Was it really 1984?
If it had been a year later, or maybe a bit more than that, it might never have happened, to me anyway. I can’t remember exactly when it came to the parting of the ways with dear old Peely. He was certainly down to only three nights then, Andy Kershaw having been awarded Thursday night and Tommy Vance still bestriding Friday night with the kind of music I would go a long way out of my way to avoid.
But it was 1984, and I was still among the faithful and one night Peely played a song from a band from the Wirral, a five piece bunch of Scouse layabouts playing a crude, post-punk blend of short, sharp, direct songs. And it was called ‘Trumpton Riots’.
I remember Trumpton. I was old enough, or should I say young enough, to not only have watched the series when it appeared in the Sixties, and indeed to have gone through Camberwick Green before it (though the third of the trilogy, Chigley, was my younger sister’s thing: it was after my time, so to speak). The song title alone had me swivelling round to listen.
I was stunned by the combination of total improbability, the high-speed energy of the song and the lyrics. Nobody had ever thought of that before Nigel Blackwell, the singer, songwriter and rhythm guitarist. All it was was mashing together the twee world of Trumpton and its denizens, and the real world of our society, with particular reference in this case to the countrywide riots that had taken place in so many towns and cities in 1981, including Croxteth in Liverpool.
Unemployment’s rising in the Chigley end of town, and it’s spreading like pneumonia, doesn’t look like going down, there’s trouble at the Fire Station, someone’s had the sack and the lad’s are going to launch a scheme to get rid of Captain Flack.
Genius. It was genius. It was Britain in the recession-hit early Eighties, the underlying anger of even those of us who were not affected by unemployment, and desolation and the Tories’ overt decision to run places like Liverpool down and not try to improve the lives of the people who lived there (not only were they Northerners but they voted Labour: they were not One of Us).
And this was being brought into the sharpest of focus by projecting them onto an idyllic country town of peaceful and content residents with no connection to real life, suddenly thrown into the same upheavals as all of us.
Someone get a message through to Captain Snort that he’d better start assembling the boys from the Fort, and keep Mrs Honeyman right out of sight cos there’s gonna be a riot down in Trumpton tonight!
What on earth were they thinking. What would Brian Cant think? But, with respect, who cared? Two impossibly distant worlds suddenly came into contact with each other, with rude energy and total lack of respect. The music might have been crude, the singing more energetic than tutored, but there wasn’t a single false note to this song.
It could easily be one glorious moment, but Nigel Blackwell was no flash in the pan. At first, Half Man Half Biscuit lasted about eighteen months, before splitting up due to ‘musical similarities’ (at the time, it was being said that the pressure of being a ‘star’ got to him and he sold his guitar). One album, a couple of singles, some riotous gigs and a sweep up album collecting b-sides, EP tracks and John Peel sessions.
My mate and I got lucky, we saw them live twice. I have seen bands where the audience sang along with all the choruses. I have been to gigs, usually in folk clubs, where the audience has joined in on the verse. I have only ever seen one band play where the audience has chanted along to the intros and the instrumental breaks.
The band came back. They come out with a new album every two or three years. Nigel Blackwell remains one of the most iconoclastic and observant lyricists around, acutely tuned into icons in a multitude of areas and able to bring improbabilities together in a surrealistic fusion that boggles even as it seems completely natural.
If I have never heard anything from the band that surpasses ‘Trumpton Riots’ (I love the melody and music of Reflections in A flat’ but it still doesn’t compare), that isn’t meant to talk down the rest of the band’s history. Sometimes, you can’t quite capture the same amount of lightning in your bottle. And nobody can hear something for the first time twice.
The shock came in 1984. I’m so glad I was stood under the right tree.