We love music. But you know what we love more? People who love music. The Shipbuilders are a band we’ve featured here and seen live lots. So, when their main man got in touch to say how much he was moved by the latest Half Man Half Biscuit album, we set him free to ramble. And he went diving for dear life. By Matthew Loughlin.
I’ d considered writing an unsolicited review of Half Man Half Biscuit’s new album, the idiosyncratically titled ‘No-One Cares About Your Creative Hub, So Get Your Fuckin’ Hedge Cut’, mainly so I could share my delight with the rest of the world, yet in trying to do so, found it impossible to write about it in isolation as a singular piece of work. Rather, placing it in the context of this extraordinary band’s career and the wider zeitgeist seemed the only way to do it justice. Of course, there’s every chance that while I’m capturing the zeitgeist, they’re widening the motorway. Naturally, that last line comes from a HMHB song (2011’s ‘Tommy Walsh’s Eco House’), which is a perfect example of how Half Man Half Biscuit get under your skin and, in a statement I’m sure the band themselves would loathe, become more than a band.
It happened to me, and I’ve seen it happen to countless others, but once one stumbles upon the surreal-yet-mundane world of Half Man Half Biscuit, there’s no going back. I’d say it’s like the red pill in ‘The Matrix’ if I’d seen it… so, maybe it’s the blue. I don’t know. Regardless of the specifics, life post-HMHB becomes a constant observation of the absurd, from which there is no return. I’ve said in jest before to weary HMHB-heathens that we’re all just inhabitants of Nigel Blackwell’s head, as if the world were created just for him, yet many a true word is spoken in jest: the fact I can rarely walk through a Home & Bargain without taking a picture of a jar of Swarfega or Haliborange and sending it to converted friends illustrates this.
Yes, there are jokes in the songs, and yes, there are (very) clever references, but jokes get old, clever references become commonplace to the point of being unnoticeable – the magic of the Biscuits (as no-one calls them) is that somehow, with them, this doesn’t happen. I can only liken it to the comedy of ‘Father Ted’ in that, watching it, I know a joke is coming a mile off, can practically see it coming over the hill, yet once it lands, I’ll still laugh as if it’s the first time I’d watched the show. But to focus on the funny or sweary bits misses more than half the point…
It might be a bold statement, but I’ll bet my imaginary reputation on it: Half Man Half Biscuit are the ultimate punk band of our age. I might have thought of that myself, or I might well have read it elsewhere and stored it in the dusty corners of my memory, but either way, I know this much to be true. Not in a ‘three chord, nose ring, Oi Oi Oi!’ way, not even in a musical way, but in a truly rebellious, ‘kicking against the system’ way. Bear with me. In an age where opinions are flogged for ad space, pricks of the privileged classes like Nigel F*rage somehow manage to establish themselves as anti-establishment figures and “self-confessed freaks try too hard to impress”, it’s easy to see without looking too far that rock ‘n’ roll truly is full of bad wools. Simply put – it doesn’t shock any more.
How to rebel against such blandness and mediocrity… try and push the boundaries of taste even further? Smash down the walls of the last taboos? No. Write a song called ‘National Shite Day’, lamenting “fat kids with sausage rolls, poor sods conducting polls”, idiots who ignore pedestrian etiquette and, of course, “a man with a mullet going mad with a mallet in Millets”. Decry that the tales of your neighbour’s softly spoken friends about picnics with craft beer and Elbow in Delamere are boring the arse off you. Write a song about going to see The Bootleg Beatles as the bootleg Mark Chapman. And simply declare that “there is nothing better in life that writing on the sole of your slipper with a biro on a Saturday night instead of going to the pub”. No, in doing so, it’s not giving ‘the man’ two-fingers, because quite frankly, everyone else is doing that now and it looks a bit daft; the fringe has become the watered down middle ground.
I’m not saying HMHB are going to lead the revolution and I do get the criticism in one of Julian Cope’s books that, during the eighties, instead of aiming fire and fury at minor soap characters, Nigel and the boys could have lambasted the evils of Thatcher and co., but again, that’s not the point – taking aim at those so far up the ladder so as to be removed from us is easy; taking aim at the sea of middle-class blandness we’re all drowning in requires a more refined eye, because it’s dangerously close to us all. Take me for instance: I drink in CAMRA-approved pubs, I enjoy Tour de France highlights on ITV4 and, yes, I love Elbow. I’m a sitting duck. Mercilessly tearing into that world is a much more difficult tightrope to walk and one that, if done well, really kicks against the Daily Mail classes. Mocking Thatcher is easy; want to really annoy the middle classes? Tell them you’re going to feed your children non-organic food and with the money saved, take them to the zoo.
So, to the album. It’s very good. Very, very good. It’s unlikely to convert previous nay-sayers, but we’re past caring at this point, aren’t we? Musically, it’s much more immediate than 2014’s ‘Urge for Offal’, which was more of a slow-burner, gradually revealing itself over several listens (although does arguably contain Nigel’s – if not mankind’s – greatest achievement to date in ‘The Unfortunate Gwatkin’). From the opening thud of the opener, ‘Alehouse Futsal’ (watch below), we’re in familiar territory that thrills and entertains in equal measures, and our caps must be doffed to the other half of the creative tour de force, Neil Crossley, who contributes more than a little to the writing of the tunes and whose bass playing is a central component of HMHB’s distinctive sound.
There’s no giant leap into the world of grime or afro-jazz, yet the tones and melodies of tracks such ‘The Announcement’ and ‘Bladderwrack Allowance’ are varied enough to ensure that, tonally, this doesn’t become just another HMHB album. ‘No-One Cares… ‘ differs from the last record slightly in theme too, in the sense that – while the latter was full of the surreal and often seemingly random contents of Nigel Blackwell’s mind – this album is much more focused on the aforementioned absurdities of the middle-classes and in the path of Nigel’s ire, nobody is safe. The perennial pests that are cokeheads get a dressing down in ‘What Made Colombia Famous’, creative hubs, artisan coffee shops and the merry folk of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ are dismissed in ‘Every Time a Bell Rings’ and even a neighbour’s through-lounge gets bricked up in ‘Alehouse Futsal’. I’ll refrain from quoting lyrics so as not to dampen the impact on hearing them for the first time, but these might be the most precise and cutting Blackwell has penned since the lyrical heights of ‘CSI: Ambleside’.
I do realise there’s a danger of me over-egging the HMHB vs. the middle-classes wars here, so it’s important to state that there is more than a smattering of the daft on offer. You only have to scan the tracklisting to see this – ‘Knobheads on Quizshows’; ‘Mod Diff V Diff Hard Severe’ and the nonsense only continues inside. The ‘punch line’, if you will, of ‘Renfield’s Afoot’ is another genuine laugh-out-loud moment and the idea of preferring to spend one’s time gazing upon a loved one’s curves instead of watching Ipswich Town reserves in ‘Swerving the Checkatrade’ can only come from one source. Truly nonpareil.
Where this album also differs from other HMHB albums is that there is a gravity and emotional depth to some of the songs that go beyond previous albums. Sure, ‘For What is Chatteris’ and ‘My Outstretched Arms’ touch on unrequited love and ‘Depressed Beyond Tablets’ details utter despair, albeit in a tragi-comic manner, but one read of the lyrics to ‘Terminus’ will shatter even the steeliest of hearts. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that if Philip Larkin or Alan Bennett wrote lines as aching as “time creeps up unseen, and it puts me back at the front of the bus… hands I once held no longer there… “ then GCSE students across the nation would be currently scribbling in the margins of their Anthologies analysing the beautiful tragedy of those fragile verses. Similarly, if we’re comparing Nigel Blackwell to literary giants (and I am), then there’s a refined sparseness and economy to the writing on show here that reminds me of the ‘Iceberg’ style of writing of Hemingway. Again, bear with me, but take ‘The Announcement’ – in fourteen lines, a whole story about a football stadium turnstile attendant dipping his hand into the till to fund a lavish new lifestyle is revealed to us, without the misdemeanour actually being mentioned. Rather, we’re left to work it out with the, erm, announcement “John McNamara to the cash office please”. Cor.
So there we go, I’ve gone from punk to Hemingway via the middle classes. See, there’s no going back, is there? Now, if you don’t mind, I’m off to get my fucking hedge cut.
‘No-One Cares About Your Creative Hub, So Get Your Fuckin’ Hedge Cut’, by Half Man Half Biscuit, is out now
The Shipbuilders’ ‘Fault Line/Wild Atlantic Way’ is available to stream here
Pic courtesy Half Man Half Biscuit