The current documentary series on BBC4 on the history of the Indie music labels here in the UK has made for great watching so far, having so far detailed the rise of the indies in the late 70s, and their flourishing in the 80s. I have had but one minor quibble with the series so far, in that, despite being deserving of a full documentary all to themselves, Birkenhead’s indie stalwarts, Half Man Half Biscuit were given only the most fleeting of mentions. Given that The Smiths, a band whose story has been retold and regurgitated so many times that many music fans can recite it in their sleep, were given a full quarter of an hour on their own, the fact that Nigel Blackwell, Neil Crossley, and the rest of the chaps didn’t get their due was a dreadful oversight.
Despite having released thirteen albums, and a compilation of standalone singles, radio sessions and live material, it is HMHB’s debut that they have always been associated with. Recorded on a budget that wouldn’t have covered the cost of the tea and biscuits consumed during the recording of a Smiths album, with a sound that hinted that the production consisted of little more than someone pressing ‘record’ on a tape deck and then wandering off to watch television, Back in the D.H.S.S. quickly established itself as an indie classic.
Opening with a rare HMHB instrumental, Back in the D.H.S.S. introduces the unique vocal stylings of Blackwell with “God Gave Us Life”, on which his utterly resigned vocal is ably backed up by the equally non-committal Crossley. The song gives itself gives us a hilariously pithy run down of why, at that point in the mid 80s, modern life wasn’t just rubbish, but if you watch too much TV, it could be utterly soul destroying. Not only this, but it also boasted singing’s most chilling instruction to ‘have a banana’ ever.
Of course, HMHB are known as much for their skilful blending of humour and cultural references, as they are for being the band that John Peel announced he wanted buried with him when he died. Listening to Back in the D.H.S.S. thirty years after its release, you realise that Blackwell’s ability to name drop z-list celebrities and obsess about the minutiae of life was there from the very beginning. Such is Blackwell’s skill with cultural references is born out by the fact that, unless you remember the 80s with pinpoint accuracy, you have no chance of understanding all the references without the aid of Google and Wikipedia. Who knows how many working hours have been lost in the last decade by newcomers to HMHB trying to untangle the references to Fred Titmus, Len Ganley, Bob Todd and the rest of them? Then again, without the World Wide Web, how many hours of sleep would have been lost by those same fans trying to figure out those same references? Whatever the case, it has ensured that down the years, the music of Half Man Half Biscuit has been not only a cultural time capsule of the year it was recorded, but a way of keeping the memories of those Z-list celebrities alive. Of course, this was probably never the intention of Blackwell, but it’s been an enduring side effect nevertheless.
At this stage in their early career, the musicality of HMHB owed a lot to punk. There are regular moments throughout Back in the D.H.S.S. that you wonder if anyone in the band knew how to tune a guitar, or tighten a drum skin, then again, that is much of the band’s charm. The fact that the sound of the album betrayed the fact that it was recorded cheaply was fitting, especially given the political climate at the time. Not for HMHB the soulless drum machines and synthesisers, this was the sound of bored young men playing the cheapest instruments that money could rent, resigned to their lot in life and just trying to get through the week on their own resourcefulness and psychological reserves. Although rarely overtly political, the sound of HMHB’s albums always worked as a sort of social barometer for the working class, therefore due to the fact it was recorded in the mid 80s, Back in the D.H.S.S. sounded suitably short-changed, grumpy and ground down by the mundane.
The lack of production on Back in the D.H.S.S. means that sound-wise it hasn’t aged anywhere near as badly as the vast majority of albums in the 80s. Sonically and spiritually it’s an album that stands alone. Going back to The Smiths, there’s an interesting parallel between Morrissey’s immersion in literature and Blackwell’s obsession with television and football. While The Smiths may have appealed to the pseudo-intellectuals who felt emotionally isolated from the world, Half Man Half Biscuit were a band that were simply more grounded in the reality of everyday life, with their badly tuned instruments and semi-coherent rants about television personalities.
Back in the D.H.S.S. has long been coupled on CD with the equally brilliant Trumpton Riots EP, which was released a year after Back in the D.H.S.S., and effectively gave them not one, but two of their enduring classics in the title track and the immortal “All I Want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit”, however one dangerously close to hit single later, “Dickie Davies Eyes”, and they called it a day. The semi-joking reason for this was that Blackwell felt he was missing too much daytime television, which given how much of a muse it had been to him when writing songs for Back in the D.H.S.S. and The Trumpton Riots, is probably slightly closer to the truth than many realised at the time.
Of course, Half Man Half Biscuit would return in 1990, and since then have recorded a series of albums that have stood defiantly apart from the various trends in ‘Indie’ music since. Unlike many of the big name Indie labels, HMHB’s label Probe Plus, has remained genuinely independent to this day, providing HMHB with a stability that has seen them release an ever-lengthening string of consistently pleasing albums over the last quarter of a century. As gloriously brilliant as each of these albums have been though, none have them have ever attained the same iconic status as Back in the D.H.S.S., which remains Half Man Half Biscuit’s calling card, and Indie’s most Indie album.