James Dean was just a careless driver, and Marilyn Monroe was just a slag
—“99% of Gargoyles Look Like Bob Todd” (Back in the DHSS, 1985)
She died with her telly on. 87 and confused.
There’s not enough hospital beds because all the money’s been used
On the end of the century party preparations
And they reckon that the last thing she saw in her life was
Sting singing on the roof of the Barbican
—“A Country Practice” (Four Lads Who Shook The Wirral, 1998)
It was 20 years ago today—more or less—that the British band Half Man Half Biscuit released their landmark debut album, Back in the DHSS. That title was both an obvious reference to icons Chuck Berry and the Beatles, and a sharp comment on the social misery and deprivation much of Britain suffered under the iron jackboot of Margaret Thatcher. The DHSS—the Department of Health and Social Services—issued welfare cheques (“giros”) to a record three million unemployed every two weeks. Blackwell, leader of Half Man Half Biscuit, was just one of them.
Ironically enough, Back in the DHSS was precisely the sort of small business success Thatcher might have applauded. Recorded for just 30 of her old English pounds, it sold over 200,000 copies and established Half Man Half Biscuit firmly at the top of the UK Independent Charts, where they stayed for months, seeing off new releases from the likes of Depeche Mode, New Order, and the Cult.
| Half Man Half Biscuit MP3s
Peel Session, 27 June 1992|
Mars Ultras, You’ll Never Make the Station
more tracks here
Last September, Half Man Half Biscuit released their tenth album, Achtung Bono. Dedicated to the memory of John Peel, it’s one tribute the British DJ would have been delighted to accept—though I suspect he might have wished it had been delayed a few decades. Half Man Half Biscuit had recorded no fewer than 13 sessions for Peel, and he once declared the band to be “a national treasure”, saying, “When I die, I want to be buried with them.”
Morbid asides aside, Achtung Bono has been acclaimed elsewhere as “UK album of the year, by a landslide” (Stylus), “all killer, no filler” (PlayLouder) and “one of life’s cherished experiences” (The Word), while a second English DJ, Andy Kershaw has described the band as “the most complete and authentic British group since The Clash”.
None too shabby for a band America has never heard of. A big part of America’s problem, of course, is that Half Man Half Biscuit (HMHB to their friends) are so very British that, to a lazy listener, they must sound positively alien. Blackwell makes no attempt to conceal his Liverpudlian accent, and his songs swell with references to British television and international sports of little interest to a nation that really believes that “World Series” is an appropriate title for a little local game of rounders. And while the Clash quickly got over their anti-American boredom and embraced the Yankee dollar with all the enthusiasm of a Filipino hooker with the fleet in town, HMHB have never tried to meet Uncle Sam even halfway across the Atlantic.
But then they’ve never tried that hard to win the hearts and minds of their countrymen either. At the peak of their first success, the band famously twice declined invitations to appear on a popular Friday night TV show because they preferred to stay home and support their local football team instead.
As Blackwell says, with more than a nod to Thomas Hardy: “I’m not that materialistic. The secret of quiet happiness lies in limiting your aspirations.”
Certainly Blackwell had no ambitions to be making records two decades after Back in the DHSS. In fact, the band actually split up in 1987 just as soon as they landed their first national singles chart hit with The Trumpton Riots EP. A surprising career move that led to the release of what turned out to be a prematurely posthumous collection, Back Again in the DHSS.
“Well, it wasn’t so much a ‘split’ as a sabbatical really,” says Blackwell today. “I felt as if I needed some time to ‘carry on as I was before’ in order to write the same sort of songs. I think otherwise, tunes about ‘big skies’ and ‘girls eyes’ would have surfaced menacingly, and band meetings pertaining to production values may have been arranged. Not good that.
“But yes, I’m certainly surprised to still be getting paid for this now, but I think I would probably be writing songs no matter what as I can’t particularly do anything else.”
Do one thing and do it well—it’s not just a piece of Unix philosophy, you know. And Nigel Blackwell does write exceedingly good songs. Blur may have proclaimed that Modern Life Is Rubbish, but Blackwell has been documenting the decline of Western Civilization for two decades with specific reference to the terminal soullessness of the socially aspirational, the despair of those who have been left behind by a nation’s headlong rush from its industrial roots to a call-center culture, and the inherent ridiculousness of popular culture in all its forms.
“To be honest, when I started writing songs one of my fantasies ... perhaps too strong a term that but y’know ... was to have a load of folk shouting something ridiculous like ‘Fucking Hell, it’s Fred Titmus!’ back at the stage as a counterblast to all those rock acts whose audience would hold their lighters aloft during some Godforsaken dross concerning ‘a girl no longer with us due to flagrant disregard of the speed limit by persons unknown’. Much more fun thought I to have ‘em shouting the name of a Middlesex spin bowler. Certainly more believable anyway, I think.”
Spin bowling, by the way, describes a ball delivery technique employed in cricket that relies on guile rather than speed. While cricket is a centuries old team sport that originated in England. The International Cricket Council (ICC) is based in Dubai and boasts 96 member nations. So, when cricket has a World Cup (once every four years), the name is a little more appropriate than America’s World Series. See also “soccer”. Somehow I don’t see Nigel Blackwell writing a song about baseball any time soon.
Frank Zappa once likened writing about music to dancing about architecture, but I tend to think it’s more like trying to describe colors to the blind. Nonetheless, the best way to describe HMHB is to tell you that they’re a proper indie punk rock band with pop sensibilities whose music can veer from post-punk riffage to Christmas carol to old-time Americana and back again all within the space of a single song. Perhaps halfway between the Smiths and the Fall, with none of the drama-queen arrogance of either, HMHB are very English, very angry, very literate, very funny and, above all else, very different.
The difference between us and all the other bands is that we’re different.
You can tell by the way we do our interviews that we are different.
Underneath the underlying tones and dizzy melodies, next to the intelligent guitars
You’ll find frailty, beauty, sex as art and something or other about dolphins
—“Girlfriend’s Finished With Him” (McIntyre, Treadmore and Davitt, 1991)
Your optimism strikes me like junk mail addressed to the dead
—“Depressed Beyond Tablets” (Achtung Bono, 2005)
Nigel Blackwell’s lyrics are rich with language and blessed with a wit that bears endless repetition. More than this, his songs can be as poignant or as politically pointed as anything ever written. Achtung Bono‘s “Depressed Beyond Tablets” is a superficially jaunty little piece soured by bleak lyrics of depression that echo earlier glories such as “Turned Up, Clocked On, Laid Off” (“I can’t cope but don’t tell your mum ... I need pills to help me sleep, and I need pills to wake me up as well”), “Floreat Inertia”, and"Reasons To Be Miserable (Part Ten)”.
Of course, it helps if you recognize and understand all Blackwell’s lyrical allusions. But you don’t have to know that “Turned Up, Clocked On, Laid Off” paraphrases Timothy Leary’s famous hippy slogan, or that its last lines turn all the optimism and faith of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (a football supporter’s anthem on his native Merseyside) into an expression of utter despair in order to grasp the downbeat tragic majesty of the song.
Similarly, you don’t need to know that “Floreat Inertia” parodies the motto of the Eton School For Minor Royals And The Landed Gentry, or that Blackwell quotes deliberately and killingly from the British TV masterpiece The Boys from the Blackstuff—Alan Bleasdale’s heartbreaking tale of unemployment in ‘80s Liverpool. Or that “Reasons To Be Miserable (Part Ten)” is an obverse reflection of Ian Dury’s “Reasons To Be Cheerful (Part Three)”. But if you’d like to know this stuff, there is an excellent fan site that can explain it all to you for no additional charge.
Whatever, it’s certainly not all unemployment and desperation with HMHB. For example, Achtung Bono‘s “For What Is Chatteris ...” describes a most perfect rural town and then concludes that it still don’t amount to a hill of beans when the love of your life has left town. It’s a strangely touching song that rivals the best of ‘80s Billy Bragg while remaining completely and utterly Biscuit.
Like a game-bird reserve short on pheasants,
Weavers cottages devoid of tenants,
A market town that lacks quintessence,
That’s Chatteris without your presence
—“For What Is Chatteris” (Achtung Bono)
“Not surprisingly perhaps,” says Blackwell, “I’ve never been to Chatteris.”
She stayed with me until she moved to Notting Hill,
She said it was the place she needs to be,
Where the cocaine is Fair Trade
And frequently displayed,
Is the Buena Vista Social Club CD.
—The Light At The End Of The Tunnel (Cammell Laird Social Club, 2002)
It’s quite clear that Blackwell has a problem with the people that, for simplicity’s sake, he terms “pricks”. His idyllic rural Chatteris, for example, boasts “prick barriers at both ends”, and the song “Breaking News” (Cammell Laird Social Club) details a police and government operation code-named Operation Less Pricks in which people are arrested “in connection with Annoying The Nation”. The guilty parties include a room full of drama teachers listening to Bjork, a whole wall of teenagers spitting needlessly, and a popular recording artist who said his next album would be more song-based.
If that doesn’t tell you where Blackwell’s coming from, try either of the two equally wonderful versions of “Paintball’s Coming Home” (Voyage to the Bottom of the Road, 1997), and hear him turn the happy clappy “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” completely upside down as he catalogs the sins of yet more pricks. Pricks who would invite the whole world around to see their new conservatory. Pricks who get married on Caribbean islands. Pricks who know their way around their local DIY superstore. Pricks who declare their love in a hot air balloon and have a row on New Year’s Eve. Pricks who have nothing but total respect for Annie Lennox and treat the Mercury Music Prize with awe. Pricks who say, “They didn’t choose their cat, the cat chose them,” and then build their cat a web site. Pricks who meet up with the friends they made at Wimbledon for weekly boxercise classes. Pricks who buy soup in cartons and hire stretch limousines. Pricks who get over-emotional when they’re drunk and say, “I tell you what, mate, that baby changed my life.”
Much of Blackwell’s bile is delivered as mere mild-mannered deadpannery, but it seems clear he has a sheer unmitigated loathing of the shallow materialists who buy in to the whole middle-class dream. Ask him about it, though, and he prefers to take a more global view.
“Some aspects of modern life certainly are rubbish. But on the whole, whilst there still remains, in our society at least, a basic underlying decency—which I believe there does—things aren’t too bad. Especially when set against the scale of human suffering. So, yes, modern life probably is rubbish for millions of people around the world, but I don’t really think we’re in a position to complain about it.”
We’ve just been performing a guerilla gig
In the middle of another group’s guerilla gig
Well, surely that’s the ultimate guerilla gig
But still they cried like girls
—“Asparagus, Next Left” (Achtung Bono)
Beyond the politics, class war, and kicking against the pricks, HMHB are just as likely to puncture the conceits of the music business, or construct a frankly bemusing tale of dark deeds in country life. Or both. “Asparagus, Next Left” is one such song. A popular favorite from Achtung Bono, its resounding rifferama kicks the self-satisfied backside of Green Day fans everywhere while Blackwell confuses the Billyjoseph out of them with his surreal lyricism.
With songs like “Asparagus, Next Left”, “We Built This Village on a Trad Arr Tune” and “Joy Division Oven Gloves”, Achtung Bono has proved almost surprisingly popular in the UK, where HMHB’s recent shows have been pulling in bigger crowds than ever before. That must be pleasing?
“Audiences can be bigger than they used to be at some places, yes. Why, I’m not too sure but it might simply be a case of hanging around long enough for somebody to attach the word ‘cult’ (that’s ‘cult’) to the band’s name which can often interest a few more souls into venturing out to see us play. It’s not like we became a high quality live outfit all of a sudden!
“Having said that, we did have a backdrop at the last show. Very nice it was, too.”
Another of Blackwell’s targets over the decades have been music journalists. Given that there’s always been that dancing-about-architecture element to writing about music, how would he describe HMHB or Achtung Bono?
“I haven’t got a clue how I would go about describing Achtung Bono. The ‘usual tuneless caterwauling’ which they consistently get away with due to someone attaching the term ‘cult’ next to their name a while back. That kind of thing perhaps?
“And I have absolutely no idea where we fit into the modern music scene.”
Regardless, Achtung Bono is a worthy addition to the HMHB canon. One of its most quoted and discussed songs is “Shit Arm, Bad Tattoo”.
I could have put my head in a bucketful of porridge
And moaned about the hospital parking scheme.
I would’ve saved 14 pounds that I just splashed out on your second album,
For that’s what it’s akin to
You’ve got a shit arm
And that’s a bad tattoo
—“Shit Arm, Bad Tattoo” (Achtung Bono)
Fans, commentators, and ex-Libertines alike have all assumed that “Shit Arm, Bad Tattoo” was inspired by celebrity singing smackhead Pete Doherty. Not just because of the picture on the cover of the Libertines’ second album, but also because of their poor biblical grammar. In that group’s “What a Waster”, a book of dreams “reads like the Book of Revelations”. In “Shit Arm, Bad Tattoo”, Blackwell sings: “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 Saint John the Divine”. The evidence is pretty compelling, if circumstantial. But Blackwell is adamant:
“This song has absolutely nothing to do with Pete Doherty! Although since certain coincidences have been pointed out to me I can see why people may see it as such. But it’s categorically not about him. It’s about no-one specific really ... sort of about bass players with flabby arms in local crap metal outfits. Have the decency to develop some biceps, sir!”
The head Biscuit has been known to tell fibs in public before, however. He once convinced a journalist from the Guardian, for example, that there was a HMHB tribute band called It Ain’t Half Man, Mum. Which was both a blatant lie, and very funny if you know your British television history. Which Blackwell most certainly does. When Back in the DHSS first came out, I described it as “the best debut release since The Clash” and speculated that “this fantastically absurd record must be the fruit of minds deranged by having nothing else to do all day but watch TV and wish they had more money to spend on drugs”. I wasn’t, says Blackwell, entirely on the money.
“I never did get around to taking drugs. I think it was probably to do with the fact that my older brother did, and so sometimes you tend to go in the opposite direction. It’s for this simple reason also, I imagine, that I don’t own any Yes albums. I’m not anti-drugs by the way (except for the smackhead who robbed our house obviously), I’ve just never been interested in them. I’ve not even tried any to be honest. Might do one of those Fly Agaric mushrooms for my 80th birthday, though.”
These days, as always, Blackwell is clearly keen to protect his privacy. He does few interviews and poses for absolutely no promotional photographs. Regardless, a clear picture of the man emerges from his work, and I envisage Blackwell as a kind of Wallace (of “and Gromit” fame) figure, happy to sit around his house, drinking tea and reading, dabbling in whatever takes his interest, taking long walks in the countryside and being very well known in his local pub. I also suspect him of having a dog.
“Most of that is probably true, although I don’t really go to the pub. Only once a week for about forty minutes in fact. But I do have a dog, yes—a Golden Retriever bitch—there is nothing as gentle on Earth.”