Brit Wits: A History of British Rock Humorby Iain Ellis
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Humor, as much as any other trait, defines British cultural identity. It is “crucial in the English sense of nation,” argues humor scholar Andy Medhurst; “To be properly English you must have a sense of humor,” opines historian Antony Easthope. Author Zadie Smith perceives British humor as a national coping mechanism, stating, “You don’t have to be funny to live here, but it helps.” Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten concurs, commenting, “There’s a sense of comedy in the English that even in your grimmest moments you laugh". Although humor invariably functions as a relief valve for the British, it is also often deployed for the purposes of combat. From the court jesters of old to the rock wits of today, British humorists—across the arts—have been the pioneers of rebellion, chastising society’s hypocrites, exploiters, and phonies, while simultaneously slighting the very institutions that maintain them. The best of the British wits are (to steal a coinage from The Clash) “bullshit detectors” with subversion on their minds and the jugulars of their enemies in their sights. Such subversive humor is held dear in British hearts and minds, and it runs deep in their history. Historian Chris Rojek explains how the kind of foul-mouthed, abusive language typical of British (punk) humor has its antecedents in prior idioms like the billingsgate oath: “Humor, often of an extraordinary coruscating and vehement type, has been a characteristic of the British since at least feudal times, when the ironic oaths against the monarchy and the sulfurous ‘Billingsgate’ uttered against the Church and anyone in power were widespread features of popular culture.” Rojek proceeds to fast forward to 1977, citing the Sex Pistols’ “Sod the Jubilee” campaign as a contemporary update of the Billingsgate oath. For Rojek, the omnipresence of British caustic humor accounts for why the nation has historically been more inclined toward expressions of subversive rebellion than to violent revolution. “Protest has been conducted not with guns and grenades, but with biting comedy and graffiti,” he observes. As an outlet for venting and as an alternative means of protest, Brit wit, not surprisingly, has developed distinctive communicative patterns, with linguistic flair and creative flourishes starring as its key features. Far more than American humor, for example, British humor revels in colorful language, in lyrical invective, in surrogate mock warfare. One witnesses such humor daily in the Houses of Parliament, where well-crafted barbs are traded across the aisle, the thinly veiled insults cushioned by the creativity of the inherent humor. Such wit is equally evident throughout the history of British rock, where rebellion has defined the rock impulse and comedic dissent has been a seemingly instinctual activity.
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A History of British Rock Humor
By Iain Ellis
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2012 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
MUSIC HALL COMEDY
The nationally distinctive — as well as universal — humor traits found in British rock music have their roots in traditions and art forms existing long before Lonnie Donegan and Tommy Steele offered up their Anglicized interpretations of rock and roll in the mid-1950s. Indeed, many prerock and nonrock sources have been as or more influential on subsequent national rock humor expression. Jerry Palmer, in his essay "Humor in Great Britain," notes that the linguistic bent of much British humor is due to the nation's general social and political stability since the Romans settled in 55 BC. A largely consistent ethnic make-up and concomitant standardized English language usage have allowed for the unfettered development of a humor that abounds in intellectual twists of logic and rhetoric, nonsense, wordplay, and puns.
Britain's first professional humorists provided an archetypal comedic figure that has flourished and mutated across the nation's history: the fool. Popular from the eleventh century on, the fool (later referred to as the jester, village idiot, and much later, clown) combined a sly nonsense speak with flamboyant dance and dress to create a multi-faceted theatrical performance that often criticized, commented upon, or even insulted authorities. Moreover, the fool's play-acting was both permitted and encouraged by the very patrons who were usually its target. A stock figure of medieval festivals and royal courts, the fool was the innovator of the comic mask, whether visual or oral. A rebellious misfit who was tolerated as a figure of fun yet listened to as a critic of insight, the fool often packed a satirical punch behind his exaggerated demonstrations of outrageous pranks, grotesque gestures, wild clothing, and coded innuendo. Not only are such practices evident in the subsequent history of British comedy, but they also provide some of the central features of rock's wild joke-lore. The Slits and the Macc Lads, as well as Boy George and the Spice Girls, are diverse testaments to the adaptive longevity of the country's fool tradition.
In its later reinvention as the clown, the fool has also enjoyed a long and influential existence at the heart of British comedy. Besides its tenure in the circus and pantomime, the clown character enjoyed great popularity in such nineteenth-century venues as the music halls. These largely working-class venues (usually pub adjuncts) featured an often risqué humor that integrated standard sing-along songs and much communal carousing and boozing. Showcasing sexual innuendo and acrobatic physical comedy in its low-life sketches and songs, the music halls developed into a vastly popular vaudeville scene during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Furthermore, the polka-beat rhythms, pun-filled rhymes, accentuated accents, and jet-propelled delivery that characterized many music hall songs are still evident in the music of such "knees up" British rock humorists as Ian Dury, Madness, and Blur. Some, like the Sex Pistols, have been open in recognizing and celebrating this heritage and of themselves as the inheritors of it. "What people didn't understand about the Sex Pistols is that we are music hall," Johnny Rotten comments in Julien Temple's documentary film The Filth and the Fury; the music hall standard, "There'll Always be an England," not only featured as the introductory song for the band's recent "come-back" shows, but it is also the title of Temple's most recent Pistols documentary.
Obviously, British rock humor cannot be traced to a single source or tradition, but the music halls offer a legitimate starting point. Historian Dave Russell, with rock music apparently on his mind, calls the music halls, "a prefiguration of the mass entertainment business of the twentieth century." Many of the traits, methods, and identifications we now associate with subversive rock humorists were first formed and developed in music hall performers.
"Music hall" is an elastic term, referring to a section of the music/entertainment industry, to a style of performance, and to the building in which those performances took place. Although musical comedy dominated most bills, theatrical performances, comedy sketches, dancing, and juggling were all common to the halls. The first venues to be called music halls emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century. Catering to a mostly working-class, under-25, male clientele, these mostly transformed pubs were the precursors of the pub rock venues that have long flourished on the outskirts of the underground British rock circuit, and which enjoyed their heyday in the immediate prepunk years.
The early music halls, like the pub rock public houses, were raucous and energetic in spirit, and intimate enough for performer–audience interaction to be a key feature of the entertainment experience. These were places where working-class folks could escape from the hardships of work (and home) and find communal relief in upbeat and uproarious comedy. Located in cities and towns around the country, music halls united the emerging industrial working-class, offering them a site where they could celebrate their common interests as well as their social identities. As such, they not only forecasted future rock culture as a welcoming place for the nation's youth rebels, but also for Britain's class-conscious comedy culture.
As with the history of rock music, despite being initially developed to satisfy the pleasures of the working-class, music hall was not devoid of middle-and upper-class involvement, interference, and ultimately, control. Middle-class concerns over the subversive and/or salacious and/or decadent goings-on at some music halls led — as it did with rock music in the 1950s — to intervening censorship and legislative controls. Many were forced to shut down when a law was passed in 1878 demanding a certificate of suitability (along with an accompanying fee), while "purity" groups and the temperance society were ever vigilant in monitoring content that might upset middle-class sensibilities. Despite — or perhaps because of — such concerns, music hall activities became institutionalized and regulated, sapped of some of their primitive spirit but amenable to a broader, less working-class audience. Like rock and roll by the late 1950s, music hall had become accommodated by the late nineteenth century, its rougher and more regional burrs mostly filed away.
Perhaps because of establishment controls and perhaps because its comedic entertainment was never intended otherwise, music hall songs were neither radical nor revolutionary in nature, though they were not devoid of subversive implications. Dave Russell speaks of an "occasional radical potential" and of "popular radical rather than socialist attitudes," but he largely sees music hall fare in terms of relief humor, its songs "maintaining a certain space for the expression of working-class values and aspirations against external attack." Andy Medhurst concurs, seeing music hall as a carnival-like distraction, which, although highlighting hardships and testing Victorian propriety with its vulgar and ribald content, ultimately served as consolation humor. It addressed inequalities, but did not belabor them; instead, it celebrated hedonism through class-collective exhalations of identity self-sanctioning and self-esteem empowering laughter. Medhurst considers its most subversive aspect to be its implicit rebuttal of middle-class prejudices that stereotyped the urban-dwelling working-class as predatory animals or as joyless automatons. As such, music hall relief humor has much in common with the "rube" humor one finds in American blue-collar culture and in the country music that has descended from its own music hall equivalent, vaudeville.
Like "rube" humor, music hall comedy stressed regional accents and vernacular slang, both code signifiers of authenticity, social class, and geographical identity. Exaggerated to levels of self-parody, pseudo-cockney songs were a particularly popular subgenre. James Fawn gently satirized the state's impositions on the personal freedoms of the common man in the syllable-challenged "Ask a P'liceman," whereas George Formby Sr. set the precedent for the northern pride self-deprecations of his son through his "Lancashire loon" persona of John Willie. As with George Jr.'s work, audiences were lured into laughing at the character, but, whether in songs or sketches, it was always that character that got the last laugh. One of the more popular vernacular songs of the music hall era was the cockney-inflected "Henery the Eighth"; later revived and given a northern makeover, this song was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1965 for the ultra-Mancunian Herman's Hermits. Sometimes dialect was employed for more subversive class purposes, as with Joe Wilson's "No Work" and "The Strike." Set to traditional tunes and sung in northern "pit" dialect, both songs endorsed working-class rights and satirized boss exploitation using a superiority humor more common within folk music traditions than within music hall.
Some historians have also called attention to women's involvement in music hall entertainment, perceiving subversive elements in their proto-feminist performances. Colin MacInnes points out that although music hall audiences were predominantly male, women made up about 50% of the on-stage acts. Marie Lloyd, Vesta Villey, and Gertie Miller were all working-class women who rose to become national stars of the music hall circuit. Villey was the premier male impersonator of her day and her parodies of male foibles were both incisive and theatrical in nature. Marie Lloyd was a legendary singer of the stage; her speed-dialect songs about marital problems and romantic disappointments were — like Villey's — unambiguous about who the victimizer and who the victim were. Through squinted eyes and an imaginative leap, one can re-see the likes of Lloyd a century later in vernacular pop wits like Lily Allen and Kate Nash.
Among the many parallels between the subversive humor of music hall and rock music, perhaps the most pronounced is their common predilections for sexual titillation. Just as sexual innuendo tested the interpretive skills of the censors during the early rock and roll years, so sex — more than any other topic — (a)roused the critics of music hall. Marie Lloyd's suggestive stage antics demonstrated that such concerns were not solely in the lyrical realm, either. Forerunning the lewd playfulness of The Kinks and The Who were music hall tricksters like John Stamford, whose "Turn off the Gas at the Meter" was sufficiently crafty to, on the one hand, irritate the professional censors, but on the other, circumvent their censoring reach. The song's chorus lines, "Every night he would go/To the regions below/To turn off the gas at the meter," made little (but sufficient) pretense to being a domestic chore description.
The emergence of film, radio, and the gramophone in the early decades of the twentieth century accounted largely for the decline of music hall as a style and institution, but the essence of its humor has continued through succeeding forms and forums, of which rock music is but one. The Crazy Gang, Frank Randle, Frankie Howerd, Max Miller, Arthur Askey, Norman Wisdom, the "Carry On" team, Benny Hill, Hylda Baker, Les Dawson, and Ken Dodd are just some of the nation's comedy greats that drew from and perpetuated the techniques, topics, and tenor of music hall into the twentieth century. Another, George Formby, became a national icon of film and popular music during the three decades before rock and roll arrived. Hailed as "the Emperor of Lancashire," Formby — though his songs and movies were regional in inspiration — was beloved nationally, and his mockery of the pretensions of the upper-classes — be it their actions, accents, or arrogance — struck chords of unified dignity and empathy in common men and women.
With the emergence of jazz and the rise of Hollywood at the turn of the century, Britain's popular music consumption became (largely) American. Though the indigenous folk music of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales continued to flourish in regional pockets, and music hall entertainment, though in decline, was far from dead, the influx of jazz-oriented sounds from the US transformed Britain into a second home for "big band" jazz, turning many of its once indigenous music halls into American-styled dance halls. By the 1930s, although Britain had developed its own burgeoning big band scene, most of its acts were little more than pale imitations of their American counterparts.
Overall, Britain contributed little in the way of innovative popular music during the first half of the twentieth century; understandably, it was rather more busy dealing with prewar and war-time responsibilities, which hit rather closer to home than they had in the US. Indeed, the music that was performed or played through the monopolistic BBC radio channels was largely utilitarian in purpose, there to serve as relief for the troops and a nation under threat from beyond. As the forerunners of rock were starting to line up on the US side of the Atlantic, a UK youth looking for new energies had no alternatives but to look west and learn. Yet, despite this all-encompassing American dominance, Britain offered a few bright sparks that neither sounded American nor looked like Hollywood stars, the most shining of which was George Formby, the premier musical comedian of his era.
Born in Wigan, Lancashire, in 1904, George Formby grew up in the shadow of his father, who had been a successful actor and comedian in the Edwardian music halls. When, in 1921, he decided to follow in his father's footsteps, young George began to craft a distinct persona that would serve him well for his subsequent 40-year career on stage and in film. The Formby image was the British equivalent of American country "rube" humorists like Uncle Dave Macon and Minnie Pearl. Inseparable from his "banjolele" (a hybrid banjo and ukulele), his was caricature humor, and his persona was that of the innocent underdog, a loser simpleton with a winning charm. Like the "rube" skits of American country music, Formby's songs were self-mocking, modest realizations of cultural inadequacies. Also like "rube" humor, such self-effacing wit produced an inverse pride, a gritty resilience in the face of outside forces. The key basis and impetus for this apparently paradoxical identity was social class.
More than in the US, Britain's rigid class structure formed schisms across the cultural landscape, separating rich from poor, leaders from laborers, region from region — essentially, upper-class from working-class. Formby's humor spoke for the working-classes and did so through their localized diction and vernacular. Exaggerating his Lancastrian accent and littering his songs with northern colloquialisms and imagery, Formby created an unpretentious lad-on-the-street image that set itself against the serious and self-absorbed upper crust. Not surprisingly, his doggedly raw persona was reflected upon in the critical reviews he received from the press as he elevated up the British entertainment hierarchy. Elitist London critics were befuddled by his child-like antics and songs-of-the-everyday, whereas working-class folk — young and old, male and female — related with elation to his earthy authenticity and self-deprecating "fool" antics.
Although the bulk of Formby's songs (he cut over 230 records) were comically inoffensive, even wholesome, a large number were risqué, even by the American jazz and blues standards of the time. Full of cheeky wordplay and double entendres, Formby continually tweaked the sensibilities of the staunchly conservative British establishment with saucy narratives that left little to the imagination. Though the overseers at the BBC deemed some of these songs N.F.T.B.B. (not fit to be broadcast), Formby's fanatical mass popularity, coupled with his disarming "innocence," kept serious censorship at bay. His most popular risqué number was "When I'm Cleaning Windows" (1936), which charted the various sights encountered by that particular tradesman while climbing up and down his ladder. "Pajamas lying side by side, ladies nighties I have spied / I've often seen what goes inside when I'm cleaning windows," he recounts, followed by, "Honeymooning couples, too / You can see them bill and coo / You'd be surprised at things they do / When I'm cleaning windows." Another song, "There's Nothing Proud About Me" (1934), boasts of its narrator's down-to-earth character, and again uses a working-class service job as the vehicle to some behind-the-scenes fun and frivolity: "I've called to look at your front street doorbell / But I don't mind if I overhaul you as well. / There's nothing proud about me." Phallic innuendo spices up other songs of apparent innocence, as titles such as "You Can't Keep a Growing Lad Down" (1934),"With My Little Ukelele in Hand" (1933), and "With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock" (1937) might suggest.
These lyrical charms were not George Formby's only comedic weapons, either. His comic timing and enunciation of dialect revealed a master at his craft, and his physical humor arrived au naturel, by virtue of a distinctly funny face and a graveyard-toothed grin. These he parlayed to good effect in the 19 films he featured in between 1934 and 1946, each of which served as platforms for George's banjolele and singing talents, as well as for his good-hearted but accident-prone character. Though the movie plots were never less than predictable and their comedy largely slapstick fare, subversive elements pertinent to the times were often integrated into the action. Let George Do It includes a dream sequence in which our intrepid hero punches Hitler on the nose and addresses him as a "windbag." Such Chaplinesque topical humor went down well not only with the British fighting forces but with the allies, too. Besides receiving an OBE from his motherland for his comedic contributions in 1946, Formby was also honored with a Stalin Prize from the Russians in 1944. Hitler, though, was rather less celebratory, responding to Formby's filmic slights by ordering that all banjos and ukeleles be burned.
Excerpted from Brit Wits by Iain Ellis. Copyright © 2012 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Iain Ellis is a lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Kansas, a bimonthly columnist for PopMatters, and the author of Rebels Wit Attitude: Subversive Rock Humorists.
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