JULY 15, 2012
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, like simple asides to mock the press, into Lennon’s famously barbed turns of phrase which are peppered throughout the band’s catalogue, and these digs became more pointed as musical imaginations and the realm of public discourse broadened in the sixties. Ellis compares “Norwegian Wood” (on Rubber Soul), where Lennon quips: “I once had a girl or should I say, she once had me,” to “Revolution” (on The White Album), where the writers’ target has become the liberal masses: “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone, anyhow.” When the political temperature changed in Britain, so too did its musical humorists’ approach to establishment folly.
If rock’s most earnest lyrical players seek to align heaven and earth, rock’s humorists look for us to reorder the way in which we see the world, if only for the length of the song. There’s a suitable mischief in dropping knowledge on the listener’s back step while they admire the carnival from their front room. Far more than a fun way to converse, wit allows us to protest without being shrill. Ultimately, Ellis’s book is an attempt to showcase, as critic Charles E. Schutz put it, “the critically realistic function of comedy.” Ellis echoes Schutz’s assertion that young people are “preview revolutionaries” and poignantly portrays wit and music as freeing influences. For those who seek to challenge and change the world, and for those who question its set ways, the marriage of rock and wit and its ability to break taboos are irresistible.
It is for this reason, perhaps, that the most engaging part of Ellis’s book is the section covering the seventies, eighties, and nineties. As the British establishment turned further away from its “subjects,” so the disenfranchised hit back with fervor. As Ellis says, “UK punk took subversive humor to volumes never witnessed in rock music and rarely witnessed since.” His passage on The Sex Pistols (with a little help from cultural studies scholar Dick Hebdige) should be embossed in gold as a lesson in how wit and music, when done right, can take the Pepsi challenge with a Molotov cocktail any day of the week and twice on Sundays. That punks are “perennial piss takers” is well recognized, but Ellis also sees how punk’s often kneejerk “cultured insolence” grew into a considered, combative force as British artists used humor as a rebellious weapon and shield.
Ellis’s history of the maturing of wit in rock through changing political landscapes provides an addictive read for any fan of subversive wit. Even if you think satirical edge only adds salt or sarcasm to an already overcrowded global conversation on life and how we live it, this book skillfully reveals how wit, with its ability to guide rock with a smile, with its ability to lift our hearts and make us shake, has real meaning to us. Ellis traces a lineage almost a century old and it is not going away. As his epilogue articulates wonderfully, there has never been a society, British or otherwise, that wasn’t in need of “increasingly provocative artistic voices.” All modern artistic work of real value seeks to display intelligence alongside craft. In the marriage of rock and wit, we hear the sound of an artist’s belief in society’s longing to better itself.