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Book Review : Iain Ellis - Brit Wits : A History Of British Rock Humor

  • Written by  Rosie Duffield

They say you should never judge a book by its cover – and in this case it’s only partly true.  Neon colours (and the Americanised spelling of humour - Ed) instantly attract your eye to Iain Ellis’s Brit Wits: A History of British Rock Humor; styled à la the Sex Pistols it immediately piques your interest and identifies itself as a music-related book worth perusing.

Studying the use of humour in British music through the decades, Ellis gives a potted history of the development of jokes and humour within popular music, starting pre-1950s with a look at how George Formby took down to earth Northern humour on tour round the country’s Music Halls and found a resonance with the working-class population.

The Beatles, he says, owe a lot to their Scouse charm and quick wit.  Lennon and McCartney using puns and wordplay in a number of songs including ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and ‘Day Tripper’as well as larking about during interviews, put British humour firmly on the map – even if the Americans didn’t always get it.  Case in point, Roxy Music struggled to find success in the US – despite their affiliation with the pop art scene – a failure they attributed to “America’s native lack of irony”. 

More recent case studies include The Happy MondaysArctic Monkeys and even the Spice Girls – though it remains to be seen whether they contributed to British rock humour or were just the butt of it – and there are musings on genre and social class to throw into the mix too.

Ellis successfully timelines the way humour has evolved within the British music scene - within the music and lyrics, rock star's personalities and artistic style - and the book gives a comprehensive background to the musical movements that have taken place, from that initial Musical Hall scene to Punk, Britpop and so on. He also makes comparisons between the UK and the US, documenting the rivalry between such groups as The Beatles and The Beach Boys, who continuously tried to out-do each other with each album release.

It’s a fascinating synopsis of the way popular music has formed, but one criticism of the book is that it’s written in an academic style, which makes it quite hard to settle in to.  Though the subject is interesting, the bulky text might prove difficult for some to get through; even the size of the book makes it feel like a textbook rather a book to read for pleasure.

The cover of Brit Wits is bright, bold and exciting-looking, though within its pages the formal narrative may take away some of the enjoyment for some.  That said, it’s clear that Ellis is passionate about his subject, and that makes up for any other shortcomings. There are some real gems of inspiration and insight hidden within the book, which, overall, makes it a worthwhile read.

(208pp, ISBN 184150565X, Intellect)

Brit Wits is out on March 4, 2013 and available from amazonWaterstone's and via iTunes.

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