When Yard Act came on the scene two years ago there were many comparisons doing the rounds. As is customary, they were compared to the Sleaford Mods and The Fall but there were those of us who immediately recognised their contempt for the archetypal English know-it-all as similar to Half Man Half Biscuit. Whereas Yard Act are happy to wax lyrical on abstract and political concepts: gentrification and ghetto fetishes being two examples, HMHB prefer to keep things personal.
Perhaps rejecting serious abstraction is what led Ricky Gervais to brandish HMHB as a novelty band on his XFM show in the early noughties. Nigel Blackwood (lyricist for HMHB) is the antithesis to David Byrne’s post-modern imperative: stop making sense. Instead he uses surrealist methods to attain clarity and make judgments of character. Blackwood doesn’t suffer the overload of modern life because he takes life one observation at a time. To use a Henry James phrase, he is a ‘benedictine to the actual’ with regards to the production of the band and Blackwood’s rationale world view. This is a rare thing in the world of pop music and so it was that I caught an eight hour coach from London to Newcastle. From Newcastle I caught the train to Durham and then walked through the picturesque city to Durham Gala.
Unsurprisingly the band were punctual and rolled through their punk catalogue from 8.30, as promised. Complaining about people and trains running late are recurring subjects for the band. By track two they were back to the eighties with breakthrough single: ‘Trumpton Riots’. Middle aged men pogoed and pointed to their favourite phrases.
The casual jouissance of the room could appear neutered to more pugnacious rockers but what good has getting topless and piercing ears ever done?
Rocking through their beloved oldies, gyrating in a Status Quo manner, the band dressed as Jeremy from Peep Show, more audience members knew the words back to front than didn’t. Even tracks from their latest album found new harmonies in the audience.
The evening reached a collaborative ecstasy with a chorus of seasoned punks singing the outro to ‘Oblong Of Dreams’. The last song on their new album; Blackwood muses on the death of a local resident: “I could never work out if he was heading for a food bank or a pharmacy, a field path or indecency, either way, he’s out of it now.” Drunk on empathy we howled along with him: “Clouds part, showtime, cowslips and celandine, wake up, Oblong of Dreams!”
It was an evening of strange metaphors and at times it was only the microphone that differentiated Blackwell from the audience’s recitals.
Again and again he tried to trick his audience into turning around by saying he had seen someone famous. He pointed to a man next to me who once he had been singled out did in fact take off a mask that disguised him as someone else completely. I think he was wearing it for at least an hour and a half, through the sweat and singing. Was it because he was preempting the joke or because wearing a mask is typical for HMHB fans and makes fertile ground for Blackwell’s humour? We’ll never know.
The tomfoolery became too much as Blackwell stuffed the lines for crowd favourite ‘National Shite Day’. “I fucked that up didn’t I?” He mocked through the second verse as he still struggled to remember his words.
Audience members shouted out requests left right and from the seats above. Some floated unanswered and others Blackwell responded to: “Why don’t you come up here and do it? I can’t remember the words.”
Surprisingly the band performed The Ramones ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ as part of their encore. It felt unusual to hear the band deliver a song without mention of a specific street, television show or local character. Only the power chord riffing and distorted bass anchored it. For their finale they did an extended rendition of ‘Everytime a Bell Rings’, a track which laments a cyclist, in full lycra with dreams of opening up a deli.
Then it was over. For two hours, with only a three minute exit from the stage before the encore, the band played. The bassist handed his set list to a fan near the front and they were gone.
In the pubs people swapped stories of where they had travelled from. I did well on the distance category but lost badly on the number of times I had seen them. This was my first.
I got what I expected and what I expected was good. Now I’ll do what Blackwell never does and draw wide conclusions from a single event. In a time where collectivism and individualism dress up as one another and call themselves wellbeing and everyone acts like they’re nice but you know it can’t be true, it is comforting to remember there are still earthly bands like HMHB, who remind us just how easy it is to spot the dickheads from the good people. It’s really not difficult.
Find out more on Half Man Half Biscuit’s official website
Review by Patrick Malone