/Rushent album Homosapien is similar to one of Diggle’s artworks. It can take thirty years or more for cutting edge works of art to be fully assimilated and accepted into the cultural landscape. This album was the work of two visionary artists who created a substantial work of art as opposed to an ephemeral standardised pop record. This album is evidence of Darwin’s evolutionary theory at work. The name of the studio, ‘Genetic’ and the name of the album ‘Homosapien’ are all not so coded semiotic clues as to how this album evolved from the punk rock of the Buzzcocks. Homosapien will forever be associated with the sexually charged gay scene, the smell of Amyl Nitrite and thumping bass of gay club dance floors. Too many homophobes made this album taboo and off limits. My suggestion is to get hold of the Homosapien CD, play it loud and just enjoy the fabulous music.

[1] The Telegraph 2/7/14 (Rocks Back Pages accessed 24/6/15)

[2] NME 22/8/81 (Rocks Back Pages accessed 24/6/15).

Homosapien2

The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album.

One thought on “ALBUM RESCUE SERIES: PETE SHELLEY ‘HOMOSAPIEN’

  1. homo superior in my interior – the man made it happen a great hit a great era – the reverbs are still alive and well and indie bands everywhere continue a fantastic tradition

    Like

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