Burke Shelley (1950-2022)

The global counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s was not a monolithic bloc. Hippiedom had many branches and sub-branches, with differing motivations, priorities, approaches and attitudes: back-to-nature flower children, save-the-planet eco warriors, practical do-it-yourself artisans, self-reliant drop-outs, free-love hedonists, anti-capitalist politicos, revolutionary activists and organisers, radical feminists, gay-lib pioneers, spaced-out psychedelic explorers, probing intellectuals and thinkers, artistic creators and designers, dynamic impresarios and, perhaps the most widespread strand of all, music-buffs, music-makers, music-lovers and musicians.

It was within this most potent of sub-cultures that classic Cardiff hippy Burke Shelley, who died in January, found his place, his purpose and his home. And, in so doing, he made a major contribution to the birth of an entirely new musical genre, a genre that 50 years later is not just surviving but thriving across the world: Heavy Metal.

Before I proceed further I must quickly declare an interest. Speaking as another classic Cardiff hippy, forged in roughly the same era – and just a mile or so from his Llanisien home to boot: I was never a fan of Metal. To me, it was lumpen, sexist, unskilled, unsophisticated, repetitive three-chord crap to which head-bangers with small penises in double-denim sat cross-legged on the floor farting into their loon pants and shaking their spectacular festoonings of split-ends in synch with the thudding, predictable rhythms of a cacophany of tinnitus-inducing ear-ache and infantile sword’n’sorcery/hammer horror/sci-fi/macho posturings. But then what did I know?

In any case, Burke Shelley had nothing to do with the reactionary stadium-rock direction that Metal would take in the future when he and his band Budgie were more or less single-handedly inventing the entire concept of the three-man guitar/bass/drums lineup and industrial-strength, truly ‘heavy’, blues-rock riffing. Formed in Cardiff in 1967, the original Budgie consisted of Shelley on vocals and bass guitar, Tony Bourge on guitar and Ray Phillips on drums. The free-thinking long-hairs had met via a ‘musicians wanted’ note Shelley had pinned to the notice board in Gamlins music store. Founded in 1960 in City Road, Gamlins was then located in the Wyndham Arcade, soon moved to 55 St Mary Street later in 1967 and then settled in 56 St Mary Street in 1980, where the musicians’ mecca remains to this day – a very rare long-term survivor in Cardiff’s here-today-gone-tomorrow, inherently transient retail ‘offering’.

Budgie made three astonishingly original hard-rock albums in the early 1970s: Budgie in 1971, Squawk in 1972, and Never Turn Your Back on a Friend in 1973. Even I, a wayward utopian urchin much more partial to the trippy instrumentalism of out-and-out acid rock outfits like Man, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Soft Machine, recognised that Budgie were brilliant musicians, far more textured and complex than the Heavy Metal labelling implied and a Welsh band to be proud of at a time when great bands and live music abounded, as I skinned up another giant joint in my West Dulwich squat…

Burke Shelley was the creative force behind Budgie, with his songwriting, his lip-smacking lyrics displaying his evident relish in language, his stratospherically-high and passionate vocals and his deft, gripping bass work played with a guitar pick rather than fingers – not to mention his flowing locks and outsize specs! The band’s definitive lineup of Shelley, Bourge and Phillips split by 1974, never having broken out of cult status in the ‘underground’ scene and into the poisonous vulgarity of mainstream success like their contemporaries Black Sabbath. There was a slow fade out as Shelley kept Budgie going into the 1980s before disbanding in 1985 – having retained their principles, their credibility, their idiosyncracy and their cool. By then, Budgie were already being referenced as influential and soon their songs were being covered by big-hitting successor bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Soundgarden, Van Halen, Megadeth and Motörhead – damn you and your bloody umlauts Lemmy (1945-2015)! The Heavy Metal template was forged, Burke Shelley’s place in rock history gradually became enshrined and era-encapsulating songs like Breadfan and Crash Course In Brain Surgery are now part of the Rock canon.

After 20 years of inactivity there was the odd Budgie reunion and sporadic gigs until Shelley had to retire due to ill-health after an aortic aneurysm in Poland in 2010. He suffered badly through his last decade, afflicted by the unrelenting pain of Stickler Syndrome, a congenital condition that impairs the production of collagen – crucial for healthy tissue – and he died far too young at age 71, still living in his home town. His countercultural spirit shrivelled in those dying years and he shifted into a current of hippiedom that I omitted mentioning in the opening paragraph, a tendency he would have mocked 40 years earlier: the God Squad. He had done his bit, the fight was over, and he turned to religion for comfort and philosophical consolation. Well, you know what they say, once a Catholic…