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In our series, in which our writers write about ten songs that made them love a favourite band or artist, Anthony Dhanendran writes about his favourite songs by satirical rockers and John Peel favourites, Half Man Half Biscuit
Half Man Half Biscuit. Joke band, right? Well, yes. You can’t really deny that singer and songwriter Nigel Blackwell has his tongue planted firmly in his cheek most of the time, but for a band that Wikipedia (fairly) describes as “satirical, sardonic and sometimes surreal” they have certainly gathered a lot of plaudits. To recount just two, Andy Kershaw described Half Man Half Biscuit as “England’s greatest folk band” and John Peel called them “a national treasure”.
They tour regularly, often playing in out-of-the-way places close to areas namechecked in their songs – earlier this year they were to be found playing a 200-capacity barn in deepest Somerset, while two months later they followed that up with the ten-times-larger Shepherd’s Bush Empire in west London.
A surprising number of people, many of whom display otherwise fine taste, find the addition of humour to music unacceptable. If you’re not one of them, let me introduce you to ten songs of theirs that drew me in.
I’m indebted to Chris Rand’s exhaustive lyrics site (http://www.chrisrand.com/hmhb/) for transcriptions.
'Joy Division Oven Gloves'(from 'Achtung Bono', 2005)
Some Half Man Half Biscuit songs are poignant, some make a political point, some are trouble-making, and others are just plain silly. This one falls into the final category, the general idea being that a pair of Joy Division-branded oven gloves might confer upon the wearer the ability to handle just about anything (“Ooh, ooh, tropical diseases/ooh, ooh, chemical alarm”).It’s fast-paced and punky, and belies the fact that the song appeared on a record released twenty years after the band’s debut LP. But as with almost all the band’s songs, Nigel Blackwell’s ear for a great melody really shines through.
'Look Dad No Tunes' (from 'Trouble Over Bridgwater', 2000)
This one is a trouble-maker, and its target is certain bands and musicians who take themselves a little too seriously (this is something of a running theme for the band and for this album). HMHB have never been known to take themselves at all seriously, and the opening lyrics make clear Nigel’s ire for those who do: “My life is comfortable/But I don’t want that image for my band/Inside, I’m reasonable/but I’ll make out they just don’t understand.”
It also shows off his ear for what might appear to be a serendipitous rhyme but is surely the result of a lot of hard work: “I get feedback/In my bedroom in Nantwich/Stamp my foot down on the angst switch/That’s the time to feed back.”
'Twenty Four Hour Garage People' (from 'Trouble Over Bridgwater', 2000)
Another trouble-maker, it echoes Leadbelly’s ‘In the Pines’, recounting a trip to an all-night garage to annoy the guy behind the counter by buying things other than petrol. The careful reference is dropped in when our hero asks for a sandwich ("Well now you become quite irate and your voice becomes louder, and you start to sound like Leadbelly at the Depot… ‘I got ham, I got cheese, I got chicken, I got beef, I got tuna-sweetcorn… I’ve got tuna-sweetcorn…”) and then where other bands would have left it at that, the song’s coda cheerily brings a comedically gruesome Leadbelly reference back in: “Oh, he went to play golf on a Sunday morn’/Just a mile and a half from town/His head was found on the driving range and his body has never been found.”
'Faithlift' (from 'Some Call it Godcore', 1995)
After four jokey songs, we finally get to a more serious one. Well, this one’s a joke too, coming as it does on an album that heavily references religion all over the place, including a Christian fish logo on its cover, but it’s also written, you can’t help but feel, from the heart. “Trying to sell Clan of Xymox from your car boot/Ain’t going to get you to that sunny place,” Nigel sings (references to long-forgotten niche bands are another speciality), before advising the listener to get themselves their own ‘Faithlift’. Although it’s not sincere, you can’t help but be dragged along by the delivery.
'We Built this Village on a Trad. Arr. Tune' (from 'Achtung Bono', 2005)
Where Starship sang about the joys, such as they were, of sitting in traffic on the LA freeways, Half Man Half Biscuit instead choose to burnish their folk credentials with an ode to village life that’s eminently danceable, and includes the following lines, after which, so well do they sum up a certain aspect of England, I need say no more: “Rehearsal’s afoot for the Christmas play./It’s called ‘Roll The Square, Arthur, and Mind What You Say’/It’s a cricketing farce with a thickening plot/Act one, scene one, Brenda Blethyn gets shot.”
'Irk the Purists' (from 'Trouble Over Bridgwater', 2000)
The first Half Man Half Biscuit song I ever heard. This was probably an excellent introduction, laying down as it does the band’s musical credo to the uplifting tune of the hymn ‘Give Me Joy in My Heart’. "Irk the Purists", Neil cries, referencing Michael Ball and the Fall in one line, Del Amitri and John Coltrane in another. It’s a beautiful, angry attack on the notion that any music should be a ‘guilty pleasure’.
'Running Order Squabble Fest' (from 'This Leaden Pall', 1993)
Another one taking aim at people in the music ‘biz’, one of the band’s most famous songs includes one of their most famous refrains (“You’re going on after Crispy Ambulance,” shouted in the manner of the famous football terrace chant) in its gentle ribbing of the lengths minor indie bands go to in pushing themselves just that little bit further up the bill, no matter that the audience consists of eleven people. It’s brilliantly incisive and you can dance to it. What more does anyone want from a pop song?
'Bad Review' (from 'Voyage to the Bottom of the Road', 1997)
This faux-angry number takes the form of a letter to a music paper, bemoaning the bad review given by one of the paper’s reviewers: “Re our gig at Deptford Abyss/Who the hell does Geoff Dreadnought think he is?” Anyone who’s been unfairly maligned, either by a music reviewer or otherwise, will find in the letter’s narrator a kindred spirit.
'Dickie Davies Eyes' (from 'Back Again in the DHSS', 1987)
The oldest song in this list is more dirge-like than much of the band’s recent work, but the pile-on of references (it begins “Mention the Lord Of the Rings one more time/And I’ll more than likely kill you/Moorcock, Moorcock, Michael Moorcock/you fervently moan”) sets out the band’s stall, and the song’s title is too good to miss.
'For What is Chatteris?' (from 'Achtung Bono', 2005)
We close with one of the band’s most poignant numbers, a plaintive love song that’s also a eulogy to, for no apparent reason, the small Cambridgeshire town of Chatteris (“Ofsted plaudits, envy of the Fens”). It’s rather beautiful, both in its spare melody and the fact that it’s a real love song disguised as a joke.