Solus, Cardiff University Students Union
Thurs 25 Aug
words: NOEL GARDNER
Half Man Half Biscuit moshpits are something else. I mean, they don’t feature ‘moshing’ in any sense that implies either danger or acrobatics, but neither could it reasonably be called ‘dancing’ either. It’s a load of men – I can only see men from where I stand, and none of them look under 35 – gently knocking into each other to a soundtrack of loosely punky or rockabilly-ish guitar music that is sometimes quite fast, but never, you know, heavy. To anyone in the building who’s not actually here to see the band, it must look pretty baffling.
The whole thing is, really, when you take a step back. Initial excitement, nay privilege felt at being able to review one of the Merseyside band’s gigs – this is their first in the region since early 2008; they almost never do actual tours – is tempered by the realisation that if you’re not familiar with them, they sound like they’ll be kind of awful. A going concern since the mid-80s, Half Man Half Biscuit are as much a comedy band as their name suggests – the band apparently disagree, but there are several obvious attempts to amuse the listener on virtually every song, so it’s hardly the worst of fits. Over the years, this has evolved from songs which combine ‘scattershot’ ‘riffs’ on contemporary minutiae with a random celebrity’s name in the title (Fuckin’ ‘Ell It’s Fred Titmus, which they play tonight near the start, and 99% Of Gargoyles Look Like Bob Todd, which they play right at the end), into tiny and hilarious rock operas about things which, their insignificance be damned, are the glue that holds together life’s cheap plastic parts.
This makes it sound like it’s going to be of a piece with, say, Tim Minchin or Mitch Benn, when in fact the inner life of HMHB lyricist Nigel Blackwell is far more nuanced, and doesn’t scream LOVE ME, WORLD at every turn. His songs don’t tend to have punchlines, as such, although he does tell a joke which is better than any which made that Edinburgh Fringe top 10 the other day (“Saw loads of kids dressed like East End gangsters. Must be the new Krays” – it doesn’t completely work written down, which shows up the fraudulence of the Fringe award, all told). There’s also the midsection of Twenty-Four Hour Garage People, which essentially becomes a glimpse at what Nigel’s standup routine would be. The song additionally features the part where he mentions the price of the tube of Pringles he’s buying – it was £1.35 on its release, but since 2000 has risen through inflation to two pounds something – and people actually cheer in recognition. There are other ways for a group of several hundred people to share an injoke like this, but only thanks to the internet.
It would be untrue to make HMHB out as cold fish, or ones that are scornful towards their audience: Nigel greets us in Welsh and shares alehouse-level banter about Jason Koumas and says things like “We had a moussaka in Usk. It was OK” (hard to know if this is a true story or merely a chance to use the words moussaka and Usk in the same sentence). It’s just that they found their plateau a long time ago, which means they can release an album every two or three years on their friend’s small indie label in the knowledge that the same solid core of people will buy it and obsess over the lyrics. They have a new one out in about a month, which appears to have been revealed to the world via the tracklisting being put up on Amazon, rather than, say, a press release. This is fine. They can supplement themselves with the odd gig, wherein hundreds of people will uncomplainingly pay £16.50 to hear two hours of their back catalogue and, in the case of at least two present, wave their home-decorated Joy Division oven gloves in the air when they play the song Joy Division Oven Gloves. Although you suspect that the band don’t entirely relish close-up examples of the arch tweeness they’ve wrought, this is fine too.
Other than the venue’s unedifying sound and dire out-of-term bar selection, there was basically nothing to dislike about this gig (their 25 or so songs might not have included all of everyone’s favourites, but consensus on this matter is limited at best). However, Half Man Half Biscuit are the sort of band that you follow down the rabbithole, to the point where you have no idea what this all reads like to any poor sod not blessed with inner knowledge of the tunnels. To this end, I hope and pray that I’ve not made them sound like some zany studenty 11.40pm on BBC3 unlikely topical reference bollocks, but one of the pinnacles of the last five decades of British satire and wit, this being what HMHB are.