Tuesday, April 29, 2008

An Illustrated Guide To... Half Man Half Biscuit

Most of the time when constructing an Illustrated Guide we set out to find the artist's place in history, cutting through the dense forest of a worthwhile back catalogue and demonstrating their influence on the modern day while annotating every bit of change and cut and thrust in the interim. This one isn't like that. With a few deviations, their sound is essentially a streamlined jangle. They can't have sold five figure totals of one new album in the last twenty years. They are never played on daytime radio, have made only two television appearances (in 1985 and 1998), do very few interviews, didn't have their photo taken for years and don't have a hope in hell of selling records anywhere outside a certain British demographic. And yet to that strata of people they matter intensely, selling out the London Astoria in 2003, and a band for whom literally anywhere from first album to latest is a good place to start. John Peel had them in twelve times; Andy Kershaw called them "England's greatest folk group" and "the most complete and authentic British group since The Clash". Essentially, if you don't like Half Man Half Biscuit we don't want to know you.

Nigel Blackwell, born 1964 in Birkenhead, spent the first few years out of school writing for fanzines and spending time at the library while signing on, the resultant brow-crossing knowledge of football and music minutiae on one side and literature and UK geography on the other crossing when he met well travelled local bassist Neil Crossley. They spent time writing songs for their own pleasure until Blackwell's brother Simon and drummer Paul Wright pitched in. It's said that, as Blackwell had earned some employment there, they were able to cut an album at Liverpool's Vulcan Studios on the relative cheap to test out the new eight-track studio, with David Lloyd adding keyboards. The tape was pitched around a few labels, including Factory, until local promoter Geoff Davies heard it, decided "if the tape was half as good as the titles then I'd want to record this group" and signed them to his Probe Plus label. A few more songs later the whole package was titled Back In The DHSS and sent to John Peel, who picked up on it immediately ("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."). While there had been bands, most notably the Fall, who could deal in low and high culture at the same time, there was a uniqueness to the cross-referencing, surreal one-liners (Blackwell: "I just do throwaway lines to be laughed at once, which is why we have to back it up with some semblance of a tune"), indicativeness of the ennui of the disenfranchised and general social and cultural savagery. It became the biggest selling independent album of 1986, totalling an estimated 200,000+ sales, and earned it makers a Glastonbury slot and a place on the NME's celebrated C86 compilation, where despite sharing a guitar sound with many around them they still stood out a mile.

99% Of Gargoyles Look Like Bob Todd

A follow-up came in the form of the Trumpton Riots EP, an indie chart number one which threw its production values at a wall against tales of Subbuteo, rock pretensions and stop-motion animated anarchy, as performed on Whistle Test. Blackwell appeared on Radio 4's Midweek; famously, however, they twice refused to go to Newcastle for The Tube as Tranmere Rovers were playing on the same night. Couldn't the booker have waited for an away game?

As another single, Dickie Davies Eyes, knocked on the door of the proper charts Blackwell decided to throw in his lot, retiring the band at their height in 1987. A mostly recorded album was put out under the title Back Again In The DHSS, featuring eight tracks of equally high quality plus two from the Trumpton Riots EP and a live track on the cassette. You can't get this any more; what you can get is ACD, the 1988 reissue that takes off those add-ons (that EP appears in full at the end of Back In The DHSS' CD now), slips in an unreleased Peel session song - Carry On Cremating, supposedly left off the original version for taste reasons as it's about the problems of cremating Hattie Jacques, although this is questionable given the tracks chosen include Rod Hull Is Alive - Why?, The Bastard Son Of Dean Friedman and Arthur's Farm, in which amputees Arthur Askey and Douglas Bader re-enact Animal Farm to their own undextrousness - and adds nine first album live songs recorded in Sheffield.

Rod Hull Is Alive - Why?

Blackwell let it be known that he was missing daytime TV too much, although much later he admitted "I felt as if I needed some time to 'carry on as I was before' in order to write the same sort of songs. I think otherwise, tunes about 'big skies' and 'girls' eyes' would have surfaced menacingly, and band meetings pertaining to production values may have been arranged. Not good, that." Everyone disappeared from view for a while until 1990, when Blackwell used Peel's show to announce a reformation followed by two more singles, the still dead-on Let's Not and, for some reason, a version of No Regrets (as in Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien) with briefly omnipresent actress Margi Clarke. The 1991 album McIntyre Treadmore And Davitt - title from the classic Barnstoneworth United frontline, from the Golden Gordon episode of Michael Palin's comedy series Ripping Yarns - showed the band had musically progressed just far enough from their unstructured shambling roots while the reference points and one-liners came thick and mid-paced.

Everything's A.O.R.

And we kind of progress from there, really. 1993's This Leaden Pall is a lesser work but likes its musical reference points (Running Order Squabble Fest) and literate modern life satire (Improv Workshop Mimeshow Gobshite). Dave Lloyd and Paul Wright left at this point, Carl Alty arriving on drums, and with gigs becoming more infrequent and more often than not in out of the way places Simon Blackwell departed a year later, Ian Jackson taking up bass with Neil Crossley moving across to guitar for a bit until replacement Ken Hancock arrived. 1995's Some Call It Godcore isn't a high point either, although almost sensitive closer Tour Jacket With Detachable Sleeves more than makes up for it. Carl Henry took over the drumstool after 1996's Eno Collaboration EP, which very wasn't what it said, and that lineup continues to this day.

After nearly signing to V2, 1997's Voyage To The Bottom Of The Road came out once again on Probe Plus - to which, incidentally, the band have never signed a contract - and was arguably their best post-reformation album to date, featuring yet more music industry cynicism, the celebrated Middle England excoriation Paintball's Coming Home and ITMA, which is just Blackwell reeling off specifications from job adverts. Four Lads Who Shook The Wirral came a year later, previewed by an appearance on cult Channel 4 overnight sport show Under The Moon, and continued the run of form, featuring Four Skinny Indie Kids, You're Hard and most spectacularly of all the six and a half Millennium-critiquing minutes of A Country Practice. Asked by the Guardian in February to select a song that defines Englishness, Eliza Carthy picked it out: "It's incredibly wordy and conversational, with Nigel Blackwell talking over beats and making up almost nursery rhymes. In this song, Blackwell goes all over the country to pick apart English people at our basest: trying to be famous or making money living on the streets rearing fat cows...The song seems over-clever and flippant, but it's bitter and very funny, which is very English: pathos disguised by wit and emotional detachment. It's like a camera flying over the country, zooming in and out; like watching a film of England." John Peel, curating Meltdown at the Queen Elizabeth Hall that year, asked them to support Lonnie Donegan.

A Country Practice

And the hits just kept on coming. 2000's Trouble Over Bridgwater, from which Look Dad No Tunes had emerged as a single the previous year, kicked off with the Guilty Pleasures-wrecking Irk The Purists and added Twenty Four Hour Garage People to the all time classics list. Stylistically scattergun, from Dylan cribbing to a deep house track about a late night Radio 2 DJ, it's becoming an increasingly popular choice as the band's all time high water mark.

Uffington Wassail

Not that the descent was at all sharp. A 2001 six track EP, Editor's Recommendation, was topped and tailed by Bob Wilson - Anchorman, which grabbed the Mirror's attention, and Vatican Broadside, which Frank Turner occasionally covers live. 2002's Cammell Laird Social Club established a holding pattern, adding high quality spoken word efforts The Referee's Alphabet and and Breaking News, which 2003's Saucy Haulage Ballads EP maintained, bar the bluegrass version of Trumpton Riots retitled On Finding the Studio Banjo, and 2005's Achtung Bono broke out of with crowd chantalong Joy Division Oven Gloves and the much discussed Shit Arm Bad Tattoo (Nigel says it isn't about them, but it's full of allusions to the Libertines) Stylus and Popmatters both used it as a cue to try and explain them to international online audiences.

Upon Westminster Bridge

And as of yesterday, the tally of proper albums made eleven with the release of CSI: Ambleside. Not, to be honest, in our all time HMHB top three, but miles ahead of most others, National Shite Day another in a long line of standout album closers. More than anyone else of note to us, this is a band who have completely done things their own way and picked up an army of loyal fans (reputedly including Jarvis Cocker, Frank Skinner, Tracy Emin and Robbie Williams) almost by chance, simultaneously flying the flag for working class stasis and knowledgeable cultural observant, the pub philosopher with first class honours from the University Of Life. By the way, this might be the first extended piece about HMHB that doesn't just quote titles and lyrics for the sake of it. It's always been about far more than that.

FURTHER LISTENING: the blogger we're naming our first born after this week is the one who has uploaded nearly every Peel session song ever.

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