Half Man Half Biscuit : Achtung Bono

Ben Granger

I may as well declare my stance at the outset. Half Man Half Biscuit are Britain’s most under-rated band, and their singer/writer Nigel Blackwell is not only one of the land’s finest humourists and satirists, but also a chronicler of the tawdriness of modern British life whose vision is shot through with true genius.

Now, those of you who only know the band through dim recollections of a Scouse voice jokily swearing about minor sportsmen and celebrities in the mid-80s may consider sending this first paragraph into Pseud’s Corner. But you’d be wrong to do so. People from Birkenhead aren’t Scousers for a start.

More importantly, in the nine albums the band have made since their (very) brief period of (relative) fame in 1986 with “Fucking ‘ell, It’s Fred Titmuss!” and “I Hate Nerys Hughes (From the Heart)”, their vision has grown more witty, incisive, bleak, devastatingly accurate and straightforwardly brilliant than ever, even though the wise downbeat amalgam of realism and surrealism was there from the start. The hardcore whimsy of The Trumpton Riots has progressed to a more all-encompassing patina on the minutiae of modern English life; capturing the little things that generally fall of the scale of artistic perception. Nigel is one of those writers who show that the heavenly as well as the devil is in the detail.

If anyone can show me a better melding of lovelorn loss allied to a sarcastic critique of the modern middle-class trendy twattery that threatens to consume us all than

“She stayed with me until
She moved to Notting Hill
She said it was the place she needs to be
Where the cocaine is Fair Trade
And frequently displayed
Is the Buena Vista Social Club CD”

(from “The Light at the End Of Tunnel” from last album Cammel Laird Social Club) fhen please do show me it. And for that matter show me a more kick-ass jangle-indie rock tune than that which accompanies “Performing Rights Society – Quick the Drawbridge” from 1997’s Voyage To The Bottom Of the Road. Can’t can you?

Blackwell is a modest, unassuming Wirral man of upper-working-class origin, a Thomas Hardy fan with an outsized bullshit detector, and a turn of phrase few could dream of.

In the new album, as per often, he blasts targets near and far, high and low, not just the obvious pop idle of celebrity culture, but also his more close-to-home contemporaries. Always in “indie” but not “of” it; in the past the alternative music scene has been the chief target of his ire, (see the immortal “Look Dad No Tunes”) but not so much on this album. As he gets older it seems to be the general populace around him, ossifying into idiocy and dullness in middle-age that horrifies him. He has a pathological hatred of those who’ve got the whole world in their house to see the new conservatory. This time he kicks against the pricks “with your Del-boy impressions and your CORGI-registered friends”.

It’s a mark of Blackwell’s deftness of touch, that he can describe a professional couple in the Cotswolds playing pooh-sticks, sharing a tub of gelatine ice-cream, before skipping gaily off to watch Marianne Faithful at the Warwick Arts Centre, and, without any abuse, you know exactly why he hates them so much. It’s like Alan Bennett possessed by the spirit of Johnny Rotten.

Other topics the album addresses include the sinister nature of signs advertising vegetable sales on remote rural roads in “Asparagus Next Left” (“‘Oooh rhubarb -let’s go!!’/ She’s still not been accounted for”) and an attack on The Libertines for their sloppy quoting of Scripture in “Shit Arm, Bad Tattoo”: (“If you’re going to quote from the Book of Revelation/Don’t go calling it ‘the Book of Revelations’/ there’s no ‘s'”).

Musically, the album goes for the mid-paced folkier edge in general rather than their more rock-out numbers. As ever, the music is secondary to the words, but also, as ever, it fits and
complements the lyrics perfectly in that its ramshackle exterior nature belies an expertly designed structure underneath.

More than in any previous album, the prevailing themes are cynical disdain for modern societal trends combined with an apparently genuine affection for the ambience of small-town England, as in “We Built This Village on a Trad Arr. Tune” and “For What is Chatteris? (if you’re not there)”:

“Car crime’s low
Gun crime’s lower
The town hall band’s CD – It’s a grower
You never hear of folk getting knocked on the bonce
Although there was a drive-by shouting once”

Yet that song also approaches the album’s other theme, often present but here more than ever; allusions to intense loss and depression. I do hope it’s not too autobiographical. The CD’s best track to my mind is “Depressed Beyond Tablets”, (nice Brass Eye reference), which contains the wonderful lines:-

“Your optimism strikes me
like junk-mail addressed to the dead
Depressed beyond tablets
I’ve gone beyond pills
The cloud-face is low on the Clwydian hills”

There is perhaps nothing on this album as instantly striking as some of their former tracks, no “Fred Titmuss” or “Life At The End Of The Tunnel”. And as ever there’s the odd miss on the way. “Joy Division Oven Gloves” has an excellent title but meanders off into the pure silliness most people (who’ve heard of them) imagine they’re all about. “Restless Legs” is an inconsequential observation of, er, someone with restless legs to the tune of George Formby’s “When I’m Cleaning Windows” (also under-rated in my view but…we’ll save that for another time…)

“Upon Westminster Bridge” contains the “list of modern malaise” track which features on every album; and this isn’t one of the best of them, though it does have the highly saving grace of incorporating the “twelve days of Christmas” tune; and including (TV’s DIY SOS‘s) “Nick FUCKING Knowles” instead of “five GOLD rings”. Yes, that makes up for it in fact.

Yet despite weaker moments, what is present throughout is the incredibly wide-ranging wit and allusions of the song-writing that has been written of as “novelty” for far too long. Let’s get this straight. Half Man Half Biscuit are a “comedy band” (Black Lace, Barron Knights, Fat Les, Electric Six, The Darkness) only in so much as The Bible is a self-help book.

And yet, in the end, yes, I suppose you’d have to find some of their more obvious lines funny to appreciate their other qualities. Much is in the delivery and context, yet I suppose if you don’t find

“Is your child hyperactive?
Or is he perhaps a twat?”

or

“It’s a cricketing farce
With a thickening plot
Act One – Scene One
Brenda Blethyn gets shot”

amusing even in the abstract then the band as a whole is not likely to appeal. Your loss.

Here’s perhaps my favourite off the album

“Gouranga Gouranga?
Yes I’ll ‘be happy’
When you’ve been arrested for defacing the bridge”

Part of the joy of the Biscuits is there’s so many references in the songs you can’t possibly know them all, but you can then seek them out (or look at this site to help you.) They should be on the national curriculum. For instance, the above lines makes perfect sense to me. If it doesn’t to you, you could or should embark on a journey examining the vandalised state of north British motorway bridges, which would then lead you to the propaganda tactics of the modern Hare Krishna movement. It also shows how infectious Blackwell’s humour is. A good percentage of it is about sport for a start, and I can’t stand sport. I still find it funny, and can now follow a conversation about football without eyes glazing over and mouth drooling.

This is probably not one of Half Man Half Biscuit’s best albums. And yet its still fantastic. You could learn more about life in modern Britain from this album than all those in the Gallup Top 50 combined. Easy.

If Nigel ever reads this he will probably be most amused some pseud has chosen to over-analyse his lyrics. Well screw you Nige. You’re a poet even if you don’t know it. You’ll still be listened to in 200 years time. If I have my way. And by God sir, I will.

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2 Responses to Half Man Half Biscuit : Achtung Bono

  1. Nickolite says:

    Great review. I have listened to the album again and again and it always makes me laugh. That line about the hyperactive child is set to such an innocuous tune it makes it even funnier. Another great moment is the first line of a song (I think it’s Asparagus next left) where he comes in screaming “Indicator! You stupid bastard, how was I supposed to know that you were going to turn left, I’m not a mind reader!” and then sets off into the tune proper. I agree with the reviewer about Joy Division Oven Gloves. I think that was the single from the album which is a shame because it’s the least witty. Overall a wonderful album though. It’s a bit like listening to The Fall, but funnier, more coherent and with more musical talent.

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