Witty Britain: Why are British music legends funnier than Americans?

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Steven Patrick Morrissey has always been a difficult man to read. As such, it’s probably a futile endeavor to speculate about his motives for writing “Frankly, Mr. Shankly.” The song, a thinly veiled ode to a despised real-life record executive, is full of invective and highly personal insults. It’s also incredibly funny. Take this couplet, where he strikes a blow at his target’s artistic pretensions:

Oh, I didn’t realize that you wrote poetry
I didn’t realize you wrote such bloody awful poetry, Mr. Shankly

Later, lamenting the shallowness of his own life, Morrissey shows that he’s clearly not afraid to offend:

But sometimes I’d feel more fulfilled
Making Christmas cards for the mentally ill

In both cases, Morrissey’s casually superior tone loads the words with a heavy irony. When he first acknowledges Shankly’s poetry, you’re duped into thinking it’s a pleasant surprise, and that he may have a new sense of the man. Instead, the false interest just serves to make the next line—“bloody awful”—more devastating. As for the Christmas cards, Morrissey adopts a wistful dreaminess to conjure up some representative act of charity. Inherent in the offhand delivery, though, is the knowledge that we’re listening to a man far too selfish and hedonistic to ever be serious about changing his life. And what he really wants at song’s end is not spiritual fulfillment, but money. The momentary departure into idealism is nothing more than a calculated window onto hypocrisy.

Nothing kills a joke quite like explaining it, but there’s something about the subtlety of Morrissey’s technique in this particular track that displays his mastery of humor. He has more overt moments, like the vicar in a tutu sliding down a banister, and more sophisticated ones, such as the plagiarism in “Cemetry Gates” that comes in the midst of a tirade against the act.

In fact, Morrissey touches on many humor tropes throughout his catalog. This puts him squarely in a class with other British musical legends, and in stark opposition to his American contemporaries.

The former group can’t be introduced without hastily mentioning The Beatles, of course, and as luck would have it, they fit the mold. “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is my pick for the funniest Fab Four song, and like most of their forays into humor, it’s silly and dark all at once. The narrative follows Maxwell as he murders three people with a hammer, but the music and delivery are light-hearted and poppy, as though this is just another version of “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da.” The contrast is so strange that it quickly becomes hysterical. McCartney is, of course, being subversive, as he and Lennon are on “Come Together,” “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “Get Back,” and many more. But the facial expression underlying all that subversion is a grin.

Let’s mention some other British legends before we get to the Americans. The Kinks wrote one of the funniest popular songs in history with “Lola,” and their catalog is dotted with other comic gems like “Apeman” and “The Village Green Preservation Society.” Then you have David Bowie, who was often serious but showcased his sense of humor in “All the Young Dudes” and within his style. The Who were full of humor, most noticeably on tracks like “A Quick One While He’s Away” and “My Wife” and “Boris the Spider.” Elvis Costello is consistently hilarious, and so are Belle & Sebastian, and so was Donovan, and so was Freddie Mercury and Queen. The Rolling Stones might seem more brash than funny on the surface, but certain lyrics have that wry English humor, such as this gem from “Get Off Of My Cloud”:

Then in flies a guy who’s all dressed up like a Union Jack
And says, I’ve won five pounds if I have his kind of detergent pack
I says, Hey! You! Get off of my cloud.

As with Morrissey, Mick Jagger’s strength came in the details, the biting little anecdotes about Britain showcased here and in songs like “Mother’s Little Helper,” a sad but scathingly comic depiction of British housewives escaping the dull patterns of life with the aid of Valium.

So: point made?

Sure, you can find legends in Great Britain who are distinctly not funny. Led Zeppelin and Radiohead come immediately to mind. You could probably name 10 others if you were put to the task. But for the majority, or at least a significant percentage, humor is an important part of the game.

Why, then, is that same ingredient missing in American music? Going back to the ’60s, you have Bob Dylan’s serious, snarling rage, where the only thing like humor is meanness. And really, that’s not like humor at all. It’s absent too in the work of The Eagles, and the Beach Boys, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Sly and the Family Stone, and Metallica, and Nirvana, and Pearl Jam, and Bruce Springsteen, and R.E.M., and Foo Fighters, and The Doors, and Wilco, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Michael Jackson, and Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and The Strokes.

Unlike their British counterparts, the big American acts that delve into humor are the exception rather than the rule. Here I’m thinking of The Flaming Lips, or Talking Heads, or Minutemen, or, to a lesser extent, the Velvet Underground.

And really, there’s nothing wrong with that. Nothing says that great music needs to be funny, and the American bands aren’t failing to be funny. It’s just that they don’t even bother making an attempt. The question is, why?

Without cornering Eddie Vedder and asking him about the absence of jokes in his lyrics, we’re reduced to theories. Is it possible to posit an educated guess as to why, broadly speaking, humor creeps into British music more than American? I think it is, and I think it has to do with perceptions of greatness.

By the time rock music kicked into high gear—for argument’s sake, we’ll pin it down to the 1950s—Great Britain was well on the downslide from the empire age. Most of the final colonies had achieved their independence, and the idea of Britain as a national power was fading. Artists tend to see flaws in government and national character, and it wouldn’t have been hard for the likes of Lennon and Morissey to pick out the contrast between the prim British attitudes redolent of the glory days, and the reality of the country’s diminished influence in the world sphere. The comedy of Monty Python captures that dichotomy to perfection, and the natural reaction to the continued pretensions seems to be laughter. And anger, yes, but even that anger has to be tinged with absurdity, because absurdity is what those artists saw all around them. The growing inner weakness, bolstered by traditional power, created a contrast ripe for cynicism and satire.

America, on the other hand, was at the peak of its power in the 1950s. The triumph of World War II and the thriving business economy created a society that largely believed in its government and wasn’t cynical about the ‘American way of life.’ Unlike Britain, where the stiff upper lip seemed like a façade, the American ideal was more vulnerable to credulity, backed as it was by real strength. So when young artists began to see the same hypocrisy and deficiencies in government and society, starting with the Vietnam War, they tended to react by making a beeline for rage without passing humor along the way. The young musicians understood the power of the ruling bodies, and were fighting to right the ship. The British, you could argue, had long since dispensed with the idea of fixing anything, but American idealism influenced even the counterculture. A corrupt government or a complacent middle class was something to be overthrown and improved, rather than an unchanging fact of life to be parodied and mocked. Hence the protest songs, and the ubiquitous masculinity, and the passion, and the anger. Everything was more serious here, because Americans believed that they had a lot to be serious about. The British, on the other hand, saw themselves more as tragicomic inhabitants on a few decaying islands.

In other words, they’re older and wiser and a bit more resigned.

Despite the evolving influence each country had on the other, it’s still rare to find a band that fully escapes the national identity. Both sides can see the problem—where we differ is the reaction. For American musicians, the problems of our world and the uncertainty of the future are hard to laugh about. For Brits, they’re hard to take seriously. And with the U.S. approaching a time that promises to be less glorious than anything we’ve previously known, it’s worth asking how long we can maintain our idealism before sinking into the comfort of humor for good.