Witty Songs: A Brief Guide (Part 1)



Like the Fado is to Portugal and the tango to Argentina, the witty song is to Britain. We were always better at words, especially if they weren’t about love, which simply embarrassed us. We have Gilbert & Sullivan to blame for this, with their gymnastic lyrics. Here the Major-General lists his abilities, being a military man not being one of them;

‘I know our mythic history, King Arthur’s and Sir Caradoc’s,
I answer hard acrostics, I’ve a pretty taste for paradox,
I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
In conics I can floor peculiarities parablous.
I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies,
I know the croaking chorus from the Frogs of Aristophanes,
Then I can hum a fugue of which I’ve heard the music’s din afore,
And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.

Then I can write a washing bill in Balylonic cuneiform,
And tell you every detail of Caractacus’s uniform;
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

In fact, when I know what is meant by “mamelon” and “ravelin”,
When I can tell at sight a chassepôt rifle from a javelin,
When such affairs as sorties and surprises I’m more wary at,
And when I know precisely what is meant by “commissariat”,
When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery:
In short, when I’ve a smattering of elemental strategy,
You’ll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee!’

Theirs was an extreme example of wordplay, but it was continued by everyone from Noel Coward to Flanders & Swann, whose ‘Patriotic Prejudice’ song had a bit that went like this.

‘The English are moral, the English are good,
And clever and modest and misunderstood.
And all the world over, each nation’s the same;
They’ve simply no notion of playing the game.
They argue with umpires, they cheer when they’ve won,
And they practice beforehand which ruins the fun!

The English, the English, the English are best,
So up with the English and down with the rest.
It’s not that they’re wicked or naturally bad –
It’s knowing they’re foreign that makes them so mad!’

Coward’s clipped delivery lent itself to parody, including Monty Python’s ‘Isn’t It Awfully Nice To Have A Penis?’ A great many duos continued the tradition with latterly, Kit & The Widow carving out their own niche of witty songs, including their own take on the G&S patter song ‘A Policeman’s Lot’.

They appeared in the most unlikely places, including your own home (they took commissions), and after 30 years went their separate ways, as this style of music gradually became defunct. But the tradition didn’t entirely die. It continued in pop songs like Blur’s ‘Parklife’, with performers like Lily Allen and the underrated rapper/ film director Plan B (real name: Benjamin Paul Ballance-Drew) who peppered his songs with smart wordplay and seems to have suddenly disappeared. Although it’s hard not to think he’s planning some new angle on the art.

But there was one other area where the witty song has struggled to continue, with limited success…(Part 2 to follow).

9 comments on “Witty Songs: A Brief Guide (Part 1)”

  1. Luse says:

    I wonder if you’re aware of this by Fascinating Aida

  2. Peter Dixon says:

    Jake Thackeray was a top boy in the 1960’s for witty songs performed with an almost Buster Keaton expression on his face. He also followed continental performers such as Jaques Brel.
    ‘Oh Sister Josephine’ and ‘The Bantam Cock’ come to mind but he did lots of others.

  3. Vivienne says:

    This is really off track, but maybe could be looked on as part of the English love of witticism. When people want our spelling to be phonetic, have they considered the lack of fun resulting in orthodox spelling? I recently saw a beach hut called Sea for Miles, and today was sent an email about a literary festival entitled Write on Kew.

  4. Wayne Mook says:

    There were parody songs, Baron Knights and even Billy Connolly did their part, now we have Professor Elemental and Mr. B the Gentleman Rhymer both exponents of Chap-Hop. Mr. B has such LPs as The Tweed Album and there is Professor Elemental’s The Indifference Engine which features a Fete Worse than Death.


  5. Phil says:

    For great witty songs with clever lyrics Carter USM are hard to beat, Shopper’s Paradise, Sheriff Fatman and Bloodsport for All are always worth a listen.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    I remember Tom Lehrer’s work very well – eg The Table of the Elements- but just the other day I was humming Poisoning Pigeons in the Park and we had Nancy White who performed as (I think) The Irreverent Civil Servant and did a weekly political satire plus my favourite of all time “Dust Bunnies” a bilingual song (les moutons) about the anguish of dusting. It might be on youtube I suppose.

  7. admin says:

    Hmmm, I think Carter USM only counts when you hears his words, although I love the beats on ‘Surfin’ USM’. There’s a touch of Rizzle Kicks about Mr B the Gentleman Rhymer and feels like a novelty record. I preferred Professor Elemental. Off to try some more…

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Ha! Found it. “Dustballs (Moutons)” It’s Allan McFee’s deadpan translation that makes it, although Nancy’s anguish is pretty good.

  9. Mim says:

    I love Professor Elemental. I’ve seen him live a few times, and he’s always fantastic.

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