Budgie frontman and bassist Burke Shelley dies aged 71

Burke Shelley
(Image credit: Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images)

Burke Shelley, founding frontman and bass guitar player for cult Welsh rock band Budgie, has died aged 71.

The news was confirmed in a statement issued by Shelley’s daughter, Ela Shelley, on a Budgie Facebook fan page. No cause of death was given.

“It is with great sadness that I announce the death of my father, John Burke Shelley,” she wrote. “He passed away this evening in his sleep at Heath Hospital in Cardiff, his birth town. He was 71 years old. Please respect the family during this time.”

Shelley was born in Cardiff, Wales, on April 10 1950, and was introduced to the world of guitar with the arrival of The Beatles in the ‘60s – a musical exposure that convinced Shelley to ask his father for his first instrument.

In 1967, Shelley – who by this time had already authored a number of songs, including Budgie's Parents, which he wrote when he was 16 – met Dave Edmunds, who was part of musical trio Love Sculpture. It was during this transformative year that Shelley decided to pursue a full-time music career.

Switching to bass, Shelley recruited drummer Ray Phillips and guitarists Kevin Newton and Brian Goddard for Budgie's first official lineup, though the swift departure of Newton and Goddard soon saw the installation of Tony Bourge, who became Shelley’s stalwart co-writer until 1978.

The trio penned a deal with MCA Records in the ‘70s, and would go on to release three albums with Budgie’s definitive lineup. Their 1971 self-titled debut, 1972’s Squawk, and 1973’s Never Turn Your Back on a Friend are considered by many to be their finest records, and introduced their penchant for quirky track titles and proto-heavy metal songwriting style.

Burke Shelley and Budgie

(Image credit: Fin Costello/Redferns via Getty)

Phillips’ departure prior to Budgie’s 1974 album, In for the Kill!, initiated the first of several steady lineup changes, though despite the numerous shake-ups, Shelley remained a constant member.

Indeed, Budgie struck a chord among their peers while amassing a cult following in the UK, despite never truly experiencing commercial success in the US. A handful of big-hitters would cover their tracks, including Megadeth, who performed Melt The Ice Away, and Iron Maiden, who had a go at I Can’t See My Feelings.

Likewise, Metallica helped introduce Budgie to a whole new generation with recordings of Crash Course In Brain Surgery and Breadfan, while an early Van Halen addressed the band’s American obscurity by covering In For The Kill.

Post-Bourge Budgie released three albums throughout the ‘80s, and the band would reconvene after a 24-year studio hiatus for 2006’s You’re All Living In Cuckoo land, which ended up being their 11th and last album.

Shelley – and with him, Budgie – were effectively forced to retire in 2010 after the bassist’s battle with Stickler Syndrome led to surgery on his legs, of which Shelley commented, “They messed up the one in my right leg immediately. I was in a right state."

In 2019, news broke that Shelley had developed an aortic aneurysm – the second of his life, after being hospitalized in 2010 – though his previous experiences with the medical profession made him hesitant to pursue, and ultimately refuse, surgery. 

Burke Shelley

(Image credit: Ian Dickson/Redferns)

“I don’t trust them,” he once told Louder’s Grant Moon. “It’s not that I don’t want the operation, but I don’t want them doing the operation.”

“I’m not frightened of dying,” continued Shelley in his reflection. “I know where I’m going. I want to spend my eternity with Jesus Christ in Heaven. We are all living longer, but it’s about the quality of life. I feel a bit like that.”

In his later years, Shelley played bass with his friends in the pubs of his hometown and the surrounding area, casually performing blues classics and other hits under the moniker The Night Owls.

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Matt Owen

Matt is a Staff Writer, writing for Guitar World, Guitarist and Total Guitar. He has a Masters in the guitar, a degree in history, and has spent the last 16 years playing everything from blues and jazz to indie and pop. When he’s not combining his passion for writing and music during his day job, Matt records for a number of UK-based bands and songwriters as a session musician.