Attitude adjustment: Lawrence author explores link between rock music and subversive humor

Iain Ellis, second from right, played in '80s bands such as The Sygn before pursuing a career in rock journalism.

Lawrence resident Iain Ellis has recently released his debut book, “Rebels Wit Attitude: Subversive Rock Humorists.”

Like many teens growing up in England during the late 1970s, Iain Ellis became smitten with the burgeoning punk rock scene.

“Punk was such a life-changing experience that it affected everything,” Ellis says. “It got me more politicized and radicalized. I’ve always gravitated to dissent.”

However, Ellis began to realize that dissent often can be quite funny.

That underlying thread of humor found in all styles of rock music led Ellis to approach the subject seriously. He recently released his debut book, “Rebels Wit Attitude: Subversive Rock Humorists.” The project is published by Soft Skull Press in conjunction with the online journal PopMatters, to which Ellis is a frequent contributing columnist.

“Everybody has recognized that good rock and roll has a rebellious element to it. What I tried to bring to the table is the most neglected aspect of what that history of rebellion has been: how important the role of humor has served for these artists,” he says.

Ellis, a Kansas University lecturer in English, pays tribute “to the great rebel humorists in American rock history (by) investigating comedy and laughter as the catalyst and main expressive force in these artists’ work.”

“Rebels Wit Attitude” focuses primarily on American performers. (His intended follow-up effort will cover the British scene.) The chapters are divided by decades and discuss such diverse luminaries as Chuck Berry, Lou Reed, The Ramones, Madonna, The Beastie Boys, Nirvana, Pavement and Missy Elliott.

“Whether it be visual, physical, verbal or lyrical, their humor has barely been recognized. It’s such an incredibly ignored facet of modern American culture,” he explains.

The book itself takes a self-reflective stab at humor. Its title is a reference to the seminal gangsta rap act N.W.A. The book’s cover features a variation of The Velvet Underground and Nico’s 1967 debut album art. But the iconic banana painted by Andy Warhol is now squashed.

When pressed to cite a favorite comedic example discussed in the book, Ellis refers to one of America’s most abrasively goofy punk acts.

“The first three titles of Dead Kennedy singles are classics of humor: ‘California Über Alles,’ ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ and ‘Kill the Poor,'” he says. “That is just classic Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain-type level of satire.”

Roots of humor

“Iain knows his subject matter intimately as only a former punk can, and he also knows it as a scholar,” says Karen Zarker, senior editor and books series manager at PopMatters.

“His writing bridges the ‘low’ and ‘high’ cultures, if you will, in a manner both entertaining and erudite — exactly what we look for at PopMatters.”

Interestingly, Ellis had to tone down his approach from the initial draft.

“When I sent in my first chapter to them, they basically sent it back to me and said it was ‘too highfalutin.’ So I had to push myself away from being too ‘academicy.’ I want it to be a serious analysis but written with a kind of energy and style to it,” the 45-year-old explains.

Ellis spent three years penning “Rebels Wit Attitude.” While he considers himself to have a broad and comprehensive taste in music, the writer admits he learned the most when researching the early years of rock music.

“One of the things I’ve discovered is how the traditions of humor have lived on, particularly in black music,” he says. “The roots of humor styles found in hip-hop today, you can really see that in its infancy in R&B music or jazz music in the ’40s. You examine some of the stuff Cab Calloway was doing in the ’50s, and a lot of artists are doing that stuff today. Missy Elliott is an interesting figure to me who is playing with a lot of the word choice and innuendo that really goes back to black women artists in the ’50s.”

Political influence

A native of the music-rich town of Manchester, Ellis was equally influenced by other aspects of the region.

“Like most British people, we have a love of humor. You grow up with Monty Python and stuff, and it’s kind of in your blood — there’s an essence of what humor can do and how weighty commentary can be,” he says.

Ellis left the U.K. in the late 1980s because, he says, those intent on pursuing and investigating music must eventually come to the states. He played guitar and sang in various Ohio bands while earning a doctorate at Bowling Green State University. His 1993 dissertation explored the punk aesthetic in American culture.

In 2000, he headed to Lawrence on a whim.

“I was basically shopping around for cool college towns because my life revolved around music. This American college town thing you have, we don’t have that in Britain. I’d been to Lawrence before and experienced a bit of that (William) Burroughs connection,” he says.

Ellis teaches writing at KU, and he uses his book as a supplementary text in his class called “Expressions of Youth Rebellion.”

Local music is featured prominently in “Rebels Wit Attitude.” He includes a section on the alt-country acts found on the influential Bloodshot Records label. This includes regional bands such as The Wilders and Split Lip Rayfield — a group that has been responsible for some of his “favorite shows” since moving to Kansas.

“It’s interesting some of that new country, the way they play with stereotypes. They use rube humor. I find that quite amusing,” Ellis says.

He hopes this week’s change in the political climate will prove equally amusing. His book addresses the issue of whether witty humor is more or less active during conservative regimes.

“Humor almost came to a standstill post-9/11, particularly radical or subversive humor,” he says. “People were scared in that wave of nationalism that swept over everybody.

“I do feel that, hopefully, a new cultural atmosphere of freedom and openess will be conducive to an environment of freedom of speech. In that respect, the upcoming years could be fruitful ones for all freedom of expression, of which subversive humor is often the most daring and provocative kind.”