On an inky November night, Nigel, Neil, Karl and Carl amble on to the stage of a disused Yorkshire cinema to the strains of Neil Young’s My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue). Slumped in a chair with Covid fatigue, my nerves already jangled by a drive-by shouting en route, I burst into tears. I can scarcely believe this band exist.
The return of Half Man Half Biscuit, four lads who shook the Wirral with chugging indie-rock, is greeted ecstatically by those packed into the Holmfirth Picturedrome. Launching into a song about bats followed by one about bereavement, they neatly summarise the mood swings of the world in the preceding 20 months – and Biscuitmania erupts. It took me six hours to get here in the car, and it’s worth every minute.
Someone who travelled even further is Glaswegian John Ross, who came down from Scotland with a group of friends, including one, Francis, sadly no longer of this Earthly realm, his ashes ensconced in cellophane down John’s sock lest a bouncer query the fine white powder. A chance pre-gig meeting with lead singer Nigel Blackwell brings a fitting tribute to their fallen comrade, a fan of the band since 1987.
John takes up the story: “I went up to him and said, ‘Excuse me, Nigel, this is going to sound weird,’ and he replied: ‘It already does in that accent, mate.’ I explained the situation and he was brilliant. He spent about five minutes chatting to me about Francis.”
Halfway through the gig, Nigel retrieves the wrap from his top pocket and sprinkles the ashes on the stage as requested before dedicating Look Dad No Tunes to the departed fan. “I was absolutely elated,” says John. “I’d been expecting to spread his ashes on a beer-soaked floor. To have Nigel say lovely things about him, make some jokes and treat Francis’s ashes with the same care and respect that he would someone he knew well, was amazing. I wasn’t expecting the eulogy. That was way over and above what I’d hoped for.”
This emotional send-off is an example of how Half Man Half Biscuit – AKA Nigel Blackwell, Neil Crossley, Carl Henry and Karl Benson – have generated one of the most passionate fan communities of any British band. Apart from the occasional spin on BBC Radio 6 Music, they largely exist under the radar, which is how they like it. Born of Thatcher’s all-encompassing dole culture, their 1985 debut album Back in the DHSS was recorded for about £40. A lo-fi slice of kitchen-sink surrealism, it featured songs about Subbuteo (All I Want for Christmas Is a Dukla Prague Away Kit) and the mundanity of everyday existence. Publicity-shy even then, they turned down an appearance on Channel 4’s The Tube as it clashed with a Tranmere Rovers match, even refusing the offer of a helicopter as it would only have got them to Prenton Park at half-time.
With their star in the ascendant, championed by John Peel and with Dickie Davies Eyes topping the indie singles chart, Nigel sensationally split the band in 1986 to the dismay of their burgeoning fanbase. However, after a near four-year silence, the group were booked to appear at the 1990 Reading festival. Straight-faced, wearing shorts, they launched into a storming set of old songs and new, with one fan dangerously wielding a potted plant throughout.
They have played a handful of gigs every year since, and I have seen them numerous times, up to the first lockdown. In the depths of quarantine, I forged a plan to make up for lost time by never missing another Half Man gig. It would be a post-lockdown gift to myself: have a good time, all the time. The downside is that I live in London and they rarely stray south, adhering to the time-honoured mantra of “own bed, own bog”. The upside is that it’s the best two hours of the month, grinning through a thrilling rock show interspersed with deadpan humour from the enigmatic Nigel.
He rarely does interviews, doesn’t want the band to be photographed and still suffers from pre-gig nerves. He is more at ease cycling round Wirral or enjoying tea and toast in front of nostalgia channel Talking Pictures TV. As far removed from the music industry as it’s feasible for a musician to be, this is an approach that has yielded 15 wildly entertaining albums to date, all skewering societal mores through an absurdist lens in songs such as Rock and Roll Is Full of Bad Wools (about landfill indie bands on Soccer AM), Bottleneck at Capel Curig (about A-road congestion) and the self-explanatory Knobheads on Quiz Shows.
While early gigs were largely attended by football fans, it’s now a broad church, with a cosplay element creeping in. I myself am guilty of wearing a personalised Dukla Prague away kit, which enabled me to mingle with a gang of HMHB ultras in a Nottingham pub before their recent Rock City gig. The most visible proponent of this trend is retired GP John Burscough from Lincolnshire, who accidentally rediscovered the band at the 2008 Cornbury music festival.
“I thought, ‘Fucking hell, why have I not been on to this?’” he says. “I bought CSI: Ambleside off the merch table, listened to it all the way home and got hooked. I went to see them in Sheffield and thought, ‘People are dressing up for this. This is great, this is what I like. This is a gang, I can be their king.’”
Sixty gigs later, John now routinely comes as the titular character of King of Hi-Vis, a song that has only ever been played live on five occasions – and he was there for them all. I’ve spotted him at gigs but never realised that beneath his fluorescent tabard was an actual tour jacket with detachable sleeves, the name of a spoken word song that has never been performed. He rounds off the combo with a pair of Joy Division Oven Gloves, a kitchen accessory inspired by the HMHB song of the same name. At the time of our conversation, it is hours away from its 132nd airing.
This and other stats can be found on The Half Man Half Biscuit Lyrics Project website, subtitled “220 pop songs picked over by pedants”, a resource run by Chris Rand from Cambridge, who is also present in the pub, in regulation Dukla Prague kit, sandwiching the Nottingham gig between Genesis at the O2 and Ipswich Town playing at home, presumably in a Venn diagram of one.
“We always get a bump in visitors to the site when there’s a new album,” says Chris, of Half Man’s latest LP, The Voltarol Years. “But this one was like nothing else – three or four times the traffic we’ve ever had. Extraordinary.” Much of the discussion has been about the heartbreaking penultimate track, Slipping the Escort, where Nigel takes his tongue out of his cheek to devastating effect on a song about an elderly couple confronting dementia.
While some fans relish the band’s outsider status (even though they regularly fill midsized venues and their last two albums reached the UK Top 40) others are indignant that Nigel doesn’t have a larger audience. Fan Stephen Blackmore says: “I’m frightened that, when they do finally pack it in, no one’s going to know who they were. Someone needs to make a documentary. There needs to be a lasting legacy.” John has more prosaic concerns: “My only worry is that he’ll be knocked off his bike on a country lane.”
Since becoming a full-time follower, I have noticed a distinct cross-generational aspect, with parents indoctrinating their offspring. Jonas Mackay, 17, went to the Rock City gig with his dad, Shane, who spent lockdown amassing the entire back catalogue and bombarding his family with it. “I genuinely think it’s something worth spreading the word about and trying to inculcate my children with,” Shane says. “Do they know how much people love and appreciate them?”
They do. Between toast and cycling, Nigel emails me thus: “The band are more than grateful that people come and watch us and especially those that go the extra mile. Although statistically some of those people may have killed or carried out some dark arts, they never seem to bring that personality out on the evenings when we’re playing, so all is well from our angle. Hats off to ’em.”