‘Embrace The Margin’: Half Man Half Biscuit and Cultural Overload

‘How much more can I exhume?/How much more can you consume?’  asks Nigel Blackwell, ‘singer’ and lyricist of Half Man Half Biscuit, on their new and typically under-promoted album ’90 Bisodol’. The song quoted is ‘Left Lyrics in the Practice Room’, a caustic canter through the potential motivations of ‘Chris from FutureDoom’, a musical nobody with a taste for self-promotion.

At least, I think so; like all the best satire, it cuts more than one way, and like all the best Half Man Half Biscuit songs, it fires its arrows in about twenty directions at once. In two minutes and seven seconds, we’ve got glancing references to the Virgin Mary, Black Sabbath, the Dutch lager Oranjeboom, and a direct musical quotation of legendary bluesman Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Let Your Light Shine On Me’.

To track the last reference, I had to do a little exhuming of my own, and this is the kind of reception Blackwell’s lyrics reward; though also, perversely, an attitude they mock and question. The song title itself suggests a certain ironic critical distance from the song lyric as a form; throughout Biscuit’s work, questions are raised about the validity of rock and roll, its proponents, and its audience, but this is a critique from within, ambivalent commentary on the state of play from a deeply-entrenched and highly literate observer.

I started with the word ‘singer’ in quotation marks because even the vocal delivery Blackwell favours seems to send-up the expectations of a frontman – exaggeratedly flat and sardonic, it functions as an alienating device from the usual romantic catharsis of rock and roll. (The fact that he is, objectively, quite bad at singing, is clearly also relevant; but not as relevant as the statement made by his decision to continue doing so, regardless.)

Rock and roll is ‘full of bad wools’, as the scorn-drenched closer, a running commentary on the televised panic of a landfill-indie idiot forced to share sofa space with Heston Blumenthal, repeatedly asserts; Blackwell’s final bark of the titular genre as the music cuts out is an act of highly-knowing vandalism. By smashing the myth of integrity, it’s possible that HMHB also scorch the earth sufficiently to reclaim it for themselves.

‘Lyrics’, therefore, in their traditional sense, also come in for some playful deconstruction. These aren’t heartfelt, linear transcriptions of the wounds of the heart, or even deliberately vague images suggestive of inner torment (cf Cobain); instead, within a broad vein of comic social critique, they’re a stringing together of disparate elements, a levelling of the dizzying array of cultural touchstones provided by contemporary mass-media into a gleefully anarchic post-modern mess.

A collage poster for a recent exhibition on Post-Modernism

The grammatical term ‘parataxis’ – defined by The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar as ‘a very general term covering various kinds of juxtaposition of units of equal status, including the coordination of two (or more) equal clauses, phrases, or words, with or without coordinating conjunctions’ – and literally meaning ‘arrangement side by side’, has been used in literary theory to discuss styles, such as Pound’s Imagism and Dadaist poetry, which place disconnected images and statement side by side, without apparent connection, to disorientating effect. This is one of the main techniques Blackwell uses as a writer – why much of his work is so difficult to take in at a single sitting, and why there is a need to ‘exhume’ its multiple allusions, as the existence of various websites (here and here) for the purpose will attest.

See, for example, the end of rant-ballad ‘Descent Of The Stiperstones’, where the narrator, fleeing from an awkward encounter with former Crossroads actress Lynette McMorrough (not a figure in particular need of uncrowning) collides with a surreal series of items including ‘a pack of Triffid seeds, an icerink for a model village’, ‘post-apocalyptic Allen keys’, ‘a jar of language pills’ and ‘a jigsaw of Nazi war criminals’. And let’s not even get started on ‘Tommy Walsh’s Eco House’ – (‘back-to-back Cadfael, Ross Kemp on Watership Down‘) – I’ve already had a bellyful.

This is, apparently, Lynette McMorrough. And apparently this blog exists.

What’s the point of all of this, then? Is Nigel Blackwell just mentioning anything and everything that daytime TV brings into his Birkenhead living room, or is there some wider principle of selection and direction? I’d argue yes, though in full awareness that he would describe the literary-critical approach of this essay, like many of the teams in the Korfball tournament scrutinised in the anthemic ‘Joy in Leeuwarden’, as ‘just a crock of shit.’ It’s the nature of this kind of thing to reject – well, my kind of thing. But nonetheless, there’s got to be a reason why it works.

I think it’s all linked to that question of consumption. In modern capitalist society, it’s impossible to consume everything, though according to the media and advertising, it’s imperative to try – to hear the next Pitchfork-recommended album, buy the latest Guardian-approved box-set, follow Stephen Fry’s Twitter and the Strictly Come Dancing liveblog. And what this creates for many people is a feeling of cultural overload – of being constantly, helplessly surrounded by a never-ending stream of input, of signal to be sorted from noise, wheat from chaff. What’s interesting about Blackwell’s songs is their refusal to engage in this sorting process – instead of picking one style or idea or subject and running with it, they fire names, images, messages at the listener like a demented tennis-ball machine.

They simultaneously parody and celebrate the overwhelming ephemera of our lives, the petty annoyances and omnipresent subliminal grabs at our already fractured attention. They don’t read it, or attempt to explain it, in a coherent sociological thesis (and having no relevant training, neither will I), but they recombine the detritus of modern living and modern media into fresh, surprising collages, and in doing so continue a fine 20th-century and onwards tradition of subversive, playful cultural critique. And they do with a much better sense of humour than a post like this can ever hope to have.

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