Just Above Sunset
September 11, 2005 - Whitweek Malarkey, and Other Songs

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Our Man in London is Mike McCahill.

Mike McCahill was born in Warwickshire, England in 1978. He currently works as a film critic for The Scotsman, The Sunday Telegraph and the BBC, while trying to string together novels, screenplays and travel guides for places he's never actually been to. Mike divides his time between the Midlands and London, where professional duty requires he spend at least the first part of every week sitting in small dark rooms. With a couple of exceptions, he is open to offers.

For this week's column, something of an experiment.  In previous weeks, I've tried to bring to your attention certain aspects of British life that translate more than easily into other cultures.  Cricket, for example, can be understood as a different form of baseball.  And British politics is like American politics, only smaller.  But this week, I'm going to try and explain the appeal of something that perhaps can't be explained to anyone outside Britain.  Or maybe it can.  Here goes.


Sitting in front of me as I type this is my complete collection of recordings by the group Half Man Half Biscuit.  Monday sees the release of their latest CD, Achtung Bono, in the UK.  In my humble opinion, HMHB are the best British band around - and when I write "British", I don't mean British in the sense that Coldplay - whose songs have just as much relevance to lonely hearts in small apartments the whole world over - are British, but instead uniquely, untranslatably British.


In our homogenised, globalised times - where an American film version of the Nick Hornby novel Fever Pitch can be sold back to us with the title The Perfect Catch, and everyone everywhere sells the same damn burgers - this is something, I think, to be cherished.  HMHB songs tend to be front-loaded with references to everyday life in the UK: the names of very minor local celebrities, popular regional holidays, small chains of supermarkets.


They are also very, very funny, albeit in a way that might not strike a foreign audience on a first listen.  (Their fan site has had to run a glossary of terms and references on the new album for those who don't know their Brize Norton from their Amanda Burton.)  An early indication of how their music might not entirely translate to an American audience in particular is that "Biscuit" in the band name: more cookie than bread roll, in British parlance, and absolutely nothing in common with the biscuit of Limp Bizkit.


Still, much of what's generally thought of as the British sense of humour is here.  As titles go, Achtung Bono is easily enough understood, as a play on U2's Achtung Baby.  (With tracks such as Eno Collaboration, Four Skinny Indie Kids and Get Kramer, HMHB have always been good on lancing the pretensions of the music industry, and Bono has - with Live8 - been more prominent of late than he has been in years.)  And one of the tracks on the new album is entitled We Built This Village On A Trad. Arr. Tune, clearly inspired by Starship's We Built This City (On Rock And Roll­).  Even so, for the joke to be as clear as the band might like, you'd need to know that "Trad. Arr. Tune" is a common abbreviation (for "traditionally arranged tune") in British hymnbooks and on musical scores.


My fear is that I'm making the band sound more like a British version of Weird Al Yankovic than perhaps they (and I) would like.  True, HMHB share Yankovic's gift for wordplay and parody, and ear for a fine melody, but there's a great deal more sincerity at play here.  Take, for example, their lush 2000 song It's Clichéd To Be Cynical At Christmas: a fair point wrapped up in choral accompaniment and seasonal bells.  The very sweet love-song-for-football-fans Mathematically Safe.  Or the genuine irritation expressed at the low contemporary standards of customer service in 24 Hour Garage People.


Not to take everything the band record too seriously.  This is, after all, the group responsible for some of the funniest titles and track listings of all time.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Deep House Victims Minibus Appeal, 99% of Gargoyles Look Like Bob Todd, Tending The Wrong Grave for 23 Years, On Passing Lilac Urine, and Reasons To Be Miserable.  (The latter, obviously, a downcast take on Ian Dury's Reasons To Be Cheerful (Part Three).)


It's hard not to warm to a band whose great comeback single was called, with a typical lack of fuss, Let's Not.  And what about Breaking News, a hit-list of individuals (bus drivers who drive off before their passengers have sat down, a room full of drama teachers listening to Björk, people who own antique Aga ovens but don't know how to use them) who've been arrested on charges of "annoying the nation"?


In their twentieth year now, the band show no signs of slowing down (they've forever operated at their own pace, which helps).  Not surprisingly, as there's still so much in and about British life that needs to be addressed satirically or sarcastically: the rash of nano-celebrities spawned by reality television, for example, or what it truly means to support a struggling lower-division football club.  (See Friday Night and the Gates Are Low for further details.)  Perhaps that's why their work has such resonance here: unlike a lot of bands and acts with ambitions to take on the world, or crack an America that doesn't really want to be cracked, thank you very much (yes, Robbie Williams and Oasis, that's you), Half Man Half Biscuit seem content to sort out their own back garden first.


Still, one of the joys of the Internet age is that bands' work, however obscure, isn't solely limited to independent, out-of-the-way vinyl stores (as undoubtedly was the case back in the mid-1980s, when HMHB first started out) but available to be downloaded or bought online.  As an HMHB fan, you enter into a peculiar social contract: being obliged to quote their lyrics ad infinitum to everyone you meet, or whenever it strikes one as apt; to form or reject lasting friendships depending on whether the other party finds said lyrics amenable; to place at least one of the group's tracks on every compilation tape or CD you will ever make.


I am telling you all this in the hope you will disappear to one or more of the socially-responsible download mechanisms currently operating on the Web and locate the appropriate songs.  If it strikes you as funny, nothing will cheer you up as much through the long winter months coming up in front of us - for winter in the North of England (which is where the band hail from) is colder than most.  I suspect, though, that the group's wonderful, glorious parochialism means my attempts to break the band in the U.S. are doomed to failure.  There is a tiny glimmer of hope, but as Half Man Half Biscuit put it themselves, with the scepticism we in the UK are proud to call our own: The Light at the End of the Tunnel (Is The Light of an Oncoming Train).


Mike McCahill

September 9, 2005



Copyright © 2005 – Mike McCahill

Email the author at mikemccahill@fastmail.fm








Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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