By Paddy Shennan
When I worked for the Liverpool Echo, my longest interview with Nigel probably came in at around 800 words. I hope you’ve got the appetite for around 8,000 (of course you have).
Normally when we meet up for a drink, Nigel and I will talk about anything and everything but Half Man Half Biscuit – apart from him updating me on any new gigs that have just been booked. But the incredible response to – and amount of discussion on – The Voltarol Years led Nigel to suggest we devote our next session to me interviewing him about the album, before sending the results to this site, in the hope it would be published (if not to satisfy the bloodlust of his masses of website visitors, then at least to answer a few points – and, perhaps, prompt yet more debate).
By the way, I wrote for the Liverpool Echo from 1987 until 2020 and, just in case anyone is interested, The Talk of Liverpool – which features interviews I did with Nigel, and Geoff Davies, and columns I wrote about the band – is to be published by Mirror Books on 30 June 2022. Its music chapter also features the likes of John Peel, Pete Shelley, Mark E. Smith, Vic Godard, Pete Wylie, Julian Cope, Ian McCulloch, Malcolm McLaren, Tony Wilson and Frank Sidebottom. More info here.
Thanks to Nigel for all of the following delicious detail.
Venue: The Magazine pub, New Brighton
Date: Monday April 25, 2022
Subject under discussion: Half Man Half Biscuit: The Voltarol Years (including some of the countless comments from contributors to the Half Man Half Biscuit Lyrics Project).
Warning: Nigel said at the outset: “I simply don’t have an answer for a lot of the points people have raised – sometimes I just leave things up to the listener, and sometimes I just get things wrong!”
Also: I tried to keep myself out of it as much as possible, but where I felt the need to interject, my words are in italics. Nigel, meanwhile, agreed it might be helpful to confirm who wrote each tune before individual discussions commenced.
A very straightforward song. It’s actually very much a sister song to Psycho by Jack Kittel – he didn’t write it (Leon Payne did) but that’s the best version of it. Hearing Jack Kittel doing it definitely influenced I’m Getting Buried.
Regarding the names (Joel Devaney, Corey Fuller, Sarah Merryweather, Saul O’Hanlon) – Merryweather I’m having it as a “y” not an “i” – and they are all made-up names which just fit the song (and, in this case, they’re slightly American). It just happens (the choice of names) when you’re constructing the song, so it easily flows when you’re singing them.
“Tucker’s drain”? – Tucker’s one of the neighbours, probably a farmer up the road and no one would notice if you bunged bodies in his drain. The lines “Mowed his lawn and then a switch got flicked/Causing something of a stir” – I had been thinking of ending that bit “Sending him to Delaware” but this didn’t fit because the word “sending” doesn’t stretch to the melody very well whereas the word “causing” does. “Sending him to Delaware” conjures up a more interesting vision perhaps, as it would have been a euphemism for “going ballistic”.
In Psycho the greatest line is near the end where he sings “…and then my mind just walked away…”
This was written just because I like the title “Rogation Sunday” – nothing more. I had the title and wrote a whole song around it.
I think it’s usually lost cats with those posters people put up, more than lost dogs.
It took me a little while to come up with the name “Ruth Gould” – and it wasn’t the first name that came into my head. I think it came to me when I was on a run. A lot of people say you must just pick a name straight away but no, you’ve got to think about it.
And the line about her getting pneumonia because she’d been out every evening looking for the dog that had actually been found – that would happen. When I walked our dog, I knew a lady who would be upset about people who had lost their dog. She would have looked for any missing dog in any weather (she may not have developed pneumonia, particularly, but you know…)
I love the indignation in your voice on the line “The dog was found and it was fine/High time you took those posters down” and “Ruth Gould’s been out every evening/Ruth Gould has got pneumonia”.
I’m not particularly that arsed, but I know some people are – and I can understand that, because they should take those posters down when the dog has been found! But I’m not really bothered if they do or not – it’s not my dog, is it?
There are two reasons why it’s about a dog and not a cat – I’d already used cat on Bogus Official (from Achtung Bono) and because of the two “Os” next to each other sounding better – “Your dog got lost” rather than “Your cat got lost”.
It’s fairly straightforward for me this song. I just thought that everyone when they were hanging around when they were 16 or 17, they had one mate who – he was OK, he was alright, but he was just slightly…might have been into karate or something (we weren’t, we were just into football and that) – he would have been into slightly different things.
He wasn’t totally weird and he could look after himself – he wasn’t a total idiot, either. He just maybe had different sets of friends, and maybe just didn’t seem to fit in with any one group.
When I was writing it, it was “Christine Payne” not “Paine”. And it’s “Urbex Sean”, as in urban exploration, which I think is fascinating – although I’d never do it because I’d get my head spiked on something, like barbed wire. I look at stuff about it on You Tube quite a lot. If, for example, it was the Williamson Tunnels in Liverpool, an urban explorer would go down the parts that you weren’t supposed to go down, and he’d explore disused railways and so on. I do think it’s fascinating, and it’s the sort of thing that someone like “Sean” would do.
Regarding Neil whistling the Skye Boat Song at the beginning of it, we had recorded the song – but then Neil was just walking around the corridors in work one morning whistling the Skye Boat Song and when he was back in the studio, he said he thought it would fit nicely at the start of the song. It has no bearing at all on the lyric, though I suppose you could look at “Sean” perhaps ending up somewhere remote on a Scottish Isle away from the numbers, so to speak (One of my favourite Jam songs is Away From The Numbers by the way).
“Semtex Sean” – no, he didn’t join the IRA. Well, he could have joined but not specifically – I suppose he could have joined Meibion Glyndwr or any nationalist organisation, but he may have just had Semtex anyway, if you see what I mean. If I’m going on a killing spree in Oxton village (not that that has ever crossed my mind, of course) then I would use Semtex – doesn’t mean I’m part of an organisation, I could be a one-man band. “Sean” is capable of having Semtex. He might have some, he might not – I don’t know. I didn’t get that involved in it!
Why is “Old Joe” pointing at the roof? For any reason anyone wants him to be. But in my head, it’s something unusual and, perhaps, sinister, but there’s nothing specific.
“Surgical gown”? He’s probably got one because he’s the sort of person who’d have a laboratory in his bedroom.
As others may well know, “Pop Tart Mark” – who, of course, also appeared in Tommy Walsh’s Eco House on 90 Bisodol (Crimond) – is a real person who I used to know years ago. He went to live in Leeds.
I don’t know if “Sean” is dead or alive – I never thought it through that much, to be honest, not least because he doesn’t exist!
We have different types of songs that appeal to different people. For example, some people don’t much care for For What Is Chatteris… (from Achtung Bono) and others say it’s their favourite song. And people who like Chatteris may, I think, like Tess of the Dormobiles. While others who like, I don’t know, National Shite Day might like something like Grafting Haddock in the same way. I don’t know, but that’s how I see it.
I didn’t know the title had been used before (the book Tess of The Dormobiles by Will Stebbings was published in 2015) but I presumed it may have been. It was something my dad used to say, and I’m sure other people would have said it, too.
“It Ain’t Half Man Mum” (the name of a supposed HMHB tribute band from Sunderland, which Nigel made up for inclusion in an interview with The Guardian in 2001) – I was pleased with myself for getting that out there. I feared someone else might have used it and really hoped they hadn’t. Then I thought that they wouldn’t have, because no one at that time would have been thinking about a tribute band for us, so I thought “Brilliant”.
Regarding the relationship in the song, it certainly ended amicably – you can tell that from the lyrics – but also, she probably ran off with another woman, rather than another man, I would say. That was just in my head. Not that I’m saying “Loads of lesbians live in dormobiles”! It was just the vision I had of her.
He, the narrator of the song, probably still holds a light for her and hopes she might for him as well – which is possible because the split was amicable as the relationship ran its natural course, and at the end he’s glad they end up in the same sheltered accommodation even though she’s got a really good flat while he’s got the basic one.
I love Carl’s drums on this. I particularly like the bit where I sing “I drive the happy van” and he hits it really fucking hard. It’s great that, and I love it because he sets it up beautifully for the “Made it Ma, top of the world!” line.
I’m aware that people used to go around pubs selling cockles and mussels but this isn’t about that. I was thinking of a pub in town – in a back street in Birkenhead. The pub – the Vittoria Vaults on Vittoria Street – is known as “The Piggy”. It’s not necessarily that but it’s that type of pub. It’s “The George” in the title, and there is a George and Dragon in Birkenhead which, I suppose, could also be an influence – but really, it could be one of any number of pubs.
I remember walking past Farm Foods in Prenton once, and this lad was just walking out with a load of meat – he was someone who was down on his luck and had just robbed it, and was going down town to sell it, and that’s all it is. For the song, it just happened to be haddock that day. It could have been mince. In fact, I’ve got a feeling, if I went to my lyric book, the song could originally have been Grafting Mince In The George. But it just didn’t scan – it doesn’t work as well.
It’s a very bitty song, with a lot of different elements in – just to get a joke in about a monkey in Knowsley Safari Park!
The bit near the start (“I never thought about the future or what I would become/Didn’t care, still don’t/For as far as I’m aware, they don’t stitch pockets into shrouds”) is not particularly autobiographical, though I can see how it would seem to be that way because I am a little bit like that. But the shrouds bit doesn’t fit too much because I’m not a spendthrift. I’m not a miser, either, but I’m not a spendthrift.
The other bit at the start (“When I was young, and the blood pulsed swiftly through my veins/Before age, trampling upon youth/Powdered my head with the snows of fifty winters”) – that’s too clever for me. I just read that somewhere, I’m not sure where – and then I’ve written it down. And I haven’t got a head with powdered hair – you have, I haven’t!
But not thinking about the future, I suppose that is me. It’s not “wanting” to think about the future to be precise, I suppose, as regards myself. All the old age, pain and illness and loss of loved ones etc. Same as everyone else really.
And yes, it’s “Oh those Forestry Commission roads…”- not rogues, as someone suggested.
“It was loft ladders what killed our Martin” – I was thinking about those old public information films. Nothing more than that.
It’s unusual deaths – I like all that. Like Stupid Deaths from Horrible Histories, perhaps. I had about eight titles for the album, and one was “Loft Ladders Killed Our Norman”. Don’t know why I changed it to “Martin”. But I obviously didn’t think it was as good as The Voltarol Years.
I wrote the “Tuba” riff on the guitar but got Chris Taylor, the engineer, to use a Tuba (an electronic one from a keyboard) over the top of it.
Back on the title, I think I saw a phrase on the internet – probably from one of my mates, actually, cos I read what people around me are writing and I quietly steal. I don’t steal things wholesale; I will use half of it maybe. And my mate could have been the one who said to his mate – and I read it – he’d have said “The next thing you’ll tell us is your ma’s grafting mince in the Dove and Olive.” He’d have written something like that, and I would have taken it and changed it. That’s how it happens.
Neil had all the brass and bells sorted because he wanted it to sound like a Spaghetti Western. I think it works well. We got Ben Savage in to do the trumpet, and he did a great job too.
This is a straightforward tale of a prick in an unnecessary vehicle who is “on the steds” and cocaine and all that and has a short temper. It took a while for anyone to notice the other tragedy going on during the trumpet part – the dog in the gym bag. That might have been because the music tends to override the lyric a little there, which is intentional. So yes, he puts the dog in the gym bag. He punched it on his way up to get his gym stuff, he’s got his gym bag from his bedroom and on the way back the dog is still knocking round and he thinks “While I’m here…” and sticks it in the gym bag and puts it in the car so he can put the puppy in the lake on the way through the park.
And there is then the whine of the puppy, which you can’t hear because of the sirens wailing cos he’s just knocked someone over.
And yes, it’s “Jeep boy” and not “chief boy”.
I have Sefton Park in mind for the location. I don’t know why that is. And when I write songs like this, I’m not analysing it and thinking about things like where the McDonald’s is in relation to the park in real life – but there probably is one nearby, because they’re everywhere!
The one question I can’t answer that I’ve seen now and again is “Was Edgar a pet or a human – perhaps a brother?” I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it. People might say “Surely you’d think about that when you’re writing the bloody song. He brings in Edgar so he must know in his own mind who he is”. No, because I do detach myself from it. But I suppose if I did think about it, I’d have Edgar down as the only potential boyfriend she may have had, years ago. More a companion.
Yes, “Georgia Mae'” (not “May”) is the prick’s daughter – I think I read someone was hearing it as “Georgian maid”.
A throwaway 30 seconds! It’s just exactly what it says on the tin. I probably just wanted to get “Garstang” into a song!
I still chuckle when listening to it due to the backing vocals of the band – Karl even dropped by to add a bit here. Neil is to the fore, especially on the bits just after I say “Garstang” for the second time. I really don’t have a clue what he’s caterwauling there but it makes me chortle. I reckon we should release a version with just the backing vocals on it for Record Store Day.
I’ve no location for the “Coach and Horses”. It could be anywhere near Garstang (the song hasn’t anything to do with Birkenhead or anywhere near it). The pub could be in Preston. It could be in Penwortham. It could be in Freckleton.
Basically, the song doesn’t bear any analysis!
This is just me trying to write a Country song – the usual sketch of me writing a song with the initial thought of sending it to other people. This is one which I know will be considered as “filler” (I don’t think it is!) but I wrote it with a view to someone else singing it. These sorts of songs are inspired by listening to the work of people like Don Gibson and other Country Music artists. I reckon Elvis Costello could do this much better. Or Richard Thompson maybe.
The story of course is simply that of “down and outs/alcoholics/drug addicts” who meet in an old Victorian cemetery so as not to be hassled by anyone. One of them is ruminating on a grave of someone he knew. The cemetery is deffo Flaybrick in Birkenhead. Someone asked how could he have been buried in an old Victorian cemetery. It was because the family plot was still available. It had room left for one more. But then again, people might say if it’s Flaybrick then what’s he doing in Rhyl? I could say it’s artistic licence – or that our hero could easily have gone to Rhyl for a specific Country and Western evening on occasion.
“Hank, Roy and Bill” are Hank Williams, Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe.
“But in a Nudie suit six feet below/Lies a man who the world doesn’t know”…like others, I thought a “Nudie suit” meant birthday suit/naked, before being put right on the forum (they are, indeed, flamboyant, rhinestone-encrusted cowboy outfits worn by Country and Western singers).
I got all that (about Nudie suits) from Gram Parsons. The first thing he did when he got a bit of money from making music was to buy a Nudie suit. I think Elvis Presley had one – Hank Williams, too, obviously.
Rosebay willowherb, incidentally (from the opening line), is a plant which I did know about that is often found in neglected areas.
A “get it off your chest” song.
I tell you what, though, I forgot I’d already criticised continuity announcers in Breaking News (from Cammell Laird Social Club). I wouldn’t have done it if I’d known that, but it’s alright – there’s no harm in criticising them twice, because they are twats!
With “privations” there’s a bit of double entendre going on, as in “privates” – I could be torturing him, perhaps. I’m not saying I am, though.
Then there are the people in charge of rolling the credits, who squeeze them so there is space to advertise another programme while the credits are rolling – making them too small to read. That’s why I don’t watch Coronation Street anymore – I can’t.
It could be argued by the way that, written out, the bit about the two Clash songs should be “Complete/Remote Control!”
I didn’t have any particular rich singers in mind when I wrote that line about “the singer’s paintings” because there are quite a lot of them. Don’t get me wrong, because there are probably quite a few musicians who are great artists. But it’s just that cliche of those musicians who get successful and suddenly think “I’ll become a great painter now”.
The lines “It’s not illegal/It’s in the Bible/St Augustine is a grass/Timothy too” – that’s just two jokes for the price of one, regarding the names, and St Augustine and Timothy being types of grass. It’s purely a coincidence that Saint Augustine and St Timothy are connected to stories of justice. I wouldn’t have known that at all.
For years, on Birkenhead Library, there was the graffiti “Natalie Carson is a grass” – and I always wanted to write underneath it “See also Marram and Rye”. I had those two in my head for ages. But they aren’t easy to say or sing, so I looked up other grasses. Timothy is what you feed rabbits, I think, and St Augustine I’d never heard of until I did the research – you see, this is the unseen research that goes into writing some of the songs! But the only reason I did this particular research was because I used to see that graffiti on Birkenhead Library.
“The ukuleles outside Sports Direct”… Hosepipe Ban wrote: “I bumped into him (Nigel) in Liverpool One about three years ago while he was with his family, had a quick chat and got a photo with him. Anyway, it was National Ukulele Day and I was performing with a band.”
I do remember that. He was a nice lad. I wasn’t bothered or pissed off by him – no way. I don’t remember him being outside Sports Direct. The ukulele thing could have been outside Sports Direct but I think I met him a bit further up outside John Lewis, in Liverpool One. In my head it’s the Sports Direct in Birkenhead – opposite, funnily enough, Millets! I don’t dislike the ukuleles – it’s a gentle chiding.
You want to put them in a ditch!
He’s half-right in that that would have been the time I started to roll my eyes at ukulele orchestras. Forty years ago, I was listening to George Formby – when only a few other people were – but then all of a sudden it becomes de rigueur on the High Street, and there are loads of ukulele orchestras suddenly being formed. I’m just rolling my eyes at ukulele orchestras – I don’t hate them. I wasn’t specifically thinking about the person who calls himself Hosepipe Ban (hello, Hosepipe Ban!) because I’d see a ukulele orchestra every Saturday in Birkenhead – but they weren’t outside Sports Direct, funnily enough, although I put them there (outside Sports Direct in Birkenhead) in my mind. But the one I actually used to see all the time was in St John’s Square in Birkenhead precinct.
It’s just a time-travelling fantasy. It’s the type of song I enjoy writing. It’s not a chore, because you can hop about – you’ve got the whole dictionary open to you.
It probably came from two things – a few people have got the right church in Heswall where I saw the sign about the rug sale on one of my bike rides: the Heswall URC. And the “Wearing my buskins of mottled cordovan” – I just saw that written down and thought that’s great. It might be from The Nibelungenlied (an epic poem written around 1200, which inspired Der Ring des Nibelungen, a cycle of four epic music dramas composed by Richard Wagner). But Dr Desperate could be right – it could be from The Mabinogion (the earliest British prose stories compiled in Middle Welsh in the 12th/13th centuries) because I’ve read that as well, round about the same time possibly.
You could say it’s an absurd song, but I don’t see the sign for a Persian rug sale at the URC as being absurd. I just see it as the church trying to make a bit of money, because they need to adapt in these modern times because no one goes to church.
Alfie Bass just fitted – it amused me that he would be in a medieval battlefield. The Norman Hunter-Franny Lee reference (“Norman Hunter and Francis Lee are going toe-to-toe/Amongst the entrails of the slain”) was just about the mud and their fighting. Most footage of the Baseball Ground in those days involved much mud if I remember correctly – mind you, when you watch it there isn’t really a muddy pitch on that one. But it’s the fighting as well. And Lee has him, doesn’t he?
The stuttering – “J-J-J-J-J Jimmy” – I was just messing about, really, and it fitted, although when I’d done it and maybe even after I’d read someone’s comment on it, I thought maybe the time machine was on the blink, which it was of course, and that was the reason for the stuttering – but then again the time machine doesn’t talk does it?
Nigel’s idea to put words to the Bread of Heaven tune.
It was written very quickly – it wasn’t going to be on the album at first. It was a very late addition. The last one to be written, lyrically.
“Bores” or “Boors”? It’s bores (“Spare me from the drunken heathen/Gormless bores in Superdry”).
The Duke of Westminster asked: “Is ‘field of blighted rye’ a reference to weeds blighting rye in George Crabbe’s poem The Village?
I would stand here and say I haven’t got a clue what George Crabbe wrote but I know the name George Crabbe and I have probably read it – I’ve got this big thick book in the house and it’s called One Thousand Beautiful Things by Arthur Mee, so I may have taken it from that – or I could have read it in an article in the Wirral Journal, or a local history book – I don’t know. Basically, I’ve seen “blighted rye” written down and thought “That’s nice, I’ll use that somewhere.” But as for George Crabbe, I couldn’t give you a name of any story or poem or whatever by him. I know the name, but I don’t know anything by him – wittingly. But I accept I could have been reading The Village – but I would have read it in a compendium, alongside things by other authors.
Lockdown Luke – tell us more. I’m thinking BBC North West Tonight, just before the weather comes on. Such and such gets his fucking guitar down from the loft, does a bit on You Tube, his street comes out and dance to him playing. The next thing is he starts to believe his own hype and thinks “I could take this further”. It’s about people who want to appear eccentric and they want to get on television – they want attention. They were on national news programmes as well. You think “Fucking hell, just get on with your lockdown”.
Someone asked if “Was it for this the clay grew tall?” is taken from the Wilfred Owen poem Futility.
“Yes, that’s right.”
And someone asked if it’s everybody “striving” or “driving” for the cause.
Also: “Desperate Dan, you’re absolutely dethroned/defunct.”
On the surface it’s a straightforward story about a wife coping with her husband’s dementia and putting him in a home. But there is a back story in that he was a hooligan, of sorts, in his younger days and still quite likes to keep up with what’s going on in the world of hooliganism – but there isn’t any suggestion of this until you get to the last line (which I had knocking around for ages).
I had the title first, which is a double meaning thing. Slipping the escort was always about when fans came out of a station and if you were really looking to have a fight with opposing fans you’d be looking to get away from the main set of supporters and the police escort so you can have a scrap up a back street with 30 of their lot, or whatever. But the term can also mean you’re losing it, both mentally and physically.
The line “Ah! Sweet mystery of life, at last I’ve found you!” is actually sung by the patient – the bloke. It’s not the wife or narrator. His sweet mystery of life is having a big scrap at the football. That is what he loved. In the song “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life” by Nelson Eddy, it’s love he’s referring to.
Take away the last bit of the song, the rest of it is brought about simply because – and this is ridiculous but it’s true – there’s an episode of Dad’s Army where they get trapped on the pier, and they’ve got nothing to eat because Pike’s forgotten to bring the food. There’s a chocolate machine there, and they have one of those claw crane things – but the chocolate is made of cardboard. They’re all really angry and all that and Warden Hodges ends up with them and he gets pissed because Frazer has some whisky and Warden Hodges steals it. And he starts singing – and for years I wondered “What’s he singing there?” I loved it and it made me laugh. And he’s singing “Ah! Sweet Mystery Of Life” by Nelson Eddy. I investigated that song and bought it on CD by Nelson Eddy. He did it as a duet with Jeanette MacDonald, so I took the basis of that and thought “Right, I’m going to write a song around it”.
Initially, I was writing it with the intention of getting a girl to sing the song, and I literally changed it about a week before I went into the studio. The whole song should be, and initially was, “I, I, I”…”If I could hold that needle steady” and so on. But I ended up changing it because I didn’t have the bottle to ask, for instance, Eliza Carthy, who I don’t know, or someone else who I DO know – Niamh Rowe from The Sundowners, a band in West Kirby. Niamh doesn’t have any idea I was going to ask her (but she couldn’t have done it anyway because she was having a baby at the time).
So it should be a female singing it – and the first line, with a female vocal, would have been “The days we feared are here”. I had to change it at the last minute because I knew I wasn’t going to get anyone to sing it, and that I would be singing it. I became the narrator. It therefore became “he” and “she”. But I’ve made a mistake in the song and no one has pulled me up on it – no one’s noticed. And I’ll come back to that later…
At the very end – “Ah! Sweet mystery of life” – that’s him, because he’s found out about the “30 Airbus”. Whether this bit actually happened is open to the listener’s interpretation, but it’s the sort of thing he would have looked for over the weekend, on a Sunday – certainly when he was compos mentis. He would have been excited about it and told his mates – “Did you hear about that at the weekend? 30 Airbus were in the Town End seats” kind of thing. What’s happening at the end of the song is – he’s finally gone and whether or not the incident has happened, it’s certainly happened in his head. He’s getting excited, the nurses are trying to hold him down and his wife is shuffling off up the corridor in tears because she’s thinking “That’s it now, I’ve lost him totally”.
But any love was just a normal man and wife relationship.
“Occasional sunshine/Where clarity reigns/And memories are mutual/And we’re back in the lanes…”
This should have ended “THEY’RE back in the lanes” – because I had been talking about “he” and “she” – but I didn’t change it. When I changed everything else, I somehow overlooked that and didn’t make it “they’re back in the lanes”, which it should be to fit the rest of what the lyrics became because I didn’t get a girl to sing it. Although I can get away with it in the way that if I’m the storyteller I can say “And we’re back in the lanes” (with them).
The lanes, themselves?
In my mind’s eye, there is a specific lane but as it’s not about me it doesn’t really matter. For the record, though, the lane is called Marsh Lane and runs between Lever Causeway and Storeton Woods. I visualise the area where it bends just below the woods.
The location of the Town End seats?
No ground in particular. I wasn’t thinking of a specific ground.
I’m reminded of the sweet piano/keyboards sound in Skin Deep by The Stranglers at times during this song.
Yes, there is piano at the start, before the lyrics come in, and keyboards at the end of the song. Both are played by Ben, who did the brass on Big Man Up Front. The piano used is the same one which Chris Martin played “Yellow” on!
At this point, I ask Nigel if we can please raise our glasses to my new favourite HMHB song – yes, it has overtaken Floreat Inertia, Fear My Wraith, Turned Up Clocked On Laid Off and several others which have vied for the top spot in my head. But in 2022, Oblong Of Dreams is definitely out in front.
Ah! Is it? Lovely, thank you! Ta!
Is it simply a straightforward, autobiographical song about your love of the Wirral – and one which doesn’t need to be over-analysed and picked apart?
It’s not straightforwardly me banging on about the Wirral, particularly. Although it was perhaps inevitable that I was going to do one purely about walking around the Wirral, so yes and no would be the answer to that – which is not the answer you want! I’d have put more obscure footpaths and fields in if it was purely me, I think. I would have thought about the geographical things more. I didn’t particularly think that much about them.
It starts with a fella, not me particularly – though he might morph into me. There’s a fella going to work every single day, nine to five, he’s on the train, and when he gets to somewhere like, maybe, Moreton, Leasowe, or Birkenhead Park, there’s a fella he’s always seen around, just sitting on a bench on the platform, not going anywhere – a bit of a tramp, really – reading the Metro. And although it’s not in the song, he’s perhaps taking the Metro, or a few Metros, back to his flat for kindling (that’s what I do – take a few Metros from the bus to use for kindling in our fire at home!) Or using the Metro, if he’s living rough, as kindling to build a fire.
Our initial narrator sort of envies this bloke, because although he has had a somewhat desperate time of it recently (and maybe for most of his life), at least he’s not part of any rat race (which the INITIAL narrator is).
Then one morning he sees the fella is not sitting on the bench – he’s collapsed. This commuter, then, who’s on his way to work in an office, gets off the train – and at this point he thinks “Sod it, I’m not doing that again. I’m not going to do that job anymore; I just want to go for walks and do what I want to do”.
The bloke on the platform, then, that’s his part of the song gone – he’s either dead or he’s not, I don’t know. As Karen said on the forum, if he was dead you wouldn’t move him onto his side – but then there’s “he’s out of it now”, so he is dead! I can’t really explain all that! Ah, maybe at the time he was going to be moved onto his side there was a faint hope of reviving him – but then he died. I knew I’d get there in the end! I didn’t think too much about it at the time, if I’m being honest, I’m more with the fella on the train, who gets off the train to go and live his own life. But people are right, the Wilfred Owen thing comes in here with the line “Move him onto his side” because that’s from the opening line of his poem Futility – “Move him into the sun”.
The fella on the train, then, is not me, because I’ve never done the nine to five thing (I know it’s not obvious from the lyrics that there is a nine to five element, but that is what was in my head) – but he morphs into me, because I bring in our old dog, and the estate where I grew up.
Neil said to me recently “I didn’t know where you were coming from with his song, musically” – because it was all different bits (but while he was wondering where I was going at first, he was still playing a brilliant bass line from the start!) But I had it constructed and always knew that at the end I wanted strings. I know a bloke who used to be in the Philharmonic (the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, not the pub) – he played the timpani – and his daughter plays in it, so I thought “I could get strings here”, and that’s what I was planning. But then, me being me, once we got into the studio, I thought there’s all this hassle and faff, and Geoff (Davies) wasn’t there to do that sort of thing. I thought I’d just put a load of guitars on it. I was telling Chris the engineer about all this and asked him how much it would cost to get violins and cellos in – and he said “I’ve got a Mellotron!” He said “You give me the chords – what you’re playing at the end”, and so he set it up with the sound of cellos and violins on the Mellotron.
The “strings” come in at the start of the “Clouds part” line.
Telepudlian Paul – no way is it “telly” – is certainly with a capital “T” for me, because it’s his nickname. It also looks better – Telepudlian Paul – and to me a lot of things are about how they look. I even found out who came up with the word “telepudlian” – it was someone’s dad. He drinks in a pub near us – so I owe him a pint!
All the names (Paul, Claire Jenkins, Stuart Bell, Adele and Janet), are all made up. When I sing “dull Adele” – who’s not Adele the singer, and yes, I’ve gone with lower case for “dull” – I know it sounds like I’m singing “Edele”. But it is “Adele”.
I take a while to come up with names because of the way they have to flow with what’s coming next. And when I’m coming up with them I’m also thinking about singing them live – what’s going to be easier for me.
“Escape up onto Caldy Hill/The spirit of Olaf and, if you will…”
I reckon I become the narrator from around Caldy Hill onwards. As for Olaf – it’s not Olaf Guthfrithson, but Olaf Stapledon. He wrote the opening chapter of his book Star Maker on Caldy Hill. He used to go there to look at the night sky – and that’s where his epic masterpiece came from.
Pirx The Purist wrote: “The song is a joyous celebration of place and of one’s place in it.”
Yes, I’d go with that.
Chris From Future Doom wondered aloud about the gestation period of a song like this – “Several years, I would hazard. Also, a fantasy question for an interview with the great man that will never happen.”
Not years, no. Only months. No longer, particularly, than any of the others. And I probably just wanted to get the “Oblong of Dreams” phrase in! I got it from our guitarist Karl Benson in around 2015 I’d guess, but he’s got no memory of that or where he first heard the phrase. Karl – who lives in St Helens these days but comes from Pensby – may have even thought of it himself but not given himself credit.
He has been with us for a while now, and I’m sure everyone who has seen us since he joined will have been impressed by his playing. His backing vocals, allied to Neil’s, are also always welcomed by me – while some of our cover versions have been inspired by the sets played by his band The Band-Its.
Many listeners have feared Oblong Of Dreams, due to the very nature of it, could be your swansong – your epic farewell.
No, no. But, then, I could never answer that kind of question properly – because when you come out of a studio after finishing an album you think “I won’t be writing any more songs now, surely. That’s going to be it”. If I’d fallen off my bike and died, just before I died I would have thought “That’s a nice one to go out on”. I purposely put it as the last song on the album in case things like that happen, so I can say “That is our final song”. But in the last few days – and even on the way here – I’ve been writing. I can understand people saying they think it could be our swansong but I don’t think that.
I think Neil’s backing vocals on the song are really good. And the reaction to the song has been satisfying because I did wonder about that – but I thought “Sod it” anyway, basically because I wanted to document these things. It’s the same with the bat walk one (Renfield’s Afoot, on the previous album) – I know it’s throwaway, but it still needs to be documented.
Batwalker: “I wonder whether the fact ‘the Leasowe Light along Lingham Lane’ echoes the alliterative pattern of William Barnes’s famous ‘do lean down low in Linden Lea’ was a deliberate allusion, or just a happy coincidence.”
It’s a happy coincidence, but, weirdly, I do like William Barnes. No is the answer, but I do like him.
“And as creation thus uncorks/I cross the field where she still walks/Stay, sit, this is it/And up by the school/There will be daffodils”.
The “Stay, sit” does allude to our old dog – but I suppose it could also refer to a person. We used to cut through that bit where the daffodils are – a specific place on Duck Pond Lane by the school. What hasn’t been pointed out is that it’s the school I went to – St Saviour’s (it’s on Holm Lane, but kind of backs onto Duck Pond Lane) – and it was one of my greatest memories, because I loved primary school. We had a great view of the Welsh Hills. The photograph on the inner sleeve of the album is the view taken from the daffodils on that field.
The bit “…this is it” is saying “This is what it’s all about”.
Singer’s Painting wrote: “I’m in no doubt that the character in the first verse is dead and the remainder of the song is that character’s spirit taking a last journey around their home turf, their stomping ground. One last look around the ol’ place and all its charms and then…well, then off to the great hereafter.”
I quite like that idea but I never thought that when I was writing it.
S wrote: “Just listening to ‘Oblong’ and ‘Clouds part, show time’ made me think of John Cooper Clarke’s ‘Lights out, sack time’ on ’36 Hours’. Just me, then?”
If I was inspired by that, it was purely subconsciously. Obviously, John Cooper Clarke is magnificent and I know the song, though I’ve not heard it for years.
By the way, people give me too much credit for my botanical knowledge. Orange-tipped butterflies and all that? I had to research what would be about in early Spring. I do know that Greater Knapweed and Mugwort (which appear in Rogation Sunday) are plants, though, and not trees. I’m not a botanical expert in any way is what I’m saying I suppose.
A bit more…
We do, now and again, get compared by some people to other bands – The Pixies is one, which is very flattering, but I didn’t hear them until late on – though they are possibly (subconsciously) a musical influence. I’m only a “Best of” bloke, though!
Datblygu is another one that has been mentioned – but they’re a band who passed me by (though I am now listening to and enjoying them. I’m late into everything!) I know they’re viewed as The Welsh Fall and that David Edwards is iconic but it wasn’t until his death that I actually heard any music. That’s my fault I know and I’m sure it’s all good but as for being an influence – no, definitely not. I was probably asked about Welsh music in an interview somewhere and mentioned loads of groups including Datblygu perhaps (even though, as with lots of other bands, I knew the name but had never heard them!)
And, er, that’s it!
It was time, after nearly four hours of HMHB talk, to head back to New Brighton station to catch our train – and chat about non-HMHB matters, as we usually do; on this occasion, Everton and Tranmere’s recent games, the new John McGeoch biography, the Barry Adamson autobiography, and the fact that Craig Scanlon is the latest guest of Steve and Paul Hanley on the Oh! Brother podcast.
Later, I checked my phone recordings. The Voltarol Years is 44 minutes and three seconds in length – Nigel and I spent 44 minutes and 58 seconds just discussing Oblong Of Dreams.
Did we talk about that song, and the album itself, for far too long? No, of course not!