Comedy in Music:
IN THIS PHOTO: The Monty Python boys
Always Look on the Bright Side of Life
WHEN one is approached with a ‘comedy song’, the reaction…
IN THIS PHOTO: The Streets (Mike Skinner)
is quite ironic. People might laugh: not in the way you’d anticipate. The reason for writing this was because, in my view, comedy is feeding more into music in the current day. There are two types of 'comedy songs'. The first is a more overt and deliberate attempt at comedy - I will come to some of the acts who write comedic music soon. The second type of humour is that which is laced into serious songs – mainstream artists and new acts. I’ll take the second group first because their brand of comedy can be subtler and less obvious. I am always drawn to music that has humour in and I think we need to embrace more artists who put comedy into music. These are troubling times so we could all do with a bit of a laugh. Looking at my record collection and there are a few artists who injected some great one-liners into the music. The Smiths, despite their rather morbid and cynical world-view, were not shy to create humour and put wit into the music. Morrissey’s lyrics were frequently caustic and cutting but provide plenty of moments where the listener could not help but chuckle – or elicit a cheeky grin at the very least. I find a lot of current artists are far too serious with their music. It is understandable they’d reveal some hurt and emotion in their songs. What gets to me is the po-faced and imperious nature of music today. One occasionally hears something ribald and entertaining: those songs are often overshadowed by the very intense, straight-faced and unmoving. I look for various different things in music. For one, I want it to be interesting and have some personality. It needs to provoke certain physicality; get my mind working and dig deep into the heart. Occasionally, one needs to hear music that does all of that whilst putting a smile on the face. I will compile a list of comical songs at the end: not all of them are that good, as it happens. Artists try and write something funny; it can come off as a bit of a parody or juvenile. Those songs are best avoided but do, at the very least, try to be amusing.
IN THIS PHOTO: The Smiths
Going into music is a nervous and unpredictable time. You begin and assume it will be easy-going. It takes a lot of graft and passion to make things work – a lot of artists struggle and never get the recognition they deserve. Are musicians, given the perils and realities of the industry, going to write songs that try to be funny? Well, perhaps not but, even when writing about love and your own self; the lyrics can be funny and entertaining. Take an artist like The Streets (Mike Skinner). His humour was laddish and observational. He wrote about the realities of modern life on albums like A Grand Don’t Come for Free and Original Pirate Material. Straight from the off (the latter); he ensured his songs had that balance of serious and humorous. I listen to songs like Don’t Mug Yourself (Original Pirate Material) and Fit but You Know It (A Grand Don’t Come for Free) and are hooked by Skinner’s wordplay and wit. It is sad he is not producing music anymore but definitely inspired legions of British Hip-Hop/Rap artists to follow in his footsteps. Dizzee Rascal is probably the most relevant contemporary: a man who can bite and spit but pen a pretty good gag here and there. I find a lot of genres are humourless and stringently serious. Take another The Streets song, The Irony of It All, and it pits a lovable weed-smoking intellectual with a loutish beer-guzzler. The former indulges in cannabis but provides no danger to the community: the latter, gets tanked-up and creates chaos. The song looks at how the drunkard pays his taxes and shouldn’t be giving his money to a drug-taker – in return, facts are laid out (more money spent on treating drunks than most things). It is a really great song that, in lesser hands, could be a drag but is lifted by a sharp and witty pen. It is not a surprise some of my favourite albums ever are notable because of their lightness and accessibility.
IN THIS PHOTO: Steely Dan
The Streets’ Original Pirate Material is in there; The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead – Steely Dan’s back catalogue features heavily. Pretzel Logic, an album I have had on-repeat for days, is, at times, a comedy routine from Donald Fagen. Maybe is more a smart-ass laconic sense of humour but the stomach is definitely given a good workout. I must admit; as said, some of the attempts at humour can be quite misjudged and tragic. There is that danger of creating a novelty song. We all remember (vaguely) artists like Afroman and his drugs paen – a song that was funny in places but not one of the best comedy songs. The main reason for addressing humour in music is to nod to those who deliberately tried to write comedy. My first real exposure to comedy records was Monty Python Sings. That album, released in 1989, brought together the collected songs of the legendary comedy troupe – from their first series to their final film, The Meaning of Life (1983). There are some classic moments that we all know – Always Look on the Bright Side of Life; Lumberjack Song and Every Sperm Is Sacred. Sure, there are skits and moments that have not aged too well but, considering a lot of these songs were written nearly forty years ago; it is amazing they have endured the way they have. I was never a big fan of the T.V. series the Pythons did: the films seemed more consistent and digestible. It is the songs of Monty Python that I keep revisiting. You do not need the sketches/scenes to contextualise the music. The songs stand on their own and elicit plenty of gold. “Weird Al” Yankovic introduced his debut album in 1983, and with it, a plethora of delightful parodies. His talent, as it continues today, is to take famous songs and provide a comedic take on them – the likes of Madonna, Michael Jackson and The Kinks were all in the firing line. Off the Deep End (the cover was a spoof take on Nirvana’s Nevermind) had plenty of great moments and gained a lot of respect from critics – even if some weren’t overly-kind at the time.
IN THIS PHOTO: "Weird Al" Yankovic
The best of the bunch, when it comes to comedic music, is Flight of the Conchords. They say, as it is told, they’re New Zealand’s 'fourth-best Folk parody group'. Dubbed, without much competition one would think, New Zealand’s best novelty group – it consists comic writers/actors Brett McKenzie and Jermaine Clement. They started their Folk incarnation in the late-1990s and, since, have gained celebrity status. The duo started on BBC radio in a series that was largely improvised – their search for fame in London. The bumbling, ever-hopeful Kiwis came to the airwaves in 2004 before (the show/concept) Flight of the Conchords transitioned to T.V. in 2007. The HBO series was similar to the radio show: the duo was in New York (rather than London) but everything else was the same. Rhys Darby played the band’s hapless manager, Murray. Episodes revolved around the duo trying to get gigs – having to take demeaning, mundane jobs to exist in the city – and, inevitably, failing – often having to play really crappy venues and spots. It is quite tragic in places but elevated by some incredible writing and consistently charming performances. It is the music that, no surprise, makes the show. Flight of the Conchords is not a vehicle for two comedians to ‘try their hand at music’. McKenzie and Clement are skilful musicians and singers in their own right: it provided the show some authenticity and naturalness. The duo’s eponymous album, and their finest achievement, is a collection of the songs used during the first series of Flight of the Conchords. Many of the songs were written years before – starting on the radio show, in fact. Because of that; they are honed, chiselled and perfectly delivered. Like Monty Python: one does not need to be familiar with the T.V. show to understand the songs and find them appealing. The best songs from the album – Business Time, Inner City Pressure; Ladies of the World and The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room) – demand repeated listens and are among the funniest songs you’ll hear.
IN THIS PHOTO: Flight of the Conchords
The guys’ second album, I Told You I Was Freaky, was released after the second series and, because of the short time between series and demand to write new songs, the quality is not as prevalent as the debut. The debut resonates because the songs had years to gestate. The sophomore album, that said, has some great moments and shows huge musical depth. Carol Brown parodies Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover but has gorgeous (female) choirs; some beautiful finger-picking and a stunning melody. Too Many Dicks (On the Dance Floor) a club banger in the style of Black Eyed Peas – where the guys examine the male-female ratio in the club; the fact there is too many dudes present. Sugarlumps, as title suggests, is a spoof of, again, Black Eyed Peas – and their song, My Humps. Even trashy Dance-style songs are elevated to something magnificent by the New Zealand duo. On their eponymous debut; you bond with the music as easily as the lyrics themselves. Inner City Pressure knowledgeable and respectful plays with West End Girls (Pet Shop Boys); Boom, a take on Shaggy’s Dancehall songs; Business Time, a cross between Barry White and Prince, oddly. Let’s hope, as has been rumoured, there is a Flight of the Conchords film. The boys are busy with other acting work but have had time to craft some new tracks. I feel there is a genuine vacuum that needs to be filled. Of course, ‘comedy’ songs will never rival more-serious tracks – in terms of quality and mass appeal – but, as shown, there are artists who sprinkle humour alongside emotion and vulnerability. I feel we all need a bit of cheer and uplift right now. Conventional music is a bit hit-and-miss when it comes to delivering mirth and chuckle. As I spin Inner City Pressure - once more, for the road! - and Clement’s woes: “The manager, Bevan, starts to abuse me/Hey man, I just want some Muesli!”; McKenzie’s spot-on observations: “No one cares, no one sympathises/You just stay home and play synthesisers” – it has lifted my mood and, consequently, my outlook on the day. Not all comedic songs do that but, in the case of the Kiwi Folk legends, songs like that…
DO the job pretty well!