The late, great John Peel was so fond of Half Man Half Biscuit that he famously joked that he wanted “to have them buried with me” as if they were the favourite court musicians and he the mighty Pharaoh. It’s fortunate for us that Peel, although supremely influential on our tastes in music, was not in fact our all-powerful emperor, so that The Biscuits were spared being bricked up as acolytes in the great DJ’s tomb. There have already been four whole HMHB albums that Peel never got to hear. It cannot be a coincidence that the latest of these albums, ‘Urge For Offal’, was released in the week that marked the 10th anniversary of the Peel’s passing – and it is yet more proof that one ‘national treasure’ certainly knew another one when he heard it.
So all over the country for the last few days ‘pause’ and ‘rewind’ buttons have been tested beyond their usual limits by the devoted cult following who have patiently waited three years until this latest serving from the Crossley & Blackwell song-writing partnership was finally in the can. Would they be taking the band in new directions, we wondered? Perhaps (to borrow an earlier lyric or two) the new album would be less “song-based” because they’ve “been travelling South America, recording different sounds”? Fortunately it only takes the album’s opening track, ‘Westward Ho! Massive Letdown’, to reassure us that they haven’t, and that it’s business as usual, as one of Neil Crossley’s finest Joy-Division influenced tunes frames Blackwell’s story of a jilted lover, set in a rusting English seaside resort which can’t live up to its famous exclamation mark. HMHB devotees all over the country are soon back into their accustomed routine, straining to tell whether final line of the song refers to a Graeco-Roman god or a French Caledonian golfer. I’ll try not to include too many spoilers here – but apparently it’s the former, and I was wrong about the golfing reference, as per usual.
Second track ‘This One’s for Now’ is fantastically familiar territory too, as the protagonist laments his inability to write a proper break-up song without getting distracted by the urge to drop in at least five separate football references, amongst other trivia. I recall that after first hearing the band’s brilliant satire ‘Paintball’s Coming Home’, Peel remarked something along the lines that “it’s a collection of random jottings”, which that track patently wasn’t, being the best demolition of empty, materialistic 1990’s values penned by anyone, anywhere. This one would have fitted Peel’s description much better and as such is at least partly a song about the process of song-writing. If Blackwell reminds me of any other songwriter, it has to be Jonathan Richman above all – simply incapable of taking himself seriously, or for that matter of taking himself any one way at any one time. The voices of the protagonists and even the tunes themselves are parodied by their writer as he goes along. ‘This One’s for Now’ feels like a temporary title for this great little track, and I can’t help speculating that perhaps Blackwell feels that if he waits any longer to put some of these fantastic “random jottings” into a song, then he might well be six feet under, like John Peel, before it’s ever released. It’ll certainly do for now, Nigel (as Peel might have said).
Track 3, ‘Baguette Dilemma for the Booker Prize Guy’, couldn’t be more different, with its harsh, complex post-punk rhythms framing the rantings of a typically deranged Blackwellian character who can’t decide whether he should save some clueless civic dignitaries from quicksand, or have a ham roll instead. Along the way our lyricist becomes possibly the first English songwriter to borrow a pair of rhymes from a translation of ‘War and Peace’, while the final line may provoke outraged letters to editors by RNLI fund-raisers – but as ever, the opinions expressed are those of the characters in a complex, fragmented drama rather than of Blackwell himself.
There’s another complete change of tone and style for track 4, as Blackwell adopts the voice that has been used for a number of folk parodies on recent albums. These have included: ‘Lord Hereford’s Knob’, his unforgettable parody of the traditional ‘As I Walked out one Morning’ song, then ‘RSVP’, parodying the traditional jilted lover’s wedding lament, and ‘The Coroner’s Footnote,’ parodying the good old Victorian disaster song. This track, ‘My Outstretched Arms’, is like a folk interpretation of a story of long-distance dating gone wrong – so wrong that the anti-hero ends up stalking the object of desire. It features one of the finest lines Blackwell has ever written about the Catch-22 issues around mental health: “to sacrifice sanity thinking such things, I must have been mad from the start.”
Back to the more complex and opaque aspects of Blackwell’s imagination, and to another storming Neil Crossley tune for track 5, ‘The Bane of Constance’. At first we appear to be imagining an exasperated spouse on a science-fiction voyage round the mind of a delightfully eccentric partner; on later listens, trying to work out what the lyrics say about road-kill stew and Heswall Flower Club, we realise the track probably deals with the declining mental capacities of the elderly. There’s a myth among those who have only heard a few of their more famous choruses that HMHB songs are juvenile ditties about an obsession with sporting trivia and TV personalities, but deeper, darker themes have been there right from the start. Mental health themes in particular have always been a reference point in the songs, and mixed with the juvenile reminiscences, the HMHB songbook has long had an almost equal preoccupation with old age. Or if you prefer, you can just forget the less comfortable subject matter and join in with another irresistibly rousing football-chant-style chorus: “Come on! Midge Ure looks like a milk thief!”
After contemplating our own impending decrepitude during that track, timely relief is provided by ‘Theme Song for Something or Other’. HMHB’s largely ageing fan-base is probably now more than ready for a chance to put the kettle on. After a lifetime of TV references in their songs (on this album we have mentions for ‘Live at the Apollo’, ‘Cash in the Attic’ and Suranne Jones of ‘Coronation Street’, among others), it seems quite logical that writing a theme tune should have been a quiet ambition for Crossley and Blackwell. As if to emphasise that the telly is still one of HMHB’s most enduring reference points, the next track, ‘False Grit’, aims its expert marksmanship at clichéd TV dramas set in supposedly ‘gritty’ Northern towns. It’s the most straightforward piece of contemporary satire on the album, where Blackwell’s rhyming response to the channels’ dreary promise of “new drama for Spring” is a typically sardonic “thanks for the warning – I’m gonna be in Beijing.” Incidentally, this track also features the most spectacular example ever of the legendary ‘Curse of HMHB’, whereby the attrition rate for celebrities mentioned in their songs suggests that those referenced had better start making a will, and sharpish.
It seems unlikely of course that Nigel Blackwell will ever be anywhere near Beijing at all, having mentioned in some of his rare interviews that he has never flown and doesn’t drive a car. He seems more wrapped up than ever in his local rambles between the Dee and the Mersey estuaries, this album featuring more local Wirral references than all the other twelve albums put together. Half a dozen of these references are in the lyrics and accompanying sleeve-notes for one epic song – ‘The Unfortunate Gwatkin’ (fast forward to track 12). You do have to buy the actual CD or vinyl for this release to get the true benefit of all pieces of the jigsaw – a mere downloaded file will not tell you all you need to know about this wondrous track. The song builds up its tension with Blackwell delighting in parodying the prose styles of yesteryear with a mysterious story about an assault on the title character as he makes his way home from “The Pessimist Festival at Mollington”. He then explodes that tension with one of his most joyously daft sing-along choruses ever. A responsible reviewer would warn anyone whose kids like to sing along to HMHB in the car that this one may need the kind of parental control that you have perhaps previously exercised for the ‘Fred Titmus’ or ‘Vatican Broadside’ choruses. Or maybe not – this is 2014 after all and it’s up to your kids if they want to cuss. Oh and I was right about the golfing references this time.
There is an internet blog (here, in fact) where an admirable group of middle-aged HMHB fans have chronicled their quest to cycle around the many hundreds of places in the UK referenced in HMHB songs, from Wick to Westward Ho! and far, far beyond. With a new HMHB album every three years or so, their task seems likely to resemble Sisyphus painting the Forth Bridge with a fork during an endless soup storm, but at least this one track will enable them to tick off six or seven unique HMHB place references on just one short stretch of turnpike and towpath, somewhere north of Chester Zoo. The track ‘Baguette Dilemma’ will enable them to achieve 3 more inside a couple of miles at the other end of the peninsula, provided they can adapt their bikes for quicksand.
If both those last-mentioned tracks have their share of jeopardy and violence, HMHB aficionadoes will notice that far fewer characters on this album actually meet their doom. Indeed, it’s track 8 before anyone dies at all on this album and even then it’s only death by natural causes. ‘Old Age Killed My Teenage Bride’ is a hilarious and yet simultaneously quite moving tribute to those who reach their centenary year and pass away peacefully and contentedly, and may well be many fans’ favourite up-tempo number on the album. It has already become a live favourite for the middle-aged moshpit at their infrequent gigs. The album’s only other actual death is on track 9, the title track ‘Urge for Offal’. Blackwell is famous for his satirical songs about the pretensions of made-up bands and the vanities of the whole music industry, and in several of his songs the protagonists seem to threaten actual violence against those guilty of offending their/his musical tastes. Here by contrast, the suicide of a member of the song’s eponymous band Urge for Offal does evoke real pathos. We can’t help feeling genuine compassion as Blackwell chronicles the sad nostalgia of the band’s erstwhile bassist looking back on “the best days of our lives”, which consisted of little more than “two sh*t gigs supporting HARSH”. The song contains a couple of accomplished spoofs of the kind of clichéd, OTT guitar solos that a band like Urge for Offal would indulge in – but the spoofs are so catchy and full of pathos that, even when I’d only heard this song a few times, I found myself suddenly singing one of them out loud in public … just not the sort of thing I would normally do, but there was me, walking the dog, not even having the excuse of being lost in an iPod reverie, but just suddenly singing a daft overblown guitar solo, out loud.
There seems to be far less compassion for the title character of track 10, one Adam Boyle, who has “cast lad rock aside” and got so far into trendy folk music and so far up his own *rse that he is heading off to the west of Scotland to re-live scenes from ‘The Wicker Man’. A re-make of that classic film with Nicholas Cage was never going to work, but let’s hope that at least Adam Boyle gets his summer-is-a-comeuppance. While there will be plenty of online reviewers telling us that this HMHB album offers “few new departures musically”, this track and the album’s closer do indisputably sound particularly different from anything the band has done before. Fans who have followed the very sparse scraps of information from past interviews that shed any light on the HMHB song-writing partnership will probably conclude that some of the wonderful up-tempo Joy Division/Fall/Pixies/Magazine/post-punk-influenced tunes on this album will probably have been written largely by Neil Crossley, and that he deserves his place as the album’s unaccustomed cover star for that reason alone. They might be more surprised to discover that Crossley wrote this one, and conceived its haunting horn into/outro as well.
[After writing this review, I bumped into Mr. Blackwell at the match and he confirmed that for this album Neil wrote the tunes and played all the guitars in the studio for the following five tracks: ‘Westward Ho!’, ‘The Bane of Constance’, ‘Old Age Killed My Teenage Bride’, ‘Urge for Offal’ and ‘Adam Boyle’s Cast Lad Rock Aside’. It was the fact that he wrote the tune for ‘Adam Boyle’ and not ‘Mileage Chart’ that surprised me most.]
Occasionally when a fan mentions HMHB to someone who has just heard a few tracks, or even only heard of a few tracks, the band are wrongly dismissed a bit of a ‘pub rock’ band. They aren’t of course, but if they were they would probably do it better than any pub rock band, a fact proven by track 11, ‘Stuck up a Hornbeam’. Another elderly protagonist here, but this one seems to have climbed a tree with suicidal intentions and although we never find out the denouement of his attempts at tying a noose, we have plenty of good old-fashioned rock’n’roll laughs along the way.
HMHB’s classic 1993 album ‘This Leaden Pall’ opened with the thrashy, harassing motorway song ‘M-6-ster’. Twenty years on, we are invited on another trip down the same road to close this new album, but the musical accompaniment could hardly be more different. It’s a rare outing for HMHB into funky, relaxing rhythms, reminding us of 2008’s ‘Problem Chimp’, but this time with the instrumentation filled in far more amply. Warm, languid keyboards and a chunky guitar or two wash over us, as Blackwell’s lyrics take us past “The matrix sign near Arley Hall” and past Stoke, until “it starts to crawl”. We imagine Neil driving the band’s Birkenhead Van Hire vehicle down the motorway with Nigel in the passenger seat, as his bassline drives the frontman’s lyrics. This is when we realise that this song isn’t just a love song to the mileage chart in Nigel’s trusty road atlas. “Based upon those calculations, I stayed at home”, he tells the chart …”I think you changed the way I feel”. It’s about his attitude to the music charts, not just the mileage ones, and certainly about his attitude to the work-life balance:
“In limiting my aspirations, a quiet happiness ensues, I never tried to reach for the stars, I never had platform shoes… Armageddon notwithstanding, in Lower Nowhere I will stay; For Higher Calling and tomorrow I couldn’t give …”
We assume for a split second he’s about to say “I couldn’t give a f***. That is probably what he means – but it wouldn’t rhyme, would it? It turns out to be “I couldn’t give an ETA.” “Come what may” he adds, as if reminding anyone concerned of his famous indifference to self-promotion; they shouldn’t expect him to go anywhere, or do anything, as even a polite refusal can offend. So what is the one destination that the song specifically mentions? It’s “Deal”. Not just as in Deal, Kent, far away from home. But presumably as in ‘record deal’… or ‘no record deal’. Through all the myriad of voices and personas adopted by Blackwell in his songs, this may well be the nearest we ever get to a full-on statement of why he turned down the majors (when they dangled him their wages) and why he can never agree to regular gigs and promotional appearances up and down the country – he just can’t do the miles. He tasted the endless touring when the band first burst onto the scene in the mid-eighties, when HMHB sold tens of thousands of records as a result, but it seems that Blackwell hated it and pretty soon couldn’t do it any longer.
So for this latest album there has been the usual well-oiled HMHB promotional routine, i.e. none whatsoever. No promotion, no touring, no interviews, leading to zero reviews in the mainstream media. But this is simply such outstanding song-writing that John Peel’s heirs on 6 Music have eagerly picked up their copies and have been playing enough tracks to push it straight to ‘number 39 in the charts’, and ‘number 13 in the Indie charts’… whatever those numbers are worth these days. If you did compile a chart only for records which have been utterly un-promoted, because the front man simply can’t do it, this album would surely be a chart-topper for months.
For “Lower Nowhere” in that final song we must surely read “Lower Tranmere”. If the release date around Peel’s anniversary was no coincidence, then it was pure fate that the release occurred precisely when Crossley and Blackwell’s beloved Tranmere Rovers Football Club hit rock bottom, 92nd place in the Football League for the first time in nearly 30 years. You can’t change the team you follow, and they will often let you down. But you’re free to change the band you follow, and maybe – just maybe – they never will.
‘Urge for Offal’ is out now on the Probe Plus label – http://www.probeplus-store.co.uk