Half Man Half Biscuit show why John Peel labelled them 'a national treasure'
For 35 years Wirral indie-rockers Half Man Half Biscuit have been something of a cult band, entertaining acolytes with their satirical and sometimes surreal songs about the absurdities and irritations of modern life.
Their debut album, 1985’s Back In The DHSS, reached the heady heights of No. 60 in the UK charts, and the posthumous follow-up, Back Again In The DHSS, two years later, one place higher.
They broke up, due to “musical similarities”, in 1986, but reconvened four years later, and have never looked back.
They’ve released a steady stream of albums, the latest of which, No-One Cares About Your Creative Hub…saw them reach the dizzying heights of No. 33 in the UK charts – the best placing of their career.
Whether that’s a sign of the music-buying public finally realising how good they are, or how easy it is nowadays to have a Top 40 record, I’ll let you decide.
But when a judge of the calibre of the late, great DJ John Peel described them as “a national treasure”, you know they’re worth listening to.
Their lyrics aim both barrels at popular culture, unlikely celebrities and the dumbing down of society in general, and with 14 albums’ worth of material to choose from, no two live set lists are the same.
Not for them the ritual of playing the same songs, in the same order, night after night. That would be too traditional, and they’ve never really conformed to what people expect from them.
HMHB don’t really do tours – just 11 gigs are planned this year - and hadn’t played in the North East since 2016, so the Boiler Shop was respectably full for this Friday night treat.
The first surprise was singer Nigel Blackwell appearing without his guitar, and staying that way for the rest of the night, leaving the band’s most recent recruit, Karl Benson, to tackle the meaty riffs alone.
The second was the opening song, Restless Legs, not a new song, nor a HMHB classic, but still a popular one among the cognoscenti.
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Over the next two hours they ploughed their way through 29 songs, plucked from 12 different albums (1995’s Some Call It Godcore and 2014’s Urge For Offal being the odd ones out). They’ve written over 200 songs, so someone’s favourite is always going to get missed out.
The seldom-played Bad Review gets an airing just half a dozen songs in, followed shortly thereafter by one of their ‘classics’, Joy Division Oven Gloves, which prompts the first – but by no means last – mass singalong of the night.
Bassist Neil Crossley and drummer Carl Henry lay down a hefty groove, not least on Rock And Roll Is Full Of Bad Wools, and main set closer National S***e Day, which won a fans’ poll a few years back to be named HMHB’s best-ever song.
Five tracks from the latest album made it into the set, including What Made Colombia Famous– and the utterly marvellous Every Time A Bell Rings – both of which will surely figure highly in the forthcoming third running of the aforementioned fans’ vote for The Lux Familiar Cup.
Every band has songs they’ve simply got to play, and in HMHB’s case this means the Subbuteo homage All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit and The Trumpton Riots, which imagines insurrection in the fictional children's TV village.
Both were greeted with the fervour of songs which people have been listening to for two-thirds of their lives, or been passed down like some sort of precious family heirloom.
It’s the sheer depth of their back catalogue which never ceases to amaze though, and tonight’s highlights included the very odd indeed Gubba Look-a-Likes (about being haunted by people who look like TV presenter Tony Gubba) and We Built This Village On A Trad. Arr. Tune, about life in a quintessentially English community.
After a main set lasting an hour and three-quarters, they returned for a three sing encore featuring Bob Wilson - Anchorman, curiously, a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s Hey Joe, and ending in style with Everything’s A.O.R.
The latter's chorus goes “She’s the main man in the office in the city, And she treats me like I’m just another lackey, But I can put a tennis racket up against my face, And pretend that I am Kendo Nagasaki.” Brilliant. A national treasure indeed.