And then the ashes of a fan were scattered on stage! My evening with the fanatical Half Man Half Biscuit followers | Music
On one inky November night, Nigel, Neil, Karl and Carl take to the stage of a disused Yorkshire cinema to the sound of My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue) by Neil Young. Slumped in an armchair with Covid fatigue, my nerves already shaken by a screaming drive-by along the way, I burst into tears. I can hardly believe this group exists.
The return of Half Man Half Biscuit, four lads who rocked the Wirral with chugging indie-rock, is being greeted with ecstasy by those crammed into the Holmfirth Picturedrome. Launching into a song about bats followed by one about mourning, they perfectly sum up the world’s mood swings over the previous 20 months – and Biscuitmania erupts. It took me six hours to get here in the car, and every minute is worth it.
Someone who has traveled even further is the Glaswegian John Ross, who came from Scotland with a group of friends, including one, Francis, sadly no longer from this earthly realm, his ashes encased in cellophane under the sock of John lest a bouncer interrogate the fine white powder. A chance encounter before the gig with singer Nigel Blackwell provides a fitting tribute to their late comrade, a fan of the band since 1987.
John picks up the story: “I went up to him and said, ‘Excuse me, Nigel, that’s going to sound weird,’ and he said, ‘It already does with that accent, man.’ I explained the situation and he was brilliant, he spent about five minutes talking to me about Francis.
Halfway through the concert, Nigel retrieves the wrapper from his top pocket and sprinkles the ashes on the stage as requested before dedicating Look Dad No Tunes to the deceased fan. “I was absolutely thrilled,” says John. “I expected to scatter his ashes on a beer-soaked floor. To see Nigel saying nice things about himself, cracking jokes and treating Francis’ ashes with the same care and respect he would have for someone he knew well was amazing. I didn’t expect the eulogy. It was far beyond what I had hoped for.
This emotional send-off is an example of how Half Man Half Biscuit – AKA Nigel Blackwell, Neil Crossley, Carl Henry and Karl Benson – have generated one of the most passionate fan communities of any UK band. Apart from the occasional rotation on BBC Radio 6 Music, they largely exist under the radar, that’s how they like it. Born out of Thatcher’s global dole culture, their 1985 debut album Back in the DHSS was recorded for around £40. A lo-fi slice of kitchen sink surrealism, it featured songs about Subbuteo (All I Want for Christmas Is a Dukla Prague Away Kit) and the banality of everyday existence. Even then they turned down an appearance on Channel 4’s The Tube as he came up against a Tranmere Rovers game, even turning down the offer of a helicopter as it would only have taken them to Prenton Park. at halftime.
With their star in the ascendant, championed by John Peel and with Dickie Davies Eyes topping the Independent Singles Chart, Nigel sensationally split the band in 1986 much to the chagrin of their burgeoning fanbase. However, after a silence of nearly four years, the band were due to perform at the Reading Festival in 1990. Straight-faced, dressed in shorts, they launched into a searing array of old songs and new, with one fan waving dangerously a potted plant throughout.
They’ve played a handful of gigs every year since, and I’ve seen them many times, right up until the first lockdown. Deep in my 40s, I forged a plan to make up for lost time by never missing another Half Man concert. It would be a post-lockdown gift for me: having a good time, all the time. The downside is that I live in London and they rarely stray south, adhering to the age-old mantra of “clean bed, clean bog”. The upside is that it’s the best two hours of the month, grinning through thrilling rock spectacle interspersed with deadpan humor from the enigmatic Nigel.
He rarely does interviews, doesn’t want the band photographed, and always suffers from nervousness before the gig. He is more at home cycling around the Wirral or enjoying tea and toast in front of nostalgic Talking Pictures TV. As far removed from the music industry as a musician can get, it’s an approach that has produced 15 wildly entertaining albums to date, all of which muddle societal mores through an absurdist lens in songs such as Rock and Roll Is Full of Bad Wools (on the dump indie bands on Soccer AM), Bottleneck at Capel Curig (on Route A congestion) and the Explicit Knobheads on Quiz Shows.
While the early concerts were largely attended by football fans, now it’s a big church, with a cosplay element seeping through. I myself am guilty of wearing a custom Dukla Prague kit which allowed me to mingle with a gang of HMHB ultras in a Nottingham. pub before their recent concert in Rock City. The most visible proponent of this trend is retired generalist John Burscough from Lincolnshire, who accidentally rediscovered the band at the Cornbury Music Festival in 2008.
“I was like, ‘Holy shit, why haven’t I been in there?'” he said. “I bought CSI: Ambleside off the merchandise table, listened to it all the way home and was hooked. I went to see them in Sheffield and thought, ‘People dress up for this It’s great, that’s what I like It’s a gang, I can be their king.
Sixty concerts later, John now regularly becomes the main character of King of Hi-Vis, a song that has only been performed live on five occasions – and he was there for all of them. I spotted him at gigs but never realized that under his neon tabard was an actual touring jacket with removable sleeves, the name of a spoken song that was never played. He completes the combo with a pair of Joy Division oven mitts, a kitchen accessory inspired by the HMHB song of the same name. At the time of our conversation, it is hours away from its 132nd airing.
These and other stats can be found on The Half Man Half Biscuit Lyrics Project website, subtitled “220 Pop Songs Chosen by Pedants”, a resource curated by Chris Rand from Cambridge, who also features in the pub. , in the regulation kit Dukla Prague. , sandwiching the Nottingham gig between Genesis at the O2 and Ipswich Town playing at home, presumably in a Venn diagram of one.
“We always get a boost in visitors to the site when there’s a new album,” says Chris, of Half Man’s latest album, The Voltarol Years. “But this one was like nothing else – three or four times the traffic we’ve ever had. Extraordinary.” Much of the discussion focused on the heartbreaking penultimate track, Slipping the Escort, where Nigel sticks his tongue out of his cheek to devastating effect on a song about an elderly couple dealing with dementia.
While some fans appreciate the band’s underdog status (even though they regularly fill mid-sized venues and their last two albums reached the UK Top 40), others are outraged that Nigel doesn’t have a wider audience. Fan Stephen Blackmore says: “I’m afraid that when they finally do, no one will know who they were. Someone has to make a documentary. There must be a lasting legacy. John has more prosaic concerns: “My only concern is that he gets knocked off his bike on a country road.”
Since becoming a full-time follower, I’ve noticed a distinct intergenerational aspect, with parents indoctrinating their offspring. Jonas Mackay, 17, went to the Rock City concert with his dad, Shane, who spent the lockdown amassing the entire back catalog and bombarding his family with it. “I honestly think it’s something worth spreading the word about and trying to instill in my kids,” Shane says. “Do they know how much people love and appreciate them?
They do. Between the toasts and the cycling, Nigel sends me an e-mail: “The group is more than grateful that people come to watch us and especially those who go the extra mile. While statistically some of these people may have killed or practiced dark arts, they never seem to bring out that personality on the nights we play, so it’s all good from our perspective. Hats off to them.