Throughout 18 years of fanzine production, the most common question we were asked, outside of the obvious `Is that the programme?` was `Where does the name came from?`. So, just in case there is anyone left who doesn’t know, although you probably do, the name comes from a song called Dickie Davies Eyes by Half Man Half Biscuit.
Their t-shirt slogan Avoiding proper work since 1985 probably tells you all you need to know about the band’s ethos. Throughout that time they have gigged sporadically, produced albums and ep’s on a semi regular basis, and built up and maintained a solid fan base.
Given the cheapness of producing the average Half Man Half Biscuit cd, and the fact they can expect to sell a good few thousand copies to their loyal fans, the Tranmere supporting quartet have been able to scratch a living for over two decades now. And fair play to them, because quite apart from being the funniest band that ever was, Nigel Blackwell’s lyrics are the most astute social commentary ever to be found in songs about obscure A roads, Camdridgeshire villages and and roadsigns advertising fruit and veg for sale.
It had been about three years since we had last managed to catch the boys from Birkenhead live, largely because it had been about three years since they played anyway near the London area. I guess this is not surprising for a band who confess that they like to go home to bed after every gig. Not for them sleeping in the back of a tour bus transversing the length and breadth of the country. Eagled eyed patrons fetching up outside The Junction in Cambridge would probably have spotted that the favoured mode of transport is a crappy transit from Birkenhead Van Hire.
This was definitely not Half Man Half Biscuit territory. I had seen them play in a concrete bunker under the Westway, a cruddy converted cinema in New Cross, and a poky dive or two in London, but the Junction was slap in the middle of one of those leisure devolopments that get beamed down from spaceships and planted around the country. So you get a multi-screen cinema, a Frankie and Bennys and other such plastic themed eateries, but what you don’t get is character or a soul.
So it was across this incongruous setting that we walked, but once inside it was more familiar territory. So what can you expect to see at a Half Man Half Biscuit gig? Well, you will see the owner of their record label selling the merchandise. You will see several people wearing Dukla Prague shirts (in homage to their relatively famous early song All I Want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague away kit) and you will see an increasingly bald and fat fan base, full of people like me who have followed the band since first stumbling across them on a late night John Peel session in the mid-eighties.
What you can expect to not to witness is a dazzling lightshow, Spinal tap like entrance, or a big build up. In fact, what happens is that four ordinary looking blokes stumble onto the stage and start fiddling vacantly with their instruments for a bit, before leader singer Nigel appears to notice there’s an audience out there, says hello, and they launch into their opening number.
Having produced a large body of work, the set list is wide and varied. Like every band they have their favourites that must be played (Trumpton Riots, Fuckin’ ‘Ell it’s Fred Titmus and 24 Hour Garage People spring to mind), but I’ve never seen two gigs remotely the same.
Throughout Nigel will keep up the banter with his audience, and he is often deflected off on a tangent. On this occasion he memorably answered Pledge’s stream of Gills and Kent related invective with `Brian Yeo, I remember him` (his cultural references are many and varied).
It is pretty much a certainty that he will forget the words of at least one song halfway through, although he is extremely adept at blathering on until he finds his way back to a familiar stanza. On this occasion the a large section of the audience followed up its repeated requests for the band to perform old favourite Albert Hammond Bootleg by performing the first couple of verses (Dragging my guitar round maternity ward, I was in search of the umbilical chord), after which Nigel confessed that was more of the song than he could remember.
It is rumoured that the band will make their long awaited return to the capital with a gig at the Shepherds Bush Empire before Christmas. Do yourself a favour, go and witness one of the great unsung bands. As traditionally English as Carry on films, lower division football and a nice cup of tea and as funny as The Fast Show or Little Britain.