A quick seller this one, for some reason. Something or other about the locals being starved of HMHB shows for near enough thirteen years. None of the other of the largest cities on our island have had to go that long without the privilege. The tickets went on sale one Wednesday morning in the previous bleak midwinter, and they had all gone by the weekend. As ever, Karen was quick on the draw, so we were sorted easily enough.
There had been a gap of three months since the top drawer show in London. That had come just after the release of No-One Cares About Your Creative Hub So Get Your Fuckin' Hedge Cut. Reviews started to come through afterwards. Well, I saw one. The excellent Louder Than War magazine comes out every quarter. They were glowing. "In a well-ordered society, Biscuit front man and lyricist Nigel Blackwell would be poet laureate. This country's most acute observer of trivia, he continues to skewer modern mores bare with devastating precision. Pertinent as ever, this time round the subjects of his ire include cocaine bores, newfound cycling enthusiasts and of course The Checkatrade Trophy. Musically, they are where they are, and the album boasts the jauntier end of their repertoire, providing the perfect foil to Blackwell's deadpan delivery. As usual, the song titles are worth the admission fee alone - "Knobheads On Quiz Shows" - but amidst the laugh-out-loud moments there are flashes of genuine pathos. Long since established as national treasures, the very existence of Half Man Half Biscuit in these harsh times is cause for celebration, arguably even more so in this post-Fall era." They were a bit tight with the score, though. Could have gone higher than 8 out of 10.
During the summer, to coincide with the football World Cup, Steve Lamacq had run a World Cup Of Songs on his programme on 6 Music. Viewers of Chris Rand's site will have seen a similar operation with the Lux Familiar Cup. Songs are drawn in pairs, similar to a football knock-out competition. The winner of each tie is then decided according to votes received from listeners, and they progress to the next round. That's all fairly straightforward, although I was unclear about how the final score was decided. For example, why did some ties finish 2-1, 1-0, 2-0 etc? HMHB had an entry, namely All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit. It eased its way through the tournament, defeating entries by Black Grape, Collapsed Lung and Pop Will Eat Itself and made its way to the final where it came up against Sunshine On Leith by The Proclaimers. Two songs in a football-themed feature where you could argue that neither song actually concerns itself with the game. So be it. For the record, Sunshine On Leith won the final 2-0.
The independent watchdog Transport Focus carried out a survey of motorway services. No doubt Nigel would have been in agreement with their findings. Norton Canes, on the M6 toll road, came out at the top of the charts. As far as I can tell, his first mention of Norton Canes was when they called there on their way to the Ilminster gig in January 2014. The band had paid at the toll booth, and Nigel had expected a complimentary coffee. Despite that disappointment, subsequently he spoke highly of these services at Wakefield (June 2015), and went as far as saying "Norton Canes is my favourite" during a bit of chat at the Lincoln show in October 2016. Other locations from the HMHB back catalogue scored heavily. Tebay Northbound and Southbound both reached the top ten, along with Hilton Park Southbound. There is trouble over Bridgwater, however. That one was in the bottom five.
The Non League Paper mentioned a sponsorship deal between The Libertines and Margate Football Club. "The band is hoping to launch a creative hub, featuring a recording studio, bar and hotel rooms." I just hope they remember to take care of the hedge.
A few weeks before this gig, a copy of Mojo was issued which included a free CD. Track two was HMHB's Every Time A Bell Rings. I'm sure it's just me and my small town ways, but I wasn't totally sure why "Birkenhead's Half Man Half Biscuit" were appearing on a collection proclaiming "The Fab Sound Of Liverpool". I'm sure that someone will explain that one to me.
Nigel made an appearance on 6 Music's Freak Zone, presented by Stuart Maconie. I had hoped that he might be co-presenting or something. Instead it was a studio interview part way through the show. But you make the most of these crumbs. Maconie described Nigel as a "Swiftian moralist". But which Swift? Frank or Jonathan?
The week before this gig, The Office Of National Statistics released details of the most popular names given to newborns in 2017. Olivia and Oliver topped the charts, which prompted an airing of Soft Verges in my house. Proof that this song is an everyday tale of everyday folk. One other highlight was the news that eleven babies were named Nigel. A comeback as a result of Blackwell's profile? Or Adderley's? Or even Monty Don's dog?
The day of the gig began, as oft before, at Fitzwilliam train station. Or, to be precise, at the nearby Lunch Box. Coffee and custard slice for breakfast. The ideal start to the day. From there to the prompt arrival of the Sheffield train. I met Karen there. More drinks, then we wedged our way onto the Liverpool train. All good fun. We breezed through the crosswords in Metro and "i", while noticing that both papers were totally silent on the HMHB show.
Upon arrival in Liverpool, we were immediately up against the clock, as we were booked on Charles Exford's Magical Biscuity Tour. We negotiated our way across town to the departure point, being a bus stop on Victoria Street across from the Shankly Hotel. Nigel/Charles and I just had time for a warm-up in the Doctor Duncan pub, named after an all-round good egg, who was concerned greatly about the health of the populace, and their access to care.
Thorsten was also there for the 471 omnibus to Heswall. Nigel/Charles suggested that our vantage point half-way along the top deck on the driver's side was not ideal. But seeking to evict folk from their seats would have been needlessly provocative and would most likely have caused a scene. Various elements from the HMHB anthology were pointed out to us. Cammell Laird Social Club. The A552. Boots. Primark. Farm Foods. We even saw someone walking across the forecourt of the fire station. Having said that though, this particular chap had a confident air. No trepidation in evidence. The bus passed a twenty-four hour garage where Nigel used to go for smokes. The best part though, was when we got off the bus at The Swan, yes, THE Swan. We went round the estate and found the house where Neil used to live. The four of us may have looked a little suspicious as we stood outside on the pavement, contemplating the garage where the very first rehearsals of an embroyonic HMHB took place. After a drink at The Swan, the party split up. I'm afraid we are always early arrivers at the gigs, and sticking with the Tour would have put this in jeopardy. So we put our Arriva Day Savers to use, and returned to Liverpool, while Nigel/Charles and Thorsten continued on their way. Ten out of ten to Nigel/Charles for the organisation. Maybe we'll get details from him, and do the full thing some other time when we are not keeping an eye on the time.
Back in Liverpool, Jay was the next Biscuiteer that we bumped into. He followed us to the Wetherspoons , where John was displaying the model of Bilston's Robin 2. Pictures are available elsewhere. HMHB are on stage. Karen and I spotted ourselves, even recognising the green anorak that I wear for the winter outings.. Mickey Bates is accorded genius status for the building of this remarkable miniature replica.
Are the years creeping up on me? It would have been difficult to go straight to the gig from there, after all that excitement, without a half-hour resting back at the excellent Premier Inn on Hanover Street. There was just time to review the papers. No mention of the gig in the Wirral Globe, who instead went big on the revamping of the Orchestral Manoeuvres' phone box as featured in their single Red Frame White Light. The phone box disappeared as part of the BT Payphone Removal programme, but a campaign has now had it re-instated and tarted up as a tourist attraction. I don't know the locality but perhaps Greenwood Road, Meols, could become a fringe venue on that HMHB Tour?
HMHB got a mention in the Liverpool Echo. "Having released a whopping fourteen albums across their career, Half Man Half Biscuit are still on top of their game, proving that good songwriting never ages. Returning to Liverpool for a headline show tonight, this is your chance to experience Nigel Blackwell and co in their element."
Suitably back awake again, we were on our way to the venue. There was a little confusion over where to queue, as we were the first there. It transpired that the HMHB queue was going down the street, while the SPINN queue was going up the street. That's not a band that I am familiar with, but I'm glad we were queuing on the correct side.
Tony joined us in the queue, along with Matt, Andrew, Jordan and Emily. When we were inside the venue, I had a chat with Geoff and exchanged brief Hellos with Miles who was doing a grand job at the shop. There had obviously been a lot of work involved with putting the evening together. "I'll be glad when it's overů Life, I mean." said Geoff, ever the motivational speaker.
Tonight was a bit of a Probe Plus Fest. First on were JD Meatyard, in the persons of John, Tamsin and Gary. They played a few songs from their upcoming CD - "Probe Plus's next release" according to John. We bumped into John and Tamsin at Lime Street station on the Saturday morning. John told us that he is hoping that the CD will be "in the boxes" when the band supports HMHB at the gig in Manchester in November. The set included old favourites St Peter Won't Let Me In, Casper's Ballroom and Ubu At Eric's, but their new songs are going to stand firmly alongside them on this form. All is well with this band, despite a few amp/wire problems tonight. "Liverpool is the example that other cities should follow," announced John. I don't know the place well enough to comment, but I leave that quote open for discussion.
Sonnenberg were next. They were also performing as a trio - Zinney as usual, playing guitar and singing, Saul was on the tabla, but they also had Dave on guitar, and as Tony explained to me, the e-bow. They also played a few songs from their next album "which has not been recorded yet" according to Zinney. These included the excellent Mother Ship. They also played Better Together and Into The Light from previous works. Zinney took the time to open up his jacket, and point to a badge he was wearing. "Bollocks To Brexit," he said.
A fair number of people had turned up by now. Liverpool Graham had promised to take us round the Magical Biscuity Tour by taxi. We'll see about that. It was also good to see that Thorsten had survived the Tour. Karen said hello to Sally. John had some good news, impending grandfatherhood. Howie, Alan, Postman Tony and Daz were also in place ahead of the arrival of HMHB.
As a rule, the latest you ever see HMHB take to the stage is 9 o'clock. I can't remember them ever starting later than that time. That was until tonight. It had gone ten past when the theme from Zulu struck up, and the band appeared. Three of them were visible throughout. Carl was not only hidden away behind the drums, but it was difficult to make him out through the dry ice. The first song was The Light At The End Of The Tunnel, preceded by some interesting guitar work. Nigel asked if anyone was there from Crosby. "You want a fucking medal?"
Nigel announced "This one was originally written by The Detroit Idiots" ahead of Joy In Leeuwarden. There was a shout of "Up The Jalapenos" from the crowd just after that song. Someone also shouted "Get your fucking hedge cut!". Nigel's reply was "I remember you from ten years ago. Not your face. It's your shirt." Nigel was also asked "How did you get here?" He replied that it was only fifteen minutes. "Piece of piss," he added. "You're probably from Dovecot, and you think I'm a wool." There didn't seem much point asking which services they had called at.
During Lark Descending, as on many previous occasions, Nigel stuck his plectrum to his forehead for the "job on the bins" bit. He asked if our Tour had gone down Mathew Street past The Cavern. As well as pondering over the pronunctiation of "Mathew", he mentioned a wall there where all the bricks contain the names of bands who had played at The Cavern. The name of Amon Duul had been changed to Amon Dull prompting Nigel to drop a line to the press.
Erstwhile footballer Lol Cotterill was the celebrity spotted in the crowd. Or "Laugh Out Loud Cotterill" as he called him. "Did you get your yard decked?" asked Nigel. Nigel talked about BBC Music Day, where various celebrities had got involved in public service announcements and the like. Nigel was doing his bit at Birkenhead Central. "I was having an argument about my Walrus Card, and it went out over the tannoy. Sorry, PA"
There was a heckle from someone about having a dodgy transformer. "You shouldn't be standing like that if you've got a dodgy transformer," replied Nigel. In Rock 'n' Roll Is Full Of Bad Wools, I picked up the line "The car park is patrolled, and then sold." Nigel talked about an Indonesian restaurant at the back of Duke Street. He had pelican curry there. "It was tasty, but the bill was massive."
Ahead of Vatican Broadside, there was a brief section of There Stands The Glass. Nigel pointed out that every week in the Free Press there is an advert for West Kirby badminton club, who are constantly on the look-out for new members who are over fifty.
Nigel played a bit of word association. Caroll Baker? "Tapestry" was the reply from the floor. And the highest football ground in England? "Oldham Athletic". Nigel won on both counts. Tony suggested that Oldham was the coldest. Nigel said he usually wore an extra layer when going there, but implied that it might be even worse at Forres Mechanics. That in turn got him talking about Fort William, who are, it would seem, "even worse than Barnstoneworth".
I think it may have been Postman Tony shouting "Stanley Mortensen" at the end of 1966 And All That. "True story" said Nigel ahead of Terminus. In 99 Per Cent Of Gargoyles, the line was "Marilyn Monroe was on the scag." Legal advice required on that one? Perhaps one day we'll be treated to a full version of the cover of Mandy, as recorded for Radio Merseyside. Tonight we had to settle for the bit at the end of the song, in praise of Maincrest Car And Van Hire, as advertised on the radio way back when.
In Paintball's Coming Home, there were a couple of lines not from the original. "They recognise all the players in the England team / And they really like the trumpets and drums." And "They're super happy and super proud / To be driving lemon coloured Fiats."
When the band returned for the encore, Karl had changed into a Sam Spoons / Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band t-shirt in recognition of a recent passing. Nigel was playing his caravan guitar. We were invited to "join in if you can" for the cover version. Crowd surfing is not a common sight at these shows, but there was a gentle attempt tonight. Unfortunately this led to an incident at the very end of the gig. Glasses are invariably knocked off, and there was a slight tussle with security over their recovery.
Nice touch with the music from The Wicker Man being played at the end of the show. There was much discussion in the Gents about the ongoing merits of the band, with one bloke claiming that Numanoid Hang-Glide was written about him. That is some claim.
Here is the set from the evening. Karl was good enough to hand me his list. Paintball's coming home was missing from that. But otherwise this is a true and fair view.The Light At The End Of The Tunnel Is The Light Of An Oncoming Train
And in the encore...Joy Division Oven Gloves
I must say that I was ready for my bed, so there was no beer to be taken after the show. On the Saturday morning we saw Huddersfield Graham and Sarah. All agreed that this remains a not bad band. We agreed to meet in Manchester in a couple of months, for further consideration. The weekend continued for me and Karen. We were heading to Halifax to see a band that has been going for a number of decades and who are now in their best form ever. The Nightingales, of course.