Half Man Half Biscuit – Live review

Half Man Half Biscuit
Leamington Assembly, 15th September 2011

Leamington Assembly is one of those venues that seems to survive largely on the spoils of the reunion and tribute act circuit: a shame, really, because you can’t help thinking its beautiful art deco inspired design and great sound system deserves better than a diet of Ocean Colour Scene, Showaddywaddy, “The Total Stone Roses with special guest Bez” and “Rock Monsters with Hi-On Maiden & Sack Sabbath”.

Thing is, some people would spot the name Half Man Half Biscuit on the listings and think it belonged in such company. They would be very wrong.

I don’t mind nostalgia shows now and again but I wouldn’t want to live there. I get bored far too quickly. The self-tribute acts where a fraction of a once-great band trawl their hits around with stand-in players generally hold little interest for me – it’s not a matter of principle, as such, more that they rarely sound close enough to the real thing (I’ll single out Dean Wareham’s recent tour of Galaxie 500 material specifically here as a notable exception: close your eyes and it was 1989.) Full line-up authentic revivals can be a delight, especially for bands that never got the credit they deserved at the time (hello Big Audio Dynamite) but however great, they wear thin pretty quickly when the nostalgia is all that’s on offer. The first reunion show I caught by the almighty My Bloody Valentine was so amazing I had to go again the next night; that was great too; by the third some months later it was nice enough and the fourth just left me thinking “fine, now do something else please”. Give me something new and alive and now and evolving over something set in stone any day of the week. The problem for old bands reliant on the nostalgia market, however, is that if they do “do something else” – the dreaded “new song” – the effect is generally one of tumbleweed blowing from the PA; bar staff at oldie-circuit venues must take “here’s a new one” as a cue they’re about to get busy. And if we’re being brutally honest, this is often because said new stuff is a bit shit.

And then there’s Half Man Half Biscuit. Part way through tonight’s set, singer Nigel Blackwell introduces “Tommy Walsh’s Eco House”, a song that’s had maybe four or five live run-outs and a radio session appearance but is only tonight available on record for the first time: not only is there no notable exodus, but a fair few of the crowd are singing along. It does, after all, have the classic hallmarks of a great Biscuits song: an energetic and simple tune born from the intersection of punk, folk and indie-pop; easy shoutalong bits; and lyrics about a C-list (never A-list, but crucially never Z-list either) telly celebrity. It’s not the greatest song they’ve ever written, sure, but then it’s got rather stiffer competition than most bands’ sets would offer. The songs generally regarded as Half Man Half Biscuit’s greatest span their entire quarter century career; their album filler tracks make most bands’ singles look weak. And as ever the crowd jumping around and singing is one of the few whereby if a venue offered discounts to students and pensioners there’d be customers for both – and there’s everything in between, too.

It’s a brilliant performance from the Four Lads Who Shook The Wirral. It always is – itself a selling point; few things in life, never mind pop groups, are this reliable. There are songs to make you laugh – a particularly drawn-out “24 Hour Garage People” with a spoken interlude funnier than 99 per cent of stand-up comics and a rather large tangential rant about how Oatibix are the worst cereal ever. There are songs to make you smile in a tragicomic way – whether or not “Tending The Wrong Grave For 23 Years” is actually based on a true story or not seems irrelevant when you know it so easily could have been – “I’m inconsolable, sometimes uncontrollable, but she wouldn’t know cos she’s two hundred metres away”.

I could, of course, fill this entire website with the lyrical genius of Nigel Blackwell. The pictures painted in his words are so vivid: the working class Pennine boy who’s lost his girl to a trendy upper middle class metropolitan (“The Light At The End Of The Tunnel”) – “now it’s all Eva Cassidy and aphids in Picardy”. The astonishing spoken-word piece that is “National Shite Day” – “I try to put everything into perspective, set it against the scale of human suffering, and I thought of the Mugabe government and the children of the Calcutta railways; this works for a while but then I encounter Primark FM, and overhead a rainbow appears in black and white”. This stuff should be on the National Curriculum, alongside the classic “Dukla Prague Away Kit” and its minutaie of childhood. We get all of these songs tonight.

And then there’s the rest of the band. Co-founding bassist Neil Crossley, the longstanding sidekick given to slipping in Joy Division and Stranglers riffs between songs; longtime guitarist Ken Hancock – quietly brilliant at what he does, whilst the subject of many a wayward invented life story by Nigel like some indie punk version of “the Stig”; drummer Carl Henry who joined around the same time as Ken. They may not be the full eighties line-up but after about 15 years and six or seven great albums they’re the definitive one. They don’t do anything flash because they don’t have to (about one gig in ten will feature a guest trumpeter, and sometimes there’ll be sleigh bells at the Christmas gig; that’s about as experimental as it gets) – they just knock out wonderful, life-affirming, rousing tunes – a handful of which, in the folk tradition, have been around a lot longer than the words Nigel’s given them. There are few things in life quite as gloriously invigorating as being part of a whole room full of people bellowing “Who the fucking hell are Slipknot?” to the tune of “Glory Glory Hallelujah”, trust me on this.

Two hours have, once again, passed in no time. The hits pile in at the end; the energetic and always popular “Joy Division Oven Gloves” (number 56 on the UK chart in 2010 despite never having had a formal single release) has taken on a life of its own with a sea of hands waggled in the air every time Nigel sings the title, then the still wonderful “Trumpton Riots” (indie chart number one on 1986) sounding angrier than it has done for a while. And this is the thing: Half Man Half Biscuit were born from the frustration and hopelessness of a time a few years into the last Tory government, when jobs seemed like something only the fortunate could aspire to; for everyone else there was just crap telly and music and black humour, nostalgia and boredom.

In their quarter century they have outlived so many shifts in society, politics and culture that things have come full circle. Relevant? Arguably they’ve never been more so. With a new album every three or four years – the latest, “90 Bisodol (Crimond)” is on general release on 26th September, with preview copies snapped up by Leamington attendees – and the regular following now including people who weren’t even born when “Back In The DHSS” came out, this band couldn’t be further from the nostalgia acts dragging their past glories around the circuit for the pension fund.

Half Man Half Biscuit play Manchester Ritz on Saturday 17th December and The Robin 2 in Bilston on Thursday 26th January.

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