…and my book, featuring Half Man Half Biscuit

– a Q&A with Paddy Shennan 

Photo: Colin Lane, courtesy of Liverpool Echo/Mirror Books

Former Liverpool Echo journalist Paddy Shennan has been a fan of Half Man Half Biscuit since the band released their first record – but “shamefully” admits he didn’t see them play a gig until 1994.

He has made up for this in the years since, though he – again “shamefully” – admits he can’t say exactly how many times he has seen them.

Paddy first interviewed Nigel Blackwell in 1998, and he wrote about the Echo’s two Greatest Merseysiders of All Time polls (in 2003 and 2014), which saw Nigel being placed at number 57 in 2003 before moving up to number 10 in 2014.

His love for HMHB was obvious – in the Echo office and across Merseyside – not least because a sub-editor decided that the following words should appear beneath Paddy’s name at the top of his opinion column every Wednesday:

Likes: Pubs, Everton and Half Man Half Biscuit. Hates: Everything else.

Paddy spent 33 years at the Echo, starting as a news reporter and eventually progressing to Chief Feature Writer. He left in 2020 after taking voluntary redundancy.

In June 2022, his book, The Talk of Liverpool, was published by Mirror Books. The chapter on music – Singing A Different Song –  includes four interviews Paddy carried out with Nigel, as well as two columns about the band and an interview with Geoff Davies. Others featured include Malcolm McLaren, Tony Wilson, John Peel, Mark E. Smith, Pete Shelley, Vic Godard, Julian Cope, Ian McCulloch, Pete Wylie and Frank Sidebottom – while Paddy also explains in another chapter why Lee Mavers once banned him from attending a gig by The La’s.

High-profile news stories covered in the book include Hillsborough, Heysel, the murders of James Bulger and Helen McCourt and the abduction of Madeleine McCann, while a series of political interviews feature Tony Benn, Jack Jones,  Boris Johnson, Mo Mowlam, Neil Kinnock and Derek Hatton. Other chapters include interviews with the likes of Alan Bleasdale, Jean Alexander, Eddie Braben, Alexei Sayle, Ken Dodd, Johnny Vegas, Yoko Ono, Cynthia Lennon, Bill Kenwright, John Bishop – and the unrelated actors Geoffrey Hughes and Nerys Hughes, with Paddy revealing how he changed his mind about both, after chatting to them on the phone.

Paddy, as you all know, also interviewed Nigel recently, at Nigel’s suggestion, for a track-by-track explanation of The Voltarol Years – especially for the Lyrics Project.

Here, among other things, he recalls the joy of being paid to write about his favourite band…

When did you first interview Nigel?

It was in July 1998. Four Lads Who Shook The Wirral had recently been released. I remember that first meeting and first interview took place at the home of Geoff Davies. I’d already met Geoff at my first HMHB gig (see later). I may have been a little early – or they may have been a little late – but I remember waiting outside for a few minutes before Geoff and Nigel arrived back from a fact-finding trip to The Krazy House venue in Liverpool (which HMHB ended up playing that October – their first gig in the city for six years).

We were both feeling our way a little bit, I think. I knew Nigel didn’t do many interviews, so I was delighted to be meeting and interviewing him for the first time – and it didn’t bother me at all that he didn’t want his photograph to be taken (the features editor was quite happy for a photo of the Four Lads sleeve to be used instead). I didn’t give up asking, though – including for a 2002 interview, when I pointed out to Nigel that he had been photographed for a feature in The Guardian’s Weekend magazine in 2001.

That was different, he explained – no one would see that.

But there was progress – for the interview with me to promote Cammell Laird Social Club, Nigel was happy to be photographed (albeit wearing shades and a cycle helmet!) The interviews eventually gave way to columns, in which I would celebrate the latest HMHB album.

What did you, others at the Liverpool Echo, and Nigel, himself, make of his impressive standings in the Greatest Merseysiders of All Time polls?

It was wonderful to see the votes coming in for Nigel – including more than a few from contributors to this forum, I’m sure! I don’t recall any Echo executives reacting with horror or surprise. This is probably not surprising as when I wasn’t writing about HMHB, I would be singing their praises around the office and in various editorial meetings.

I recall telling people I was surprised Nigel was only as high as number 57 in the first poll – perhaps that prepared them for his deserved rise up the ratings when we decided it was time to run another one.

It’s always interesting to consider who is above and below various people in such polls. I remember Alan Bleasdale telling me he learned of his appearance in the first poll, in 2003, after walking into his newsagents. The guy behind the counter told him the final list had been published and he had some good news and some bad news – “The good news, Alan, is that you have come in at number 16. The bad news is you’ve been beaten by a dead horse.” (Red Rum was number 15). There was worse news to come for Alan in 2014, when he came in at number 34, and Rummy was several furlongs ahead despite dropping two places to number 17.

Nigel, meanwhile, in 2003, finished higher than the likes of Andy McCluskey, Ian McCulloch, Beryl Bainbridge, Leonard Rossiter, Rita Tushingham and Peter Sissons. He finished just below Rex Harrison, Gerry Marsden and Frankie Vaughan. Then, in 2014, those not far behind him included George Harrison, Bob Paisley, Ricky Tomlinson, Dixie Dean and Billy Fury. Just ahead of him were Paul O’Grady, Kenny Dalglish, Steven Gerrard and John Peel.

I asked Nigel about the first poll in a subsequent interview, and he told me: “Obviously the whole thing was a bit silly, but it did at least astound my parents, whom I feel had hitherto deemed me a bit of a tramp. Which I am, of course.”

The 2003 and 2014 polls can be seen here.

Is there anything HMHB-related you weren’t able to get into the book?

I would probably have only used a brief extract from it, but there was an interview I did with Rob Newman (the funny one out of Newman and Baddiel), who told me he was a fan of HMHB and would love to one day be able to write something with Nigel. I think this was probably one of the many occasions when I saw a chance, during general chit-chat with someone I was interviewing, to shoehorn in a mention of HMHB to see what happened. Rob, who was a lovely interviewee, told me he loved the band – I remember him quoting the “There is nothing better in life than writing on the sole of your slipper with a Biro” line at me. Sadly, I couldn’t find my old cutting.

Talking of shoehorning things in, I’d often sneak a HMHB reference – maybe a line from a song or a song title – into something totally unrelated. Nigel’s lyrics, meanwhile, inspired many columns. For example, as someone who hates hot weather, I loved taking “Opinionated weather forecasters” to task when they told us about another “lovely, hot day” – and I was hiding away inside.

When was your first HMHB gig?

I don’t know why it took me so long – as I got all the records when they came out – but, shamefully, it wasn’t until they played the Mean Fiddler in Harlesden, London on July 29, 1994. It was an excellent gig, so I also can’t explain why it took me another four years to go and watch them again. But from 1998, I started to make up for lost time. My second gig – spookily enough on July 29, again – was at the Night and Day in Manchester that year, and I saw them three times that October (the Flax and Firkin in Preston, the Krazy House in Liverpool and Telford’s Warehouse in Chester).

I can’t compete with the likes of Roger Green and Co, but I think I’ve seen them about 60 times (shamefully, I can’t work out an accurate figure because I find myself thinking, for example, “Which of these gigs in Holmfirth, Manchester and Sheffield didn’t I go to?” There’s no excuse. I really should keep a diary.)

What makes a HMHB gig so special?

Please allow me to go off on a tangent. In a previous life – in the days when DIY/bedroom bands were so prevalent the NME had a column called Garageland and Sounds had one called Cassette Pets – I had a cassette label called Apple Crumble Tapes. Those were the days! I even compiled some of the Obscurist Charts in Sounds (my then pen pal Paul Platypus – not his real name, would you believe? – started the column. For more details and some of the charts, see Paul’s Obscurist Chart Archive.

As well as tapes by my own hopelessly inept “band,” The Ambitious Merchants (think Urge For Offal), and other, better, bands, I put out a tape of a speech by Tony Benn which, incredibly, received a five-star review in Sounds from Dave McCullough. This was in 1983, and I remember McCullough writing in his review: “The best entertainment around is Tony Benn talking”. To finally get to the point, since I first started watching them, I’ve always thought that “The best entertainment around is a Half Man Half Biscuit gig.”

It’s not just the gig – it’s the looking forward to the gig, planning your trip and, usually, overnight stay/short break – to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Blackpool, Bath, Matlock Bath, Manchester, Leeds, London, Leamington Spa, Ulverston or wherever. It’s also the pub research – and the pre-gig pub visits. The gig, of course, is the joyful centrepiece of the whole trip – which must also include a post-gig debriefing in a decent pub.

And which have been your favourite HMHB gigs?

There have been so many special ones – and it can be different things that happen which go to make a whole trip memorable – but one of my all-time favourites is definitely The Fishpond in Matlock Bath (July 14, 2000). A lovely drive to a lovely town I’d never been to before. Then, after checking into our B&B, my mate Frank and I discovered there was a Guinness promotion on in the local pubs – things were just getting better and better. The venue was excellent, the support band – Groovers With Hoovers – was memorable, and HMHB beyond brilliant. The atmosphere, from start to finish, couldn’t have been better. A perfect night.

So, too, were the occasions when the bands featuring my son, Tom, and his partner, Sarah, supported HMHB (Ragged Claws at the 02 Academy Oxford, May 31, 2012 and November 22, 2019; and Dogminder, The Welly Club, Hull, January 24, 2020). They got nice mentions from Roger Green, too, in his reviews, after all three gigs. Thanks Roger!

Then there was that other special night at the 02 Academy in Oxford (March 18, 2017). It was to be the closest HMHB gig to my wife Sandra’s 50th birthday. The poor woman thought she was just going to be stuck with me – but, during our pre-gig pints in the Half Moon pub nearby, I had arranged for us to be joined (at appropriate intervals) by our son, Tom, my brother, Guy, and our mate, Graeme. And to cap it all, Nigel had made his own contribution – HMHB would be playing one of Sandra’s favourite non-HMHB songs during the encore, Whole Wide World by Wreckless Eric, which Nigel dedicated to her.

I sometimes think about venues like The Fishpond – and Night and Day in Manchester – and how it would today be impossible for the band to play them due to their increased popularity (unless, of course, they wanted to disappoint loads and loads of their fans). I’ve loved gigs at all types of venues – of all sizes.

The gig at West Shore Social Club in Llandudno (August 1, 1999) was another example of a great trip to somewhere I wouldn’t normally go to, followed by a great gig. One of my favourite London gigs was one at the Mean Fiddler (July 20, 2001). A Lilac Harry Quinn seemed like the perfect opener, while the journey down on the train was a sheer joy, because Sandra, our friend Frank and I, were gleefully reading the newspaper coverage of Jeffrey Archer’s jailing. My first gig at the Peak Cavern/Devil’s Arse in Castleton (August 16, 2019) was another joyful experience – a special venue, trip and gig.

Your favourite HMHB one-liner?

There are so many to choose from – obviously – and I reserve the right to change my mind about my answers to this and other questions about my favourite this and that, but, at the moment, it’s probably “Never trust a crown green bowler under 30.”

I remember once sneaking this into an Echo article which wasn’t about HMHB. I didn’t credit Nigel in the piece, although I did apologise about this when I next saw him, not that he was bothered. However, I did come clean to the sub-editor who’d made a point of walking over to my desk and telling me: “That’s a fantastic line you’ve put in that piece – the one about never trusting a crown green bowler under 30.”

Your favourite album?

This Leaden Pall.

Your favourite verse?

I dream of occasional fanzine mentions
I’ve been to one too many David Lynch Conventions
I play postal chess with a man who doesn’t know me
I’ve got a better frown than Tony Iommi

(From 4AD3DCD – obviously.)

Your favourite song?

For many years, it was Floreat Inertia – although Fear My Wraith, Turned Up Clocked On Laid Off, She’s In Broadstairs and Emerging From Gorse (along with so many others) vied for the top spot. But since Voltarol things have changed – Oblong of Dreams is now number one in my heart.

Any HMHB regrets?

At 58, I no longer feel a mosh pit is a place for delicate old me – and there are times when I miss those days. Then again, there are other nights when I think it’s the last place I’d want to be!

I wish I’d been to more gigs. For a long time, I was really annoyed that I didn’t make it to the Royal Festival Hall (July 5, 1998), where the band played as part of the Meltdown Festival curated by John Peel.  Also, the gig at Blackburn King George’s Hall (May 24, 2014) – I’d wanted to make that one partly for sentimental reasons, as I enjoyed some great nights there as a 14 and 15-year-old in the late 1970s, watching The Clash/Suicide, Buzzcocks/Joy Division and The Jam/The Vapors. I still haven’t been back since then.

And a BIG confession… I’ve never been to Bilston, despite hearing so many good reports about the Robin – not least from Nigel. Meanwhile, it really wasn’t big or clever of me to shout out “Steve Hanley!” at Neil Crossley, as he played a few notes of something or other in between songs at Night and Day in Manchester in 1998. In my defence, I was in a very good mood – and I think it was a clumsy show of appreciation (my favourite bass players being Steve Hanley and Neil). A woman standing close to me, by the stage, obviously wasn’t amused – she told me “You’re hard!” It was topical, I suppose, but her remark didn’t really make a lot of sense when you analysed it.

  • The Talk of Liverpool by Paddy Shennan (published by Mirror Books at £14.99) is available from various bookshops, Amazon and www.mirrorbooks.co.uk