Witty Songs: A Brief Guide (Part 2)
We came a long way from the Victorian music hall songs and monologues of stars like Stanley Holloway and Joyce Grenfell. After, we had Lonnie Donegan’s ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour On The Bedpost Overnight?’, Max Bygraves singing ‘You’re A Pink Toothbrush, I’m A Blue Toothbrush’, comedy songs like ‘When Father Papered The Parlour’ and ‘The Railway Runs Through The Middle Of The House’, Kenneth Williams singing the still very funny ‘Pardon Me, Sir Francis’ and Charlie Drake yelling ‘I Want A Drink Of Water’ – the last gasp of the old music hall witty songs.
Neil Innes, a Beatles-sidekick like Nilsson, who sang, ‘The champagne was Canadian, the hostess sang a song, I contemplated suicide and then you came along,’ and similar Albums like these bordered the novelty single (I’m ashamed to say I once agreed to write a christmas novelty single – I still have it somewhere.)
The brief phenomenon of Chap-Hop waved a very British flag for hip-hop, but there’s a problem; class rears its ugly head, so you must choose between faux-posh (Professor Elemental), faux-middle-class (Rizzle Kicks) and faux-working class (Plan B). The glorious Rizzle Kicks album ‘The Roaring 20s’ took them from Norf London hip-hop into a world of comic-language wit that upset their core audience. The peril of stepping across such borders is that you switch from rap to soul, as Plan B did, and risk losing your audience.
The Divine Comedy, AKA Neil Hannon, wrote beautifully witty songs in a different style, partly because you feel he’s more interested in the music, but now he too seems to have dropped off the radar. So where was left for the clever/funny lyric? Kiwi musical comics the Conchords parodied every kind of pop in their TV show and produced a delicious album of the best, but there have been few other takers.
Onstage we had theatrical singers like ‘Fascinating Aida’, whom I never really warmed to, and a few duos and trios, but it was left for the baton to be picked up by musical theatre. From the US, ‘The Book of Mormon’ was witty, ‘Legally Blonde’ was wittier, and in the UK, Australian Tim Minchin beat both with ‘Matilda’, one song from which hides all 26 letters of the alphabet, sung phonetically, in it. For me, ‘Kinky Boots’ is a total misfire, and suffers from having been written by a US pop singer.
But we’ve now lost him (we assume) to Broadway, who have presumably chucked money at him to create a musical version of ‘Groundhog Day’. Over here, the wittiest songs by far appeared in ‘Made in Dagenham’, which one feels simply shot over the heads of its core audience, who probably didn’t have a clue where Dagenham was or what it sounded like. In the story, based on real events, a Ford executive arrives in the Dagenham plant and is horrified by British working habits. In this second act opener he lists all the words we mispronounce.