Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Learn to Be Less Sentimental About Paragraphs

I have for a long time believed that what’s contemporary is whatever’s new to you in that instant. Recently, after several people in quick succession told me to give Half Man Half Biscuit (HMHB) a listen, I got a selection of their back catalogue and gave them a whirl.

To those few wise souls, I offer my thanks. And curse them. ‘Cause now I can’t stop listening.

The reasons why I can’t stop listening are mostly down to the lyrics. Like Dylan, singer/songwriter Nigel Blackwell has a unique phraseology, a unique way of singing or speaking a line. And while Dylan remains the lyrical master, Dylan doesn’t live where I live. Blackwell lives the other side of the Mersey and sings about Tesco and Tommy Walsh’s Eco House, The Ideal Home Show and HMV. This is the world I occupy and it’s great to hear someone sneer at it so precisely on my behalf. 

There’s an effortlessness to the songs, but then HMHB has only ever been a hobby for its constituent musicians. They once had a hit with a pseudo-comedy record and are still mislabelled a novelty act in some quarters. Even when I mention HMHB to people in Liverpool, ‘The Trumpton Riots’ is the first thing they mention. Yes, there’s humour all over their albums, the dark humour of revenging lovers and bickering couples and squabbling bands (even their song titles raise a smile; ‘Restless Legs’, ‘Joy Division Oven Gloves’, ‘Bad Losers on Yahoo! Chess’). Yet it’s more than that. There’s great poignancy and pathos in these tales, perfectly reflected by reference to Exhibit A:

The sunshine and Jennifer
Seem such a distance
The universe is ruled
By chance and indifference
And I’m shrouded
By inexorable darkness
And I’ll tell you this for nowt
La Belle Epoque sang “Black Is Black”
Yeah, well I sing black is black is black is blacker

Splendid. Although it hardly does justice to see it on the page. Lyrics taken from ‘Depressed Beyond Tablets’, a line itself taken from the 90s spoof TV series, ‘Brass Eye’. One of my favourites. Your optimism strikes me like junk mail addressed to the dead.

There’s also hidden depth in a good HMHB lyric. Consider this from ‘We Built This Village On A Trad Arr. Tune’: 

Ma-ma-maroon was the colour of my true love’s hair
She’s got a cross-stitch exhibition over there
A spate of pan fires isn’t going to happen round here

Now what’s that all about? Does she sabotage her rivals? Does he? Is she telekinetic or the victim of a smear campaign? We never find out, the narrative has already moved on. Or this:

And in a cruel twist of fate which so often
Occurs in tales such as this
I found myself catering reception
And there were urges I had to resist
Not least ‘cos John Byrne is much fitter
And the straightener to him holds no fears

“And the straightener to him holds no fears.” What? That’s almost Joycean in its level of obscurant detail. Again, it’s all in how it’s sung, that unique phraseology that hints at irony and double meaning. Is this one curly haired man standing in jealous admiration of another curly haired man?

The best songwriters advance a narrative effortlessly, comic or tragic, surreal or grounded in reality and leave as much unsaid between the bars. The best songs leave room for interpretation. Like religion, only speculation within the gaps leaves room for the personal in  music. That in turn creates a feeling of universality amongst its aficionados.

HMHB know something about that feeling of universality, being obsessive football fans. They once turned down a live appearance on ‘The Tube’ because Tranmere Rovers were at home that night, even when Channel 4 offered to helicopter them back to the Wirral for the second half. There’s football metaphors all over their records, which even as a reformed football fan (we’re worse than reformed smokers) I still enjoy. They’re some of the best bits (to the tune of ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ - if I were a linesman, I would execute defenders who applauded my offsides.).

They also bring the chanting from the terraces. It wouldn’t be a HMHB album without a good chant, from Yngwie, Yngwie Malmsteen, Yngwie Malmsteen in our van to Busk when it’s Christmas, you only busk when it’s Christmas to Shit band, no fans, shit band no fans. Or even the inspired mantra:

Gouranga Gouranga
Yes I’ll be happy
When you’ve been arrested for defacing the bridge
Gouranga Gouranga
Yes I’ll be happy
When you’ve been arrested for defacing the bridge

Blackwell uses a mixture of voice, from straight once-upon-a-time narrative, to direct address from a whole of host of seedy characters; bogus officials, disabled parking abusers, that guy everyone only knows, the one that’s a mate of a mate (of the bloke who does the P.A.). They’re snapshots of life in Britain that read like transcripts from the Jeremy Kyle Show, court appearances and half heard conversations in National Trust gift shops.  

Then there’s the snippets of other of songs, remoulded (Whoh-oh Black Sabbath, bam-a-lam. Whoh-oh Black Sabbath, bam-a-lam) and the spoken word songs where Blackwell rattles off his latest list of irritating characters or tells tales of bizarre items on shelves in bric-a-brac backrooms. And then there’s moments of just sheer genius:

And a plague fell upon the Retail Park
And a storm broke over Henman Hill
And the christening party arsehole
Who hitherto had blurred
My conception of man as nature’s final word
Was fleeing from the lava
His SatNav pleading thus:
“I’m not from round here mate, you should have got the bus.”

All in all, it’s pitched perfectly at my level. It hits me right where I live. If I had any musical ability whatsoever these are the kind of lyrics I would write. Different subjects for scorn perhaps, but the idiom would be the same. I think most HMHB fans feel that way. But then I’m of a certain age and from a certain background and there’s a band for most anyone. It might seem to you that HMHB is exactly the sort of music I should be listening to. Indeed, for those few wise souls who recommended them it seems it was the sort of music I should have been actively engaging in. Well all I can say is, I hope they’re happy with themselves!

As for me, I’ll take the TGV to Zurich and jump off the roof of Dignitas
And leave a note saying:
“Here lies the bloke, the only bloke in Harpurhey
Who wasn’t at the Lesser Free Trade Hall”
Y’all, think on
While you’re capturing the zeitgeist
They’re widening the motorway


  1. Great article Rob. A 'straightener' in this context is the sort of fight which takes place 'to straighten things out'.

    Feel free to delete this comment and edit your article, or whatever.

    Once again, great stuff. See you on the utterly marvellous Half Man Half Biscuit Lyrics Project some time perhaps?


    1. Cool, cheers Exxo. Though as a student of James Joyce, I love the idea of sentences encapsulating several meanings all at the same time (see Bough-Wake ). Thanks for the info though, not something I would have thought of on my own.

      Yes, lyrics project is excellent. There's a distinct lack of HMHB guitar tab out on the net though. Need some more obscure stuff.