All of my friends have a sense of humour and most of them have musical taste similar to mine. However, very few of my friends enjoy humour in music. David and Gay are possibly the only exceptions I can think of, especially at Loudon Wainwright III and Half Man Half Biscuit gigs. But most of my friends don’t really appreciate the humour in music.
This is a surprise because there are many laugh out loud funny moments in some of the best artists. Van Morrison had a song called “Mechanical Bliss” where he sings in an Upper Class English accent and finishes with “come on chaps – stiff upper lip.” Bob Dylan has loads of funny lines. One of my favourite is from “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”. “I decided to flip a coin, like either heads or tails/Would let me know if I should go back to ship or back to jail/So I hocked my sailor’s suit an’ I got a coin to flip/It came up tails, it rhymed with sails, so I made it back to the ship.” (The joke is that tail rhymes with jail too). Evan Dando wrote a brilliant song called “The Outdoor Type” which includes the lines “No I won’t go away with you on a rock climbing weekend/What if something’s on TV and never shown again?” There are so many funny songs by Loudon Wainwright; for example “The Shit Song”: “When I run into friends of mine I haven’t seen in years/They give me the once over then their eyes well with tears/Then they pronounce me ‘looking great’, I haven’t changed a bit/I flash ’em back a feeble smile: I know I look like shit.”
So why shouldn’t music make you laugh? I quite understand that at times, a very miserable song can focus and subsequently dissipate my own negativity but even the bleakest song can have moments of black humour. Take this from “Come Pick Me Up” on Ryan Adams’ brilliant “Heartbreaker” album: “I wish you would, come pick me up/Take me out, fuck me up/Steal my records, screw all my friends/Behind my back/With a smile on your face/And then do it again/I wish you would”. If one of the reasons I listen to music is to allow me to discover, reflect and enhance my own emotions in order to leave me feeling released from the trappings of the real world, humour has an important role.
Which obviously brings me on to this brilliant record: “Achtung Bono”. It’s not a slapstick record and it’s not a laugh a minute. It’s sardonic, fairly cynical, funny yes but ultimately a protest record as all of their records are. A protest against hypocrisy, ridiculing people who take themselves too seriously and a firm statement in support of honesty, openness and complete self awareness. Each of their 14 records have half a dozen brilliant songs but this record has no weak songs at all. I could very easily do a whole blog on each of the 14 songs but I’m going to remind myself that the Half Man Half Biscuit lyrics project does this admirably.
The Half Man Half Biscuit Lyrics project https://halfmanhalfbiscuit.uk/
“Shit Arm Bad Tattoo” contains these brilliant lines: “If you’re going to quote from the Book of Revelation/Don’t keep calling it the Book of Revelations/There’s no “s”, it’s the Book of Revelation/As revealed to St John the Divine/See also Mary Hopkin/She must despair” There was a glorious moment when Roo and I were being driven back from a pub to our house by some friends of ours and one of them started talking about their favourite songs from the Sixties and said “Who sung ‘Those Were The Days’? Was it Mary Hopkins?” Roo and I just looked at each other and said in perfect synchronisation “She must despair”. Of course we were met with a stunned silence at our rudeness which we failed to fill. It would have been too complex.
Another of my friends does appreciate Half Man Half Biscuit. One of his favourite lines is from “Surging Out Of Convalescence”: “Is your child hyperactive, or is he perhaps a twat?” His family circumstances mean that this line resonates strongly with him.
On the way to my sister’s a couple of years ago I spotted a sign saying “Asparagus Next Left” and I had to turn the car round and take a photo. Once you’ve listened to the song, you can’t see any handwritten signs for produce again without wondering what dark evil intent lies within. “This-a-way For New Potatoes”/An arrow points innocently/Dirt track to a darker place/That’s what it says to me/“Last Chance For Hanging Baskets”/They’re even giving you clues!/“Fresh Broad Beans and Aubergines”/Euphemisms, Audrey, euphemisms!”
In “Letters Sent” who could fail to be simultaneously amused and intrigued by “I disagree entirely with your choice/Peetie Wheatstraw had a better voice/I’d like to warn your readers/Stapeley Water Gardens/A nice day out but best to take a flask.”
It’s not just lyrically that Half Man Half Biscuit excel at. Their excellent melodies and brilliant drum sound really enhance the sound from a post punk band into what Andy Kershaw called “Britain’s finest folk group since The Jam”.
“Joy Division Oven Gloves” was a single and a Facebook campaign was made to get it into the charts. It did reach number 55. At gigs, when they play this song, you’ll always see someone in the moshpit wearing huge oven gloves onto which they have carefully stencilled ‘Joy Division’. Half Man Half Biscuit were once called “kitchen sink surrealists” which sums them up perfectly and what could be more surreal than the fact that manufacturers have actually made such items.
Finally, Roo’s favourite song “We Built This Village On A Trad Arr. Tune” which contains several brilliant lines, e.g. “Yonder the deacon in misguided trousers” and “Rehearsals afoot for the Christmas Play/It’s called ‘Roll The Square Arthur’ and mind what you say/It’s a cricketing farce with a thickening plot/Act One, Scene One – Brenda Blethyn gets shot” which always reminds me of my good friend Arthur working hard for his cricket club. It also makes me say, every time I find Roo watching “Vera” on the television, “Has she been shot yet?”
Well they say she’s too hot/Yeah but guess what/I’ve got Joy Division oven gloves/If it’s her desire/I’ll put my fingers in the fire/‘Cos I’ve got Joy Division oven gloves/I’ve got Joy Division oven gloves
Ooh ooh tropical diseases/Ooh ooh chemical alarm/Ooh ooh I’m a little blasé/In me Joy Division oven gloves/In me Joy Division oven gloves
Oh I’ve been here and I’ve been there/In me Joy Division oven gloves/I’ve been to a post-punk postcard fair/In me Joy Division oven gloves/Ooh ooh Nagasaki towpath/Ooh ooh tickling the Laird/Ooh ooh checking out the Quantocks/In me Joy Division oven gloves/In me Joy Division oven gloves
On a sinking ship a sailor yearns/For his Joy Division oven gloves/Nero fiddles while Gordon burns/In his Joy Division oven gloves/Talk to the hands, talk to the hands/In my Joy Division oven gloves/Dance dance dance dance/In your Joy Division oven gloves
Ooh ooh piccalilli shinpads/Ooh ooh polishing the knave/I keep wicket for the Quakers/In me Joy Division oven gloves
My grandfather’s clock was too tall for the shelf/So I sold it and opened up a stall/Selling Joy Division oven gloves/We got Joy Division oven gloves/Get your Joy Division oven gloves/Hallelujah