Half Man Half Biscuit (often HMHB) are a British rock band from Birkenhead, Merseyside, active since the mid-1980s, known for satirical, sardonic, and sometimes surreal songs. The group comprises Nigel Blackwell (lead vocals, guitar), Neil Crossley (bass, vocals), Ken Hancock (lead guitar), and Carl Henry (drums), occasionally augmented by a brass player. Throughout their career, they have recorded for Probe Plus records.
Half Man Half Biscuit were formed by two friends from Birkenhead, Neil Crossley (previously with local punk band Venom) and singer, guitarist and songwriter Nigel Blackwell (previously with Split Gut and North of Watford) who was (in his own words) at the time "still robbing cars and playing football like normal people do". In 1979, Blackwell was editing a football fanzine (Left For Wakeley Gage); he met Crossley when he went to see the latter's band play. In 1984, when Half Man Half Biscuit were formed, Crossley moved to bass and the two were joined by Nigel's brother Simon Blackwell (lead guitar) and his friend Paul Wright (drums), both previously with a group called Attempted Moustache. The quartet started to rehearse in the Liverpool-based Vulcan Studios, where they soon turned a five-piece, with David Lloyd now on keyboards.
Their debut album, 1985's Back in the DHSS, topped the UK Indie Chart and reached number 60 in the UK Album Chart. Its title was a play on The Beatles' "Back in the U.S.S.R." and also a reference to the DHSS, the government department that dealt with the unemployed, Nigel Blackwell having been on unemployment benefits since 1979. The band's first single, "The Trumpton Riots", topped the British independent chart in 1986, and they went on to perform at Glastonbury Festival. They were post-punk, similar to Josef K or The Fall. The second single, "Dickie Davies Eyes", also topped the indie chart. In late 1986, the band split up, giving as reason "musical similarities". The album ACD, containing previously issued, unreleased and live tracks, followed.
The band reformed in 1990, with a performance at the Reading Festival following, and a new single, "Let's Not" issued before the year was out, followed in 1991 by a collaboration with Margi Clarke on a version of Edith Piaf's "No Regrets". The third album was McIntyre, Treadmore And Davitt, released in October 1991. By the time This Leaden Pall was released in 1993, Wright and Lloyd had left the band, with Carl Alty joining on drums. Simon Blackwell left the following year, with Ian S Jackson joining. Jackson (who later joined Rooney) and Alty (who joined Joyrider) departed in 1996, to be replaced by Ken Hancock (guitar) and Carl Henry (drums), this line-up remaining to this day. Since reforming, the band have produced an album every two or three years.
Half Man Half Biscuit were championed by DJ John Peel, for whom they recorded twelve sessions, and it was on his programme in 1990 that the band announced their return.
The band played live more infrequently. Half Man Half Biscuit turned down the chance to appear on The Tube, as Tranmere Rovers were playing that night, even though Channel Four offered to fly them by helicopter to the game. Blackwell has been a fan of the team since "sometime after the Coventry City cup win in 1968".
The band's styles parody popular genres, while their lyrics allude to UK popular culture and geography. Blackwell often refers to Wirral and to North Wales, often in the context of hillwalking in Snowdonia; he also appears fond of Shropshire, East Anglia, The West Country, and Oxfordshire) and British or international football. Sylvia Plath, Thomas Hardy, and the Bible are referenced in his lyrics.
As the 1990s progressed, Blackwell's love of blues and folk became more apparent. In 2002, Andy Kershaw dubbed them "the most authentic English folk group since The Clash". Bassist Crossley's tastes include late 1970s and early 1980s new wave or post-punk bands, and during live sets HMHB have performed covers of acts as diverse as Joy Division, Magazine, Tim Buckley, The Beach Boys, Tommy James and the Shondells and Ike and Tina Turner.
In 2001, Blackwell provided the voiceover for a BP television advert.
In April 2010, the band's song "Joy Division Oven Gloves" from their 2005 album Achtung Bono was the subject of a Facebook campaign to get it to No. 6 on the chart for 12 April 2010, in response to the rumoured closure of the indie-supporting radio station BBC 6 Music. The song reached No. 56 on 11 April 2010: this was their first ever UK Top 75 chart appearance. It also reached No. 3 in the Official Independent Singles chart the same week, and was No. 1 in the HMV UK Digital Downloads Top 40 Tracks on 16 April, knocking Ultravox's song Vienna off the top spot – itself part of a separate Facebook campaign the previous week.
Victoria Loop has played live several times with the band on tenor horn, cornet and bass guitar. She is affectionately known as 'The 5th Biscuit'.
Andy Kershaw has described Half Man Half Biscuit as "England's greatest folk band" and "the most authentic British folk band since The Clash". James Dodd on Bido Lito! praised (as many others did) Blackwell's "uncanny way of chronicling two of his greatest passions in life: television and small-town England". Eliza Carthy praised the band for their "pathos disguised with wit and sarcasm", describing Blackwell as a "genius". Journalist Ben Myers has described Blackwell's lyrics as "the antithesis of most rock songs, and iconoclastic in their total avoidance of cliche".
Geoff Davies of Probe Plus recalled that after hearing a test pressing of Back in the D.H.S.S, John Peel said "Geoff, what's this, I've just played the first side of this, what is it, tell me, it's just fantastic and all". Other famous Peel quotes about the band include "I've said it before, a national treasure, there's no question about it. When I die, I want them to be buried with me." (14 August 1996) and "In a decently ordered society, members of Half Man Half Biscuit would be routinely carried shoulder high through the streets of every city they visited" (10 July 1997).
According to music writer Paul Du Noyer:
"The genius of Half Man Half Biscuit is that they took just enough of Scouse culture to give themselves an edge, but kept their distance too. From their Wirral bastion they issue occasional dispatches of wry hilarity and downbeat, satirical bite. The songs of their leader, Nigel Blackwell, suggest a very real world of people too educated to be on the dole but too luckless or lazy to be anywhere else. They take a witty revenge on the drivel of popular culture, without denying their fascination with it. They seem flintily incorruptible, and scan the London music media with a mocking eye for cant."
English writer Julie Burchill has praised their "supremely clever and funny lyrics", and described the band as "punk with a sense of humour and a sense of perspective".
References to Half Man Half Biscuit can be found on episodes of Brookside, Hollyoaks and Byker Grove, as well as an episode of Football Focus and the BBC serial Elidor.