In many ways, music is a lot like movies. Both share a kind of class system, a kind of snobbishness when it comes to certain genres. We all know how it goes; arthouse films sweep up the trophies come awards season, to the approving mutters of a thousand, turtleneck-clad critics. Comedies are the lowest form of wit, and if it has Will Ferrell in it, leave immediately.
And the same goes for music, to an extent. Comedic music – when the lyrics are about crass, adolescent jokes, out-and-out sex or something lovably bizarre – isn’t treated the same as, for example, Beethoven’s fifth symphony. But it’s an even greater schism than that. If you have a catchy, electro-pop song about heartbreak, it’s lauded as a standout single. If you choose instead to sing about, uh, boners, the best you can hope for is the ‘Comedic Hot 100’ chart.
One could put this down, instantly, to the crass lyrical nature of the song; to singing about content that’s not allowed in general music. But I think the problem is deeper than that; more systemic. When a song elicits humour, and hysterics, it’s treated as a throwaway, a gimmick. A funny joke wrapped up in, by pure happenstance, a catchy melody. And it’s about time that stops.
At this point, I also wish to point out the songs I accept and don’t accept as part of the ‘comedic music’ umbrella. Call me the gatekeeper if you must, but the lines begin to get blurrier the closer you look. Novelty songs don’t really count here – cheesy one-hit wonders like David Bowie’s ‘The Laughing Gnome’ (or basically anything Rolf Harris has ever done) are out of the question. Sheb Wooley’s ‘The Flying Purple People Eater’, meanwhile, is an obvious novelty hit from 1954 and so clearly an attempt at pop culture fame. It worked. But these not really designed to really be actual songs, simply a vessel for something funny. They’re valid in their own right, but unfortunately not here.
I’m also hesitant to accept cover bands. Dread Zeppelin, for example – who cover Led Zep songs in the style of reggae; they’re riffing off of previously-constructed music by other people. Weird Al Yankovic – much as I love him – can’t be included on the basis that some of his biggest hits are just parodies.
Parody bands however, are okay. And, well, you’ve read the title. You already know where I’m going with this. American comedians (and musicians, notably), Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Christopher Guest donned their personas and, to the rest of the world, became British rock band, Spinal Tap. Though famous for a 1984 mockumentary about the band’s career, they debuted on a 1979 sketch comedy pilot, The T.V. Show.
Not only do the comedians do such a brilliant job of playing us Brits, but they also nailed the glam rock genre, refining their satirical take on it to a shining gleam. The soundtrack to the infamous documentary features the likes of ‘Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight’, ‘Sex Farm’ and ‘Stonehenge’ (a song most people can’t think of without picturing a littler-than-life onstage performance). Their next album, released in 1992, would be called, Break Like the Wind.
And to be fair to Spinal Tap, they played at Glastonbury. They’ve sold out Wembley Arena. Their albums have charted. Yet, crucially, not as high as their actual heavy/glam metal colleagues. Indeed, whilst Spinal Tap have produced genuine heavy metal (a lot of which would have seen them at Donnington in a parallel timeline), they’re remembered for being a parody band. The same goes for lesser-known Bad News, a metal pastiche that featured the likes of Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson. What began as a bit for their TV show ended up with an appearance at 1986’s Monsters of Rock festival. Their eponymous debut has some genuinely great songs on it (‘Bad News’, ‘Drink Til’ I Die’ -which features the masterful lyric, ‘Give me another drink, mister bartender/ If you don’t, I’m gonna stick your dick in a blender’ – and ‘Hey Hey Bad News’). But they’ll only be ‘that other parody band’.
Another great instance of ‘comedic music’ (which is a fairly broad term, I know, but the best placeholder I can seem to find) is Ninja Sex Party – Or NSP for short – a musical duo of Danny Sexbang (Dan Avidan) and Ninja Brian (Brian Wecht). Outside of the hyperbolic, horribly tight spandex, both are part of the YouTube channel, Game Grumps, and together produce somewhere between electro-pop and glam rock, frequently blurring the lines. They’ve released eight albums – at time of writing – and their songs are about sex, self-depreciation, boners and ridiculous situations involving pumas and dinosaurs.
On the same album you’ll find ‘The Mystic Crystal’, a track no doubt influenced by Avidan’s love for prog rock bands like Rush. It’s twelve minutes long and split into seven ‘chapters’; regaling the listener about necromancers, wizards and captures princesses. Sure, it goes about it in a pretty immature way, but it’s a very well-crafted, progressive rock anthem. One cannot doubt the time and effort that went into it. But it’s lyrically unconventional, and so it’ll never see the mainstream light of day. And it’s a trap I fall into, too. Do I, subconsciously, put NSP on the same pedestal as Queen, or any other rock band? No, I don’t. But I should – because it brings me enjoyment all the same. And it gives me something else; laughter – a tough reaction to invoke, really. Hardly something to sneer at.
It’s easy to dismiss them as a juvenile attempt at music, but it’s worth pointing out just how good their music actually is. Admittedly, the band’s humble beginnings were more comedic music than musical comedy (an important thing to distinguish). Their debut, NSFW, is full of borderline sketches, with music clearly facilitating the d**k jokes. ‘No Reason Boner’, ‘Sex Training’ and ‘Three Minutes of Ecstasy’ are clear reflections of this. But as the band matured (physically at least) and they took their music more seriously, so did the production and quality. Compare the band’s debut to 2020’s The Prophecy, which is home to really awesome tunes. It’s lead single, ‘Thunder & Lightning’, might be about explosive clackers of Thor, but it has a crisp sound – with a clear homage to the likes of Queen. It’s a ‘proper’ song.
True, being less lyrically inclined certainly makes it easier to listen to such songs. I confess I’m more for the tune than the lyrics. But if you’re not a fan of the lewd or the sexual, such songs as these might be hard to look past. This is where Steel Panther comes in. A band who, quite possibly, write the most graphic songs of today; their discography home to the likes of ‘Gloryhole’, ‘Gangbang at the Old Folks’ Home’ and ‘Supersonic Sex Machine’. And they’re less comedic so much as downright dirty. They’re one of the biggest names in the metal scene right now, with awards under their belt and millions of albums sold. But to many, they’re nowhere near the same league of the rock bands of yesteryear, or even the bigger names of metal today – like Greta Van Fleet, or Ghost. But why do people love Steel Panther all the same?
Well, some don’t. They’re pure Marmite of a band, but one that has done remarkably well, nonetheless. They headline festivals, they have almost universal recognition in the metal scene. But they don’t make number one albums. And they’ll never see the light of radio – not even some painfully-censored, mostly instrumental chart success. Poison can write tracks that suggest making love. But Steel Panther set it to vividly detailed cadence, and no one will touch it.
The Darkness are another prime example, Britain’s answer to the new age glam metal scene. Again, they’ve done pretty damn well, given how niche that genre is at the moment. In 2004, The Darkness released their debut, Permission to Land. It went four times platinum in the UK and charted all over the world. Indeed, they’ve had a fruitful career, and crafted songs about alopecia (‘Bald’), the awful state of British railways (‘Southern Trains’) and Scottish mermaids (‘Hazel Eyes’), which are both funny in content, and downright amazing in sound. They’re a professional band, they’ve recorded in a real studio, they take their work seriously. But they sculpt stories of such intense oddity.
Most of the songs, however, are more orthodox, with their signature ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’ reminding us that, yes, The Darkness can write a damn good ballad, too. And it’s worth noting that it’s the Darkness’ more ‘mainstream’ tunes, in terms of content, that make the cut. They’re the songs everyone knows. Nobody remember their one about the bald fella.
Another 80s rock parody that should get more recognition for their actual musicianship (last one, I promise) are current outfit, Mr. Sam & the Dednutz. They’re a band that are hard to sum up in a few words, but in short, they’re a bunch of YouTubers with somewhat okay musical talents that decided to form an over-the-top hair metal act. They’ve done songs like ‘Hot Blood on the Sheets’, a truly punchy rock anthem about two medieval knights that have to hide their lustful affinity for eachother from the prying eyes of a prejudiced world.
Or take ‘Come Dine With Me’, a track about visiting a relative’s home for a nice meal and it becoming a swinger’s paradise. The material is obscene, and in no way the kind of thing you could play before the watershed – but it’s music. And it’s got a pretty high production value, at that. But they’re seen as light-hearted, and more entertainment than real music.
It’s interesting to note that many of these comedic bands spawn in the rock genre. In fact, the genre (if one can really call it that) is practically exclusive to such a label. Wikipedia even has a ‘comedy rock’ page, and it made me question why. I suppose the only other mainstream genre to dominate the charts in recent decades has been pop, which is already regarded – to an extent – as throwaway in nature, prone to cheesy numbers from time to time (look at ‘Mickey’ by Toni Basil, for instance). And that’s not a bad thing – a lot of the music I love would fall under that category .
But in general, rock has rougher connotations. It’s the darker, heavier, harder genre, and it’s about sex. Light-hearted rock is somehow against the very image, and that’s where an interesting subversion comes in.
Heartland rock legend, Tom Petty, had countless hits, and is generally considered as one of the best American musicians of all time. One of the tracks that didn’t make the cut for his 1994 record, Wildflowers, was ‘Girl on LSD’ – a humorous track about the narrator stumbling upon various flames that each have a penchant for particular vices, and the problems they bring. In live performances, you can hear the crowd hoot and howl, but, well, you’ve guessed what I’m going to say anyway. It’s a good song. It has catchy jangly guitar, it has a good backbeat. The verses rhyme and don’t seem amateur in composition. And yet you know it would never see the same legacy as ‘American Girl’, or ‘Refugee’.
Bob Dylan’s ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’, at first, seems like a poignant reflection on the repetitive struggle of everyday life, especially when you don’t conform to what’s ‘normal’. Soon enough, however, a double meaning becomes apparent, as Dylan shouts, ‘Well I would not feel so all alone/ Everybody must get stoned!’. It’s a hell of a track. It’s a fun bit of wordplay on getting high. Can a song straddle both sides?
My point is this, is there a place for comedy on music? Whether it’s crude d**k jokes, innuendo, humorously mundane subjects or entire pastiches? Of course there is. There’s a bigotry when it comes to art. And though it’s most associated with paintings or sculpture, there’s no denying its presence in the medium of music.
Let’s face it, we take songs more seriously when they’re about love, or heartbreak, or one person’s struggle against the world. We frequently put down songs for ‘sounding good, if it wasn’t for the subject matter’. I think of my mum, who loves Bryan Adams’ ‘Run To You’, but struggles to reconcile with what it’s about. I’m sure she’d like some Steel Panther songs – she likes heavy metal – if they didn’t sing about life in the sack all the time.
But who are we to say what makes music valid? If it sounds good, if it makes us laugh, if it just whiles away the hours, then it has a purpose. And people spent time on such output, as with any piece of art. To someone, this mattered. Look at the depth in the catalogues of the Flight of the Conchords, Tenacious D, or the Lonely Island.
While I can’t see songs about British transport infrastructure or retirement home orgies entering the Top 40, I can still accept them as music. It’s all as valid and as rich a tapestry as the likes of Dylan, or Lennon. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what matters?