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Brit Wits: A History of British Rock Humor [Kindle Edition]

Iain Ellis
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

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.

Editorial Reviews


Ellis's history includes a good deal of interesting material for fans of witty artists like the Beatles or Pulp. . . . His book is very amusing and will contribute to future scholarship on post-war British popular culture.

(Popular Music and Society 2012-08-01)

About 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.

Product Details

  • File Size: 527 KB
  • Print Length: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Intellect Ltd. (February 6, 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0076OEHXO
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,069,672 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
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.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Used this for a history of rock and roll course. August 13, 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a good book and thoroughly impressed me. There was plenty of good information about the history of rock. I used this book for a history of rock and roll course. The book was boring in a few chapters, although for the majority of the time it kept me interested. This was a great book for my course and gave me a lot of relevant information.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Dry read December 29, 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The author goes on and was a hard read and I was nearly tempted to stop reading it, but I did finish it.
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