The mid nineteen-eighties – a time of mass unemployment, the early promise of technology, and a unique band from the leafy Wirral. Half Man Half Biscuit formed in Birkenhead in 1986, releasing their first album Back in the DHSS in the same year. Championed by legendary radio disc jockey, John Peel, the band followed the do-it-yourself ethos of punk-rock and did it their own way. Songs entitled ‘All I Want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit’ and ‘Sealclubbing’ were just the start – they are a band who are all about the lyrics. Nigel Blackwell’s poetic, absurd and intricate words provide the real reason to listen to this most independent and publicity-shy group.
“Down by the babbling brook, I was trying to sketch myself a stallion/ when the stallion said to me: that’s the third biro that you’ve broke and all day I cannot wait/ you can lead a horse to water but a pencil must be lead, mate.”
Despite rave reviews and a place atop the UK Indie Chart in 1986, the band surprisingly split up after beinging out ACD in 1987, not returning until they played a slot at Reading Festival in 1991. A new album McIntyre, Treadmore and Davitt was released to yet more underground acclaim. In particular the song ‘A Lilac Harry Quinn’, named after a bicycle shop in their native Merseyside which features the fantastic ‘I didn’t take much time convincing her, baby I’m from the Wirral peninsula’ – the kind of poetic rhymes that someone like John Cooper Clarke or Ogden Nash would be proud of.
Through the nineties, the band released material at a rate of an album every two or so years. In 1993, This Leaden Pall came out. A much more musically sophisticated effort than previously, but with the focus still primarily on its lyrical wizardry. From the somber cover photo of a monochrome working men’s club, old banger parked outside and its melancholic title, it seemed the Biscuits had gone goth. This was not the case, however. As songs about being in a band, reminiscing about people called Doreen and going to an improve workshop testifies. The humour and working-class satire were still there.
“If what’s in the fondue’s to die for/it’s got nothing to do with the cheese/and if what’s in the punch bowl seems lethal/that’s because it’s two thirds anti-freeze.”
Four more albums were released in a prolific decade for the band with 1995’s Some Call it Godcore being followed by Voyage to the Bottom of the Road in 1997 and just a year later Four Lads Who Shook the Wirral. As had become customary, each of their songs was jam-packed with references to all aspects of popular culture, particularly obscure rock bands, celebrities pulled right off the Z-list and the quirks and perks of country shows, football, politics and family. In my opinion, one of the best Biscuit songs, ‘With Goth on our Side,’ comes from their first album of the new Millennium – Trouble over Bridgwater, a delicious pun on the Simon and Garfunkel song. A folksy riot of Bob Dylan references, gothic culture and living in Gipton or Leeds makes it a fine tune indeed.
Satire and sarcasm
The foibles of the twenty-first century were not lost on Blackwell, as his middle-aged moans about Primark, Robert Mugabe and Tranmere Rovers came to the fore a lot more as the obscure one-hit wonders and TV shows of the seventies slowly made way for satire and sarcasm. But that had no damaging impact on their music. As the 2002 album Cammell Laird Social Club proved, the absolutely brilliant ‘Little in the Way of Sunshine’ is a real love letter to bus timetables, wet underpants competitions and knowing the drivers by their first names.
“There’s a man with a mullet going mad with a mallet in Millet’s.”
Achtung Bono was released in 2005, the band’s career heading into twenty years – and two decades of genius at that. This was followed three years later by the brilliantly named CSI: Ambleside which took their love of daytime television, popular culture and folky and country music sound to new levels. Their next album, again three years later, 90 Bisodol (Crimond) was widely regarded by its hardcore fanbase as the best of the lot. As far as a social commentary on film, music, politics, working-class life and fun fairs goes, there are few better examples. The album even cracked the Top 100 in the UK Chart in September 2011.
Most recently, the lyrical miracle of Half Man Half Biscuit, who famously dislike performing live shows, returned to the independent spotlight in 2014 with their most recent effort – Urge For Offal – the scatter-brained flitting between Zen therapy and casting lad rock aside; the trauma of suffering from restless leg syndrome to being a Dr. Who aficionado; the band leave no stone unturned in their quest to re-educate the population in the rich cultural heritage of film, television, music and celebrities.
“No sympathy from Uncle Greg/ nor indeed from Aunty Meg/ well thank God I’m not Jake the Peg/ with an extra restless leg.”
So if you’d risk it for a biscuit then give them a listen. You won’t be disappointed.
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