Nigel Blackwell’s HALF MAN HALF BISCUIT are a much-discussed obscurity of a band. Often mythologised, it’s hard to know facts from the obvious falsifications. Did Nigel really break the band up at the height of their success because their schedule was interfering with his daytime television habits? Is there really a HMHB cover band from Sunderland called ‘It Ain’t Half Man, Mum!’? And you’ve all heard the story behind the band twice turning down Channel 4’s advances to have them appear on The Tube…
The band have been described by Andy Kershaw as, ‘The most authentic British band since The Clash,’ and John Peel cited HMHB as a national treasure. But few in attendance at those early gigs could’ve had the forethought to imagine that now, twenty seven years and eleven albums later, the band would still be making music. Nigel himself can’t explain how or why the band has lasted; “Around here in the eighties, you were either a smack-head or in a band,” Nigel tells me as we chat over a cup of tea in Birkenhead Park. “Playing in a band was just something to get us through the day, we didn’t expect anything to come of it.”
The band’s first record, Back in the D.H.S.S was recorded at Vulcan Studios where Nigel was working as caretaker. “A fella had set up a little studio in one of the rooms,” Nigel says. “Before he advertised it to the proper bands he used us as his guinea pigs to test his equipment.” Released through the enigmatic Probe Plus label, the record became the biggest selling independent album of the year, selling over 200,000 copies. A £30 investment had gone a long way. The song’s themes found an unlikely niche in Thatcher’s Britain, Nigel’s satirical lyrics sent up middle class society and D-list celebrities and their melodies were perfectly hummable. Don’t call him a songwriter though; “I hate that term, ‘songwriter’, it makes me think of sitting on a stool under a spotlight with an acoustic guitar. I just write about the things I know, it’s all I can do.”
In combining popular references with the names of lesser known British towns (see CSI:Ambelside and Trouble Over Bridgwater), Nigel has a canny way of chronicling two of his greatest passions in life; television and small-town England. Despite the band playing to sell-out crowds at the London Astoria and other major venues, the band’s infrequent and sporadic tour dates typically see them pass through towns and villages in Yorkshire and Lancashire. I ask Nigel if coming from Birkenhead, a town forever shadowed by Liverpool, has had an influence over the band’s habitual existence. “To an extent yeah, definitely,” Nigel says considerately. “It does my head in when we’re referred to as a Liverpool band, Birkenhead isn’t a suburb, and it’s a lot different to a city. That’s what I love about England, I can cycle from one town to another and each will be their own microcosm with their own identity and culture.”
It would be senseless to argue that HMHB are a band without influence, dismissive of their observable punk roots. I can’t think of any other band though, that could, or rather would, chant the line ‘Husker Du Du Du, Captain Beefheart, ELO,’ to the melody of Black Lace’s Agadoo; it’s reference points like this, that can strike a chord with the average British listener. The band’s loyal fan base describe gigs as a religious experience, with the crowd chanting back each of Nigel’s words. A fan base that reputedly includes Robbie Williams, Tracey Emin and Pam Ferris. Though there is no indication that the above mentioned celebrity trio have ever spoken of their adoration publicly, one well-known name championed HMHB from the very beginning. John Peel invited the band to record twelve sessions for his show and the relationship between the two was one of sincere respect. “Peel was the Peter Pan of music,” Nigel muses. “He spanned music as a whole. New bands don’t get the same recognition now he’s gone.”
Clearly not a band moulded by contracts and obligations, HMHB have remained true to their own respective lives. Spanning three decades of music and ever-changing trends isn’t easy for a band. But as long as the world keeps turning and the fickle ways of society are documented, Nigel and HMHB have the ammunition to carry on, albeit at their own, stuttering pace.