A Brief History of HMHB

"A band as savage as they were whimsical, Half Man Half Biscuit provided an unexpected dessert for those British post-punk teenagers who lamented the demise of bands with bite. Nigel Blackwell's inimitable songwriting on the minutiae of life, football and TV celebs quickly garnered cult status, particularly live, where fans could eagerly chant back his wise words." (Patrick Thorne)

HMHB 1986
Cheer up fellas… Neil, Dave, Nigel and Paul, Xmas 1985

The story of Half Man Half Biscuit began with two mates from the same estate in Birkenhead. Around 1980-82, Neil Crossley (bass) was a rhythm guitarist for a punk band Venom who, unlike other groups at the time, would play cover versions of Magazine and Ruts songs. Nigel Blackwell (singer, guitarist, songwriter) was at the time 'still robbing cars and playing football like normal people do', although he managed to listen to the odd bit of John Peel as well. The latter inspired nigel to form his first band Split Gut, which lasted for nine minutes (yes it is-we checked with McWhirter). He then moved on to an outfit called North of Watford before joining up with Neil to invent Half Man Half Biscuit.

There was never any consideration of the possibility of performing live or getting any kind of record deal - the whole thing was merely a way of getting through the day. This carried on for a good while until Nigel's brother Simon Blackwell (lead guitar) and his mate Paul Wright (drums), who were in a group called Attempted Moustache, said they could add to the songs by way of drums and lead guitar (Neil had already moved to bass - the same one as today). Being more of a band, rehearsals moved to Vulcan Studios in Liverpool, where Nigel somehow became the caretaker. One of the people Nigel got to know as a result was building an 8-track studio in an upstairs room and was wanting to test the sound quality etc. before advertising his wares to 'proper bands'. As HMHB were seen merely as "the caretaker's band", a cut-price deal ensued for being the guinea pigs, and what bacame the first LP was recorded for £40 (which apparently wasn't as cheap as it might sound), with David Lloyd (keyboards) now on board.

After a while Nigel and Neil thought it might be a laugh to hawk the resultant tape around a few record companies, just to see what reaction they'd get. Skysaw in Wallasey said they would love to release it but the swearing was a financial risk or something; Skeleton didn't really do anything except smile and ask if they could use the name as a label to put out a single by Instant Agony (they said yes, not expecting any publicity of their own). Factory came next - "we were listening to their acts more than any other and felt we could be an antidote to the albeit wonderful yet greyish image they portrayed". A tape was left with Alan Erasmus, who chuckled encouragingly and said it was probably unlikely anything would come about but whatever happened he would return the tape. A nice bloke and yes the tape was returned (a lot later).

And so to Probe, a shrine for most Liverpool music fans. Proprietor Geoff Davies took the tape and a couple of days later said he'd like to release it (Geoff's then-wife Annie being a major influence, being more in tune with the references etc.). A few more songs were recorded at Vulcan, and the resultant Back In The D.H.S.S. LP (1985) was sent to John Peel, who delighted in the savage mockery of minor British celebrities, all wrapped up in tales of the everyday tedium that is life on the dole. The LP became the biggest-selling independent record of 1986.

Tranmere Rovers FC
Nigel, Neil, Simon, Paul and Dave at Prenton Park (Tranmere Rovers FC), 1985 (Kevin Cummins)

The follow-up 1986 single and EP, The Trumpton Riots, continued this success, focussing once again on the minutiae of life - children's TV ("Trumpton Riots"), table football ("All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit") and more TV 'stars' ("Architecture and Morality, Ted and Alice") - whilst still satirizing modern rockist attitudes. The less-than-glossy sheen to the production seemed highly appropriate.

The band's success on the indie stage was met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm; whilst enjoying performing on the live circuit, the media circus was treated in a more circumspect manner. The band were twice asked to appear on "The Tube", Channel 4's live music show, but on both occasions turned it down, saying that they'd prefer to go to watch their local football team, Tranmere Rovers. Even the offer of a helicopter to fly them to the ground after performing wouldn't change their minds.

This reluctance to take up the rock'n'roll lifestyle had a dramatic consequence. With a second single, Dickie Davies Eyes, sitting atop the independent charts, the band decided to split, even though their popularity was still on the increase. Fans got a posthumous LP in 1987, Back Again In The D.H.S.S. which compiled Peel Sessions together with a clutch of new songs. A CD version, ACD, was released later, with additional live tracks.

Little is known of what happened to the various members after the split. Simon and Paul formed a band called The Mental Eddies with Paul Spencer, the drummer from Jegsy Dodd and the Sons of Harry Cross (who Ian Jackson and Ken Hancock also played with - they had a couple of records released by Probe Plus). They were spotted at a concert for Hillsborough, and are known to have played the odd HMHB tune…

After nearly four years away, Half Man Half Biscuit reformed in 1990, with the same line-up. A couple of singles were released (again on Probe Plus) - the jaunty Let's Not, showing that Nigel's vision for spot-on cultural references had not dimmed, followed by a bizarre cover of the old Edith Piaf number, No Regrets, together with Margi Clarke, a Liverpool actress. A new album, McIntyre, Treadmore And Davitt, displayed a progression in the musical performance, with the 'shambling indie pop' of the '80s being augmented by a more diverse range of styles and a more sophisticated sound. This was all backed up with a return to the live circuit, with a notable performance at the 1990 Reading Festival, and a televised gig at the Manchester International early in 1991.

Q94
Nigel, Neil and drummer Carl Alty, 1994

Since then, the HMHB rollercoaster has chugged along at a more leisurely pace. Albums have been released at a rate of about one every two years, with a number of Peel Sessions interspersed between the releases. With the arrival of This Leaden Pall in 1993, the first line-up changes occurred, with Paul Wright and Dave Lloyd leaving the band, Paul being replaced on drums by Carl Alty. The following year, Nigel's brother Simon also left, and for the band's infrequent live gigs that followed, Neil moved onto guitar, with Ian Jackson on bass. The LP Some Call It Godcore was recorded during this transition period, but the diversity of tracks was still maintained, particularly "Tour Jacket With Detachable Sleeves", an acoustic tale of lost love that closes the album.

1996 saw the band reach a new level of stability. Ian left and Neil returned to the bass - Ken Hancock joined to play lead guitar. Carl Alty joined Northern Ireland punk-poppers Joyrider, with Carl Henry taking over the drum stool (although Carl A. did continue to appear occasionally at gigs until Christmas '96). The new line-up (including Carl A.) released an EP Eno Collaboration in 1996, and played a series of one-off gigs around the country, which saw the band's popularity on the rise once again. A series of new gems were previewed, including the hilarious "Paintball's Coming Home", not a parody of England's Euro 96 football song, but a savage dig at middle-class suburban couples and their dull lives. After a minor scare in which Half Man Half Biscuit nearly signed to a major label, this and other new tunes appear on the album Voyage To The Bottom Of The Road, released in July 1997 on the faithful Probe Plus and played to rapturous crowds at their occasional gigs.

Mean Fiddler photo 1998
Ken, Carl, Nigel and Neil, 1998

1998 started for HMHB with a surprise appearance on the TV sports programme Under The Moon, and was followed with a Peel Session featuring four new songs, broadcast in February 1998. A series of live gigs previewed a number of further new songs, which turned up on the album Four Lads Who Shook The Wirral, released in July 1998.

The pattern of new songs premiered at sporadic gigs continued after the World Cup, including appearances at The Queen Elizabeth Hall alongside the likes of Lonnie Donnegan. 1999 saw the single release Look Dad No Tunes, already established as a live favourite, and the LP Trouble Over Bridgwater, followed in April 2000.

Since the turn of the century, it's been a steady stream of LPs and gigs, and a steady increase in popularity. No line-up changes, no TV series... just listen to the songs.

Thanks to Nigel Blackwell for providing the input for the early history.

Sept 2014



HMHB News

If anyone's wondering where the News page went - well, there wasn't a lot of news to report, and Chris Rand's HMHB Lyrics Project site covers it far better (and quicker) than I ever can. If you want to look through the old News history, which was abandoned in 2012, click here.

Website History

OK, so who and where did this page come from?

The original idea and text came from Paul Floyd sometime around 1994, with assistance from Dougal McKinnon in Stoke and Pete in York. The Nottingham contingent of Konrad Adams and Gerard Wood (er, me) helped him expand the page, and I eventually took over when Paul fled to France in 1995.

Paul also says ta very much to:

Pete Tonkin, Dave Todd, Morphious Darke (aka Ken Darcovich), Darren Slator, Girvan Burnside, Mark, Kevan Davis, Peter Jackson, Simon Brown, Dom Bradshaw, Pat Hancock, Dave Robinson, David Fritch, Alastair Leyland, J.T. Thomas, Marney O.K. Mason, Brendan Mullooly, Derek Davies, Phil, Nick in Aberystwyth (someone has to be), Alan Craig, John Fisher, Joe, Gareth and, via Dougal after a Stoke gig, one Nigel Blackwell.

At the beginning of 1996, I moved away from Nottingham to Abingdon, but the page continued via some superb teamwork by myself (fielding all the email) and Konrad (making all the additions and generally doing the legwork). Huge thanks to Konrad for all the work.

As of March 1997, the page itself has moved from Nottingham University to my own web space and gets a new format (i.e. split up so it doesn't take three hours to load). Hope you all like it.

Thanks to everyone who has mailed me with additions, ideas and encouragement. I'm sure I've forgotten to include a lot of you, but you include:

Charles Ross (editor of "A Load of Bull", the Wolves fanzine that even Nigel reads), Steve Heighton, Peter R, Elaine Fraser and Paul Lemmon, Paul Floyd (he came back!), Chris Stride, David Peter, Rich Kidd, Simon Wallace, Alan Buckley, Simon Coward and Roy Fishwick, Darren Marsland, Andy Sandall, Haraldur Haraldsson, Simon Betts, Mark Hibbett, Russ Reid, Stuart Melville, all those who have added to the reviews page who I've forgotten, Pete Fenelon once again (the original Pete from York), Stuart McHugh, William Fellows-Jensen, Ian Greaves, Chris Flint (who just happens to be Nigel's 2nd cousin), Cris Holmes & Richy Rich, Alun Thomas, Stuart Fairbrother, Michael Hirst, Martin Bryant, Stephen Hulbert, Dickon Edwards, Matthew Robinson, Neil & Gus Woodhead, Murray Crane and everyone on the mailing list for their daily offerings.

Finally, ta very much to Andy Martin and Geoff Davies at Probe Plus and all the band for encouraging me to keep this labour of love going.

Thanks very much to all of you.


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