Half Man Half Biscuit are by their own admission a lazy bunch, unabashed and obstinately proud to do the least possible to keep the venerable, ramshackle ship afloat. Live performances are rare, and the venues usually rarer.
This current tour (a mammoth three dates) takes in Manchester and Frome as well as tonight’s venue, Cardiff’s renovated former church of St Stephen, and in the past they’ve graced the turfs and backwaters of Buxton, Chichester, Durham and Hebden Bridge rather than “play the circuit”. There was also memorably a Bridgewater festival curated by Tara Newley… The stuff of Half Man legend.
Not really ones for hallowed venues, or indeed hallowed anything, then. In fact Half Man are so anti-hallowed it makes me want to stand on my chair and sing the national anthem. “I remember a white-label test pressing of their first album turning up,” muses John Peel in a 2001 Guardian interview. “I had no idea who it was. I put it on and was immediately smitten. It came at a time when music in general was starting to get a little bit po-faced. Bands were all rather grave and taking themselves far too seriously, so Nigel [Blackwell] was such a tonic. His song titles and his observations were, and still are, just spot on.”
Not a lot has changed in the entertainment industry as a whole since then. Po-faced industry tastemakers still dish out straightjackets to the young, the BBC continues to employ the wrong people, the pretentious still sit there with great big targets on their heads (hello Garth Crooks), and celebrity culture throws up ludicrous anti-icons, as it always will. In fact, the only thing that has maybe changed a little is Half Man Half Biscuit have got better and even more accurate with their amusing tirades.
Tonight’s crowd at The Point is a somewhat unfair mixture of nine-tenths over-thirties and one-tenth under. Big bulky men making the most of a rare night off from the wife mingle with kids that have it sussed already. The attractions for the former are the classics from the halcyon days when the likes of New Order, Depeche Mode and Bauhaus were kept from their rightful places on top of indie charts like home-owners stunted by squatters (I can see it now, distressed members of the Mode asking management why a song called Fuck Me – It’s Fred Titmus! is number one at the expense of, say, Leave in Silence), while the young bay for Shit Arm, Bad Tattoo and Joy Division Oven Gloves from the recent Achtung Bono LP.
9pm sharp and band members amble on stage. Blackwell, a tall and now completely bald man somewhat reminiscent of a domesticated Jap Staam, checks an imaginary set-list (“beware of the band who type out their set-lists”), and, “Fuck me, it’s Fred Titmus!”. The fabled chorus fills the church. It’s the first of tonight’s bolts of surrealist lightning that will hit the funny spot straight in the middle, and everyone joins in to the best of their ability. Half Man hit the ground running, and while the literal lyricism of 90% of Gargoyles Look Like Bob Todd might go over the head of the younger element, its vague imagery induces suppressed laughter to a man. The gummy bald man from Benny Hill that comprises Bob Todd never took offence at the track, unlike Dean Friedman, who originally thought that The Bastard Son of Dean Friedman was a respectful homage. There’s another story, and he wasn’t happy when he found out…
What a good song Dukla Prague Away Kit is after all. It’s another of those nailed down in Half Man folklore as a classic, but, being of the younger element, I hadn’t heard it till now. The Subutteo pitch has replaced the Scalextric. Your best friend’s kitted in his Dukla away kit. You’re lumbered with a headless centre-forward and an armless keeper from the bottom of the set. And after five minutes you’re 4-0 down. So you smash up the floodlights, the game is abandoned, and you’re banned from his house. Magnificent. The Bogus Official is dancing to it at the front (don’t let him in!), along with Dai Young, the King of Welsh Goth, and euphoria is in the air.
The in-jokes are kind of universally understandable with Half Man, which sort of defeats the point. But, trying not to get too philosophical about it all, that’s sort of what theyre good at. Look Dad No tunes is of Dukla-like repute, a sturdy celebration of man-rock tendencies that rains down out of guitars into a preposterous show of feedback (“In my bedroom in Nantwich / Stamp my foot down on the angst switch / That’s the time to feed back”). Old and young lap it up as requests rain down on the gregarious Blackwell. The lads on their first night out in a while are vociferous, baying for more and more classics, “Bob Wilson – Anchorman”, “King of Rome”, “Quality Janitor”, “Bottleneck at Capel Curig”. Blackwell can’t play them all, but this is one you might like…
Joy Division Oven Gloves is an absolute beast of lunar guitar play and sturdy melody. The youngsters come into their own now too, rejoicing to an insanely celebratory jig in which Blackwell’s overgrown indie kid ventures esoteric paths in his cherished kitchenware. “Oh Ive been here and Ive been there… ‘In my Joy Division Oven Gloves’ … I’ve been to a post-punk postcard fare … ‘In my Joy Division oven gloves’”. Dark lords recoil and Oven Gloves pulsates round the place like the craziest and best thing you’ve ever heard, which is exactly what it is.
Along with the greatest tunes this side of Russian improvisational drumming, Achtung Bono also has the best front cover of recent times [a skeleton, AKA Bono, in sunglasses with a halo round his head], and Blackwell next flexes his critical arm with a succinct and hilarious thesis on one of the worst. The faux genius of The Libertines makes them sitting ducks for a classic contrary lambast, and the sing-along chorus of “Oh, you’ve got a shit arm … and that’s a bad tattoo” is so so funny and definitive beyond words. In an ideal world the mainstream press would be put out of business by the insights of Blackwell, but that’s maybe for another day. Bob Wilson – Anchorman gives more of what the moshers want, random hilarity to a breakneck beat (“Lord, I’ve tried the best I can / I’ve asked everybody in Kazakhstan / but I still don’t understand / Bob Wilson – anchorman”), and Vatican Broadside, with its chant of “who the fucking hell are Slipknot” coming from the mouth of the Pope is one that’s sure to be added to Nu-Catholic hymnbooks a little later.
A highlight of 2000′s Trouble Over Bridgewater was a set-piece entitled 24 Hour Garage People, and tonight it comes with a back-up prop. Blackwell throughout the gig plays the crowd like he’s in his front room having a rolling dialogue with the TV, and he liberally ad-libs the rambling story of winding-up of a churlish garage shop assistant. On getting the assistant where he wants him by asking for random things, which he has to walk around the shop to find, Blackwell now adds a fine representation of what the man would undoubtedly be listening to on his I-Pod – a nightmare mixture of 80′s rock-lite including We Built This City On Rock ‘n’ Roll and Brown Eyed Girl, played to the crowd through a handy tape-recorder. Magic.
The band ambles off stage soon after, but an inevitable baying for more brings them back. Blackwell returns threatening us with a guitar of exaggerated futuristic proportions, before putting it down and etching out a Twydale’s Lament conspicuous for the absence of Twydale himself (“Uranga Uranga, yes Ill be happy / when youve been arrested for defacing the bridge”), and Trumpton Riots invites the escaped convicts up for the definitive mosh they’ve been building to since the last time the wife let them out. Time flies by like you’re the driver of a train when you’re in the company of Half Man. “Under bridges over bridges to our destination…” We’re there before we know it, and Dai Young, the King of Welsh Goth, never did get his ode.