He had by now grown accustomed to eliding almost all memories of his life in England, his childhood in particular, whenever he encountered something which might provoke them, allowing them to instead remain where they were in the back of his mind, being gently eroded and leaving him independent of his past. And yet, he had entered the café and was stamping the slush from his boots, shaking it from his jacket, when the image – the streetlamp inching its light over a dark heap of snow, luminating thick falling flakes, backgrounded by an endless terrible clanging and pervaded by his father’s dark, consuming madness – returned to assail him, impressing itself onto his thoughts like a religious vision.
Shelley was perhaps the premier architect of the pop-punk song, largely down to the Buzzocks’ hits as well as his early solo recordings. But he has always struck me as a more enigmatic figure than his reputation would imply. His pop songs are powered by traditional teenage boy-girl lyrics but he was also openly bisexual; Buzzocks were very much emblematic of the deeply British anarchic music scene he was so instrumental in establishing in the late 70s but he later fled the country to settle down with his family in Estonia; his standing was built on his catchy melodic music but he also created perhaps the most austerely experimental recording I own, Sky Yen.
Sky Yen is composed of two tracks, ‘Sky Yen 1’ and ‘Sky Yen 2’. It was recorded in the early 1970s, before Buzzcocks even existed, and was made using an oscillator Shelley has created himself by soldering together components which came free with electronics magazines. The resulting recording is something which in the words of one fan, 'has more in common with air raid sirens than music'. This is true. Sky Yen is the sound of a young man discovering he has the tools with which to experiment with sound, with harmonics and dissonance, compelling or unlistenable, depending on the mood you find yourself in when you listen to it.
So, you may reasonably wonder, how does someone set about trying to transmute music like this into narrative fiction?
I thought primarily about Shelley himself, a complex character who struggled with the career path music traditionally offers. The collection was instigated by his the sudden death and while I was writing I thought as much about the subsequent assessment of the impact Shelley had had on our culture as I did about the music of Sky Yen. Debates such as these, taking place as they do in our Brexit Hell era where, for me at least, remembrances of the past feel untrustworthy and nostalgia tainted with a noxious power, also fed into the story. Similarly, ‘Sky Yen’ concerns itself with the concertina-like nature of time, the past impacting on the present in the most violent ways only for it to retreat again, distant and untouchable. If all that sound rather gloomily po-faced rest assured that it also touches briefly on the cheerier themes of the Holocaust and PTSD.
The collection, which, like all Dostoevsky Wannabe books, looks great, also features work by Wendy Erskine, Lee Rourke and Luke Kennard, among many others, and can be purchased here.