In Praise of… Half Man Half Biscuit

But first, a disclaimer. While in the last two years, I have listened to this band more than any other, I know next to nothing of their history or who they are. I have purely fallen in love, hard, with their songs. I know John Peel loved them, and that they are avid Tranmere Rovers fans. I know it’s largely just Nigel Blackwell and Neil Crossley, with other members changing, although their lineup and output has stayed regular lately. That’s about it. I only really know their music.

wasps

And what music it is. A kind of sloppy, punky folk. With their obtuse song titles and bitingly funny lyrics, the easiest entry to their music is probably to consider them a comedy band. But comedy bands rarely survive more than a few listens. Half Man Half Biscuit (HMHB from hereon, out of laziness) lyrics start with the wit, but it belies a deep knowledge of real British culture and all it entails, and a bitter disappointment with it.

When I say British culture, I don’t mean the usual lazy Union Jack guitarism of The Who and Oasis, or even the retroism of The Smith’s adoration of kitchen sink dramas and Oscar Wilde. HMHB’s subject matter is diverse, modern, and zip from lowbrow to highbrow, and are very well informed at either end of the scale. The inaccuracy of darts matches in our soap operas, the inherent silliness of our middle class love of villages, walking the Pennines, people who disconnect from Yahoo chess games when they’re losing, and the banality of indie bands appearing on Soccer AM are just the first five examples that spring to mind.

On top of this, a whole separate article would be needed to talk about their love of sport. They are, to the best of my knowledge, the first band to write a football song that encapsulates the actual things football fans talk about, in The Referees’ Alphabet (below), instead of the usual ‘let’s dream a dream, wave a flag’ idiocy we are usually spoon fed around an international tournament. Some of their references to both football and cricket require me to get on Wikipedia, and I am a life long Millwall and Kent CCC fan! Apparently, in the early 90’s they were offered the chance to perform on The Tube. When they turned down the opportunity, as they would miss a Tranmere Rovers match,  the producers of the show offered to fly them from the Wirral, to London, and back by helicopter in time for the second half. Nigel Blackwell’s alleged response? “Yeah, but we’d still miss the first half.”

To end this section on the joy of the lyrical joy of Nigel Blackwell, I defer to John Peel on how he felt on first hearing their debut, Back in the DHSS in 1985;

“I had no idea who it was. I put it on and was immediately smitten. It came at a time when music in general was starting to get a little bit po-faced. Bands were all rather grave and taking themselves far too seriously, so Nigel was such a tonic. His song titles and his observations were, and still are, just spot on. I always thought it was a shame that punk never had its own Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band and, while Nigel clearly wasn’t that, he was there in spirit. I couldn’t stop playing it.”

The Bonzos comparison works for me. They too could be funny, while tearing down all the things that were wrong with the world. I could see either band having written I’m Bored.

The first couple of albums are raw, and very good fun (DHSS apparently cost £30 or £40 to record), following which HMHB split up, reformed, and changed most of their members, save for Nigel. It is my personal feeling that they have improved album on album, pretty much every album since then. The folksiness has increased, but without losing the raw chug of their punky roots. The jokes and one liners are more incisive, and the ability to convey emotion has grown. Even when that emotion is irritation at a narky blurt in an all night garage. For What is Chatteris… when you really think about it, is both a lampoon, and a heartbreaking telling of the fact, that once you lose love, it takes the colour from everything around you.

blackwell
Caravan guitar. Stitch that, Prince

Anyway, my wittering is not going to do much to convince you if you are not already aware, so what follows is my own attempt to make a best of Half Man Half Biscuit, or at least one of those An Introduction to… albums that were popular a decade ago. Enjoy, and if you don’t, maybe avoid my music posts, as I assume we’re coming into this from very different angles. In all seriousness, U2 and HMHB should have their position in the grand scheme of things reversed. In an ideal world, they would be what foriegners see as the centrepiece of our musical culture.

Finally, a couple of links, to websites that can tell you more, if this has piqued your interest.

EDITED- a more knowledgeable chap from the HMHB lyrics project kindly gave me a few notes in the comments which were much appreciated, and I’ve corrected a few inaccuracies as a result. Cheers muchly!

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4 thoughts on “In Praise of… Half Man Half Biscuit”

  1. Good piece, rightly mega-enthusiastic. Most of your insights are spot-on, but as someone who does know ‘who they are’ just slighly more maybe:
    * though Nigel writes the lyrics, Neil Crossley is his trusty foil to bounce ideas off and writes half the music including some of the very best tunes – one of those bassists who writes brilliant guitar riffs for his comrades to play while he just keeps the rhythm. Carl & Ken play their parts too so it isn’t ‘mainly Nigel Blackwell’.

    *Neil is the co-founder and he’s always been there, for over 30 years.

    *hmhb.co.uk isn’t semi-official other than that Geoff the manager uses it as an irregular way of putting out meagre scraps of info. The band do not embrace it (or any other site).

    * I think you’re referring to a Saturday morning soccer show when you’re talking about “the banality of indie bands appearing on Sunday morning cookery shows” – Heston Blumenthal is often a guest on the awful, pitiful ‘Soccer AM’ programme, I am told.

    Great blog this though. Mouth-watering stuff.

    Best wishes,

    Nigel Shaw ( AKA Charles ‘Exxo’ Exford on the HMHB Lyrics Project)

    Like

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