Feeling like I’m almost sixteen again
Layin’ ’round doing nothing like all my friends
Play it cool, don’t get angry, count up to ten
Just like I was sixteen again
Sixteen: it’s such a tender age, when young people are discovering exactly who they are and finding their true passions. At the age of 16, John Maher left St Bede’s College to join Buzzcocks as drummer, and four years later 16-year-old Paul Hanley left the same school to drum with another venerable Manchester band, namely The Fall.
In recent years, Hanley has established himself as a fine, distinctive music writer, telling the stories of Manchester’s music recording history (2017’s Leave the Capital) and the remarkable Fall album Hex Enduction Hour (2019’s Have A Bleedin Guess). Now he’s explored his own teenage love for Buzzcocks in a new book entitled – what else? – Sixteen Again.
As Hanley explains to Northern Soul, at that point in his life, Buzzcocks were the band, his band. However, demonstrating his love of his favourite bands while at St Bede’s was restricted to the wearing of promo badges, itself a prohibited act.
“You got told off quite heavily if they caught you, but you could pin them on the inside of your lapel so that you could walk around with the collar up, showing the badge. Then, as soon as a teacher came, you could flip it back down – a bit like Clark Kent.”
From 1980, post-St Bede’s, Hanley found himself playing drums with The Fall, often crossing paths with Buzzcocks as both bands enjoyed a wave of success. Along with Joy Division, they even shared a Manchester city centre rehearsal space, TJ Davidson’s on Little Peter St, a stone’s throw from what became The Haçienda.
“Buzzcocks were a massive help to Joy Division and The Fall,” says Hanley. “They were the first out of the traps, and when they played London, they took The Fall with them. They took Joy Division with them, they took John Cooper Clarke. They felt they had a duty of care to the people who came after them.”
To accentuate the tightly-knit aspect, Hanley’s fellow Fall members included his older brother Steve and Steve’s lifelong mate Marc Riley.
“The first time I really knew about The Fall was probably around the same time as I discovered Buzzcocks,” Hanley recalls. “Marc Riley joined The Fall, then Steve, so I started hearing about them. They brought the first Buzzcocks album home the day it came out, so it’s probably all around the same time that I heard about The Fall and the whole Manchester scene. Obviously I couldn’t be a massive fanboy of The Fall, because they were too close. But Buzzcocks were just far enough away to be pop stars, but just near enough for me to bump into them in a café, which I did, and go around to their houses, which I did as well. The internet of the day was standing on somebody’s doorstep knocking on the door. And I did that with John Maher, I did that with Pete Shelley.”
A love affair with Buzzcocks
Shelley was Buzzcocks’ frontman – although that’s complicated. He formed the band with Howard Devoto, who high-tailed it to form Magazine soon after the release of Buzzcocks’ debut Spiral Scratch EP (brilliantly, Magazine’s Shot By Both Sides shares its colossal riff with Buzzcocks single Lipstick, as Shelley and Devoto had come up with it together and settled for joint custody).
Guitarist Steve Diggle wrote his fair share of songs too, but Shelley penned many of Buzzcocks’ most memorable songs, from Orgasm Addict and What Do I Get? to Everybody’s Happy Nowadays and Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve).
Shelley died in December 2018, and Hanley’s love of Buzzcocks has never waned. Of their original run of albums, he says: “I think I’ve listened to them every month since they came out, at least once a month and maybe slightly more than that,”
In 2019, the Turnpike Gallery in Shelley’s birthplace of Leigh ran an exhibition, Understated: Celebrating the Creativity of Pete Shelley, and Hanley was invited to speak about Shelley’s legacy at an accompanying event. “At that point it occurred to me that there wasn’t a decent biography of Pete Shelley, which I thought was criminal really. So at that point the idea was to write a biography of Pete Shelley, which then kind of turned into a biography of Buzzcocks. These things kind of morph as you’re writing them.”
Another shift came as Hanley wondered just how personal the book should be in terms of including his own feelings and reminiscences about the group.
“As I was writing it, I was taking myself out, trying to make it a sort of a standard biography: this happened, then this. Obviously there’s room for opinion in there, but not really enough. Buzzcocks were that kind of band to me – you know that band when you’re 14 to 16, when they’re the most important thing in the world to you? It mirrors the kind of songs Pete wrote about love affairs and unrequited love and all of that stuff – that feeling you get as an adolescent.”
In discussion with his publishers, Route, Hanley “came to the conclusion that that’s the book I should be writing really – a book about my relationship. With that in mind, and the fact that there’s only one biography of the band, maybe three books altogether or something, I decided to try and do both. So that’s what it is. It’s the story of Buzzcocks, but I kind of come in and out, if you like.”
At the end of the day, though, is the Buzzcocks story essentially the Pete Shelley story?
“Yeah, it kind of is to me, which I think some people will baulk at. They’re certainly a band. It’s not Pete Shelley and three backing musicians at all. If you’re looking at it musically, it’s definitely a collaboration. If you listen to [driving 1978 track] Moving Away from the Pulsebeat, Pete Shelley wrote that song, but without [John Maher’s] drums…I don’t for a minute think as a band they were just him, but his songs are central to the band. That’s not to malign anybody else’s talent, I just think that period when Pete was in his ascendancy was the golden area of Buzzcocks for me.”
Nevertheless, Hanley suggests that Shelley had a self-deprecating streak which might have muddied the waters in terms of his fame and lasting legacy.
“I think that was part of it. Part of it is that he was one for an easy life as well – he wasn’t one for pushing it. No, I think he just let his work stand for itself. He didn’t feel the need to self-aggrandize all the time, which is quite refreshing actually. But it maybe didn’t do him any favours in the end.”
Clearly, though, Pete Shelley made a mighty impact on young Paul Hanley.
“I thought his lyrics were genius,” he says. “I don’t think he gets anywhere near the credit he deserves for how good his words were. I think a lot of people, including members of its own band at times, missed just how clever they were and dismissed them as love songs. Because if you look at the words to pretty much all his songs, there isn’t a single one of them deals with a healthy relationship. They’re all about the strange head-space that you can find yourself in when life is coming at you quite fast, I think.
“The other thing is – certainly for the time, it’d be less necessary now – he was smuggling the fact that he was bisexual into the lyrics, effortlessly in a way. There was no angst in there. He was certainly, if not the first, one of the first artists where his sexuality was just who he was. It wasn’t part of the act, and it wasn’t something he kept quiet either. It was just ‘this is me’. He wasn’t Elton John, he wasn’t Bowie. He was just walking through the centre of Manchester, risking getting his head kicked in.”
For an extra flourish of authenticity, Hanley’s book Sixteen Again comes complete with a cover designed by Malcolm Garrett, who has been responsible for much of the iconic look and design of Buzzcocks’ own output – yes, including badges – since the start. This honour isn’t lost on Hanley, who beams broadly at the fact.
“I keep thinking I’ll go back in my time machine and tell the 14-year-old me that Malcolm Garrett’s going to design the cover of my book.”
Main image: Book cover courtesy of the publisher
Sixteen Again by Paul Hanley is available in a limited hardback edition direct from Route Publishing, and as an unlimited trade paperback from April 2024