Half Man Half Biscuit
Saucy Haulage Ballads

Probe Plus Records

he greatest crime in this country today is the fact that Half Man Half Biscuit have failed to become Britain’s official poet laureate. This is a disgrace. Not one single human being in these hallowed isles holds up as clear a mirror on contemporary pop culture as Nigel Blackwell does. Since the mid 1980s, the man has combined a knack for comedic compression in his song titles matched only by peak period Onion writers (“I Hate Nerys Hughes”, “Rod Hull Is Alive. Why?”) with the elusive knack of composing songs that match up to the comedic potential suggested by the song titles themselves (yes Anal Cunt, we’re looking in your direction).

Saucy Haulage Ballads may only be a six-track EP, but it contains more ideas, insight and moments than most bands could manage in an entire career. The progression of HMHB’s career has been something of a move away from the rough raucousness of their earlier work, to the skiffle-folk sounds of the previous album, Cammel Laird Social Club. Saucy Haulage Ballads keeps on the folk side of matters, mannered yet biting, which makes a lot of sense: you can’t hear the insight if people are trying to rock around you. Indeed, here we have what must be the only banjo dominated track you’ll pay good money for this year. And pay good money for it you should, because, although Half Man Half Biscuit have been an ongoing concern for nigh on 20 years, they are still as fresh, witty, and downright amazing as they always have been. Probably more, actually.

I did promise myself that I wouldn’t just quote the best lines from this EP here, lest I sound like kids in the playground the morning after a catchphrase comedy show. Needless to say, how can you not fall in love with “I heard a woman say to a tall balding guest/ “So, you’re Brad Friedel?/ I’m mildly impressed”.” And “And then almost inevitably/Claire Rayner appeared.” And “You wait 25 minutes for one to come along/ And then all of a sudden three thugs rob your pension.” I’ll do a structured review, though, that’s the Stylus “way”.

We begin with “Jarg Armani”. When I first moved from the confines of my hometown up to university, I was damn near delighted to find out that its town centre also had a guy that offers you “Five gas lighters for a pound”. Then I discovered every single town in Britain has one of these blokes. They also sell slinkies. And “Millennium Balls,” whatever they are. A friend of mine claims he heard a dude offer “Ten gas lighters for a pound,” which to me sounds like the talk of a mad man. This song is dedicated to that hometown hero. The man who offers “Sacks of Canderel/ Next door’s NTL.” Blackwell teams it with the manner of working class power that the subject deserves. For, make no mistake, HMHB are a working class concept. A middle class HMHB would be Richard Stillgoe. And that’s not going to help anyone now, is it? (Yes, I do deliberately use British culture references to confuse American readers. Problem?)

This is followed by the stone-clad future HMHB live favourite “Tending The Wrong Grave For 23 Years.” “I’ve been sharing my innermost thoughts with an Edward McGrain.” “Oh, but she wouldn’t know, because she’s 200 metres away.” Damn, this whole thing has more choice lines than an abortionist cocaine party. The song takes place in the world Nigel Blackwell tends. A world of provincial towns, minor irritations and local boozers being turned into Wetherspoon’s.

A world of people over-reacting to your DIY efforts, as track 3, “It Makes The Room Loke Bigger,” testifies. It’s a world of men being soaked in pop cultural debris, a world drowned in daytime television, C-list celebrities and the sports pages. HMHB remain the only band to have ever sung about them weighing in at Newton Abbot. It’s a resolutely working class frame of reference. We only need to look at a track from their last album, “The Light At The End Of The Tunnel (Is The Light of An Oncoming Train)” for us to be proven right. A tale of what happens when your one true love becomes middle class (“The cocaine is Fair Trade/ And frequently displayed/ Is the Buena Vista Social Club CD”), Blackwell tells us “When you’re in Matlock Bath/ You don’t need Sylvia Plath”. It comes down to being sage, and using a bit of common, really. And being godlike talented with a pen.

“On Finding The Studio Banjo” can be seen as a small throw-away, being as it is a reworking of their earlier classic, “Trumpton Riots”, on, you guessed it, a banjo. Weirdly enough, it seems strangely apposite in this modern day world of retro kids TV fetishisation, but it still holds up as a good song. It comes down to an honesty of humour really. There’s never the cheap gag, the surreal gag, or the wacky gag. It’s a pissed off laughter. It’s not the comedy of hate, it’s the comedy of irritation.

“Blood On The Quad”, track five here, is very very close to my heart. It advocates opening fire on Cambridge University students. My hatred of Cambridge University students comes from an old episode of University Challenge wherein one of the Oxbridge colleges answered a string of questions on post-structuralism, classical adagios, and Virginia Woolf, and then when asked “Which country and western singer, singer of “Annie’s Song”, died in a plane accident in 1997?” they looked more confused than a bisexual. Join the real world motherfuckers. Please.

Yeah, “real. “Real”. “Real”. Jack Obsourne introduced some “real” guitar music on Top of the Pops the other day. It was The Coral. Anger is better than guitars anyway, guitars never punched anyone in the face.

It ends with “I Went To A Wedding”, a plaintive ballad of reception etiquette, ending with a sing-a-long segment of the correct protocol for tackling Belgian footballers.

It’s not what anyone else is doing, which has to be a strong point. But its true brilliance lies in the fact that the man is right. He is the best wordsmith we have at the moment. And he didn’t write a rap for Prince William’s 21st. Andrew Motion, your time is up...

Reviewed by: Dom Passantino

Reviewed on: 2003-09-01

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