As creative linchpin of the Buzzcocks, Pete Shelley perfected a pop style based on intellectualizing his emotional responses, often to humorous effect. But, as with the group, he is strongest making singles, apparently hard-pressed to sustain his energy throughout an entire album.
Shelley’s first solo LP, Sky Yen, was actually recorded in 1974, long before the Buzzcocks, and demonstrates an early interest in Germanic electronic music. An exercise in simpleminded drone electronics conducted on a single oscillator rather than full-fledged electronic instruments, the album is a collectors’ item of minor interest.
The post-Buzzcocks Homosapien, including the hit single of the same name, is a dance album in which Shelley takes the reins and eliminates guitars and drums as the axis of his songs. The turn to electronics doesn’t signal a surrender to them, though; the songs, not the technique, remain paramount. Shelley seems to draw influence from a wide group of sources (such as the Doors and Marc Bolan), and the album cleverly sidesteps the trap of monotony that sometimes afflicted the Buzzcocks. (The US version latter replaces “Pusher Man,” “It’s Hard Enough Knowing” and “Keats’ Song” with “Love in Vain,” “Witness the Change” and “In Love with Somebody Else.”)
Shelley reintroduces guitar on XL1 and downplays the electronics to create more direct, urgent dance music. “Telephone Operator” is the equal of “Homosapien,” and the LP contains other solid examples of clear-headed songwriting — “If You Ask Me (I Won’t Say No)” and “You Know Better Than I Know,” for instance — that allow strong rhythms to predominate without obscuring the abundant musicality. The American cassette adds remixes of “Homosapien” and another song; the English tape tacks on an extra LP’s worth.
Heaven and the Sea serves up more of Shelley’s reflective soul-searching, but without much relish. Except for the percussion-laden “No Moon,” the songs are fairly routine, and Stephen Hague’s mundane production does little to distinguish them.