If there are two things that the British do impeccably well, it’s music and comedy. (And they always find a way to use the word “impeccably”…)
When these two talents are married, it’s a union that sees our little island standing among the best in the world for comedy music.
As a satirical songwriter myself, I’ve often marvelled at the great and hilarious artists that have come before me. I was amazed to find no comprehensive list of the best in British.
I want to rectify that. So in no particular order, here we go…
I could do worse than to start with the sardonic, dark and surreal humour of the songwriter behind Monty Python: Eric Idle. Idle has had a career in comedy lasting more than fifty years with a Broadway musical and several novels to his name, before you even consider his film and TV achievements.
His mark on comedy music is profound, partly thanks to his place in one of the most influential comedy troupes of the 20th century. Idle’s lyrics tend to focus on dark humour about existentialism and the frivolity of life, but he’ll often leap into songs that are just plain ridiculous – ‘Eric The Half-a-bee’ (co-written with John Cleese).
If you have to listen to just one song, Idle’s signature song perfectly summarises his knack for cruel truth dressed up in a cheerful tune.
Just one song: Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life
Victoria Wood was one of the most successful and respected comedians of her time. To this day, she holds records at the Albert Hall for the longest run of sold out shows by any comedian at the venue. Her writing for various sitcoms has been heralded by critics, having won several BAFTA awards throughout her forty-year career.
Wood’s lyrics were focused towards observations in everyday life, sometimes using crude humour and awkward stories to surprise her audience. However, some of her best songs see her use these devices to criticise society and culture – writing about political correctness amongst other things.
Her most popular song is the perfect example of her wonderful wordplay
Just one song: The Ballad Of Barry and Freda
A Lancashire-born lad took the 1930s and 40s by storm, with a rise to stardom that had never been seen before. George Formby was the Elvis Presley of his time, appearing in 21 films and becoming the most well-paid entertainer in Britain. All of this from a man who could barely read or write.
While his humour was timid by today’s standards, Formby’s naughty lyrics were banned by the BBC on several occasions. His keen appreciation for innuendo and double entendre had audiences in fits of laughter. He would often sing about his Northern upbringing and pursuit of women. Though he was married to his wife and manager for 36 years…
He is a symbol of British music hall entertainment and still one of the most revered entertainers in the history of comedy songs.
Just one song: When I’m Cleaning Windows
If you’re a keen fan of British TV comedy, you will have undoubtedly come across the dry wit and acting talents of Bill Bailey. From QI to Black Books and Spaced. Bailey has made a firm imprint on British comedy and his stand up tours are some of the most unique and popular on the UK circuit today.
More than anyone on this list, Bailey is more closely aligned to a musical comedian than a comedy musician. Bailey’s stand up routines consist of musical experiments and the deconstruction of genres. He interrogates the effect of music in hilarious style. By writing a dub reggae version of the Downton Abbey theme, for example.
His virtuosic abilities in music more than cement his position on this list.
Just one song: Love Song (from Part Troll)
To many comedy music fans, the sound of a deep baritone voice and a nylon-string guitar are the unmistakeable sound of Yorkshire-born Jake Thackray. In the 1960s and 70s, Thackray was a popular singer-songwriter with a cheeky sense of humour. His tall stature, turtle neck jumpers and articulate British accent made this all the more appealing. Partnering an air of sophistication with crude comedy.
His music borrowed heavily from French songwriters, which might be why his lyrics focused on the joys and woes of love. Thackray would come under fire for his songs about women’s propensity to talk and mother-in-laws. However, his fans adored him for his poetic lyrical style that prised comedy from the mundane.
Just one song: On again! On again!
Writer, TV presenter and singer-songwriter Richard Digance has led a 40-year career in music that took him on tours with the likes of Steve Martin and Tom Jones. Essex-born Digance had a glittering TV presenting career in the 1970s to 80s that led to several TV specials for his comedy music, and it was this that he became most well-known for.
Coming from the old English folk tradition, his finger-picking guitar technique has always been the crux of his songs, while dipping into blues and classical music for comedic effect.
Gallows humour is a favourite device of his lyrics, in songs like ‘sod’s law’, that encapsulate that British dark comedy that’s become so famous around the world.
Just one song: The Unluckiest Man In The World
Graham Fellows (Jilted John/John Shuttleworth)
The enemy of men named Gordon everywhere, Graham Fellows is the comedy musician behind the 1978 hit ‘Jilted John’. He shot to fame while he was still a student in Manchester, beginning a life long career in acting, music and comedy. He has never used his real name and instead adopted multiple comedy characters to release his music.
While Fellows’ abilities as an actor allow him to take on many personality types; his comedy music material is strongest when he finds the poetic beauty and hilarious comedy in the mundane attributes of life. Long before Keith Lemon, Fellows developed a Yorkshire comedy character called John Shuttleworth. Shuttleworth has released multiple singles and released a documentary about his attempts to submit a song for the Eurovision song contest.
Just one song: I Can’t Go Back To Savoury Now
From Yorkshire to Lancashire, we now turn to the bespectacled folkie, Mike Harding. Harding began his professional career in the 1970s and has released over twenty albums since then. He’s been a mainstay of folk clubs and festivals across the country and also at the helm of BBC Radio 2’s Folk show, which he hosted for fifteen years.
Harding is a product of the English folk tradition, but his songs range from rock ‘n’ roll to blues and also country, with his talents as a multi-instrumentalist coming to the fore at every live show. His uniqueness derives from the wonderful way in which he combines humorous, working class stories with genre parody and inspired wordplay.
His only chart hit, ‘Rochdale Cowboy’, is just one example of that style.
Just one song: Born Bad
You may not recognise the name of Liverpool-born Mitch Benn, but you have more than likely heard his songs. As a singer and writer on BBC radio, his comedy rock songs have been a staple of BBC 4 programmes , including The Now Show. He released a song in support of the corporation called ‘I’m Proud Of The BBC’ in 2010. Benn tours extensively all over the world and appears at Glastonbury Festival every year.
Benn’s work mostly involves political satire with a biting, accusatory tone. When that’s paired with classic rock influenced music, it makes for a deadly combination. However, he’s also known for whimsical wordplay and more frivolous songs. Like a Meat Loaf inspired power ballad about ‘the very hungry caterpillar’.
Just one song: Not Bitter
A newer face on the comedy music scene is Youtube sensation, Jay Foreman. Foreman is most famous for a song that lists all 270 London tube stations. He is also a BBC New Talent winner and a regular at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He toured with British comedian Dave Gorman from 2011 to 2012.
There is no doubting the musical prowess and technical ability of Foreman’s performances, however, what sets his comedy music apart from many of his modern contemporaries is the depth and profundity in his material. His songs like ‘Slightly Imperfect Girl’ and ‘Pretend You’re Happy’, beautifully encapsulate what it’s like to search for love and grapple with depression in our modern world.
Just one song: Pretend You’re Happy
Some special mentions go to the wonderful Bernard Cribbins, who didn’t write any of his own songs. Also to Hugh Laurie, Jasper Carrott, Billy Connolly and Lee Evans. All fantastic comedians who only occasionally used music as a supplementary, rather than integral, part of their careers.
Did I miss any of your favourite British comedy musicians?
Let me know
If you haven’t had your fill of comedy music, here are some more British acts touring today: