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Half Man Half Biscuit - Achtung Bono

If you fancy a good chuckle one of these days, pop into your nearest record shop (it'll have to be either an absolutely massive one that stocks everything, or a really, really cool little one that stocks only the best), go to the "H" section and stand there reading the back of some Half Man Half Biscuit albums.

99% Of Gargoyles Look Like Bob Todd
It's Clichéd To Be Cynical At Christmas
Reasons To Be Miserable, Part 10
Improv Workshop Mimeshow Gobshite
Styx Gig (Seen by My Mates Coming Out of A)
Tonight Matthew, I'm Going To Be With Jesus
Paintball's Coming Home
I Love You (Because You Look Like Jim Reeves)
I Was A Teenage Armchair Honved Fan
All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit
Turned Up Clocked On Laid Off
I Left My Heart In Papworth General

Just some of the brilliant song titles that HMHB maestro Nigel Blackwell has bestowed upon us over the years. But if you want to give yourself even more of a chuckle, you could do a lot worse than pick one of the albums up. For some twenty-odd years now - with a short break in the late '80s before a glorious '90s reformation - possibly the only decent band ever to come from the Wirral Peninsula have ploughed a genuinely unique furrow in pop music, crafting wonderfully witty songs and biting satire on the sort of subjects that nobody else ever bothers to write biting satire about (Subbuteo, C.A.M.R.A., Bob Wilson, Camberwick Green and Trumpton, that sort of thing). They're much more than just a "funny" band, though, demonstrating that it's possible to write immensely listenable, tuneful indie pop with a slightly folkish bent while simultaneously matching such tunes to lyrics that make you piss yourself laughing. Indeed, it's the quality of the tunesmithery that elevates them far above anything that could be considered "novelty" (see also : They Might Be Giants, often tagged with the "novelty" label but simply far too musically gifted to be called such).

Possibly the finest lyricist currently working - Half Man Half Biscuit's now-balding genius Nigel Blackwell
Half Man Half Biscuit singer Nigel Blackwell.

It's slightly difficult then, to really review a HMHB album in relation to all the others - particularly since they reformed in the '90s, each album has generally been comparable to the one before it. And that's no bad thing - it's hard to get disappointed with such consistency (in some bands, it can be seen as repetitiveness - but when you're the only band doing a particular thing, and there really is no-one else like the Biscuit, you can be forgiven for continuing to do it to your best). So any HMHB review would basically consist of "Yep, still on form, same old same old, if you like 'em already you probably have it already, and if you don't you really should give them a try with this one".

Except, well. That used to be the case. But now they've gone and made Achtung Bono. Now, before you get all perturbed, don't worry. They're still doing exactly the same sort of thing they've been doing since the utterly incomparable debut album Back In The D.H.S.S. It's just... this one isn't like the other recent albums. It's not just another Trouble Over Bridgewater, Four Lads Who Shook The Wirral or Voyage To The Bottom Of The Road. This might actually, whisper it, be the best album they've ever done (well, since D.H.S.S., anyway).

All the usual ingredients are in place, but there just seems to be something extra-special running through Blackwell's songwriting here. For starters, the quotability factor seems higher than ever. Blackwell's songs have always been littered with endlessly repeatable couplets of unassailable wit, but even by his standards he's pushing the bar here, whether complaining that "I've only got three bullets and there's four of Motley Crue", explaining the plot of "a cricketing farce with a thickening plot / Act One, Scene One, Brenda Blethyn gets shot" or baffling us all with punnish yet nonsensical statements like "Nero fiddles while Gordon Burns". Some of his standard lyrical targets come in for their usual flak here, such as his obsession with (and distaste for) B&Q Homebase - "If Jesus came to Earth today / They'd crucify him straight away / Upon a cross of MDF / And they'd use No Need For Nails", while Brasseye gets a reference in the form of the title "Depressed Beyond Tablets". Libertines fans, meanwhile, may take umbrage with "Shit Arm, Bad Tattoo"'s assertion that instead of spending fourteen quid on their second album, Blackwell "could have put my head in a bucket full of porridge / And moaned about the hospital parking scheme"; but it's hard to argue with the pointed pedantry of the same song's "If you're going to quote from the Book of Revelation / Don't keep calling it 'The Book Of Revelations' / There's no 's' - it's the Book of Revelation".

Even aside from the usual quotability and high tunefulness, though, Achtung Bono contains a handful of tracks that will surely number among Blackwell's finest when he comes to look back on his career. "Joy Division Oven Gloves" is just gloriously batty and largely nonsensical, in the vein of classics such as "Deep House Victims Minibus Appeal"; although I defy anyone who listens to it not to (a) want a pair of Joy Division oven gloves by the end and (b) go mad wondering what the hell "Piccallili shinpads" are supposed to be, and Blackwell's Ian Curtis impression partway through ("DANCE! DANCE! DANCE! DANCE! In me Joy Division oven gloves!") is worth the price of admission alone.

"We Built This Village On A Trad. Arr. Tune" meanwhile, aside from being a better title than anything else you'll see all year, is a fine example of another HMHB standard - taking an existing song and pilfering its tune ever so slightly. Blackwell's noted for dropping bits of well-known tunes into his songs - usually they take the form of old standards, childrens' songs or nursery rhymes, such as the wonderful "Paintball's Coming Home" being set to the tune of "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands". There are a few examples of this on Achtung Bono, with, variously, "The Twelve Days Of Christmas", "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and even terrace chant "You Only Sing When You're Winning" dropped into the middle of songs. But every so often, Blackwell will take a known pop or rock song (in this case, in case you hadn't figured it out, Starship's "We Built This City On Rock and Roll") and do something that's closer to flat-out parody. What stops the songs from being straight-up Weird Al or Shirehorses put-new-funnier-lyrics-to-the-same-tune parody, though, is that - in a fashion that's arguably more akin to a Rutles song than anything - the tunes are often subtly altered or assimilated in part, making it less of a direct pastiche. Plus, like the Rutles, the songs themselves often stand up as perfectly listenable on their own merit. This is particularly true of the wonderful "We Built This Village...", which as well as being downright hilarious is the sort of song you can imagine belting out along with at full volume in your car.

But the album's real high point is "For What Is Chatteris...". Aside from being characteristically funny ("Although there was a drive-by shouting once" might be the album's single best line), it also adds a surprising amount of bittersweet pathos to the album, as Blackwell details all the things that make the Cambridgeshire town lovely and idyllic, before sadly concluding that it all matters little as "What's Chatteris if you're not there? I may as well be in Ely or St. Ives...". Ally, then, a delightfully charming sentiment with Blackwell's trademark sharp lyrics and infectiously hummable tunes (and "Chatteris..." may just be the catchiest song on the album, to boot) and you've got all the hallmarks of an absolutely classic song, among the finest that Blackwell has ever written.

It's not all perfect, of course. There are a handful of songs that, while perfectly listenable and still with the odd brilliant line, just don't enthrall in the way that "Chatteris..." and the likes do, such as "Corgi Registered Friends" and "Letters Sent"; the latter, while it opens with a good rant about goalkeepers screaming at defenders after making a save, even veers onto the side of slightly dreary. "Twydale's Lament", meanwhile, is ambitious, given that it's basically three different songs in one, but doesn't quite come off. Even so, as with many of HMHB's albums, the great songs elevate the album far above the filler.

Since the death of John Peel, perhaps the only well-known radio DJ who ever gave HMHB any credit (and, for that matter, airplay), the world has been a lonelier place for Nigel and the boys. It would be an eternal shame, however, if they were allowed to fade from view just because their champion is no longer with us. They are that rarest of things in the modern music world - a genuinely, completely unique band - and Blackwell is among our very best living songwriters. As such, they must be cherished for as long as they choose to stick around (this time); and it's just fortunate that, with the need to drum up new support off their own backs arguably the greatest it's ever been, they've turned out an album that stands the best chance in twenty years of attracting new fans. Quite aside from being a welcome addition to the canon for existing fans, Achtung Bono represents a great opportunity for you to discover a band you won't be able to help yourself falling in love with.

5 Stars

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Excellent, Seb.

For some reason unknown to myself, I've never given HMHB a chance. I shall do, now.

By Cappsy
October 14, 2005 @ 3:17 pm

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