“There's only two decent bands to come out of Liverpool - that's The Beatles and Half Man Half Biscuit.” Geoff Davies should know. He grew up with the former, and signed the latter to his maverick record label, Probe Plus, back in 1985. Debatable his claim may be, but it's also irrelevant, as Half Man Half Biscuit were of course formed in Birkenhead. Four Lads Who Shook The Wirral, if not quite the world.
Borne out of Thatcher's all-encompassing dole culture, their debut album, Back In The DHSS, was recorded for a mere 40 pounds, thanks to lead singer and lyricist Nigel Blackwell being caretaker of the recording studio. A bizarre slice of kitchen sink surrealism, it featured songs about football, the mundanity of everyday existence, and D-list celebrities, providing a refreshing antidote to the shambling miserablism of the indie scene of the time, as indeed hawked by Factory Records, who actually turned down the band. This may have been an error, as with the obligatory John Peel endorsement (he still refers to them as “a national treasure”), Back In The DHSS became the biggest-selling independent album of 1986.
However, Half Man's early success came about largely despite themselves, and no potted history of the band is complete without mandatory mention of their infamous refusal to appear on The Tube, Channel Four's live Friday night music show, because it clashed with a Tranmere Rovers game. The implication is often that they would have become mainstream stars had they accepted the offer, although in truth they probably acquired far more publicity from not appearing.
Nigel Blackwell takes up the story: “We were happy to do the thing at first, naturally, but then I realised it would involve missing the match which I didn't really feel comfortable about so the offer was amicably declined. To be honest, it was no big deal as far as I was concerned - I used to watch Crossroads anyway - but the show's producer was seemingly 'impressed by our priorities' and the story proceeded to interest, albeit mildly, some of the newspapers.”
Those that reported it were amazed that they could turn down a coveted television appearance in favour of what they deemed a mere lower division kick-about, something that irks Nigel even now.
“I reckon if we had waivered the opportunity in order to watch a much bigger club then the whole thing would have been forgotten come the next set of traffic lights and I suppose I should slightly resent the somewhat patronising stance some people take whenever the thing's mentioned. There is nothing twee or quaint about supporting your local team! I don't follow Tranmere for their 'perrenial underdog' status, what absolute rot that idea is. I follow them because they're the team my father and his father watched, because they were the nearest club! Indeed it possibly may have been more satisfying to have been brought up in Salford or Walton but we've had our moments - like all clubs - so I can't complain and anyway it did garner some unexpected publicity for the band which, irrespective of our non-plussed attitude at the time, helped to sell some copies of our record.”
"No potted history of the band is complete without mention of their infamous refusal to appear on The Tube, because it clashed with a Tranmere Rovers game."
The popular version of events suggests that Channel Four actually offered to fly the band by helicopter from Newcastle (where The Tube was recorded) to Prenton Park so that they could make the game.
According to Nigel, “They did genuinely offer the helicopter but it would only have got us to the ground at half-time and not being ones for a fuss we weren't particularly sold on the idea of what may have been perceived as the antics of 'Big Time Charlies'. The perhaps surprising though pleasant footnote to it all is that we won the game - against Scunthorpe Utd - with what in those days was a fairly desperate side. By the way, it was only me and [bass player] Neil Crossley who went to the match. The others weren't arsed about football much.”
With their star in the ascent and the single Dickie Davies Eyes atop the indie charts - like Weller with The Jam - Blackwell split the band at their peak, much to the distress of their burgeoning fanbase. A hotly-anticipated gig at Chester's Northgate Arena was never fulfilled, and grown men shrugged in the street. The disappointment was somewhat alleviated by the release of Back Again In The DHSS, a compilation of odds and sods, but that, it seemed, was that.
However, following an almost four year silence, Half Man Half Biscuit were booked to appear on the second stage at the 1990 Reading Festival. On a sweltering day, a huge crowd squeezed into the giant tent, many seeing the band for the first time. They didn't disappoint. Deadpan, wearing shorts, they kicked into a storming set of old songs and new, to a ferocious reception. Memorable for many reasons, not least the fact that one hapless punter held an oversized potted plant above his head for the entirety of the gig, despite a furious buffeting from the dangerously rampant crowd. There are – thankfully - other witnesses to this phenomenon, although Nigel is not amongst them: “You seem to recall more than I do Steve! A pot plant eh? Have to say that's a marvellous blighter to have bandied around at one's Festival appearance. Alpine, was it?”
History does not record the type of plant, but it was there to witness the beginning of the second phase of the Half Man story, a phase that casual observers may be surprised to learn continues to this day. Last year's album, Cammel Laird Social Club, was their ninth, and is among their best. While the two pre-hiatus albums stand the test of time, and the early classics still go down well live, it's the post-reformation period that is arguably more interesting, and indeed a lot longer. Nigel Blackwell and Neil Crossley remain as the only original members, although the current line-up have been together since 1996.
Household names in their own homes, the band are still reluctant to court any kind of publicity, and never appear on their album covers. It´s a deliberate strategy, and as Nigel says, “I prefer the fact that the group's name is more recognised than any of its members in that it enables us to browse unhindered around Millets and order items from the Betterware chap without him getting a hard-on.”
Combining finely-honed rage with acute (and often laugh-out-loud funny) observations, micro-celebrities are still named and shamed, and football still features heavily, either directly – Friday Night And The Gates Are Low, Dead Men Don't Need Season Tickets, Mathematically Safe – or through appropriation of terrace anthems and culture. But the modern Half Man are a sharper outfit than the punk squall of their early incarnation, delivering a pleasing brand of chug-rock, along with detours into more diverse musical territory. There´s always been a large element of pilfery, both musically and lyrically, but as the saying goes, good artists borrow, great artists steal, and Blackwell freely lifts from a wide range of sources, and not just shit telly.
“I would guess that I would watch as much television as the next man,” he claims “I just happen to mention aspects of it in song.” As for his current source of despair, “I find anything accompanied by the phrase 'ITV 9 o'clock' to be generally appalling - Amanda Burton on auto-pilot usually.”
As likely to be found with his head in a book, Blackwell has forged lyrics from such diverse material as Thomas Hardy, war poetry and The Bible, and each new album contains a bewildering array of references, many impenetrable without recourse to the inevitable website.
Unlikely to make the shortlist for Britain's hardest-working band, live performances are rare, with last year yielding a total of two gigs. It's a leisurely approach that may well have contributed to their longevity.
"Half Man Half Biscuit were booked to appear on the second stage at the 1990 Reading Festival. Memorable for the fact that one hapless punter held an oversized potted plant above his head for the entirety of the gig."
According to Nigel, “I've always thought that if you're doing a twenty one date tour it would surely be mentally impossible to enjoy for example, the seventeenth show after having done more or less the exact same thing for the previous fortnight. No doubt it's different for many other bands - and good luck to them - but I know I'd be well and truly 'without vigour' if I proceeded down that road. Can't stand being away from home either, I worry about the dog and stuff. The rest of the band keep themselves happily occupied without me organising lunch at Frankly Services for them.”
Perhaps because of their rarity, Half Man gigs do have the feel of being something of an event. Something of a cottage industry, Geoff Davies stocially mans the merchandise stall, still trying to shift vinyl copies of their early albums, along with an array of obscure T-shirts. The band are received with beatific smiles from the familiar audience, mainly male, partially bald, and are always good value, their own songs occasionally interspersed with straight covers that have included Joy Division's Transmission, The Damned's New Rose, and Kenny Rogers' Lucille.
Snippets of new songs are listened to intently, and there is a sense of being part of a like-minded - possibly closed – community. As Nigel says, “There does seem to be a hardcore fan base of sorts and let's face it, the formula probably isn't going to change much, I wouldn't have thought, so we're not particularly likely to be bothering many more people, I shouldn't imagine. I really don't know if there is such a thing as a typical Half Man Half Biscuit fan, you see all types at gigs, although I presume most bands would give the same reply. Certainly, not all of them are football fans - quite right too.”
There´s no cliched excess with Half Man though, and at their most recent gig in December at Manchester University, the ´rider´ consisted of little more than 20 quid's worth of McDonald's for band and crew (with the exception of drummer Carl, who had apparently brought his own). The defiantly anti-rock ´n´roll approach is by no means a put-on. In 1998, when Channel Four did eventually lure them into a live appearance on late night football chat show, Under The Moon, the only antics in the green room consisted of a few cups of tea, and any damage to the hotel may have come from over-exuberant use of the Corby trouser press.
The show's presenter, Danny Kelly, revealed himself as a fan, citing his favourite line as “You're going on after Crispy Ambulance!” (from Running Order Squabble Fest), a reference to an obscure early 80s Manchester group. Half Man are the type of band who attract speculation about celebrity fans, and at their last gig, the rumour spread that former Everton and Wales midfielder Barry Horne was in the house, prompting Nigel to offer an open invite to “come and play for us,” referring of course to Tranmere, not the band (that wouldn't work). Bearing in mind he might be lying, Nigel claims “The only really confirmed celebrity fans I'm aware of are Pam Ferris and the Mayor of Dumfries, which is a fine name for a vocal harmony duet. Other than those two the rest is pure rumour.”
Existing in pretty much a league of their own, Half Man are largely without contemporaries (although The Fall have some common ground in that they both have songs that mention former be-permed Ipswich Town striker Alan Brazil). As Nigel says, “Without wishing to sound annoyingly self-effacing I don't envisage other musicians aspiring to be like us what with our rank amateurism and 'Bogus Insurance Men' looks, and if you're a young kid looking to be in a successful band then you're probably going to be inspired more by those groups who change people's lives. Although there is a HMHB tribute band -called 'It Ain't Half Man Mum'-from the Sunderland area I believe. I wonder what their parents think....”
Existing so far below the radar of the London-based music press, Half Man look set to remain Britain’s best kept secret. In a well-ordered society, Blackwell would be Poet Laureate. Predictably he doesn´t see it that way.
“My songs are by and large, written in a fairly mercenary and somewhat unromantic manner as a means of avoiding 'proper work' for which I would have to get up early and thus be denied the freedom to roam the by-ways.”
As the T-shirt says: ´Half Man Half Biscuit: Avoiding Proper Work Since 1985´
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