Half Man Half Biscuit are one of the greatest bands in the world, that’s an irrefutable fact here at Shonk Towers and as a rule you’ll lose your job here if you are inclined to disagree, not that anyone would.
The product of wanting to avoid working in a Birkenhead rendering plant, Half Man Half Biscuit are a curious musical biscuit which pairs the indie-acceptable chord structures with the lyrical whimsy of Nigel Blackwell, a lyricist who has found wordular beauty in sarcasm, peculiar football references and road signs.
There’s a chance that my love for HMHB is genetic as they’re also one of my father’s favourite bands, the first track I ever heard was Vatican Broadside which featured on a bizarre compilation called ‘100 short tracks’ that father had sent me when I was about 13 years old. This was shortly followed by Seal Clubbing which became one of my summer anthems.
It was then time to familiarise myself with their discography and despite their idiosyncratic approach to the music industry there are a number of albums and singles to enjoy, all of which are plentiful with quality content and will keep you going for years.
If you’re not familiar with them at all, HMHB came about in 1984 in Birkenhead when a group of friends along with Nigel Blackwell and his brother Simon decided to record some demos and post them through the letter box of Probe Plus. They released Back in The D.H.S.S in 1985 and since then have periodically released albums that for the most part are consistent with story telling, mild complaining, sport references, the occasional nod to Wales and country music. Quintessential British traits if you will that when said aloud make it obvious why so many ageing dad’s come to their gigs.
Their performance on Friday was no exception as The Tramshed filled to the brim with the kind of dads who, like mine have spent a lot of their time making compilation tapes and CDs for fellow dads, friend and of course, their children.
It’s always a refreshing and lovely thing to see the band up on stage, still going at it. Each song delivered like and old uncle’s story about a time he got livid ‘story, I’ll tell YOU a story…’ – the passion and zest is never reduced no matter how many times you’ve heard it.
It’s a beautiful thing when the lines;
And your travelling army
Of synthetic supporters
Would be taken away from you
And thrown in the bin.
warm the cockles of the heart as you hear several hundred men-of-receding-hairlines sing it in unison. This magic is heightened at the mass air punching to DANCE, DANCE, DANCE, DANCE during ‘Joy Division Oven Gloves.
I think that there’s a little more love in the hearts of Welsh HMHB fans which has been made possible by Nigel’s love of hill-walking and the exquisite and plentiful references to Wales that crop up throughout their albums, Tredegar, Twmpa, Three Cocks, cofiwch dryweryn and much, much more (see what I did there) – I’ve often imagined what it would be like to be rambling across Hay’s Bluff and to bump into Mr. Blackwell, I’ve never fanned out on top of a hillock before but there’s always time.
I was particularly chuffed because on Friday they performed ‘Look Dad, No Tunes’ one of my favourite HMHB tunes and one I like to play at home now and then on the ol’ guitar, hearing that live along with the accompanying choir of audience members, myself included was a fantastic little gift and got me all giddy. Same with ‘Everything’s A.O.R’ and Lark Descending and…
I was waiting for the obscure cover, when I saw them in Leicester many years ago it was OMD’s Electricity and the last time I saw them in Cardiff they performed I think We’re Alone Now (Tiffany) but on this particular night it was something particularly magical. ‘I’m Going to need your help with the chorus as it’s all high and I’ll never make it’ Nigel said before they launched into an energetic and beautiful tribute to Buzzcocks ‘What Do I Get’ – naturally the audience helped out as they had been doing all evening.
There was even a mosh-pit, a black, leathery, middle aged, occasional time out to catch a breath mosh pit which is more than I’ve seen at many of the youth-populated punk gigs in recent years – for shame!
‘It fills me with joy to see moshers out jogging, it fills me with joy to see joggers out moshing!’
Half Man Half Biscuit have been with me a long time, just over half my life and I’m so far from being tired of listening to them that I think I’ll still be singing along as I make my way to my grave (possibly the wrong grave) – Sure I had to read up on some of the references, I didn’t know who Fred Titmus was, I wasn’t overly sure where the Quantocks was and I never owned a pair of Dick Quax running shoes either – BUT – I took the time to learn and in that it made those lines funny… then I realised that the idea of looking up lyrics to find out what the band is on about is funny in itself. I’ve learnt a lot from Half Man Half Biscuit as a result of Nigel’s obscure, high-brow and highly entertaining lyrics.
It’s pretty obvious that their underrated, in a peculiar way, some of the instrumentation seems like it exists purely for Nigel’s baffling monologues and passive ranting, whilst other tracks are beautiful, She’s in Broadstairs which features that rhymney-couplet story telling associated with Squeeze is a fantastic indie / poppy tune that wouldn’t be out of place on the radio. It features, like many others Neil Crossley’s sweet sweet harmonies – emphasising the strange but perfect blend between indie, punk, post-punk, country and folk. They could easily have been a serious country band, the second Quarrymen perhaps – but I think and at least gather from assorted interviews and their general attitude that they never wanted to take music seriously. The band have, on several occasions remarked that they do it to avoid working ‘proper jobs’ and whenever funds get low they put an album out – but their albums are always solid, not one sounds like a needless cash-grab, so I think they save up their content and put it out when they’re ready rather than flooding their fanbase with stuff to buy over and over again.
There’s an admiration requirement for a band that’s been going for nearly 40 years and still limits its output so that it doesn’t get stressful or they don’t want to seem greedy.
the secret to “quiet happiness…was limiting your aspirations”. – Nigel Blackwell
They’re too smart and musically adept to be considered a parody band, even though they parody themselves (at the end of Lord Hereford’s Knob – a track you must play if ever driving over Hay’s Bluff as it’s geographically fitting to the area), they’re a timeless band, conveying a universal and comedic moan about aspects of British life that everyone can relate to, be it high street etiquette, people who don’t indicate, postmen who leave elastic bands on the floors, high utility bills, graffiti, Nick Knowles, boring dreams, obtaining swarfega and annoyingly tranquil villages there’s something for everyone.
This was ever-present at Friday’s gig which was just like all the other HMHB gigs I’ve been to, a big sing-along where (and this is only where) chanting ‘Get your hedge cut, get your fucking hedge cut’ brings about a unique warmth, charm and sense of community.
For the entire night I stood just through the main door, next to a taller man and despite us not making eye contact for the entire evening we stood together and sang our hearts out – I tell you right now Dorothy, it was a beautiful thing.