ENGLISH-BORN CRITIC, essayist, novelist, and poet G. K. Chesterton once wrote: "Wit is a sword; it is meant to make people feel the point as well as see it.” This definition fits Iain Ellis’s book, Brit Wits: A History of British Rock Humor. Ellis traces the lineage of the wittier side of British music, from the early, edgy, novelty humor of music hall, through the rock ages, to the present day.
For the uninitiated, “British rock wit” may seem like Ellis’s invention of a subculture, but the links between British rock music and sociopolitical comedy are myriad, thrilling, and very real. In a roughly chronological narrative, pinned to 60 years of musical history, Ellis explores these links while providing key political context and fascinating sociological analysis. This book is more than a rundown of the thousand witty songs you've got to hear before you die; it’s a study of how some of Britain's most intelligent artists reacted to their political landscape by effectively subverting the mainstream in order to free their own minds, liberating the minds of their peers and fans in the process.
Ellis’s blistering “alternative guide to British rock history” skillfully demonstrates that speed, invention, and the desire to subvert popular trends characterize both rock and wit. Their marriage is a match made in heaven: what might be facetious to simply say becomes funny and apt with the right bass line behind it. These lyrics aren’t “knock-knock” jokes read over bongos. Wit and rock elevate each other, as evidenced by the depth and light Johnny Marr's shining guitar parts add to Morrissey's expectedly dour lyrics in The Smiths's “Cemetry Gates”, or in turn what the incendiary powerhouse sound of a rock band like The Who does to lyrics like those deployed in “My Generation;” Roger Daltrey via Pete Townshend's pen. As a folk song, “My Generation” might be interesting, but it would not be as vital.
One could argue, as Ellis emphatically does, that "rock music is naturally allied to subversion because rebellion is in its very DNA.” There's a Brit Wit with a song and a killer turn of phrase to match every soulful rebel's taste, and all are covered excellently here. In dramatic contrast to musical comedy, which intends to make an audience laugh, rock wit seeks to provoke thought. At the outset of his book, Ellis eschews the trivial ("not the concern of this text") and draws a further line between titillation and those who "deploy humor for subversive ends and purposes." Wit is the difference between that which simply makes us laugh and that which pulls the dust sheet from our childlike curiosity and ignites our desire to question authority. And if wit is social conscience cloaked in jokes, then rock wit adds more smoke and mirrors to the enterprise, in turn making its master, music, all the more provocative. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.
It is often said that nobody is as obsessed with or does dirty humor as well as the Brits. While Ellis recognizes this fact, he artfully reveals how the British predilection for sexual double entendres, as showcased by artists like George Fornby, was a rebellious act that quickly grew into a sociopolitical force. “Brit wit” began as "cheeky turns of phrase cleverly pitched to get past the censors" in wartime, but matured into a political weapon. The Beatles are a lynchpin example, developing from relatively innocent humor...read more