Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Noughties By Nature #94: Half Man Half Biscuit - For What Is Chatteris...

Those people who've actually listened to more than a couple of tracks of Half Man Half Biscuit's output will already know that they're deserving of far more than the "novelty band" tag they're often given by people who know them as nothing more than the purveyors of Trumpton Riots or All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit. But even those who actually have a lot of time for Nigel Blackwell's unique blend of biting satire, pop culture references, canny wordplay, Thomas Hardy quoting and guides to hillwalking can find ourselves surprised, on occasion, by the hidden depths he's able to demonstrate. Case in point - For What Is Chatteris..., just two minutes long and unassumingly sitting as the third track on what may still be the high point of their later career so far, 2005's Achtung Bono.

A charming little love song, Chatteris has a sweet yet sad - and, crucially, sharp - premise at its core. Describing the idyllic, timeless and markedly English countryside beauty and perfection of the titular village ("The swings in the park for the kids have won awards / The clean streets, acknowledged in the Lords"), Blackwell goes on to lament that all of it is ultimately meaningless if it can't be shared with an unnamed (presumed departed) love: "My bag's packed and I'm leaving in a minute / For what is Chatteris without you in it?" he declares, before concluding that he "may as well be in Ely or St. Ives".

Aside from being somewhat heartbreaking, it is of course - as ever - the craft and wit of Blackwell's poetry that makes this; and he still manages to make a lament brilliantly funny with couplets like "You never hear of folk getting knocked on the bonce / Although there was a drive-by shouting once". And how many other songs can you name with the word "quintessence" in?
Seb Patrick

[YouTube (live)]
[Album: Achtung Bono]


BMON said...

Have four finer lines been written in the noughties than

Like a game-bird reserve short on pheasants
Weavers’ cottages devoid of tenants
A market town that lacks quintessence
That’s Chatteris without your presence

Awesome. Full lyrics here, by the way.

Rol said...

Couldn't agree more. I was made up when I saw them live last month and they included this in the set.

Fraser McAlpine said...

Squeeze had a song called 'In Quintessence'. But I rather think this strengthens your point.

Excellent choice!

Matt said...

This is a splendid choice, and for completely the right reasons as well. I've always been a bit surprised that nobody seems to pick up on Nigel's way with the foul rag and bone shop of the heart; Cammell Laird Social Club is as good a break-up album as you could wish to curl up in a corner and sulk with, and this one is particularly lovely. Bravo.

Seb Patrick said...

Cheers! I'd say the best example of said ability probably comes in Keeping Two Chevrons Apart - "They say 'Plenty more fish' / I say 'Amoco Cadiz'" is just one of the most wonderfully concise and apt lyrics I've ever heard...