“Brit Wits” uses rock ‘n’ roll to document the history of British humor
For those who read Iain Ellis‘ first book, Rebels Wit Attitude, its follow-up, Brit Wits: A History of British Rock Humor, is a bit of a change. While that book was a bit more of a pop culture read, geared a bit more to the general public, Brit Wits requires shifting the gears of your perception.
Rebels Wit Attitude dealt with humor in rock in terms of individual acts or performers (be it Chuck Berry or the Beastie Boys), whereas Brit Wits fits each act into the wider picture of British humor as a whole. Music is simply the thread that connects the likes of Ricky Gervais to the likes of George Formby in the music halls.
Ellis is not looking to cover novelty acts, here. While the likes of Benny Hill or Lonnie Donegan are mentioned, it’s not comedy that the author covers. It’s that idea of subversive humor in rock music that’s addressed here, and how that humor looks to correct those in power or simply comment on the climate in which the music is being recorded.
Would one think of nihilistic punk rockers the Sex Pistols as humorists? Not offhand, but Ellis argues that the way the group approached both playing music and appearing in public as performances demonstrative of the “caustic wit that pervaded every bone in the band’s body.”
It’s this approach to the likes of the Smiths, Spice Girls, Happy Mondays, and what might be the first scholarly dissection of drunk-punks the Macc Ladds that allows Ellis to argue that British humor is both a coping mechanism for life in Britain and a way of “unmasking the truths of the nation.” It’s quite an enjoyable way to trace the course of British history, offering up an alternative view of how things occurred politically, through the eyes of those opposed to whatever might’ve been going on at the time.
My feature on Ellis for The Pitch offers a little bit of insight into his writing process and how the book came about.