It’s the 25th of December, 2014, and a fifteen-year-old incarnation of me is tearing the wrapping from a very special present. I am probably the only fifteen-year-old girl in the country to receive this particular gift for Christmas and I am innocent of the profound effect it will have on my life. The present is a vinyl LP titled Urge for Offal, and it is by a band from Birkenhead called Half Man Half Biscuit. The cover of this LP depicts their bassist, Neil Crossley, sat astride what appears to be a giant duck that used to be part of a merry-go-round, and looking very pleased with himself.
Ah, you may think, a novelty band. How sweet. Well, I can understand where you’re coming from. Even the music fans who became familiar with them in the mid-eighties, probably through hearing “The Trumpton Riots” on legendary DJ John Peel’s radio show (he was their biggest champion from their debut album in 1985 to his death in 2004), tend to pigeonhole them under “novelty” and leave it at that. They have a slight point, especially when you look at the track listings – “Baguette Dilemma for the Booker Prize Guy”, “Theme Tune for Something or Other” and “Old Age Killed My Teenage Bride” are taken from Urge for Offal alone. But, and here’s the clincher, novelty bands don’t often change lives.
Now, Half Man Half Biscuit (or “HMHB” for convenience) are funny. They are not just funny in the sense of raising a smile. They are so funny that I believe I fell on the floor engulfed in rapturous and painful laughter during “Adam Boyle Has Cast Lad Rock Aside”, but describing them as “that funny band” is a bit like calling the Smiths “that miserable band”. There’s more to both groups than mere adjectives can do justice and, like the Smiths, HMHB get their magic from their unmistakeable but unpatriotic Englishness as much as their idiosyncratic obsessions. Instead of claiming Oscar Wilde, James Dean and kitchen-sink drama as inspiration, the lead singer Nigel Blackwell counts football chants, reality TV and early American rock and blues among his passions. They are strong passions, too. Popular legend has it that the band’s brief split after their second album was because being in a band conflicted with Blackwell’s daytime viewing schedule and that they once turned down an appearance on music programme The Tube because there was a Tranmere match on.
These gestures might seem unnecessarily cute, but HMHB don’t shy away from intelligent swearing, morbid lyrics and the occasional piece of jarring noise rock. The band even share some fans with the Fall, the notorious post-punk band led by vitriolic Victorian villain made human Mark E. Smith, a man who would be sloshing to the back teeth with bile if he had any back teeth. But Blackwell isn’t even slightly like that. His lyrics, his anti-rock quirks and his detached Scousoid accent are frequently nothing short of endearing. He is a champion bellyacher, griping with gusto about subjects ranging from middle class pretension and poor road etiquette to D-list celebrities and Brian Eno, but rather than being miserable he takes hearty pleasure in doing so. Besides, there isn’t enough anger in the man to make him a protest singer despite having the same rootsy wisdom as Bob Dylan. As far as I know, Blackwell hasn’t won any Nobel Prizes for literature, but that seems unfair seeing as Dylan never came up with such lyrical gems as:
Oh help me Mrs Medlicott
I don’t know what to do
I’ve only got three bullets
And there’s four of Motley Crue
If you look carefully in the background of The Scream
The couple on the bridge are both Robson Green
Not only that, but Blackwell provides astute and often cutting commentary on the music industry. Rather than going for predictable targets like the victims of the talent-show machine, he generally lampoons fictitious down-on-their-luck indie bands. This might seem cruel, but when you’ve got observations as brilliantly realised as the jaunty “Bad Review”, about the complex emotions triggered by a slating in the music press (“oh it’s a rum old do is a bad review, oh Lord”), the temptation to laugh along is irresistible. Even when he’s savaging the subjects of these character studies, there’s often some sensitivity involved – the lines “I should have just got a job on the bins/The pay’s better and I’d know some hard blokes/And I wouldn’t have to pretend/That I know what ‘rhetorical’ means” in “Lark Descending”, sung in the guise of a lad who is trying to be Mansfield’s very own Steve Malkmus, are hilarious but break my heart very slightly.
Of course, even the best lyrics suffer if the music itself is poor, and it is fortunate that the rest of the band are a talented lot. In the early days, when being slightly rubbish was seen as a sign of authenticity, this was less noticeable but they are showing off their skills a bit more now without losing their charming veneer of amateurism. Rollicking guitar solos introduced in even more inventive fashion than Jonathan Richman’s childlike exhortations (“OK, let’s go to chapel!”) offset the odd piece of lyrical grimness with the sense that the lads are having great fun, and the basslines can sometimes resemble Joy Division or New Order so closely that you end up doing a double-take at your CD player. Honestly, if Peter Hook ever heard “Bob Wilson – Anchorman” I swear he’d throw down his instrument and start sobbing. “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, eat your heart out.
In summary, whatever happens to music in the future, everything will be fine if we still have HMHB. When they finally are no more, it might be akin to the ravens leaving the Tower of London, but that’s not happening any time soon. Thank goodness for that.