Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 01/12/2005.
It's appropriate that this is the last article in this month-long series of reposts: the life-changing event discussed in the opening paragraphs was the banger up my arse that forced me to rethink a number of things in my life, including the future direction of The Unpleasant Lair. By July 2006, I'd moved my internet operations over to this blog, and the rest you know.
As for Half Man Half Biscuit, they've released just one more album since this review, 2008's CSI: Ambleside. With song titles like Took Problem Chimp To Ideal Home Show, it's business as usual for Nigel and the boys.
You know that moderately responsible job in the computer industry that I've mentioned here in the past? Well, I was told this morning that I'm probably going to lose it by the end of this year.
This sort of thing happens to other people all the time, but not me - I left university, went into a job, and I've been with that same employer for over 21 years now. This is neither the time nor place for me to go into a rant about how the company has changed in those 21 years. But for the first time since my college days, I'm having to think about the possibility of becoming a monkey of leisure for an uncertain period of time. And like anyone else in an unfamiliar situation, I'm looking for a role model.
By pure coincidence - honestly, these opening paragraphs looked very different yesterday - I've recently been studying the work of Nigel Blackwell, who could well be the ideal role model for the unemployed English male. When he found himself out of a job, he didn't riot, but he didn't get on his bike and look for work either. No, he sat at home all day and watched loads of terrible daytime telly. And after a while doing that, he got together with his mate Neil Crossley and formed a band called Half Man Half Biscuit, who specialised in funny songs about what it's like to sit at home all day and watch loads of terrible daytime telly. 2005 marks the 20th anniversary of the band's first album, and the release of their tenth: and that sounds like as good a reason as any to have a Half Man Half Biscuit retrospective.
Back in the garage with my Grim Irony Detector, and it's beeping like a mad bastard. Because on a day when I'm theoretically meant to be considering the various options for my future employment, I'm actually writing about a 1985 album called Back In The DHSS. In my memory it's the most musically basic of the HMHB albums, although I suspect that judgment is clouded by a ropey gig I saw them play in 1986. That memory seems a little harsh now, though it's fair to say that you wouldn't listen to the album for its tunes - two of the songs are even based around the exact same two-chord riff. Lyrically, though, it's surprising how well it holds up two decades on. There's the odd comic reference that pulls you up short through unfamiliarity - like the yell of "Jesus Christ, come on down" that opens 99% Of Gargoyles Look Like Bob Todd - but there's usually a better one right behind it. (In that particular case, it's the line that first introduced me to the band in an NME review: "Did you ever wonder how / You get triangles from a cow / You need butter milk and cheese / And an equilateral chainsaw.") If there's a downside, it's that most of the songs are strings of unconnected one-liners: but that disconnect from line to line makes them fizz like a good Steven Wright routine, and means that in one case - "Stevie Nicks books about kleptomania" in Fuckin' 'Ell It's Fred Titmus - there was a joke I didn't pick up on for nearly twenty years.
In 1987 HMHB released a sequel on vinyl, cunningly titled Back Again In The DHSS: you can't buy it any more. What you can buy is the CD version, equally cunningly titled ACD (1988). In a move that will confuse discographers for generations to come, the CD of Back In The DHSS actually includes some of the songs from the second album as bonus tracks: ACD omits these, replacing them with ten live reworkings of old favourites, plus a previously unreleased song. Looking at the new songs (mainly offcuts from various John Peel sessions), it's apparent that HMHB have made the acquaintance of Mr Tune, and there are songs here you'd be happy to listen to even without the words - many of the established classics in their live setlist come from this period. The unreleased track is an interesting one: Carry On Cremating, which was notoriously left off the first album for reasons of taste. The original title, The Continuous Cremation Of Hattie Jacques, may give you a clue: but it's fairly tame compared with Arthur's Farm, in which Arthur Askey and Douglas Bader go on a joint mission to cut the legs off animals. Interesting to note that they never indulged in such Macc Laddery again.
And nearly never indulged in anything at all again, for that matter: by the time of Back Again's release, the band had split up. When they came back in 1991, it was with the triumphant McIntyre, Treadmore And Davitt, the first album with actual songs rather than one-liners set to music. Blackwell had used the hiatus to learn how a lyric like Outbreak Of Vitas Gerulaitis can have a logical flow to it, even though it rambles all over the place - "what can you do / when your mum's in Rampton bouncing off the walls / and singing who's afraid / of Virginia Wade". Yipps (My Baby Got The) almost has pretensions to rock opera: it's got several distinct sections, starting slow, building to the revelation of the titular golfing dilemma, and climaxing with a plug for a Julio Iglesias album (Julio Sings Your Favourite Ultrasur Chants). But the final track is my favourite: Everything's AOR is a terrific piece of social satire worthy of Flanders and Swann, and introduces the recurring lyrical theme of a man spurned by an upwardly mobile woman. Here, Blackwell points out the nerdiness hidden beneath her trendy exterior, no matter how much she chooses to deny it: "She's the main man in her office in the city / And she treats me like I'm just another lackey / But I can put a tennis racket up against my face / And pretend that I am Kendo Nagasaki."
Write about what you know: it's advice that's served creative people well for centuries. And for the first three albums, what HMHB knew best was the minutiae of 80s popular culture, gleaned from those afternoons in front of the telly: TV personalities, obscure European football teams, unpopular indie bands. It's interesting to note the change in subject matter by the time of This Leaden Pall (1993) - twenty per cent of the songs are about the music business, and they're some of the best songs on here. 4AD3DCD nails the pretentiousness of the label perfectly ("piss cream carnival lime sky spookypills" could easily be a Cocteau Twins lyric): Running Order Squabble Fest builds to the magnificent punchline of "you're going on after Crispy Ambulance": and Whit Week Malarkey tells tales of meeting The Edge at "prestigious Marquee club". The rest of the songs are sadly so-so, a mishmash of badly dated gags and blatant filler. But the final song is the start of a splendid HMHB tradition - Footprints with its long spoken word section, in this case taking the walking-with-Jesus-on-the-beach fable and giving it a tremendous final line rewrite.
It's a tradition continued in 1995's Some Call It Godcore, where the spoken final track Tour Jacket With Detachable Sleeves crams in more gags than the rest of the album put together. (My favourite is the conversation with the guitarist in a Focus tribute band - "Are you knackered, man?" "No, I'm Jan Akkerman.") The rest of the record's somewhat uninspired, apart from odd highlights like the budget synthpop of £24.99 From Argos, and the sneaky Abba pun of footy tune Friday Night And The Gates Are Low. Which is a shame, because the curse of the comedy songwriter is to coast on funny titles. For me, Pall and Godcore are HMHB's equivalent of a mid-season slump: even their sleeves are cheap and dull-looking.
So it's good to report that Voyage To The Bottom Of The Road (1997) is a great return to form, starting from A Shropshire Lad's grinding guitar and almost inexplicable chant of "boom boom boom, let me hear you say hosepipe ban". More and more of the songs are based around the music biz, frequently written from the point of view of a struggling indie band. Shropshire Lad starts with a hilarious tale of a bogus festival, Bad Review ("not that I'm concerned / your paper's full of crap / I only read the gig guide anyway") is pretty much self-explanatory, while the cheerfully bitchy Eno Collaboration shows that HMHB have no plans to expand their proudly limited sonic pallette at any point in the future. The references here are more densely packed than usual, and anyone who can successfully explain PRS Yearbook - Quick The Drawbridge deserves a prize. But it all ends happily with Paintball's Coming Home, another of Blackwell's patented pretension-skewerers performed to a stolen tune. "They've got the whole world in their house / to see the new conservatory."
Four Lads Who Shook The Wirral (1998) came out a mere year later (as you've probably noticed by now, one album every two years is pretty much their standard workrate), and looks like a dip compared to what came before and after it. Not too many classics here, unfortunately, apart from live favourite shoutalong You're Hard ("Henry Rollins, Henry Rollins / You're hard, you're hard / Big Jimmy Nail, Big Jimmy Nail / You're hard as well / Sainsbury's security / Like I'm dead scared"). But the surprise is Soft Verges, the closest thing to a reflective acoustic number in HMHB's back catalogue. It analyses the dilemma of an actor passing a friend in the street without breaking stride or talking to them, to an almost autistic degree, and ends with the surprisingly bleak Cliff Richard rewrite "Gary doesn't live here any more / Gary took a dive from the second floor."
Before I listened to ten HMHB albums in a row for this piece, I'd have told you that McIntyre, Treadmore And Davitt was my favourite one - the point where their musical ability suddenly caught up with their lyrics. But now, I'd say Trouble Over Bridgwater (2000) was my favourite: it's got more moments of uproarious surprise than any other record they've done. Irk The Purists is a magnificent opener - a hymn to the indiscriminate love of music, featuring a middle eight to the tune of Agadoo that goes "Husker Du, Du, Du / Captain Beefheart, ELO / Chris de Burgh, Sun Ra / Del Amitri, John Coltrane". It's almost a statement of intent for the whole album, which changes styles each song with gleeful abandon, from electro through folk to Dylan pastiche. Look Dad No Tunes may well be their best song of indie band failure, with its magnificent closing response to a new band member - "I think we'd better lerrim in / I heard he's got a theremin." It's Cliched To Be Cynical At Christmas is also extraordinary - you keep listening through all the strings, bells and children's choir waiting for the catch, but apart from the sentiment of the title, there isn't one. And it's followed by a track which depicts the death of Noel Edmonds using a single synthesiser key. It's the closest thing to distilled genius HMHB have made to date, and if you only get one album out of the ten, this is the one to go for.
Since Bridgwater, HMHB's release schedule has settled into a somewhat leisurely pattern: one full album every few years, with six-track EPs filling in the gaps in between. (One of those EPs, 2001's Editor's Recommendation, has been previously mentioned here.) Cammell Laird Social Club, 2002's offering, doesn't do anything massively new with the HMHB formula, but by now they've been going so long that recycled jokes can be looked on as recurring themes. The Light At The End Of The Tunnel (Is The Light Of An Oncoming Train) is another variation on Everything's AOR, as the narrator's girlfriend moves to Notting Hill "where the cocaine is Fair Trade". Another spoken word piece, The Referee's Alphabet, is a highlight, and leads me to suspect that I like the spoken pieces so much partly because Blackwell's voice is as easy on the ear as John Peel's, but also because the haphazard sound mixing on HMHB records sometimes means that words get lost. When they're as complex and allusive as Blackwell's best lyrics tend to be, you need to be able to hear them all.
And so we get to 2005, and their tenth album, Achtung Bono. Like all the others, it's released via the tiny Liverpudlian label Probe Plus, and is packaged with the usual lack of detail - no personnel names, not even a date. But Blackwell is still asking the big questions - "Is your child hyperactive? Or is he, perhaps, a twat?" It's nice to see that he's keeping an eye out for new targets, and Shit Arm, Bad Tattoo gives Pete Doherty the kicking that the junkie waster so richly deserves: "If you're going to quote from the Book of Revelation / Don't keep calling it the Book of Revelations / There's no 's', it's the Book of Revelation / As revealed to St John The Divine / See also Mary Hopkin / She must despair." We also get the flat-out silliness of Joy Division Oven Gloves, the surprisingly poignant celebration of village life that is For What Is Chatteris..., and a Public Information Tune warning you to look out for the Bogus Official ("I don't give a fuck about your missing cat"). It's everything you want from a CD, and a little bit more.
And so we leave the Half Man Half Biscuit back catalogue, as Achtung Bono closes with revelations about the latest village drama production ("It's a cricketing farce with a thickening plot / Act 1, scene 1, Brenda Blethyn gets shot"). For twenty years, they've been quietly churning out records that mix up high and low culture like nobody else can (I haven't even mentioned the Thomas Hardy references yet), set them to increasingly enjoyable tunes, and leave smiles on the faces of the small number of us who worship them. And long may they continue to be an inspiration to people with far too much time on their hands. Even though I'm currently hoping that isn't going to be me. Being a monkey, and all.
The Half Man Half Biscuit site singlehandedly makes this links section utterly redundant. A fan site that gradually acquired the support of the band itself, it's got everything you need - or rather, it did, until they removed their audio section recently because twats were nicking the John Peel session MP3s and selling CDs of them on eBay. But they're still second to none if you want a reference in an HMHB song explained, and they have a keen eye for those times every couple of years where the band attracts the attention of the press. This year, it's been For What Is Chatteris... that's provoked bemused reactions from local papers.
Probe Plus records have been the home of HMHB since the beginning. Their page on the site inexplicably allows you to hear previews of tracks from This Leaden Pall. Probe Plus can also sell you all the records, albeit only through old-fashioned mail order. [Actual 21st century-style online shop now also available.]
John Peel was a major champion of HMHB in the early days, as you'd expect. Radio 1 still keep a tribute page up in his memory, which is rather lovely. It includes subsections for most of his favourite bands, including HMHB: see when they recorded sessions, and how many of their songs made his Festive 50 every year. (Follow the links on the latter for audio extracts from the Festive 50 tracks.) If you're reading this in December 2005, Uncut magazine has a free John Peel tribute CD, which includes HMHB's Trumpton Riots.
Hunter Mobile Home Brokerage must get some very strange mails from confused HMHB fans.