What’s most striking about Love Bites are its more minor and imperfect moments.
Were it not for the sudden passing of Buzzcocks frontman Pete Shelley in December, this month’s reissues of the band’s first two albums could have safely passed without fanfare: just another refresh of the back catalogue, lacking the extensive bonus content of the 2008 EMI versions but doing the necessary job of keeping the albums in print. But Shelley did pass away, of a suspected heart attack at age 63; and while it couldn’t have happened under worse circumstances, these otherwise unremarkable remasters now offer a chance to rediscover one of the most important songwriters of the first punk era.
Released in September 1978, just over six months after the band’s debut album Another Music in a Different Kitchen, Love Bites was an especially important milestone for the Buzzcocks, marking Shelley’s graduation to becoming the band’s central creative force. Though original singer Howard Devoto had left the group in early 1977, his writing credits were all over the first vinyl side of Another Music; by contrast, Shelley receives sole credit for seven of Love Bites’ 11 tracks. Received wisdom would thus suggest that Love Bites is an unabashed pop-punk album, Devoto having been commonly credited for the band’s artier impulses. This, however, would be an oversimplification: there’s a notable art-punk edge to be found in the angular riffs of opener “Real World,” the Television-esque dual guitar interplay of bassist Steve Garvey’s instrumental “Walking Distance” and especially the stuttering motorik groove of closer “Late for the Train,” another instrumental that goes on for a decadent five and a half minutes. Even the big single, “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve),” is weirder than its reputation suggests, with Shelley’s treated guitar line sounding as if it was recorded underwater.
Sonic idiosyncrasies aside, “Ever Fallen in Love” nevertheless stands out from the rest of Love Bites: partly because it was one of only two tracks from the album to make 1979’s Singles Going Steady, the compilation that has dominated the Buzzcocks’ critical reputation in the United States; but also because it’s just that great of a song, arguably Shelley’s crowning achievement as both lyricist and melodic craftsman. When Shelley passed, this was the song most likely to be cited by his mourners—often, and movingly, as a testament to its importance as an expression of bisexual desire in the otherwise outwardly heteronormative punk scene. If “Ever Fallen in Love” had only given voice to a generation of queer teenagers, its reputation would be both secure and deserved; what makes it even more astonishing is the way it’s spoken to multiple generations, queer and otherwise, with unabated intensity. It probably says something about the denseness of straight masculinity that a song about falling in love with a man seemed, in my formative years, to stare directly into my soul; but it says just as much about the universality of the emotions Shelley evokes, and about how the roiling tempest of adolescence can make even straight boys feel a little queer.
While “Ever Fallen in Love” remains Love Bites’ undisputed masterpiece, it’s not the album’s only highlight. “Nostalgia” is as fitting an epitaph—and epigraph—for punk as ever was written: “My future and my past are presently rearranged/ And I’m surfing on a wave of nostalgia for an age yet to come,” Shelley sings, neatly drawing a line beneath the movement’s “Year Zero” ethos even as he predicts its final fate as the Gen-X paradise lost. “E.S.P.” is a buried gem, with Shelley’s and Steve Diggle’s twin guitars once again channeling Television for the album’s most infectious riff. “Operator’s Manual” and “Sixteen Again” are also minor classics, further demonstrations of Shelley’s unerring knack for articulating youthful inarticulacy.
What’s most striking about Love Bites in retrospect, however, are its more minor and imperfect moments: the competent filler of “Just Lust,” co-written by Shelley with the band’s manager Richard Boon, and the riff-heavy “Nothing Left”; the Diggle-led “Love Is Lies,” foreshadowing his increased songwriting presence on 1979’s A Different Kind of Tension; the experimental detours of the aforementioned instrumentals. More than many of the punk era’s classic albums, Love Bites doesn’t feel like a statement or a monolith, but like a snapshot of a band in motion—fast motion, as a matter of fact, with two full-lengths already out and another to come within a year. Now that Shelley’s career has drawn to a close in the most final way, it’s oddly affirming to hear him like this: unpolished, in process and as alive as one gets. With the obvious exception of “Ever Fallen in Love,” Love Bites resists codification as a definitive work; it’s pure potential, a band and leader just reaching their mutual crest. As we continue to mourn the loss of Pete Shelley, there are a lot worse ways to remember him.