If I had any pull at Oxford, I know how I’d use it: I’d have had Nigel Blackwell’s name put forward for Professor of Poetry last month.
Blackwell, for those of you who don’t know or don’t remember, is the brains and bile behind Wirral-based band Half Man Half Biscuit. Due to a culture-wide clerical error, when they emerged in the Thatcher years, indie-chart-toppers HMHB were initially thought to be a C86 band, but also a novelty act, as if the Wedding Present and George Formby had decided to collaborate. Song titles like ‘99% of Gargoyles Look Like Bob Todd’ (from their first record, Back in the D.H.S.S.), when applied to compositions played by moody, gruffly chiming guitars, cemented the impression.
But to think of Half Man Half Biscuit as the sum of a couple of styles is like thinking of dancing as the sum of aerobics and making stupid faces. For the last thirty years, HMHB have been the grain of sand in British rock’s oyster, irritating it into producing a pearl. Or they have been the pea under British rock’s mattress, giving the princess the most interesting night she has ever had. The fact is, Half Man Half Biscuit are the only band that have ever tempted me to betray my principle that says, very simply: ‘Thou shalt not say that songwriters are better poets than poets are.’
Look, I’m the last person who wants to outsource the work that poets do on the page to the non-union workers who stand on the stage with guitars. The yearly farce of Bob Dylan being connected with the Nobel makes me ‘go electric.’ I am also very conscious of the general danger that comes to poets when all great achievers are called ‘poets’—when Lionel Messi is a ‘poet’ of the football pitch and Alexis Tsipras is a ‘poet’ of betraying the people who voted for him.
But Blackwell is a different case, and facts must be reckoned with. (As he himself would say: ‘Opinionated weather forecasters telling me it’s going to be a miserable day—miserable to who? I quite like a bit of drizzle, so stick to the facts.’) Blackwell is genuinely a poet.
Honestly, has anyone in the last thirty years described ‘stupidity as a leisure option, the hollowing-out of British culture, [and] the slow death of the post-war settlement’ the way the Biscuits have? In any medium?
I like to think that if Adrian Mitchell hadn’t been shit or if John Betjeman had been working class they’d have been a bit like Nigel Blackwell.
This is the point of the article where we look at the examples of HMHB lyrics that I provide. At your own pace, in your own mind, you can compare the images evoked by these lyrics to the paint-by-numbers hack-work and rude daubs that are summoned up by the best efforts of virtually everyone else.
Blackwell has something for everyone to identify with, as long as he or she is part of some literal or metaphorical underclass.
I mean pedants . . .
If you’re going to quote from the Book of Revelation,
don’t keep calling it the ‘Book of Revelations.’
There’s no s, it’s the Book of Revelation,
as revealed to St John the Divine.
See also: Mary Hopkin.
She must despair.
—‘Shit Arm, Bad Tattoo’
or unfashionable reactionaries . . .
I’m gonna feed our children non-organic food
and with the money saved take ’em to the zoo.
—‘Totnes Bickering Fair’
or lonely hearts . . .
I was just sitting there eating a salmonella sandwich
when a man walked up to me:
‘Would you mind, dear sir, if I asked you a question?
If music be the food of love, are you the indigestion?’
or perverts . . .
They subscribe to Erotic Review because it’s broadsheet-acceptable, and they can read it in bed with their partners and perhaps try out suggested oils. Ah, but they still feel the need to board an EasyJet to Amsterdam every now and again. ’Cause you can’t get Teenage Eskimo in Wantage.
—‘Emerging from Gorse’
or soft-spoken chaps who have trouble making the move . . .
And when I swear it’s in a mellow way:
Swiss Army knife and every shade of Humbrol.
To Point of Ayr I like to get away,
and in my dreams I take a beautiful girl.
or proponents of urban pedestrianisation . . .
Car crime’s low, the gun crime’s lower,
the town hall band CD, it’s a grower.
You never hear of folk getting knocked on the bonce,
although there was a drive-by shouting once.
But there’s a brass band everywhere,
and I don’t drive, so I don’t care,
and as a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square:
What’s Chatteris if you’re not there?
—‘For What Is Chatteris . . .’
I linger and gawp
when the council dig a big hole,
and I cheer for a corner—
I don’t know why,
they rarely lead to a goal.
—‘This One’s for Now’
or those leaving attention deficit and entering attention bankruptcy . . .
Where’s the beetroot? Where the ibex?
Dubbing mixer, Freddie Slade,
alpine lockjaw, it was on the cards.
Can I buy inflatable dictators anywhere round here?
Iron Age mums are haunting my cagoule.
Do stew, scoop up the roadkill,
straight sets, jet-wash the Viceroy,
sore heel, shite on the back nine,
Midge Ure looks like a milk thief!
I said: Midge Ure looks like a milk thief!
—‘The Bane of Constance’
Etc., etc., etc.
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I have been quoting Blackwell’s lyrics in isolation from the tunes rolling under them, as it is so easy to do. It is worth mentioning that HMHB have always experimented with musical style, especially on 2002’s Cammell Laird Social Club (which freely mixes hammy Americana and Alpine yodelpunk with excellent, straight-up tunes like ‘She’s in Broadstairs’ and the notorious reference work set to music that is ‘The Referee’s Alphabet’). Also, Blackwell’s method of telling a tale in song, especially in ‘Ballad of Climie Fisher,’ ‘Rock and Roll Is Full of Bad Wools,’ and ‘The Unfortunate Gwatkin,’ is worth a longer piece on its own.
That last song I mentioned
is from HMHB’s most recent record, Urge for Offal. This record topped the Guardian 2014 year-end readers’ poll for record of the year, despite having not been reviewed in that newspaper. The thing is, for once, the people raving have it right.
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Thinking back to my starting premise, I’d have needed a willing candidate to be Oxford Professor of Poetry. A campaigner, not just the best sniper. A scoundrel, not just a rogue.
But Blackwell might have ruled himself out from the start, as he did in 1986 when Half Man Half Biscuit declined to appear on Channel 4’s The Tube because their local football club, Tranmere Rovers, were playing at home that night. Back then he was struggling with the pressures of stardom versus the pressures of the daytime telly schedule. Today, Nigel Blackwell is struggling with the pressures of stardom versus the pressures of . . . whatever his interests are, but probably to do with cycling. Our Nige is a bit of a cycle nut.
One of the great things about loving Half Man Half Biscuit is that you’re not going to be on the wrong side of history. So you know all those liberating gestures of the imagination they make? They’re yours, too, if you like them.
Which means that the following lyric, which describes an act of ’90s civil disobedience on a par with those described in Superchunk’s ‘Slack Motherfucker,’ should not be considered as an anecdote, but held up as an ideal. This is from ‘Everything’s A.O.R.,’ and it is about sticking up for yourself in the best way possible: by confounding your opponent, by playing the ultimate trick—being your idiotic self.
She’s the main man in the office in the city
and she treats me like I’m just another lackey.
But I can put a tennis racket up against my face
and pretend that I am Kendo Nagasaki.
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A happy birthday to Nigel Blackwell. X O X