Half Man Half Biscuit’s set at The Junction last night was just cracking, a robust (and at times veering surprisingly close to nimble) run through some of the highlights of one of the finest back catalogues in modern pop music. On record the Biccies’ unique selling point is Nigel Blackwell’s unrivalled genius for lyrics, with seemingly every song containing at least one hilarious and immortal couplet of a quality that ought to make Cohen, Dylan et al think about chucking it in and getting a job in Safeways. In a live environment however, the emphasis is more on the pithy and catchy chunkiness of the tunes and the pleasing unfussiness of their approach that in some ways makes the band come over like a Birkenhead version of The Ramones: they just crank ’em out, one after the other. I counted at least 23 songs in the hour and three-quarters they were on, which is surely consummate value for money. The only pauses are for a few of Nigel’s deadpan comedy observations on aspects of the local geography. This show is the second leg of a rare East Anglian foray for the group and follows an appearance at the John Peel Centre in Stowmarket, and a clue to how they fill their downtime between gigs is given by Nigel’s very first comment to the audience: “Anglesey Abbey: not bad.” This is in time followed up by references to local villages Great and Little Wilbraham and Swaffhams Prior and Bulbeck – my guess is that Nigel is a man who likes his OS maps.
The band’s straight-ahead, high-speed delivery is responded to favourably by a boisterous crowd which pleasingly doesn’t consist entirely of middle-aged men. A full-on moshpit has developed by the fourth number, occasioning your intrepid reporter’s partial retreat to somewhere nearer the back of the hall, but the pushing and shoving is conducted with high spirits and never becomes threatening and it’s actually nice to see a crowd engaging with the music rather than just standing there solemnly recording everything on camera-phones. Everyone seems to know the words and sings along lustily – it’s kind of delightful to be part of a room of people all yelling Fuckin’ ‘Ell, It’s Fred Titmus* or You’re Going On After Crispy Ambulance** or, most poignantly, For What Is Chatteris*** Without You In It. The material HMHB play tonight covers all but one or two of their dozen or so albums and EPs and it’s particularly nice to hear Time Flies By When You’re The Driver Of A Train from their debut Back In The DHSS, an album which had me literally rolling on the floor with laughter when I first heard it in 1986. The most recent songs aired are Joy In Leeuwarden and Rock And Roll Is Full Of Bad Wools from 2011’s 90 Bisodol (Crimond) and there’s room also for the relatively obscure Whit Week Malarkey and Bogus Official as well as the inevitable, and rapturously received, Joy Division Oven Gloves and a stonking take on Holiday In Cambodia for the encore.
The Rolling Stones headlined at Glastonbury last weekend and by all accounts it was a pretty jim-dandy gig…but some of us know who the real greatest rock’n’roll group in the country are.
* Stalwart English cricket player of the 50s, 60s and 70s
** One of Factory Records’ not so celebrated signings
*** Sleepy and somewhat isolated Fenland town. I played in a band who came second in the 1991 Chatteris Rock Competition, you know.