5. Half Man Half Biscuit – 90 Bisodol (Crimond) [UK]
It’s appealing to just quote things and hope that the quotations convey the simultaneous humour, withering disdain and dejected wisdom that have made Half Man Half Biscuit the kind of band who inspire fans to maintain a comprehensive list of the lyrical references other fans have slipped into headlines of the stories they write for their media jobs. There is also, it might be interesting to note, a comprehensive list of times their lives in general reminded people of Half Man Half Biscuit. It’s a lifestyle choice, to an extent. Quoting Half Man Half Biscuit just becomes, subconsciously and consciously, something that happens. You fill the student newspaper someone let you edit with references. You name your podcast after one of their songs.
And focusing on the songs as songs, as you might (and I do) with every other indie rock band in the world isn’t exactly that fruitful with Half Man Half Biscuit. There’s a lot of genre pastiche, like trad rock of RSVP, and otherwise it’s not that far from what you’d expect a band that was on C86 to be doing when they got old, most of the time. That doesn’t mean the songs aren’t great, but they’re great because of Nigel Blackwell’s lyrics. Which convey simultaneous humour, withering disdain and dejected wisdom that inspires fans to do fan shit.
Let’s get this out of the way, then. This is not a joke band. It is, however, an incredibly funny band. Several of the songs of 90 Bisodol (Crimond) are elaborate, single-barrel jokes. Fun Day In The Park is effectively an extended family comedian joke complete with an actual punchline. I’ll type out the lyrics so you can get the idea:
I saw posters all around town
Fun day in the park, bring the family down
Bric-a-brac, puppet show, fire engine, steam train, face painting, mask making, falconry, tombola, climbing wall, cake stall, hook-a-duck, candy floss, balloons, Punch and Judy, Shetland ponies, hot dog, beat the goalie, soft play area with free bananas, Iguana Andy and his iguanas, jousting, hoopla, ghost train, pedal cars, quad bikes, stunt kites, sundries and much, much more.
For further enquiries ring this number. I rang it and asked about the “much, much more.” I was greeted with awkward silence.
They had lied to me. They had lied to me on their posters.
You’d be surprised how much repeat listening that track bears. L’Enfer C’est Autres is another song that it’s fair to consider primarily ‘funny’ and secondarily everything else, but in a different way. It returns to the important subject of pedestrian etiquette, which you’d think had been comprehensively dealt with the last time they dealt with it. Not so. As is often the structural move, it’s in two parts. In the first one, a couple walks down a path, forcing Blackwell to walk in the road. In the second half, he declares (brilliantly, bitingly, hilariously, nail-on-the-head-like): “I feel I’ve just been cornered by a man who’s just discovered Johnny Cash/He’s pissed and he’s boring and he’s telling me all about The Man In Black.” An annoying type of driver, to a pedestrian, of course. Not so much a joke as a wry eye cast on aggressively normal stuff.
As many times as I try to stop myself, I can’t help thinking of Leaving Cert English and being told to write that Patrick Kavanagh finds the drama of Homer’s epics in the bullshit everyday events of Monaghan. The closing track, Rock And Roll Is Full Of Bad Wools, a sequel to the last album’s glorious National Shite Day in terms of threatening sound and gall at the mundane, consists of a dystopian reading of the events of a specific episode of what must be Soccer AM. The protagonist, a singer in a band, shows himself to be merely a casual football supporter and earns the ire of Blackwell and a headlock from Neil Ruddock. Heston Blumenthal is also mentioned by name.
In the second half of the song, Blackwell unleashes one of his most aesthetically pleasing lines to date as he switches tack completely: “In other news I went along to what I thought was Curry Night at what I’d hitherto perceived to be a pub that I could trust and it transpired/Curry Night were there to play Crowded House and David Gray.” The overall moral, I think, is that both lad-like indie rock bands and pub covers bands are shit. These are fairly well-worn topics for Half Man Half Biscuit songs, strangely enough, but if you were to go in for structural criticism, this one’s bigger in scale and scope and pulled off better than any of the previous ones. It’s a little fearsome.
Metal bands also get it, on the album’s apex in terms of noticing things everyone notices but then actually expressing it in a surprising and humorous way, Left Lyrics In The Practice Room. Over a fast I-IV-V chord progression, Blackwell shouts an empirically perfect opening four lines, which I will have to block quote so I can put in the quotation marks.
“Demon fiend, leave your tomb,
Seek out the virgin womb”
Hey Chris from Future Doom,
You left your lyrics in the practice room.
It’s hard to really express how perfect this song is if you have no experience of the type of teenage metal bands that spawn in the dark corners of practice spaces. That sounds ridiculous and exclusionary, but that’s kind of Half Man Half Biscuit’s thing. I had to check the already-twice-linked Lyrics Project to develop a vague idea of what Joy In Leeuwarden is about (an international korfball tournament taking place in Holland) and Tommy Walsh’s Eco House probably loses a lot of its bite if you’re not familiar with soft hands English prime-time television. You have to roll with the punches.
I was worried before I started this that I would fail to say anything useful at all about Half Man Half Biscuit. Both better writers and more hardened fans than me have failed consistently to do anything more than just defend or cheerlead. I did fail, really. I did exactly what I said it would be appealing to do. I quoted lyrics. As a last ditch effort, I’m going to abandon all pretence of writing anything relevant and important and just go full bore with directly hectoring you.
Listen to this band. There is nothing else like a Half Man Half Biscuit album. Nigel Blackwell is a genius who, on the types of scales geniuses tend to work on, is being completely ignored. It’s not cleverness or glibness. It is genius. The songs might not sound like the kind of thing you like, but you need to sit with an album for a little while just to blood yourself into the slightly different mode of listening you’re going to have to adjust to. That might sound condescending. If so, I apologise, you were born with the facilities to immediately understand and appreciate all types of music. But you do need to listen to this band. Get the words into your interior monologue. This record is as good as any of the latter-day HMHB records and there’s no reason not to start here.
Half Man Half Biscuit – Left Lyrics In The Practice Room
Half Man Half Biscuit – Rock And Roll Is Full Of Bad Wools