Not much to report in the fortnight since the Holmfirth show, so maybe this is a good time to bore you stiff with details of some of the books that I read during the lockdown. Possibly so.
During the hiatus, I addressed a considerable backlog of reading, beginning with a struggle through John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. Clearly a highly influential book, but not exactly a page turner. I explained this to Tony (by text, of course. I could no longer do this face to face.) I wondered if Mill had any friends. "Not many" was Tony's reply.
Next up was Michael Palin's journal of his visit to North Korea. Seems like the Koryo Hotel is the place to stay if and when HMHB ever play in Pyongyang. Then I turned to The Man Behind The Mask, being the memoirs of Kendo Nagasaki aka Peter Thornley. An interesting life well lived. But he doesn't mention anything about the HMHB song. More's the pity. It would have been nice to know what he thought of it.
I then moved on to Mr Gig by Nige Tassell, "one man's search for the soul of live music." Chapter Nine takes him to see HMHB in Durham. That would be the gig at the end of 2010. The previous chapter takes him to an Elbow gig at Cardiff Arena. Nige compares Elbow's fleet of articulated lorries with HMHB's struggles to fit all band members and gear into their hired Transit for the drive home. Some things never change. It's a grand read from start to end. I agree with the author when he says "My blood still simmers over inexplicably high booking fees and overly talkative audiences." The book was first published in 2013. You've probably read it already, but just in case, it was published by Short Books, so have a look round for their web site. You might still be able to get a copy.
When that was done, I read Grace Maxwell's Falling And Laughing, sub-titled "the restoration of Edwyn Collins". Grace had been Edwyn's manager and partner when he was in Orange Juice, and continued as such as he moved into his solo career. A Girl Like You and all that. Then came the stroke. Grace's story continues through his time in hospital, up to his return to the stage and writing new songs and getting back to drawing birdlife. As usual, I was well behind the times with this one. It was published by Ebury Press in 2010. HMHB fans, taking note of the lyric in Keeping Two Chevrons Apart, will be interested to see Grace's thoughts on Edwyn's ability to deal with the press. "He was interviewed across all the major radio stations, and on television, some recorded, some going out live, and managed it all with total aplomb." Not a football commentary in sight. Add this book to your shopping list. And buy all Edwyn's music as well. You won't go far wrong. (The "a" word also appeared on an edition of Springwatch. Chris Packham described some Tree Creeper chicks as fledging "with aplomb".)
Stewart Lee's March Of The Lemmings included a mention or two of The Nightingales. Nothing about HMHB though. He is not a fan of Brexit, that is fairly clear. From Stewart's book, I moved on to Imagine A Country, a collection of thoughts from Scottish writers on how they see the future. None of them, Peter Ross included, speculated on HMHB heading north again. It'll happen again, one day.
The reading matter kept coming. I had made progress with Ben Elton's Dead Famous when July's edition of When Saturday Comes hit the newspaper stands. It was their 400th edition. Still as hale and hearty as ever. There was plenty of reflection on how things were when the magazine first appeared in 1986. One article reflected on crossovers, although incongruous, between football and rock music. "It was there, however, not just in the allusions of The Undertones but also Half Man Half Biscuit." The magazine also had a feature of photographs in and around Prenton Park. One for the Tranmere completists. (While typing this, by the way, I have just heard Radcliffe And Maconie play Same But Different by Vashti Bunyan. Never actually heard anything by her before. All grist to the mill.)
Approaching the end of John Shuttleworth's excellent guide to everyday life, Two Margerines And Other Domestic Dilemmas, I reached the lyric(s) of his song Dandelion And Burdock. "Cycling with my peers / The wind whistling past my ears / As we reached Mam Tor / I was grateful for / My Sturmey Archer gears." If I close my eyes and imagine hard enough, I can visualise John joining in with Nigel in the gear-changing mime during A Lilac Harry Quinn.
Karl Whitney's Hit Factories is a good read that takes us round a variety of cities, exploring the links between industry and music. He visits Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull, Glasgow, Belfast, Birmingham, Coventry and Bristol. He also heads to Liverpool where he meets a certain Geoff Davies. In that section, where Probe Plus is referenced, "Wirral surrealists Half Man Half Biscuit" also get a mention. Brief and to the point.
At Christmas, Santa was generous enough to bring me a copy of Stuart Maconie's book The Nanny State Made Me. Here Stuart looks back at his upbringing and examines life in general. "I have lived most of my life a happy and grateful citizen of the state. I will die in its arms." In one of the chapters, Stuart heads to Birkenhead, and meets up with one Nigel Blackwell. Nigel shows him round Birkenhead Park, "the first truly public park anywhere" which was also the model for New York's Central Park. Stuart is very complimentary about Nigel. "If Nigel ever decides to give up on hilariously critiquing contemporary social mores through angular indie rock, he would make an excellent and unique tour guide." Well, that's something to look forward to. This is a fine book. You could do worse than ask Santa for a copy next Christmas.
Frome was featured in an article in The New Issue (this magazine being an offshoot of The Big Issue). It seems the town council has undergone a bit of a revolution, with the voters rejecting mainstream parties and instead opting for candidates describing themselves as Independents For Frome. They call it Flatpack Democracy, where no one can sit for more than two four-year stands. The then deputy mayor is the drummer in a hardcore punk band, The Sick Ones. The Cheese And Grain was renovated, and is now described as a community (but not "creative") hub. And it runs on sustainable energy. There was plenty of that on display tonight in the mosh pit.
We took a view about getting to the gig. We broke up the journey, stopping in Bristol the night before – our first visit there since HMHB's final pre-lockdown show in March 2020. Train from Wakefield Westgate. It was like Play Your Cards Right, watching the delay of the train as it altered minute by minute. Higher! Lower! Higher! Lower! When it arrived, it was fourteen minutes behind schedule. On board, we decided to see off the Quick Crossword in the Metro newspaper. Quick? Everything is relative. We did our best. The train took us past Yate. Inevitably we saw a couple of static caravans. Life imitating art yet again? Let's hope there's a referee living in one of them.
Come on into Nigel Blackwell's world. Waking up on the morning of the gig we stuck the telly on and found ourselves watching an episode of Carla Lane's Bread. A rendition of Let's Not at Frome would have been apt. We also saw a half-hour or so of a countdown of Christmas Number Ones on Now TV. 26th November and the season is upon us. We saw Cliff, Spice Girls, Pet Shop Boys and Girls Aloud, as well as the Cordle dude off X Factor. I was surprised that Karen didn't know the ah-aah-ah-aah opening to When A Child Is Born. I dare say that Slade and Wizzard appeared after we had to leave for the Frome train. And HMHB of course. They did reach the top of the charts, didn't they?
All very straightforward on the train, including completion of the Metro Quick crossword for the second day on the bounce. And into Frome. Top beef pie at the George And Granary where we were staying. We saw the band, who had arrived early in the afternoon. Wise move, as it was the evening of the Christmas Light Switch On, with traffic and parking issues predicted. Maybe HMHB could have multi-tasked and switched the lights on? Or would it be local boy Jenson Button? Maybe the drummer from Supergrass, who lives locally? Well actually, according to the local inside knowledge it was the Mayor.
Doing a paper review proved fruitless. Metro, Frome Standard and Western Daily Press all chose to ignore this gig. So, what's new? The only publicity to be found was an A4 poster in the window at the venue. On arrival, we were allowed inside the venue to queue up at the door of the hall, rather than being left outside at the mercy of Storm Arwen, which was just getting cranked up. At the front with us were Tony, Andrew and Phil. There was a pretender to the throne of King Of Hi Vis, but John's hi vis face mask won the day again.
As we milled around, John and Andrew said they had crossed paths at a Billy Bragg gig in Nottingham. I've not seen him for a fair few years. Graham said Hello, and I got talking to Lisa who had seen HMHB many years ago, when the second phase began in the early 1990s. Then Postman Tony turned up, sporting his newly purchased 90 Bisodol hoodie. And Andy from Scotland was there, telling us of an anticipated eleven-hour journey home the following day. Tony suggested getting hold of one of his school register books, to keep tabs on who is present and absent at these things. Didn't catch the name of the guy who said he shouted for Operators Manual at the Bristol gig. He did it again tonight. Nigel responded with a thumbs-up. A cover version being stored away for the future?
The PA music was an interesting mash-up. I heard Wichita Linesman. And there was Paul Young in there as well, with Bittersweet Symphony also thrown in. We even had some Michael Jackson in the mix.
The West Wickhams were supporting tonight. They were with HMHB the last time they appeared in Northampton. There are just the two of them. There was a slight delay with tuning up the guitar but they were worth the wait. I recognised Where The Creatures Roam, Goathland and Acquired A New Face. They said "We're a bit rusty but it's nice to be back after two years." No need to wait so long before we see them again. They are also on the bill with HMHB at Shrewsbury in December.
You can always tell when HMHB are about to begin. That is when Daz and Howie arrive, having seen to a number of the pubs in town. On cue, the walk-on music struck up, being Dirty Boy by The Cardiacs.
Nigel made great play of shaking hands with everyone on the front row before using gel to clean his hands. And I noticed a certain synchronisation with the band's clothing policy. Nigel and Carl were wearing plain white tops. Neil and Karl were wearing black. Part way to turning into The Beatles? This was a return to past glories for Karl. In 2007 he had stood in for an ill Ken for a couple of gigs (here and in Cardiff). "Hope you enjoyed the Christmas parade," said Nigel. "We were standing outside Card Factory." He had wanted to sing Men Of Harlech when it passed by. "Me and the mayor, we're like that," he said, entwining his fingers. "Saw him earlier."
First celebrity spot of the evening was "Jenson Button, ladies and gentlemen". Or at least it was someone who looked like him. "And that is definitely Sophie Rayworth." Later on in the evening, he also picked out Derek Griffiths.
"This is called Start," said Nigel before they played When The Evening Sun Goes Down. There was some fine glebe cow drooling sounds from Karl's guitar during Tending The Wrong Grave. So much so, that Nigel requested a second hearing. And with Bob Wilson Anchorman, the introduction was merely "Here's one we wrote." Nigel made the devil's horns sign at Karl at the playing of Black Night.
In Renfield's Afoot, warm clothing was ESSENTIAL! In capital letters and with an exclamation mark. And police torches were not allowed, as they would frighten the bats. In The Bastard Son Of Dean Friedman, Bette Midler still has a puma and Marilyn Monroe is still on the scag.
Tony shouted to Nigel that Dave Stewart has a guitar just like his, at which point Nigel looked disappointed and made to hand his guitar over. "You've spoiled my evening," he said. But Tony added that Bob Dylan also has one. That met with Nigel's approval. "Bob Dylan pisses on Dave Stewart," he added.
Nigel had spoken with some folk from Scotland. He correctly identified they were from Kelvingrove in Glasgow, from their accents. He told the story of meeting a guy in Birkenhead who had a chow dog with him. Nigel patted himself on the back for correctly placing the guy's Scottish accent. Apparently, Carl also used to keep chows.
In reply to repeated shouts for For What Is Chatteris ("how many times do I have to ask?" was the cry from the despairing punter), Nigel replied "Is that the only one you know?", as well as the customary "Yeah, that's one of ours." He asked if anyone was coming back the following night to see The Sweet. Nigel said he knows the cousin of The Sweet's Andy Scott, but he isn't into music so much. He started Totnes with their line "Are you ready, Steve?".
Nigel related a story. "We were on a country lane. On the side of the road was a fox. Next to the fox was a suitcase full of cubs. I rang the RSPCA. They asked me if they were moving. I said probably. That would explain the suitcase." There was also a joke about a quiz question dealing with the actors from Love Thy Neighbour. Sorry but I simply did not pick up the gist of that one.
At the end of Every Time A Bell Rings, the crowd earned a salute from Nigel for a hearty chorus of "Get Your Fuckin' Hedge Cut." During 99% Of Gargoyles, Nigel pointed out to Karl that they had already done the same guitar riff during Sealclubbing. "Here's a true story" was the introduction to Restless Legs.
Nigel had picked up a programme for An Evening With Frank Bruno, which had taken place at The Cheese And Grain a couple of nights previously. This had included a Silent Auction. Nigel didn't know what that might involve. When told, he said "Oh it's like in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm with Larry David." Nigel nodded his appreciation of a shout for "A Lilac Mickey Quinn".
"This one's quite good," claimed Nigel ahead of Look Dad No Tunes, "it's about me." (Tony reckoned they played the song in a different key to the usual. I wouldn't know.) Somebody left some plasticine outside Neil's house. He didn't know what to make of it.
There was one new song, seeing its live debut tonight. Putting the 'fun' back into 'funeral' according to Nigel. This one being I'm Getting Buried In The Morning, as featured on the Andy Kershaw session a few months back.
When the band came back for the encore, Nigel realised he had forgotten to bring his caravan guitar back with him. He dashed off stage to fetch it and when he got back he realised that "I don't even play it on this", being the cover version of Joy Division's She's Lost Control.
I reckon it went as follows:The Light At The End Of The Tunnel Is The Light Of An Oncoming Train Fuckin' 'Ell It's Fred Titmus When The Evening Sun Goes Down Harsh Times In Umberstone Covert Tending The Wrong Grave For Twenty-Three Years Bob Wilson Anchorman Renfield's Afoot Terminus The Bastard Son Of Dean Friedman Bad Review Totnes Bickering Fair Vatican Broadside National Shite Day Sealclubbing Twenty-Seven Yards Of Dental Floss Every Time A Bell Rings Ninety-Nine Per Cent Of Gargoyles Look Like Bob Todd Black Night / What Made Colombia Famous Restless Legs Look Dad No Tunes All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit I'm Getting Buried In The Morning Everything's AOR Joy Division Oven Gloves
And three in the encoreTime Flies By When You're A Driver Of A Train She's Lost Control Trumpton Riots
There was a big moat between the stage and where we were standing. Many thanks to the bouncer who picked up and passed on Karl's set list after he had thrown it to me. Just one amendment where "Paintball" had originally been written by Nigel. Then he had crossed it out and replaced it with "Bob Todd".
Another great night out, despite some slightly spiky behaviour at the front. These three shows have all landed together at the end of the year. Just another fortnight to go, and we meet again in Shrewsbury. Let's just hope Storm Arwen has done one by the time that comes round, and that the trains are allowed to run just fine.