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Steve Peake

This Week's Forgotten Gem of the '80s - Pete Shelley - "Telephone Operator"

By February 26, 2013

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peteshelley.jpg During the early '80s, a number of genuine first-wave punk rock artists attempted to merge into the slower but more commercially navigable lane of new wave traffic. Some certainly succeeded more than others at preserving the renegade experimental spirit that had driven their musical efforts in the early days. Former Buzzcocks frontman Pete Shelley fared rather well in his post-punk incarnation - precisely because he so thoroughly embraced the synthesizer-dominated sound of the emerging style. In fact, as a vocalist and composer, Shelley's jittery, transparently neurotic approach fit beautifully into the developing sound of early alternative music. Even better, his two early-'80s solo releases created an opportunity for a new cross section of music fans to experience at least a portion of what had made the Buzzcocks one of England's most exciting punk bands.

In our currently accelerated digital age, it's easy for some of pop music's culture and lifestyle references to seem painfully anachronistic, which either makes a particular piece of music feel charmingly nostalgic or confusingly dated. Shelley's 1983 single "Telephone Operator" manages to meet both of these descriptors without losing its central sense of desperation and loneliness. Although the slashing guitars of the Buzzcocks are entirely replaced here by throbbing synth rhythms and electronic flourishes, Shelley still conveys a palpable sense of alienation that packs a significant punch. More to the point, his mournful appeal to the actual person who once handled human communication through a manual connection of wires contains genuine pathos and a pleading appeal for human interaction in an age that seemed dominated quite enough by changing technologies even three decades ago. The frames of reference have certainly changed, but the sense of relationship decay explored here by Shelley continues to resonate in our world of wireless but nevertheless stifled social constructs. Many people in 2013 certainly wouldn't know what the hell to do with a rotary telephone, but no doubt even they can receive Shelley's tortured analog message loud and clear.

Single Cover Image Courtesy of Genetic/Island

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