Pete Shelley died late last week, a very sad day for all of us at Dangerous Minds. He will be missed.
Everyone reading this knows that Shelley played an important role in the UK punk scene as the lead vocalist and songwriter for Buzzcocks and was an important new wave innovator as a solo artist. Over the weekend John Coulthart called attention to an aspect of Shelley’s career I hadn’t known about, his innovative use of computer technology to create alternative means of enjoying music in the televisual age.
On the cover of Shelley’s first proper solo album, 1981’s Homosapien, a dandified version of the artist perches awkwardly in an extremely 1980s sort of “office” that featured (among other objects) a pyramid, a phrenologist’s skull, and, significantly, a Commodore Pet, which was one of the first personal computers sold directly to consumers, in the late 1970s. Wittingly or no, that Pet would signal a bold direction Shelley would take on his 1983 follow-up, XL•1, which featured a suite of “videos” to accompany each of the album’s songs that consisted entirely of computer graphics. The program was programmed by Joey Headen for the ZX Spectrum, a home computer of that moment that served as the approximate British equivalent to the Commodore 64 in the United States. (Remember: If you’re not pronouncing it “Zeddex Spectrum,” you’re not saying it right.)
According to Headen, Shelley, an early adopter of the ZX Spectrum, wrote a simple program in BASIC that would display the words to one of his songs in response to a series of key presses. Eventually, with the help of some computer-savvy friends, Shelley put together a test of a program that would run without requiring human intervention—using Wire’s “A Question of Degree” as the guinea pig. Shelley liked the results so much that for a time he would enthusiastically show the program off to houseguests.
Shelley’s producer Martin Rushent was (like Shelley) quite technophilic and thus instrumental in making the ZX Spectrum version of XL•1 come into being. Rushent’s home studio was technologically forward-looking enough that in 1983 the magazine MicroComputer Printout would quip that his mixing desk “looks like something out of Star Wars.” Rushent invited Headen and another programmer named Francis Cookson up to his home studio to work on the program while Shelley cut the tracks for the album. Headen later reminisced:
We decided the program was going to be divided into 10 different sections, one for each song. Each song was going to have a different graphical look.
The lower third of the screen, 8 lines of text, would contain the lyrics. I had devised different methods for the text appearing: instantly, slowly, from the side and from the top. These could be used depending on the song. The top part of the screen would be used for graphics. The graphics were kept simple—pixels, lines, circles, color blocks, scrolling horizontally and vertically.
With three weeks until the album was to be finished, I moved down to the hotel to work on the program full time. This was crunch time, and Francis and I spent most of the time working in the hotel room. In fact it took us three days before we realized that there was only one bed in the room and we had to change rooms.
Here’s one of the pages Headen saved from that month of work—a lyrics sheet in Shelley’s handwriting for XL•1‘s first track “Telephone Operator.” I’m not sure but the numbers on the right might have been some kind of notation for Headen to keep track of the program’s cues.
The program was crude but anyone who remembers 1983 at all will testify that such oddities didn’t seem crude whatsoever at the time.
After the jump, experience the full multimedia experience of XL•1….......