I had arranged to meet my friend and literary mentor, Michael Stewart, in the Fenton. I walked there through the rain straight after work. The last time I had set foot in the Fenton was on the day of my PhD graduation ceremony in 1996. It had not changed.
At the bar were two metal-head students who were asking for the volume on the jukebox to be turned up. One of them was playing air guitar to something that I could not recognise. While I was waiting for my pint to be topped-up, I told him that I had won an air guitar competition. He told me he would be up for a challenge later on if I wanted.
The next time I went to the bar, the same metal-heads were still there, but their selection of heavy rock on the jukebox had been replaced by ‘Every Breath You Take’ by The Police. Air Guitar Student was singing along to it, with considerable feeling. This somewhat surprised me, and his apparent willingness to immerse himself in whatever he could hear was something that seemed admirable.
I established myself in the corner of a vacant room which contained the pool table and the iridescent, pink jukebox. A sign next to the pool table contained scarcely-concealed rebuke to the student clientele: A £5 DEPOSIT IS PAYABLE ON POOL BALLS AND CUES. THIS WILL BE RETURNED IF THE EQUIPMENT IS RETURNED IN THE SAME STATE IN WHICH IT WAS GIVEN OUT. WHEN YOU HAVE FINISHED YOUR LAST GAME, DO NOT POT THE CUE BALL, AS THE TABLE WILL SWALLOW IT AND YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO COLLECT YOUR DEPOSIT. This is my second-favourite sign of recent times, my current favourite being the one at Radio Phoenix studios in Halifax, on the weekly-schedule whiteboard, which says, DO NOT DEFACE THIS BOARD BY EITHER WRITING ON IT OR RUBBING OUT LETTERS IN ORDER TO MAKE OFFENSIVE WORDS.
Michael arrived, bringing his friend, Andy, whom I had met once before at a party at Michael’s house. We had another two pints and then went to the Dry Dock, a pub inside an old narrow boat. The only real ale they had on was something I had never heard of before called ‘Diken’ but which Michael and Andy recommended. We ordered three pints of it, but it was off, and so we had bottled beer instead.
The students’ union had been completely refurbished inside, and seemed tidier, less cluttered and more modern than I remembered it. The auditorium was full. There was no real ale at the bar, and so we drank Red Stripe at £3.60 a can.
Except on occasions when I have got lost on the way to a previously unknown venue, I have never arrived so shortly before the main band came on. Gigs when I was a student seemed to begin with never-ending sound checks, always followed by never-ending, appallingly bad support acts. A completely anonymous support band was just finishing as we got our drinks. Half Man Half Biscuit came on a few minutes later.
Two things struck me about the performance.
The first was that HMHB have to be just about the most visually insignificant rock band I have ever seen. Nigel Blackwell stepped up to the microphone looking like some-one who has a Millett’s store card. If he had not been on a stage and carrying a Fender, you would have had no data to place him in a rock band at all. He has a shaved pate of the kind that makes him look like a plasterer’s mate rather than a skinhead. The other members (none of whom I could name without looking them up) reminded me of that character that used to appear on Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out who was bald and wore a lab coat with a breast pocket full of pens (except they had no pens and had also been using the Millett’s store card). That is apart from the drummer, who had a full head of slightly bouffant hair, in something like the style of the poet, Ian McMillan, but who played the drums as if, while doing so, he was also trying to recall every entry in the Middlesbrough telephone directory.
The second thing was how much harder the music sounded live than it does on a recording. It was not just the volume: it was something in the way it was played. HMHB deliberately mimic styles other than rock or blues. For example, RSVP, track 2 on 90 Bisodol (Crimond) is a pastiche of country and western. But there was more of an edge to the way they sounded at this gig than any other time I have heard them. Nigel Blackwell is not the greatest singer in the history of rock music, but his voice is admirably suited to the character of the band’s lyrics. He can sound angry if he needs to, but he usually does whimsy better. Last night he sounded more gravelly than usual.
My favourite number they did last night was Left Lyrics In The Practice Room. 90 Bisodol (Crimond) is one of only two HMHB records I have that were made after the split in 1986 and re-formation in 1990. The other one is the single, No Regrets, with some vocals by Margi Clarke. I am certainly going to work my way through the rest of the catalogue, and listen to such gems as National Shite Day, which I am bitterly sorry I missed when they first came out.
I had to leave just before the end, in order to get the last train back to Wakefield, but it was still a very satisfying performance. I wonder when, if ever, I will see them again and if, like the last time but not this one, it will include getting into a fight while wearing Harry Potter spectacles, corduroy trousers, and a Marks & Spencer cardigan.
http://www.jumborecords.co.uk/index.asp Jumbo Records, where I used to hang out as a teenager, and from whose website I bought my ticket.
http://www.hmhb.co.uk/ The band’s official website