In Merseyside talk of Margaret Thatcher’s “legacy” is generally, with the exception perhaps of her invention of Mr Whippy ice cream, greeted with emotions that range from apoplectic ranting to murderous rage (see also Meryl Streep’s recent Oscar success.) However, the “managed decline” that afflicted the area under Thatcher’s poisonous tenure at least meant that Half Man Half Biscuit’s Nigel Blackwell grew up safe in the knowledge that the likelihood of securing gainful employment was about as probable as Tranmere Rovers winning the European Cup. And so instead of experiencing first hand, the “dignity of labour” dressed up as “Leo The Lion,” the much loved “meet and greet” mascot at the local “Leos Superstore” or perhaps nipping across the River Fender to the magical neighbouring kingdom [known locally as ” Smack City” ] in search of a wrap of quite reasonably priced scouring powder mixed with diacetylmorphine, Nigel discovered by way of distraction that “there is nothing better in life than writing on the sole of your slipper.” Possibly whilst watching The Sullivans, Crown Court or even The Cedar Tree. He also decided to idle away those halcyon, sun dappled days on the Holmlands estate playing football with lads who were blighted by the curse of the anomalous surname. And then he formed a band.
The rest as they say, is history and Half Man Half Biscuit have become one of the most enduring and revered “cult bands” to emerge from the post-punk D.I.Y scene.
Nigel has been described as “our greatest living poet and satirist,” the sadly now departed DJ John Peel was quoted as saying ‘ When I die, I want them to be buried with me,” [a request which sadly proved problematic due to a number of logistical and moral conundrums, with the main stumbling block appearing to be the fact that Nigel is still very much of this earth,] whilst younger musicians such as Art Brut’s Eddie Argos have described HMHB as their favourite ever band.
Nigel has also had the dubious distinction of being voted 57th “Greatest Merseysider “, reassuringly way ahead of gap toothed “comic” Jimmy Tarbuck, Ian Mc Culloch and Derek Nimmo, but rather worryingly some way behind Red Rum and Ringo Starr.
Of course it’s normally customary for me, in the interview preamble, to perhaps indulge in a brief critique of the artists work, but the thing is, I too grew up on the Holmlands estate, I’ve known Nigel since I was about ten,( I don’t like to talk about it ;) ) and as such it could get embarrassing, and besides, he knows where I live! I will however add that Half Man Half Biscuit are a little like the anti-U2, in the sense that whereas Bongo and chums starting point was being quite shit, they soon developed a talent for getting shitter and shitter with the passage of time. In fact the shitter they became the more their popularity soared. This would not happen if you were a plumber. HMHB on the other hand have improved with almost every release and their latest album “90 Bisodol (Crimond)” is arguably their best album to date. Full of caustic wit, the dark humour of the gallows and surreal observational lyrics, it’s an album that demonstrates why Nigel has been compared to some sort of guitar strumming cross between Shakespeare and Lear (Edward.)
In fact HMHB seem to make much more sense now, and in a world in which the Z -list celebrity is king, and the doyens of middle class taste, Bjork and Radiohead are considered untouchable musical deities, you’d think that with so much ammunition readily available, Nigel could continue to write songs for next 25 plus years. Then again Nigel has never really gone for obvious targets, and one suspects he would be more likely to single out Dominic Littlewood’s chirpy yapping twattery or Gregg Wallace’s arrant narcissism, than perhaps mention what a tawdry little bell-end Alex James is. That is, if he could be arsed. So I asked him.
VP: So Nigel, when HMHB were rehearsing in a garage on the Holmlands Estate way back when, did you envisage you’d still be doing it all these years later, some 12 albums on? What was the primary reason for forming a band? Were you inspired by the Punk DIY ethic? Or was it more a case of a burning desire to produce a musical narrative to reflect the many trials and tribulations of Arthur, Kath and Glenda Brownlow (doing battle with evil niece Iris) from “Crossroads?”
NIGEL: I’ll explode the ‘estate myth’ here at the outset in that HMHB never actually rehearsed in anyone’s garage, that was in fact my brother with his Attempted Moustache ensemble. The initial practising of songs for me and Neil were in his bedroom which was in Prestbury Avenue. To boot, we only really did this to amuse ourselves and had no aims whatsoever to take things any further save for the odd ‘third on the bill’ gig perhaps. (Iris came good in the end didn’t she?)
VP: As we both know the cover star of your debut album, who incidentally tells us “all he got was a lousy T-Shirt” in return for use of his gurning visage , what made you pick that particular image?
NIGEL: That photo was taken by the lad himself on waking up hungover in a Newquay Guest House and we just handed it to Geoff at Probe as we didn’t have anything else really. He’s a care worker these days which mildly terrifies me.
VP: Your latest album “90 Bisodol (Crimond)” has been described as your “”most consistently brilliant work yet in every aspect, and another start-to-finish showcase of rare genius.” There are also rumours that sales were the best ever . Given that there was no change in promotion, no more gigs than usual, no additional radio play, this may suggest that the internet, which is blamed for the collapse of the music business and AIDS has actually helped a band like HMHB. That the ever-increasing connectedness of fans has helped spread the word – after all you have a pretty loyal online army of fans – what do you make of it all?
NIGEL: It is mostly beyond me. As you say though, the internet doesn’t seem to have harmed us in any way though I suppose we should really have an official website at least. I just know we wouldn’t keep it up to scratch though and the ones that are out there probably do it better than we could. Saying that, we’re not technophobes either. Not sure about best ever sales by the way-I’m chopping wood for heat this afternoon!
VP: Talking about the influence of all things “online” , there was the save 6music campaign to get “Joy Division Oven Gloves” to number One – Had it of achieved its stated aim how would you have felt?
NIGEL: When did this happen?
VP: Do you write all the time and then sit down and put it all together? Do you run the lyrics past anyone else, the missus? The rest of the band ?
NIGEL: I tend to compose melodies on Sunday evenings and then words of a Tuesday afternoon which I then sometimes forward to ‘sendusyourlyrics.co.uk’ for further opinion. The procedure isn’t strict however, as an example I wrote the whole of ‘Deep House Victims Minibus Appeal’ in an hour and a quarter atop Caldy Hill. One simply can’t fathom it at times.
VP: Some people recount the moment they first heard Hendrix or Punk or news that Elvis had died as pivotal moments in their life. For me nothing quite matches the moment it dawned on me (when watching The Great Escape) that Flying Officer Archibald ‘The Mole’ Ives was none other than effete yet temperamental highland chef Shughie McFee from the Crossroads Motel. What would you say are your own defining moments in life ? Events that shaped you?
NIGEL: In no particular order: Realising Tuna was a lot bigger than I’d previously thought (Scarborough Aquatic Museum 1988), my first library fine (abject shame), the incident with Mrs Greatorex, the tragedy that was Crisp in the 1973 Grand National, reading Odd John by Olaf Stapledon, realising I’d ‘grown out of lemon curd’, sharing a taxi with Doctor Thomas Wessinhage, getting into Plainmoor on a Tuesday night when they had an away fan ban, childhood holidays in Llanbedrog and shouting out “It’s a fucking cartoon!”* in a Porthmadog cinema when Bambi’s mother died. These are the things…..(*-still feel bad about this)
VP: How do you pick your “celeb” victims, is it just a case of them irritating the arse off you (Nick Knowles) or you find them amusing (Len Ganley) or interesting (Fred Titmus) I recall you telling me years ago that you were warned off releasing “The Eternal Cremation Of Hattie Jacques” and of course the Dean Friedman story is almost beyond surreal – But have you ever heard of any really negative feedback from other celebs about your songs .
NIGEL: I’ve never really thought about that as I never seem to realise I mention quite a few specific people in song. Conversely, Pam Ferris hounds me on quite a regular basis to name check her and to be fair, as she’s a fan of the group I really should cede to her wish.
VP: We all know the legend of your non appearance on Tyne -Tees flag ship music show “The Tube” in the 80’s …So here’s another scenario, Jools Holland (yes him again) wants you to perform on his show, but there’s a Tranmere match on ….What would an older wiser Nigel do?
NIGEL: Exactly the same though with less fuss if possible. The ‘Tube sketch’ was not really our doing in that it was the producer of the show who got the media involved as he found it strange (though he admired our stance apparently). As our television received HTV better than Granada at that time I was always watching Crossroads at 5.20pm of a Friday night so didn’t really watch the Tube and consequently didn’t particularly see what the commotion was about. I sort of see it in hindsight but I’ve always thought that going to support your local football team is no way ‘strange’.
VP: How would you define success on your terms for Half Man Half Biscuit ? What would you say have been your biggest achievements?
NIGEL: More or less what we’re doing could I suppose be deemed ‘successful’. We did win some award in I think 1986 for best selling independent album (New Order and The Smiths in 2nd and 3rd!- Christ!) BUT the biggest achievement for me is creating a situation for myself whereby I can get up of a morning and decide to go and tackle Bwlch Pen Barras on the bike or go for a run/walk somewhere rather than report to a superior to await orders or perhaps more in my case, attend an interview down at the dole to see why I haven’t got a job.
VP: Recently you’ve finished shows with a cover of the Bee Gees opus “Tragedy” (a fact which was even mentioned on Radio 4 recently ) what drew you to the genius of the hirsute orthodontically perfect Gibb bros? Any other covers planned for the future ?
NIGEL: We did the Bee Gees cover just the once in Manchester as when we play there we somehow seem to always do a song by a band associated with the city. It’s on youtube. I feel we nailed it! We shall be doing ‘Frankie Teardrop’ by Suicide at our next concert.
VP: That nice chap Chris Rand the man behind the amazing HMHB lyrics project has asked me to pose these question “What’s the story behind Joy In Leeuwarden? Really?” – “Who is Jemma Guntrip?” and is “chuckling footstool” a riposte to “mirthless furniture?”
NIGEL: In reverse :a) No but it’s an enjoyable thought. b) It’s actually Gemma Guntrip and she was a friend turned occultist who left Birkenhead to set up a colony of wrongness in Caithness c) The story already put out concerning the song ‘Joy in Leeuwarden’ is true except that the two chaps who wrote it were not permitted to enter the competition as they were languishing in a Utrecht institution and so the names of the two girls were used in order for the entry to be admitted.
VP: Has anybody ever asked you to write for them, be it lyrics for other artists, articles, a novel perhaps ??
NIGEL: No, thank God. Don’t think I could be arsed with all that. Articles schmarticles.
VP: Would you play a Liverpool gig again, or is it just too much hassle ?
NIGEL: We will play Liverpool sometime-we don’t consciously avoid it (contrary to popular belief)- just a case of finding the right venue according to Geoff (Probe)-he was talking about the Olympia recently though is that not a bit big? I don’t really mind where we play and I’d certainly be back home in bed a lot sooner.
VP: Do you fancy anything for Cheltenham this year?
NIGEL: Automatic promotion. Quietly, they are this year’s success story.
VP: Finally, what’s next for HMHB? ( Personally I’d love the cast of Glee to cover “The Len Ganley Stance”) On the evidence of “90 Bisodol,” you’ve got plenty more songs within you, and to me HMHB make even more sense as we enter the autumn of our years – will you continue to record, release and occasionally gig, as long as you have the ideas?
NIGEL: Who knows? There’s never been much in the way of planning anything although we have been approached by the Parkgate Pony Sanctuary to ‘get up and play a few tunes’ at their Summer Fair. It is however, bound to be on a Saturday during a mountain stage so I wouldn’t watch this space….
Videos (lots of ’em!)
Thanks to Chris Rand and Geoff @ Probe