Half Man Half Biscuit and the depths of Tranmere Rovers loyalty
In January 1986, Birkenhead was a downtrodden town gripped by vice and torn asunder by drugs. Left to rot by the destructive Thatcher government, Merseyside was earmarked for ‘managed decline’ as jobs dried up and investment ebbed away. The arrival and proliferation of heroin ravaged the one-eyed city, dashing hopes and decimating futures. Hope was in short supply.
No estate in Britain had more teenage heroin users than the Ford, located on the outskirts of Birkenhead. The Observer published an infamous feature about the local community that featured a photograph of local lads sat on a grass verge smoking cannabis and chatting. Of the fifteen people pictured, many are now dead, lost to the crippling nexus of too many drugs and not enough interest from the powers that be.
Amid such a bleak landscape, attendances plummeted at Prenton Park, where Tranmere Rovers, the hometown team, battled to stay in the Football League. Fighting at the foot of division four, Rovers saw crowds dwindle to triple figures on occasion, a sorry requiem for a club in a constant state of flux.
Bruce Osterman, an American lawyer, drove Tranmere into the ground as owner, his startling lack of football acumen matched only by a chronic paucity of funds. The club, much like its town, was on life support.
One group of Birkenhead boys did manage to buck the trend, however, using music as their passport to a better life. In this rough and rugged town, Neil Crossley, a rhythm guitarist, met Nigel Blackwell, who by his own accord was “still robbing cars and playing football like normal people do” while occasionally listening to John Peel, another Wirralian, on the radio. Together, they formed Half Man Half Biscuit, an irreverent band that enjoyed a meteoric rise to notoriety.
Half Man Half Biscuit and the epitome of working class music
At first, the band was merely a vehicle for passing time in the streets and alleyways of Birkenhead. The town resembled a myopic cesspit and Half Man Half Biscuit was fashioned in a similarly haphazard fashion.
The lads messed around with melodies and rhythms, inviting others to join their hobbyist experimentation. They were eventually coaxed toward a recording studio in Liverpool, a short train ride across the Mersey, before touring small venues across Merseyside with their unrefined splodge of loquacious ponderings.
If every town has a soundtrack, Half Man Half Biscuit definitely provide the musical backdrop to Birkenhead, especially in the 1980s. Their first LP, titled Back in the DHSS, was produced in 1985, a gyrating ode to life on the dole.
The juxtaposition between the numbing tedium of everyday existence and the lively optimism of their music made Half Man Half Biscuit a rare treasure. It wasn’t long before widespread acclaim was offered and poetically rejected. Half Man Half Biscuit never did convention.
Half Man Half Biscuit and the most underrated bands of all-time
When a copy of their debut LP was sent to Peel, he thought it a revelation, helping to boost sales of what became the bestselling independent record of 1986. The band built on that momentum, releasing The Trumpton Riots, a single and EP that dug even deeper to the minutiae of social banality.
Their flagrant morbidity, at once recognisable, was strangely uplifting, introducing the concept of a shared struggle against all things bland and boring. Life can be shite, and Half Man Half Biscuit sing about that in a way that affirms your own cynicism.
Perhaps the band’s most famous song, All I Want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit romanticised the Subbuteo craze with lyrics of subtle genius. It also detailed the band’s unwavering passion for football, that other elixir of working-class hope.
True to their roots, Nigel and the band didn’t seek attention, nor did they luxuriate in the media circus that engulfed them. They went about business in a calm, almost lackadaisical manner, never pushing the commercial envelope or selling their soul for stardom.
To them, music was an intrinsic good, fine escapism in a time and town that needed it most. If they sold enough records to pay some bills and cover the cost of a Tranmere season ticket, that was just a happy coincidence.
Half Man Half Biscuit and Tranmere Rovers
Indeed, such devotion to football prevented Half Man Half Biscuit from gaining widespread exposure. Shortly into the new year of 1986, the band was approached by Channel 4, which invited them to perform on The Tube, a live music show presented by Jools Holland.
Unfortunately, Tranmere were at home to Scunthorpe on the Friday night of their proposed appearance, and Half Man Half Biscuit famously chose to watch their beloved Rovers rather than seek the limelight of national TV.
Producers at The Tube even offered to transport the band via helicopter between the stadium and the studio, but the post-punk rockers declined, likely resenting the corporate encroachment upon their matchday routine.
Tranmere won 2-1 before a crowd of 1,417. Nigel Adkins was in goal and Frank Worthington was the manager. One can only question the depths of loyalty this crazy football club inspires from people.
The Tube was instrumental in launching many music careers. The Proclaimers got their first real opportunity on the show while Frankie Goes to Hollywood also made a lasting impression. A host of established artists performed on the show, from Bon Jovi and Depeche Mode to The Jam and The Smiths, but Half Man Half Biscuit never etched their name into such an illustrious list. They probably had more fun sipping Bovril in the Cowshed.
“It’s one of those things where you would feel a bit lost if you weren’t there,” Blackwell said of his Tranmere obsession in a 2010 interview with the Lancashire Evening Post. “I would hate to be missing out on something, and I probably got marginally more excited when I was younger. I was just dragged along at an early age so it’s more of a habit. I don’t particularly look forward to it, and I certainly don’t get excited about it.”
The band released a further single in 1987 and played a benefit gig for the Save Rovers Fund, which raised vital cash to keep Tranmere alive amid mounting debts and chronic apathy. Yet with their popularity still rising, Half Man Half Biscuit decided to split, citing ‘musical similarities’ in typical sardonic wit.
They wandered the abyss for four years before reforming to play at the Reading Festival. Some of their best work was yet to come as the sarcasm cut deeper, the vision got sharper and the satire sliced every aspect of life into farce.
Why Half Man Half Biscuit rank among the greatest lyricists in British music history
If you have never heard of Half Man Half Biscuit, I urge you to explore their back catalogue this week. That’s your homework assignment from this blog. Set aside half an hour, grab a drink, put your feet up and plug in those earphones. Work your way through all 14 albums, the last of which, released just last year, is a modern masterpiece.
I guarantee you will not be disappointed.
In particular, I would like to share one Half Man Half Biscuit song that is often overlooked. Tranmere fans typically rave about the club's musical connection to Dukla Prague, and indeed their iconic away kit can often be seen on the terraces at Prenton Park, worn by fans of a certain vintage. But what if I told you that Half Man Half Biscuit wrote a song that is so obviously about Tranmere it makes you smirk with appreciation?
Released in 1995, Friday Night and the Gates are Low is a lyrical repository of Tranmere Rovers gold. In three minutes and seven seconds, it encapsulates a whole era, transporting you back to that gritty town at that complicated time. The song is so good, I just have to include the full lyrics below. Also check out the video on YouTube.
Friday Night and the Gates are Low
Converted back into a loft
The neighbours came around and scoffed
And called me retro
Who never used to go to the match
Until the family thing got big In the late eighties
Brace of comps in his hand
While home defeats by Jeunesse D’Esch
In the Lux Familiar cup
Are rendered pointless
Shove a seat beneath my arse
Buy the shirt and shorts and socks
Win the keeper’s sweaty jocks
Point a gun down at your foot
Am I supposed to be at home?
And it’s raining
Bastard slip of a sub’s ruined my weekend
‘Cos on crap three million was spent
And if Josh wants a five man tent
There must be forfeits
And now you’re reaching for the Sky
Sit back, relax and watch us die
Even though the others won
I can’t stand any more
‘Cos I can’t stand anymore
You were blind but you will see
Tonight’s attendance: one, two, three
And it’s raining
Bastard slip of a sub’s ruined my weekend
Friday night and I just love complaining
And no I haven’t got anything better to do
An entire cult has formed around deciphering lyrics in Half Man Half Biscuit songs, so often laden with contemporary metaphor and hilarious hyperbole. Indeed, you should definitely follow the HMHB Lyrics Project on Twitter as they collate the finest work of Nige and company. Those tweets will brighten up your day.
The future of music in Birkenhead and Wirral
Half Man Half Biscuit are still writing and performing music. Their latest album, mentioned earlier, features another foray into football. Swerving the Checkatrade ridicules the Football League Trophy, once won by Tranmere, as a pointless competition destroyed by the inclusion of high-ranking youth teams.
It tells the story of a loyal football fan who likes a ‘pint and a brawl,’ but who can’t stomach the soulless Checkatrade Trophy:
Did somebody say James Norwood? Ah, not again, man. Pass the tissues.
Last year, I finally got chance to see Half Man Half Biscuit play live at the O2 Academy in Liverpool with my brother. The band never performed in the city for thirteen years, preferring one-off gigs to mammoth tours and often scheduling more far-flung gigs to coincide with Tranmere away games. Their performance was electric, a homecoming of sorts, and I cannot recommend the band enough.
Nowadays, Birkenhead is still learning to walk again following decades of neglect. Tranmere have returned to the third division, of course, while the recent opening of a vibrant social space at Woodside Ferry Village represents progress. Music is also making a revival on the peninsula, led by Bill Ryder-Jones, one of the finest lyricists of all-time, and Future Yard, a festival that transforms archaic local venues into fertile performance arenas.
Tranmere have occasionally dabbled in their own musical offerings, somehow failing to make any profit from a weekend of concerts featuring The Libertines, The Coral, Little Mix, Reverend and the Makers, Madness and The Farm. It was a shame that Half Man Half Biscuit weren’t involved in Wirral Live a few years back, but then again mammoth cheering crowds were never really their thing.
Nigel in particular is still a regular on the Kop, where he blends into his natural habitat, likely muttering throughout the game about the ghost of Stephen Arthurworrey and the scourge of modern time-wasting. In this regard, Half Man Half Biscuit is a band of the people, for the people and of the people. There is nobody like them.
You can only applaud anyone who makes a living taking the piss out of middle class absurdity while supporting Tranmere Rovers. Here, we see how Half Man Half Biscuit lives in all of us, and we learn to cherish a quirky connection that enhances our soul.
Oh yeah, and if anyone has found a proper transformer, please do share the details. Nice one.