Half Man, Half Biscuit, All Genius
I've rattled on about Kraftwerk often enough down the years, so now it's well past time that I talked about my other favourite band of all time.
Half Man Half Biscuit (hereinafter referred to as 'HMHB' for the sake of brevity) were formed in Birkenhead, England in 1984 by Nigel Blackwell (gtr, lead vcls), his brother Simon (lead gtr), Neil Crossley (bass, vcls), Paul Wright (drums) and Dave Lloyd (keyboards). They took their first demo tape to Geoff Davies at Probe Plus in Liverpool, who liked it so much that he put the demos straight out as the band's debut outing Back In The DHSS the next year.
Here, from that first LP, is Reflections In A Flat which already shows Nigel Blackwell's ability to make the right cultural references amid rhymes which varied from the clever via the audacious to the unbelievably banal:
(There is a whole website which lists the band's lyrics from the beginning. This is useful because if there has been a regular gripe about HMHB's recordings down the years, it is that Nigel Blackwell's voice is too often mixed too far back to be clearly audible. I'll give links to the lyrics for each of the tracks featured in this piece when they come along).
Davies sent a copy to the legendary John Peel, who liked the band so much that he had them booked for a session immediately. Two more sessions followed in 1986, which is when the story really begins for me.
I had become very aware that my musical tastes had ossified into a narrow range of artists (Hawkwind, Clannad and, of course, Kraftwerk), and for once I decided to actually do something about it. The only remedy which suggested itself was to start listening to John Peel's shows on Radio 1. I seem to remember that I had tried this a few years before, but my mind was too closed to enable any useful experience to come of it, and so I drifted away almost immediately.
So it was that I started listening to Peelie regularly in about July 1986, just in time to catch HMHB's third session which was broadcast in the September. The first track aired was a version of the band's imminent single Dickie Davies Eyes (two cultural references in three words, note). My mind was blown instantly: where the hell had these lads been? And where had I been?
The session version (which was produced by the legendary Dale Griffin and features Lloyd having a grand old time on the BBC studio piano) has unfortunately never been commercially issued despite it being superior in all respects to the version that was. Luckily, some kind spirit has put an aircheck of it up where you would expect, so here's your chance to hear it (it cuts off a little abruptly at the end, presumably to omit either Peel's comments or the next track on the show):
Surprisingly, if not shockingly, Nigel Blackwell called a halt to the band shortly afterwards and - one semi-compilation LP released in 1987 apart - that seemed to be it.
Update: Having mentioned that LP - Back Again In The DHSS - in my ever-increasing befuddlement I forgot to include the track I wanted you to hear from it, the atmospheric Reasons To Be Miserable (Part Ten). Here it is:
Then, listening to Peel one night in 1990, I discovered that the band had just reformed (with the same line-up, too!) and had recorded a new session. This is a highlight from it, Yipps (My Baby Got The). I would have slightly preferred to play you the version released on the following year's McIntyre Treadmore And Davitt comeback album, but I can't find that on YooChoob.
It's a slightly bizarre track in that it comprises three very different-sounding parts: the slow, ethereal opening; the rock wig-out in the middle; and the silly bit at the end:
It soon became clear that HMHB had no intention of going away again, as 1993 brought us This Leaden Pall, which turned out to be the last album featuring the original line-up (Wright and Lloyd left between the recording and the issuing of it, and Simon Blackwell left the following year).
It's a strong LP overall, but I've picked out Malayan Jelutong becuase it illustrates the band's quirky nature. For one thing, the title bears no relation whatsoever to the lyrics; secondly, the verses are of a very different tenor to the chorus; and thirdly, the chorus exhibits N. Blackwell's strong tendency towards the elegiac in his lyrics:
1995 found the band without a resident keyboard player - something which persists to this day - and with Wright replaced by Carl Alty on drums and S. Blackwell by Ian Jackson. That year's offering, Some Call It Godcore, featured a number of songs where Nigel B.'s lyrics partook of at least the numinous if not of the overtly religious (he has always been cagey about his views on these things, so the degree of intent in this regard can't easily be assayed). My choice for you here is Fear My Wraith, which starts with a Keats reference before going on to excoriate people mispronouncing straightforward words (something to which he - and we - shall return later), other people being pretentiously dismissive about a famous Danish landmark and similar bugbears, before concluding with an almost obligatory - if not gratuitous - reference to 1970s lower-division English football:
This period saw further changes in personnel, with Alty and Jackson being replaced by Carl Henry and Ken Hancock. The first album by what the music press would call the 'classic second line-up' - one which was to endure for over twenty years - Voyage To The Bottom Of The Road came out in 1997 and marked the band's increasing move towards a more folk-type style (although the old ways were still there in abundance). The track ITMA is an unacknowledged gem, with a jug band arrangement backing Blackwell's litany of pish culled from recruitment advertisements and other such crimes against communication. His intoning of the phrase, "human resources", expresses perfectly the degree of scorn and contempt with which that hideous term - seeking as it does to reduce living, breathing people to the status of gravel - deserves to be treated (and I therefore dedicate this particular number to my fellow connoisseur of claptrap, the ever-estimable Philip Challinor:
The very next year (that's 1998, in case you'd dropped off the pace a bit) brought us Four Lads Who Shook The Wirral, and our featured track is one of NB's famous list songs, where he adapts Niemoller's famous statement and gives it a number of twists before concluding that sometimes it's best not to bother.
(This gives me the opportunity to relate an anecdote I heard some years ago about a woman called Pia Zadora, an American model, singer and actress who was spectacularly mediocre at all three. Some wise guy had the idea of giving her the lead rôle in a New York production of The Diary Of Anne Frank. On the opening night, her performance was so execrable that, when the Nazi stormtroopers piled on stage during the last act, the audience - with one voice - cried out, "She's in the attic!". Ouch!)
The end of the old century (and yes, 2000 was the last year of the twentieth, not the first of the twenty-first, irrespective of what know-nothings might claim) saw the 'four lads' release Trouble Over Bridgwater. I have already featured my choice of track, It's Clichéd To Be Cynical At Christmas (2000) here, so I suggest you pop over there for three minutes and fifty seconds and then come back here.
Back again? Good. Interesting to hear a band whose lyrics are renowned for their cynicism getting cynical about cynics, isn't it? I mean, it's almost meta.
2002's Cammell Laird Social Club (have you noticed the tendency of HMHB's album titles to be warpings of others?) provided us with a wide variety of styles, but I've chosen another of Blackwell's Lists Of The Damned as he tallies up the categories of people who would - in a well-ordered world - be rounded up for 'annoying the nation'.
This track, superb as it is and with a great backing, suffers from the fault I referred to above, in that NB's voice is mixed way too far back for the material, so having the lyrics in front of you will help your appreciation enormously:
Passing over 2005's Achtung Bono which, whilst a good album, doesn't really have a standout track for me, we reach CSI: Ambleside (2008), which closes with perhaps the band's greatest track, National Shite Day, which combines two brief and unconnected storylines with another list of peeves. It also contains the greatest alliterative line in the whole of rock music at the one-minute-fifty mark:
Routing around 90 Bisodol (Crimond) (2011), which suffers (if that's the word, which it isn't) from the same lack of an identifiable peak moment as Achtung Bono, 2014's Urge For Offal closes with the sublime Mileage Chart, in which the lyrics - although superficially about someone trying to work our his route by use of that aid much beloved of cartophiles such as Yer Judge - have a greater depth if considered as a parable about human relationships.
Finally and bang up to date, we have the Biscuits' (as people who ought to know better sometimes call them) latest album, 2018's No-One Cares About Your Creative Hub So Get Your Fuckin' Hedge Cut, featuring the first change of line-up in over two decades, with Karl Benson replacing Ken Hancock on lead guitar. It is perhaps their strongest record ever, musically speaking (somewhat worryingly for the sake of the band's credibility, it was made Album Of The Week by the rebarbative Steve Wright on Radio 2 (*)), shows a confirmation of the return to a more 'rock' style, and the track which contains part of the album's title, Every Time A Bell Rings, reaches new heights of obloquy, kicking against the pretentious pricks who are still posited as those to whom we should show all due obeisance, despite their being consistently unable to say 'orang-utan' or 'Ku Klux Klan' correctly:
Sorry, but I haven't quite finished.
Would you do something for me, m'dears? Would you go back and listen to all of the above tracks again, but this time go past the lyrics and concentrate on the music?
You see, along with the 'known knowns' of Half Man Half Biscuit - such as their limited gigging schedule, their turning down an appearance on The Tube because it would have meant missing a Tranmere Rovers home game, and that John Peel wanted them buried with him - there has been far too much discussion focussed around the words and not enough around the overall sound.
Listen back to all these tracks and you will hear very competent and versatile musicianship in a wide variety of styles combined with extremely effective arrangements and - usually - production which provides the ideal ambience for each number. Nigel Blackwell has been fortunate in having had very able instrumentalists around him for the last thirty-four years, not least in having Neil Crossley as a constant feature on bass. Crossley is under-recognised as a highly talented musician, who deserves more attention than he tends to get, even by diehard Biscuiteers (as we don't tend to call ourselves).
In addition to this, many of the songs contain superb melodies, be they in the harder or softer tones, the major or the minor mood.
So, musically as well as lyrically, Half Man Half Biscuit should be recognised as one of the greatest bands England has produced in the last fifty years, even though they themselves would shy away from such an accolade, bringing with it as it would the attentions of the very same poseurs who have been the justified target of their barbs since the days of Thatcher.
And that just takes the Biscuit (and not just the Half of it, either).
* This appears to have been 'fake news', much to the relief of many