Ed’s note: this article replaces an original which the author says was “factually incorrect, hard to read, terribly long-winded and sounds like I’m trying to pick a fight with an argument that no-one’s actually made.” The first comments on the page relate to the original article, which has now been retired.
Third Rate Les In His Burberry Fez writes:
My first encounter with Half Man Half Biscuit, Trumpton Riots, seemed like a committed political statement, coming as it did in the midst of Thatcher’s 80s, an era whose harshly polarised politics had an element of dangerous anarchy which until very recently seemed forgotten. There’s a lot of harsh imagery and language – unemployment “spreading like pneumonia”, CS gas, flying bricks, plans to assassinate the mayor, and nail bombs. At the same time however, you need to remember that this is about Trumpton – Windy Miller was an extremely dozy, slow-moving character, not someone likely to smash down a door – and that the revolution is also a failure. Still, it’s a clever, subversive, angry song, and jumping around to it at gigs these days always feels like a throwback to the heady anarchy of the demonstrations, moshpits and football crowds of the time.
So are Half Man Half Biscuit a “political” band? There’s certainly plenty of social comment, sometimes quite sour. There’s a lot of poking fun and perhaps genuine dislike of dull, comfortable middle class values. NB57 has a real moan at people who call Glastonbury “Glasto”, go skiing, giggle at Ann Summers and own Volvos (all in one song), or who know where things are at B & Q, or have personalised number plates. I think it’s easy to over-state this though; it’s “not the worst crime”, and a lot of these things aren’t political as such – a “saxophone in the corner” worldview isn’t really a question of politics.
Going through their albums chronologically shows some quite interesting variations in the level of political comment through the years. Here’s a quick summary:
1985 – The Tories fall behind Labour in polls. Riots in Handsworth, Brixton and Broadwater Farm. Heysel. Kenilworth Road. Bradford fire. Meanwhile, “Back In The DHSS” is released. There’s a complete absence of political comment apart from that title, which (as well as being a Beatles joke) seems to suggest thoughts on unemployment. Perhaps the only political reference is naming Lech Walesa, and then only to rhyme, entirely out of context, with Marks and Spencers.
1987 – Neil Kinnock whittles down Thatcher’s majority to just over 100 seats. The IRA blow up a Remembrance Day ceremony. Reagan makes his “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech, and the first Intifada starts. Meanwhile, HMHB release “Back Again In The DHSS”, which has Trumpton Riots on it.
1988- Scargill retains leadership of the NUM. Lawson cuts income tax. Unemployment down, house prices way up. Gazza joins Spurs. Thatcher visits Gdansk and draws ridicule for pressing for its freedom. Lawrie Sanchez. Van Basten. Meanwhile, HMHB release ACD. The nearest it comes to political comment is to a song owing a lot to the brilliant George Orwell, in the shape of “Arthur’s Farm”, a bizarre twist on Animal Farm but one which really doesn’t seem to have a particular political angle. Aside from that there’s certainly some frustration (poor old Rod Hull), and I suppose if you include Fergie as “politics”, you could argue there’s an anti-royalist sentiment to the Palace Spokesman line there.
1991 – Thatcher’s gone, and the poll tax with her (oh, and the Soviet Union too). The first Gulf War tempers statements about the end of history. The Premiership is announced, and Gazza breaks his knee. Interest rates hit 17% and my dad’s decision to leave the north, travel south and buy a tiny house looks unwise. Meanwhile, HMHB release McIntyre, Treadmore and Davitt, there’s a brief mention of the “mayoral frown” in the opening song, and then the political theme picks up a bit in Prag Vec at the Melkweg, which starts with a memorable unemployment re-working of Yellow Submarine – “lived a man who went to work”, messing about on the Enterprise Allowance Scheme. This is a theme picked up in “A Lilac Harry Quinn” – “if God had meant for us to work/ Then I’m sure he would have given us jobs”. Both of these, however, are observations about unemployed life, not directly about politics. There’s also a memorable piss-take of bands affecting to address serious themes in their music in the song “Girlfriend’s Finished With Him” – “You’ll find frailty, beauty, sex as art/and something or other about dolphins”.
1993 – The Tories are unexpectedly still in power, just about, and the economy is growing a little. Charles and Di split up. The UK suffers its first Bosnia casualty. The Warrington and Bishopsgate IRA bombs. James Bulger. The National gets cancelled. Unemployment up, the BNP win council seats. Ronald Koeman. Man Yoo. All in all, a National Shite Year. Meanwhile, HMHB reflect the times with This Leaden Pall, which has a song called “Turned up, clocked on, laid off”, a melancholy reflection on unemployment, as is “Floreat Inertia”. A good deal more reflective and serious than the previous album.
1995 – The Year Of The Miracle, as Blackburn Rovers win the league. Blair is Labour leader. Sarajevo besieged. Major fighting for political control. Princess Di whinges to Bashir (yawn). Meanwhile, HMHB release Some Call It Godcore, which has another song mocking the whole notion of songs about politics, in this case “Song For Europe”, full of crass statements of the kind that might have won the Eurovision for West Germany in the 80s. “Sponsoring the Moshpits” is a bit of a dig at commercialism (although the clubs are at least saved), but that’s about it for politics for another album.
1997 – the year of Blair’s Labour landslide. Things Can Only Get Better. Princess Di dies, uncovering depths of press hypocrisy which we’d previously only guessed at. Hong Kong given up. Scotland votes for its own parliament. The Kyoto agreement is signed. Meanwhile, HMHB release Voyage To The Bottom Of The Road, which has a pattern repeated in the following album, with a sudden, more serious political comment at the end of an otherwise light-hearted song; “Bad Review” ends in a verse of startling, beautiful bleakness referring to “the green shoots of recovery shrivelled up in harsh tomorrows”. There’s then a bit of sharp social piss-taking in “Song of Encouragement for the Orme Ascent”, “ITMA” and “He Who Would Valium Take” – I wince at that one as I have a mate whose husband quotes Chubby Brown at her quite a bit – and then above all the social piss-take to end all social piss-takes, “Paintball’s Coming Home”. We had the whole world to see our new conservatory then too, I think.
1998 – Things mostly still seem to be Getting Better. The Millennium Dome is under way. The Good Friday agreement is signed in Norn Iron. Beckham sent off. Meanwhile, HMHB release their most political album of all, Four Lads Who Shook The Wirral. “You’re hard” starts with a wonderful piss-take of various celebs, all of a sudden the final verse asks “Is this New Labour, Mr. Blair? Should anyone need me, I’ll be over there”. A gently-stated but still quite powerful bit of disillusionment. And on the very next song, “On Reaching The Wensum”, there’s then the comment “New Deal is all my arse”, again a surprise thrown in near the end of a song about other trivia. Then in “A Country Practice” there’s a direct criticism of money wasted on millennium celebrations, followed by an actual mention of the T-word, “Thatcher, that girl who made a wreck out of me” and labelled him an “idle layabout”. There’s also a mention of signing on at the Job Club in “Soft Verges”, and a simple little rant at things he doesn’t like which avoid politics altogether in “Turn A Blind Eye”; it takes the Pastor Niemoller comment from the Nazi period and turns it round to point out that actually some people do deserve to be carried off. It’s apolitical, but unsettlingly so.
2000 – the world’s computers continue to function. A new George Bush is in power. May Day riots about, er, something. Livingston elected mayor of London. Shearer beats Germany. Redgrave. Meanwhile, HMHB release Trouble Over Bridgewater, which has little mention of politics at all. There are balding senators in Gubba Lookalikes, King Alfred in Emerging From Gorse, and that’s about it.
2002 – Blair is back in power. The War on Terror has begun. Coal mining ends in Scotland. The Golden Jubilee. Bali bombings. Meanwhile, HMHB have a bit of comment about Britain’s lost industrial heritage in the very title of new album Cammell Laird Social Club, asking the interesting question as to why social clubs in Cuba are trendy and interesting when ones in Britain’s own industrial heartland aren’t, echoed in the song’s opening lines about Notting Hill. In the same album there’s also an interesting theme in San Antonio suggesting an aversion to official meddling from the State with a nice little rant about Spokesmen telling us what to think. In the same song is a little reference to the kind of politics of parish halls also seen later in “We Built This Village” and a number of others – a reference to strife over a town’s twin-town status. There’s even a reference to Ken Livingstone near the end of the album, but not in any kind of political context. Then there’s “Breaking News”, where they rattle off a list of things which annoy them, directed across all sorts of levels of society – council estate vicious dog-owners, leftie drama teachers, people who drop litter, and posh people giving their kids working class names.
2003 – the Iraq war begins. A big dumb Brit tries to blow up a bomb in his shoe. The UK’s largest-ever demonstration turns out to object to Saddam’s removal. Some rugby players win a big game in Australia. Meanwhile, HMHB release a half-album Saucy Haulage Ballads, which has a song which directs some pretty violent thoughts at Cambridge students, but then finishes with the claim that while this may sound like a class rant, it’s “really because I am the landlord of the pub that gets the cemetery trade”. An unconvincing argument, given that it’s clearly an act of furious revenge that he’s perpetrating from the belltower, not a commercial ploy. It still defuses the anger though, turning it into, somehow, a light-hearted song about mass murder.
2005 – Blair is re-elected, joining Bush back in power. There’s a new Pope too. Live-8 campaigns. Bombings in London, and more attempted 2 weeks later. Arsenal fail to match Blackburn’s unique feat of three straight FA Cup wins. Riots in Birmingham. The Ashes. Meanwhile, HMHB release Achtung Bono, which doesn’t have a lot of political or social comment aside from a rant mentioned above in Corgi Registered Friends, although it has another little angry dig at unpleasant officialdom in “Bogus Official” and it visits the world of Framley Examiner-style small-town politics in “We Built This Village” and in “What is Chatteris?”.
2008 – Gordon Brown is in power, sort of. As is Barack Obama. The world’s banks turn out to have been run by overpaid fuckwits all along. Terminal 5 too. Boris Johnson beats Livingston. Joey Barton sentenced. Woolworths disappears. Meanwhile HMHB release some gentle social comment in “CSI: Ambleside”. Christening party arseholes, people who park in blue badge spaces, embittered divorced parents. In particular there’s the furious rant of “National Shite Day” at inconsiderate pedestrians, Primark FM and Phil Cool, but interestingly the only overtly political reference (the Mugabe government and the children of the Calcutta railways) is actually when he’s trying (and failing) to put his trivial moans into perspective. There’s also the achingly lovely Lord Hereford’s Knob about a maiden driven by “the chattering classes” from Hebden Bridge.
2011 – David Cameron is in power, sort of. The world’s countries, as well as banks, turn out to have been run by overpaid fuckwits all along. The US gets Bin Laden at last. The Ashes are won again. Meanwhile HMHB release 90 Bisodol (Crimond), a dark tale of suicides, murders and unspeakable deeds, but still lacking in much by way of politics. There’s a good deal of ranting, but directed at Soccer AM guests, crap pub bands and idiotic terminology that sticks in the craw.
Well, so what? First of all, many of the released are in odd-numbered years, presumably to avoid international football championships. It’s also striking how many of the specific political references all cropped up at the same time, and were aimed at New Labour at a time when many were still in the stage of heady optimism. Before that though there’s certainly a reflection of the general political and social situation even if not explicit – it’s quite eerie looking back at what a grim year 1993 was when Leaden Pall came out, something that had passed me by personally as I got married and had a great time that year. Mainly though, what strikes me is how universally appealing the songs are, regardless of your political outlook. Even if you do know where things are at B&Q, own a Bonneville in bits, or have a fondness for Gok Wan, it’s impossible not to smile.