A History of British Rock Humor
By Iain Ellis
(Intellect Ltd, Paperback, 9781841505657, 208pp.)
Publication Date: March 2012
The Sex Pistols. David Bowie. Pink Floyd. Rebel rockers and provokers of the public, vivid in our memories as much for their subversion of the mainstream as for their signature sounds. Yet what very few people realize is that a substantive part of the weaponry used by these rockers and their contemporaries was humor: outrageous onstage antics, coded cultural references, and clever lyrical constructs were all critical to expressions of youth rebellion that could still slip past the powers that be.Focusing on key subversive rock humorists, Brit Wits shows how and why humor has been such a powerful catalyst and expressive force in these artists’ work. Distinguishing rock humorists from rockers who are merely sometimes humorous, Iain Ellis trains his attention on those whose music and persona exude defiance—beginning with the Beatles, the Kinks, and Pink Floyd; and continuing through the Smiths, the Slits, and even the Spice Girls—to investigate the nature of rock humor and the ways in which these groups have used it to attack prevailing social structures. Politics and issues of gender, class, and race are all laid open to ridicule, as is the music industry itself—epitomized by the Sex Pistols’s scathing “EMI.” And although lyrics are foregrounded, Ellis demonstrates that a guitar solo, dissident dance move, or antisocial hairstyle may in context be every bit as subversive and humorous as a song. At once an action-packed look at some of the most notorious rebels of British rock history and a celebration of an underexplored area of humor, Brit Wits compiles essays and critical profiles that look at one of the most effective—and entertaining—means of anti-establishment expression for half a century.
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.