Friday, December 07, 2018

Sudden recollection

It’s not uncommon for someone in pop culture to die, of course—it happens to us all sooner or later. What we think/feel about such a death depends on a lot of things, including how much we linked the person’s work. But sometimes a person we weren’t exactly a fan of can give us momentary pause, too. Then, we move on with our day and maybe not give it another thought. This time, I thought I’d mark such a death because at one time in my life, when it mattered a lot, I connected with a particular song.

Pete Shelley died today at the age of 63. He’s probably best known for being the co-founder, songwriter and lead singer for UK punk band Buzzcocks, founded in 1976. When the band broke up in 1981, he went on to a solo career.

I wasn’t that familiar with Buzzcocks’ songs, but the one I knew best, though probably not at the time, was 1978’s “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn't've)” (video below). It was well-regarded, though it reached only Number 12 in the UK. In an interview many years later, Pete said “the song was about a man named Francis that he lived with for about seven years”, though at the time of its release he wasn’t officially out as bi.

The first song in which I was aware of Pete personally, though, was his 1981 song, “Homosapien” (video above). But that, too, came some time after it was released, after I left university. The song reached Number 4 in Australia, and Number 6 in Canada, and Number 14 on the US Dance Chart (and it would probably have been a club where I first heard it, most likely after I moved to Chicago in 1982-3).

The song, which was originally intended for what would have been Buzzcocks’ fourth album, was banned by the BBC because of what they called the song’s "explicit reference to gay sex", the lyrics "homo superior / in my interior". Now, the BBC, like broadcast executives in many places, have had a history of having humourless prats making such decisions, and in this case they were right AND wrong.

I say they were “right” only because when I first heard the song I sort of giggled to myself at what seemed like a somewhat risqué veiled reference, something those “in the know” might get, but that, in context, weren’t risqué. Of course, I also knew the entire lyric, something the BBC language guardians apparently didn’t:
In my interior
But from the skin out
I'm homosapien too
And you're homosapien too
And I'm homosapien like you
And we're homosapien too
In context, the lyric in question can be seen as completely innocent, describing himself. Still, in those days “the Beeb” wasn’t going to give anyone the benefit of the doubt, especially anyone gay or bi.

In my newly-out days, I was still finding out that there was such a thing as pop performers—including singers and songwriters—who I could relate to without “filling in the blanks”, as I put it a few years ago. “Homosapien” was one of those songs and for a completely ordinary reason: It was just fun. I was also slightly subversive to me, not the least because of the frequent vocal stress on homo.

Around that same time, I also remember seeing guys in Chicago wearing white t-shirts with the word “Homosapien” and no other printing. I was sure they were kinsmen, and, at the time, it seemed like they were giving a knowing wink to anyone who knew the song. But, I also could easily have been projecting.

So today, when I heard that Pete Shelley had died, I remembered that song I once thought was fun and subversive, and I also remembered what it felt like to discover songs like that after having been denied them all my life until not long before then. I wasn’t exactly a fan of Pete or of the Buzzcocks, but I once really liked that one song of his, and today I remembered that.

I’m glad it’s now so easy to find openly gay artists to listen to, and that I no longer have to “fill in the blanks”. But there was also something fun, exciting, and kind of revolutionary-feeling about finding those songs and artists all those decades ago, and Pete Shelley was part of that, and for that, and for that fun song, I thank him.

RIP, Pete Shelley, and thanks.

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