I was fifteen when my parents bought me Ever Fallen in Love?: Buzzcocks’ Finest – a Greatest Hits compilation which Domino released in 1996, featuring generic cover art, scant liner notes, and no reason to exist, really, given that the Buzzcocks’ discography already featured two very good compilations.
My parents’ intention, I think, had been to reward me for some grade I’d received at school, to incentivise me to strive for similar, and eventually better, grades. Naturally, it didn’t work. I was employed in a record store nearly a decade later when a colleague explained, “You’re supposed to listen to the Buzzcocks in order to piss off your parents instead of getting good grades at school”. Perhaps, on some level, I’d been embarrassed by the irony.
My preference would have been for Singles Going Steady, the 1979 release which collected the first eight singles and their respective B-Sides [and which, moreover, would have been an excellent primer, given that its intention was to introduce the Buzzcocks to the U.S.]. I’d wanted that record because it contains “Orgasm Addict” – a song about sneaking home to masturbate over lurid magazines and which, though Pete Shelley eventually came to be deeply embarrassed by it, held no small relevance for me at fifteen. But the record store had sold out of Singles Going Steady and I was to be grateful for what I was given, which proved a blessing anyway, because that record, wonderful though it is, doesn’t contain ‘Sixteen Again’, the sixth track from Love Bites, and the one which, more than any other on Ever Fallen in Love?, I listened to over and over and over.
‘Sixteen Again’ is best listened to as a sequel to ‘Sixteen’, the [again] sixth track on Another Music in a Different Kitchen which appeared six months prior to Love Bites. ‘Sixteen’ is a work of pure, albeit self-conscious, nostalgia. It is about being twenty-one [strictly, “twenty wo’ wo’ wo’ wo’ wo’ one”], and feeling estranged by the dominant social scene [“You know I don’t like dancin’/ An’ I don’t like to bop/ Too much movement’s exertion/ Makes me wish I could drop”], weirded out by its courtship rituals [“An’ I don’t like French kissin’”], and repulsed by its soundtrack [“An’ I hate modern music”]. It’s about wishing that you were five years younger, not because the scene itself would be any different, but because your teenage excitement might make that hell bearable [All the things I’d do would be the same/ But they’re much more fun]. I’d heard the track at a friend’s who had it on the 1991 compilation Operator’s Manual. And though today I find the track brilliantly funny, I was not particularly impressed by it when I heard it at fifteen – not least because it radically overestimates teenage excitement. Though I, too disliked “dancin’”, and held a dogmatic aversion to “modern music” [I had no real experience, I will add, with courtship], the fact that I was soon to be sixteen didn’t make these things any more palatable, and Pete Shelley, it seemed, had simply been naïve in this instance.
Musically, ‘Sixteen Again’ sounds like a wide departure from ‘Sixteen’, a retreat to the poppier end of the punk spectrum. The ultra-quick triplets [whose rhythm is uncannily like that of John William’s ‘Imperial March’, by the way; imagine Darth Vader doing the pogo] have been replaced by ordinary crotchets of a relatively leisurely tempo [although, it is still absurdly quick by most standards; let’s not forget that the Buzzcocks were faster than the Ramones, and that when they covered them, as their manager Richard Boon told Jon Savage in England’s Dreaming, “they were two seconds faster”]. The two-chord riff [Shelley famously detested slick or overly complex musicians, dismissing them, in an interview with The Guardian, as merely “another brand of entertainer”] has been exchanged for a socially-acceptable three-chord riff. Everything sounds slightly more accessible in ‘Sixteen Again’, like an ear-worm, but the kind that you welcome.
Lyrically, however, the sequel is much darker. Like ‘Sixteen’, ‘Sixteen Again’, is, of course, about feeling like you’re ‘almost sixteen again’; only it’s about re-living not the excitement but the lethargy [Layin’ ’round doing nothing like all my friends], and, moreover, the anger [Play it cool don’t get angry count up to ten] of your teenage years. In this respect, it painted a more accurate picture, I felt, than its precursor.
Crucially, however, and with wordplay typical of Shelley, ‘Sixteen Again’ is it is about feeling this way precisely because you are not ‘Sixteen Again’. It’s about experiencing lethargy and angst on account of the fact that, with age, you have become disillusioned by life and, particularly, by heartbreak:
Things in life are not played for keeps
If it makes you happy it’ll make you weep…
‘Cause things won’t seem so nice
You’ll wish you were sixteen again
Unlike ‘Sixteen’, then, which is simply about being yearning to be a teenager once more, ‘Sixteen Again’ is an anti-nostalgia piece [and not the only one on Love Bites – ‘Nostalgia’ is deeply cynical of its subject]. ‘Sixteen again’ is a reminder of what a shit time it was being sixteen, of the way that love can drag you out of that shit time, and of the way that it will, when it ends, throw you right back in it.
All of this was meaningless to me when I was fifteen, for, while I was becoming increasingly familiar with lethargy and angst, I had yet to be crippled by heartbreak. But repeated listening can function like echolalia – only, instead of emptying a single word of meaning, you can vacate an entire song, reduce it to a pleasing arrangement of sounds detached from their rightful signifying functions. And this is particularly easy to do to ‘Sixteen Again’ because an awful lot of the song’s lyrics are deeply cryptic. I’m still not sure what Shelley might have meant by:
Everybody gets the lowdown right from the start
Everybody gets the showdown right from the heart
But that’s all that’s on the menu and life’s a la carte
And if you want some more practical advice
If you can’t think once then don’t think twice
But this is no matter, because onto this void, I could assign whatever meaning I liked. At fifteen, I listened to ‘Sixteen Again’ and wondered, yes, what it might feel like to be sixteen, to become a full-time resident in that shit place, but ultimately, what it might like to be heartbroken and to be made to return there. And so the song yielded for me the same catharsis which some find in Tragedy, others [perhaps recklessly] in the Blues: a vicarious experience of someone else’s suffering which enables you to make light of your own – only, here, that someone else was my future self.
In 2016, I went to see the Buzzcocks with someone that I am no longer with. “Looks like a good place to ask about car insurance,” she announced on our arrival, alluding to the obvious fact that everyone else in the crowd was in their early sixties. What came next was hands down the loudest concert that I have ever been to in my life, and I suspect that this was because the average member of the audience was stone deaf. And while the majority of the crowd was clearly enjoying itself, she and I were crippled by pain in our eardrums. For better or worse, then, it was a night defined by the fact that no-one present was ‘Sixteen’: they had lost their hearing; we had exceeded the youthful enthusiasm which might have made that hell bearable.
When Pete Shelley died, I was, of course, devastated by the news, overcome by that weird feeling that you get after the death of a figure with whom you have always felt intimate, but whom you have never actually met. But it also occurred to me then that there are problems with ‘Sixteen Again’, that heartbreak is infinitely worse than anything that you can ever imagine at sixteen, for which reason I would do just about fucking anything to be ‘Sixteen Again’, and the song, therefore, is now pure nostalgia for me, permits me a momentary escape during which I can stand in my former shoes and find respite in my old lethargy and angst, look forward into my future [that is present] self, and instead of experiencing heartbreak directly, can do so vicariously, make light of it, at least for as long as I can forestall all sign of the fact that I am not and never will be ‘Sixteen Again’.
“But after all” we are reassured, “life’s only death’s recompense.”
Oscar Mardell is a writer and teacher from Auckland, New Zealand.
Medha Singh is Music Editor at Queen Mob's Teahouse. Send her your reviews at music [at] queenmobs [dot] com.