For, oh, about three months in 1986, Half Man Half Biscuit were one of the biggest bands in Britain. With the backing of influential DJ John Peel (for whom they recorded a series of classic sessions), the post-punk outfit became unlikely tips for the ‘next big thing’ as their debut LP Back in the DHSS
(a parody of Paul McCartney
’s own parody of the Chuck Berry number) topped the British indie charts, quickly followed by their first two singles, ‘The Trumpton Riots’ and ‘Dickie Davies Eyes’. As eccentric as they were successful, the group turned down two offers to appear on the mid-80s chart show ‘The Tube’ in order to watch their favourite football team Tranmere Rovers at home, despite promises of a chartered helicopter to carry them from the ground. The ‘DHSS’ in the album’s title refers to the Department of Health and Social Security, the welfare agency to which millions of young British men at the time were indebted. And, pretty soon, the title proved to be prophetic as singer, bass guitarist and chief songwriter/charisma artist Nigel Blackwell called it a day. With ‘Dickie Davies Eyes’ sitting proudly atop the charts, Blackwell announced his retirement, explaining that the pressures of rock n’ roll superstardom had come into irreconcilable conflict with his commitments to watching daytime TV and, as soon as it had started, it was over.
This sounds like a joke, right" No way. As if it’s particularly difficult to tell from the song names, Half Man Half Biscuit were never a band to take themselves seriously. Even more so than the average post-punk band (at least those who weren’t engaging in a primitive form of what would become known as ‘rage against the machine’), Half Man Half Biscuit were a product of their surroundings. They formed in the early ‘80s with no intention to write or perform, but simply as a means to wile away the long, uneventful days on the dole where many around them were turning to slightly less worrying vices like gambling and drugs. One thing led to another, and soon enough the band was four strong (including a keyboardist) and writing material which combined a shared passion for punk, new wave and obscure pop trivia. Lyricist Nigel found his own gift in a preternatural ability to combine an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of twenty years of mid-afternoon children’s TV, a keen eye for the odd physical features of football pundits and a gift for the verbal word not unlike his more established contemporaries Roddy Frame and Morrissey
And so we come to Back Again In The DHSS
. The foursome returned to Birkenhead to rejoin the dole queue and Probe released a compilation album which comprised a few new songs and selections from the band’s three Peel Sessions early the following year. Mercifully contained were the two hit singles but even that wasn’t enough to spur sales without a band to promote the album. What makes this all the more unfortunate is the fact that it’s probably the band’s most consistent and well-performed collection of songs, as the reformed band while retaining the wry sardonicism of the early recordings rarely re-create the raw magic of those recordings. Once again, The Smiths
must be invoked as the album has a definitive touch of the Hatful of Hollows
about it, despite the marked musical differences.
At the centre of Half Man Half Biscuits musical attack is Nigel Blackwell, whose soft Merseyside accent is easily the most striking aspect of the mix. His half-spoken, half-sung vocals encompass themes ranging from British pop-culture of the late ‘60s to standing in the welfare office to, err, British pop-culture of the ‘80s. In ‘Dickie Davies Eyes’ he parodies the much-parodied ‘80s hit ‘Bette Davis Eyes,’ putting in her place the legendary World of Sport presenter; while in ‘The Bastard Son of Dean Friedman’ he lampoons the mid-70s hitmaker of ‘Lucky Stars’ fame. His brother Simon’s wiry guitar leads feature alternately with the post-Mark Knopfler synth of David Lloyd, while bass and drums perform the kind of thankless executive function that after retirement would make you wonder that for all the attention you got you might aswell not have bothered. But it wouldn’t be the same without them.
I don’t mean to sell the other members short, the Blackwells just happen to fill the most interesting roles within the band. Keyboardist Lloyd, like all four members, is (surprisingly) proficient with his instrument, providing important melodic counterpoint to Nigel’s semi-melodic singing. It falls somewhere short of the Morrissey-Marr dynamic, but he does manage to pull off a wonderful rendition of the War of the Worlds theme to kick off ‘Dickie Davies Eyes’. Likewise, Paul Wright’s energetic, fill-laden punk drumming is an asset but isn’t much more than lining in the grand scheme of things. At the heart of Half Man Half Biscuit lies a simple punk-infused synthy rock band. Ever wondered what New Order would sound like with a bit of added… dynamism
Yet for all the talk of punk and new wave, Half Man Half Biscuit always come back to old folky tradition of valuing the word over the melody, and Nigel Blackwell’s got more witty one-liners than Woody Guthrie could wave a non-coercively-, collectively-produced stick at. It’s kind of ironic that with so much value clearly placed on the lyrics (and they’re beautifully written), the band has literally nothing to say. The closest Nigel Blackwell manages to come to a serious social criticism is when he wonders out loud why Rod Hull, Australian emu puppeteer and bane of most people’s existence, hasn’t been killed yet in the demandingly-titled ‘Rod Hull Is Alive- Why"’ It’s a valuable question, definitely, but unlikely to convince Gang of Four
their throne is in danger of usurpation. Elsewhere he strings seemingly unrelated phrases together in a manner that would suggest they’re necessarily conjoined:
Mention the Lord of the Rings just once more and I'll more than likely kill you.
"Moorecock, Moorecock, Michael Moorecock" you fervently moan.
Is this a wok that you shove down my throat, or are you just pleased to see me"
Brian Moore's head looks uncannily like London Planetarium.
[Dickie Davies Eyes]
The latter even borrows the World of Sport melody and almost succeeds in passing it off as an original. Another highlight of the disc is ‘Reasons to be Miserable (Part 10),’ which cleverly subverts Ian Dury’s ‘Reasons to be Cheerful (Part 3)’ and frames it in the context of Thatcherite Liverpool with a plodding, Joy Division-type ambience. The already mentioned ‘The Bastard Son of Dean Friedman’ and ‘I Was a Teenage Armchair Honved Fan’ are peppy, football-based punk numbers which coin a new phrase in ‘SupercalafragilisticBorussiaMoenchengladbach’ and lament the lifestyle of an adolescent enthusiast of the under-exposed Hungarian first division respectively. The former even sees Blackwell declare ‘I heard a lovely rumour that Bette Midler had a tumour,’ before reality ruins the day like it so often does.
Back Again In The DHSS
can be quite a bewildering listen at first and even on repeated listens. The sheer amount of inside jokes and obscure reference are sure to perplex even the most middle-aged Liverpudlians among us, and I’ve barely even peeled off the first veil in this review, yet the music is so fresh and instantly satisfying that it’s difficult not to identify with it on some level. And at barely (and I mean barely) thirty minutes, it’s one of the less exhausting listens on offer.
Plus I just love inside jokes.
[Note: a CD version of this collection was released soon afterwards with a number of extra tracks entitled ACD. While the extra tracks are really quite good, it doesn’t have the flow of the original ten-track LP.]