"I could have been like Lou Barlow, but I'm more like Ken Barlow."
Half Man Half Biscuit are one of those bands where if you’re a fan you either have, or want, everything they’ve ever recorded (a pristine copy of “No Regrets” still eludes me). By contrast if you’re not a fan then you’ll be baffled as to why such a stupidly named novelty act would inspire such devotion from their fanbase and have had a career which spans the best part of three decades. The thing with HMHB is that, silly band name aside, there’s nothing novelty about them. Quite the opposite infact. They’re an anti-novelty act. HMHB are grounded in reality in a manner that very few bands are and radiate a type of integrity that we should all hope to achieve. That’s why calling an odds and sods collection And Some Fell on Stony Ground is just so damn fitting. Other songwriters can only aspire to the levels of literary and cultural brilliance that the self-deprecating Nigel Blackwell achieves without realising it. While hugely successful acts tackle the big issues in their songwriting, Blackwell is the one writing about everything else. The issues that fall in the cracks between the big issues and the little issues that make up the big issues on a sub-atomic level.
Blackwell’s lyrics are for many fans the Unique Selling Point of HMHB, however that would be overlooking the significant contributions of the rest of the band. Co-founder, bass-player and backing vocalist Neil Crossley’s solid and dependable stage presence puts me in mind of an indie John Entwistle and his playing can pin a whole HMHB song down all on its own. Over the last twenty years Drummer Carl Henry has been the other half of one of the most overlooked rhythm sections in music, playing as simply or as complex as the song demands without being over-powering or ineffective. During that time HMHB’s secret weapon though has been guitar player Ken Hancock, the most enigmatic and mysterious member of the band. Hancock effectively embodies what every drop-dead-cool guitar player tries to emulate, but few ever master. From searing heavy metal riffs to rousing acoustic skiffle, Hancock can mould his technique and sound to whatever is required, yet still surprise, astound and delight at the most unexpected moments. When the tastemakers compile the lists of greatest guitar players, Hancock never appears, but that’s probably because he’s just too damn cool to.
As a band, Half Man Half Biscuit have long let their albums speak for themselves. Outside of the CD version of Back in the DHSS, which has the much celebrated Trumpton Riots EP attached, and the almost intentionally awkward Back Again in the DHSS / ACD – a collection of standalone singles, B-sides, radio sessions and a sub-no-fi selection of live numbers recorded in the bottom of a duffle bag that had been left at the back of The Leadmill, they have released no compilations, best ofs, or ironically titled would-be greatest hits collections. Instead they have relied on their thirteen albums to seal their reputation as the most pure-breed indie band in the UK. Singles and EP releases have been rare, and are long since out of print. However, if there is something that HMHB and the noble Probe Plus record label understand, it’s that there is no such thing as a casual Half Man Half Biscuit fan. If you’re a fan of the band, you’re a completest, pure and simple. That’s where And Some Fell on Stony Ground comes in as the solution for those HMHB fans who never got their hands on those singles and EPs despite countless weekends of fruitlessly scouring second hand music stores, as it collects those stray singles and EPs in one place. Or at least most of them.
The earliest material on And Some Fell on Stony Ground pre-dates Henry and Hancock’s tenure with HMHB. “Ordinary to Enschede” was the b-side of 1991 single “Lets Not”, which itself was featured on their splendid ‘return of HMHB’ album, Mcintyre, Treadmore and Davitt. A singalong post-punk delight, it’s a strong example of how even a B-side by HMHB is considerably better than almost any other song by anyone else ever.
The return of HMHB was well received by the few who cared, and they continued to release great albums, however as they headed into the late 90s, they were being treat as very much part of the furniture as regards the British music scene, ageing court jesters if you will in a much bigger and younger kingdom of guitar-slinging indie acts.
Except they weren’t.
As is pretty much accepted these days, the majority of what passed as ‘Indie’ back in the mid-90s, were actually major-label backed groups. In an odd twist of fate, HMHB, the most authentic and honest band in indiedom, were actually seen as little more than a jokey novelty act, when in fact they were considerably more worthwhile and worthy than anyone who was topping the charts at the time.
As you may have guessed, Brian Eno didn’t have anything to do with the Eno Collaboration EP – instead it is a well-aimed swing at the pompous and patronising rock stars that Eno has produced over his long and varied career (yes U2, we’re looking at you!). That this is done via a tune in the style of a very British version of garage rock (shed rock?) and sprinkled liberally with smart word play (i.e. probably the last thing you’d expect Eno to produce). You’d never hear anything like this released by a Britpop act.
Like the title track, ”C.A.M.R.A Man” was featured on the splendid album Voyage to the Bottom of the Road, however where the title track on the EP is a different version to that on the parent album, ”C.A.M.R.A Man” was identical, and therefore is not included on And Some Fell on Stony Ground, as the very thought of ‘ripping off ‘ their fans by duplicating songs they already have in their collection just doesn’t appeal to HMHB and Probe Plus.
If the title track pierces pomposity of Bono and his mates, “Get Kramer” does exactly the same for the allegedly ‘Indie’ types who went out of their way to get ‘cool’ producers in to twiddle their knobs in the studio during the 90s. That this tune then morphs into a demo by (possibly fictional) no-hopers Liquid Greek being sent to Creation Records boss Alan McGee only adds to the cutting nature of the song as a whole (McGee at the time having a reputation for signing any old crap).
The Eno Collaboration EP closes with the strumming of “Hair Like Brian May Blues”, which is a funny little tune that sets you giggling rather than actually being an all out attack on the Queen guitar player. Sadly it doesn’t quite measure up to the standard of it’s three siblings, but it is strangely effective as a coda to worthy release that was inevitably ignored by all but HMHB’s hardcore fans (aka all their fans).
The B-sides to 1999’s “Look Dad No Tunes” are chronologically next, though And Some Fell on Stony Ground is arranged so that, while the releases themselves are grouped together and their constituent tracks remain largely in original order, they are sequenced to optimise the flow of the album. With their A-side already a part of the Trouble Over Bridgewater album, the equally wonderful “Ecclesiastical Perks” remains a great tune, with the perks ranging from preaching naked from the waist-down and being to get ‘some’ from Archie when the rumour was that Archie didn’t have any… This is then bolstered by the short and sweet “Lock Up Your Mountain Bikes”, another wonderfully observed song which holds a magnifying glass to the absurdities of everyday existence.
While they had never been anything less than brilliant, 2001’s Editor’s Recommendation EP saw Blackwell and his bandmates shifting up to a gear from which they really haven’t dropped since.
From the glam-esque “Bob Wilson – Anchor Man”, to “Worried Man Blues”, the tune-count is particularly rich, but special mention should got to “New York Skiffle”, which demolishes the mystique of The Velvet Underground in just over two minutes using little more than brushed, drums, clever wordplay and a banjo. Best track though is “Lark Descending”, the story of one man’s journey through mediocrity while aspiring to the coolness of his American alt-rock heroes. Really, who among us hasn’t done that?
Editor’s Recommendation closes out And Some Fell on Stony Ground, and is the only release on which the sequencing has been tweaked, however few fans will argue with the changes, as the result ensures that the last few tracks of the compilation bring it to the best conclusion possible.
Following Editor’s Recommendation, and the astounding Cammell Laird Social Club album, Saucy Haulage Ballads was another surprisingly effective EP, which effectively demonstrates everything that was and remains great about the current incarnation of HMHB, from the punkish rant of “Jarg Armani”, to the splendidly realised “On Finding The Studio Banjo”.
As And Some Fell on Stony Ground demonstrates, HMHB have always had a habit of sticking brilliant songs on the B-sides of singles or tucking them away on EPs, and Saucy Haulage Ballads was no different, as “Tending The Wrong Grave for 23 Years” is one of the best things they have ever recorded and manages to be touching, heartbreaking and hilarious all in under four minutes. Saucy Haulage Ballads closes with the tender and delicate “I Went to a Wedding”, a song which shows just how sophisticated and pretty HMHB can be when they put their minds to it, though it must be admitted that the football terrace chant at the end raises a smile.
Chronologically the final track on this compilation is “David Wainwright’s Feet” a seemingly throwaway track that was featured on 2006’s Colours Are Brighter (Songs for Children), an album released on Rough Trade to raise money for Save the Children. Yes, on it’s surface it’s a juvenile tune, but it’s morale of choosing comfort over fashion is one that we should all take heed of.
While the individual releases that make up And Some Fell on Stony Ground are sequenced out of order, it does a marvellous job as a mopping-up exercise for those that have been unable to track down the original releases. As a collection of songs, it’s light years beyond the equivalent releases of any other act you could mention, however it is not exhaustive. While I know it is ungallant to bellyache about the fact that Half Man Half Biscuit’s version of the Charles Dumont and Michel Vaucaire classic, “Non, je ne regrette rien”, has been omitted, few who have heard their version on which Blackwell duets with Margi Clarke will dispute that it is ultimately heart-wrenching and unarguably the definitive rendition. “No Regrets” isn’t the only much-loved HMHB number missing in action either, as “Mars Ultras (You’ll Never Make the Station)”, “Mr Cave’s a Window Cleaner Now” and the haunting “Epiphany” only exist as rarely-heard sessions recorded for John Peel. Perhaps these will be resurrected in years to come on full albums, but given that the earliest of these songs is now over 25 years old, it seems unlikely.
During the fifteen years that And Some Fell on Stony Ground covers, Half Man Half Biscuit were barely mentioned in the NME, tstrangers to the glossy pages of Q Magazine, and the writers of Rolling Stone would no doubt look at you blankly if your mentioned HMHB to them. Even respected music rags like Mojo, Uncut and The Word would only grace them with a couple of column inches when they released a new album.
These days it does seem that that Half Man Half Biscuit are belatedly getting the recognition they always deserved, as they continue to provide a sharp contrast to the glossy, lowest-common denominator reality-show talent-contest music industry that exists today, where everyone is on ‘a journey’, and that’s unarguably a good thing. They prove that amazing music can be made by real, ordinary people with proper personalities, opinions and backgrounds without having to compromise or market themselves to the masses. They are however a vital part of the British musical landscape, regardless of the minimal sales, press coverage and airplay. They are the UK’s greatest indie band. Forget The Smiths, The Stone Roses, Felt, or any of the Britpop hordes. HMHB even make The Fall look successful and mainstream and in doing so should give heart to all those whose talent far outweighs their access to financial resources. Though they would never admit it, HMHB may very well be the most important band in the UK today.