[15 March 2007]
The rudest, crudest, lewdest, drunkest band in Christendom: Thus boasted the Macc Lads—England’s premier prankster-punk provocateurs—in their official website clarion call. Hailing from Macclesfield (hence the name), a depressed working-class town just outside of Manchester, the band’s ultra-offensive tall-tales and home-town high jinks rattled the nerves of the British establishment during the ‘80s, while satiating the perverse desires of their obsessive disciple/fan base.
The Lads were a love/hate proposition for which few were lukewarm or uncertain in their reactions to the band’s verbal assaults. Extreme was the nature of their music, as was the nature of reactions to it. Within their deftly created insular world, traits of civility, sensitivity, and compromise were anathemas. Therein lay the foundation of their punk-inspired wit.
The Macc Lads were also very much a band of their times. The ‘80s represented not only the high-point of political correctness, but also its primary counter-force of sick humor. As polite society sought to adjust language and conduct to the changing forces of the times, careful not to offend any of the emergent identity groups (women, gays, ethnic minorities), the Macc Lads harnessed the basest stereotypes of these groups and propelled them with reckless abandon into their lyrics. By coarsening the culture, they countered mainstream trends towards liberalism and good manners. Stand-up comedians from George Carlin to Andrew Dice-Clay embarked upon similar counter-offensives throughout the decade, exposing middle-class hypocrisy, decrying censoring sensibilities, and provoking stuffy puritans with a steady bombardment of F-bombs and leg-pulling insults. Within the UK—at the same time—Vis comic operated with the same motivation, crafting satirical sketches that ridiculed the establishment via an extreme punk vernacular and a twisted toilet humor. For those who felt that the age of PC represented an Orwellian shift towards officially sanctioned speech and conduct, the Macc Lads offered a relief haven where the most extreme expression—warts ‘n’ all—was both permitted and promoted.
The Macc Lads’ brand of raw humor mirrored other comedic trends, too, both past and present. Within England—particularly in the North—irreverent working-class humor has prospered since the music hall days of the late 19th century. This style of comedy—often sexist, racist, and homophobic—continues to this day in small clubs and pubs across the nation. Its less extreme manifestations filtered into comedic music, and can be found in the saucy songs of trailblazers like George Formby, Lonnie Donegan, and Benny Hill, to name but a few. Their lyrical tall-tales, bursting with sexual innuendo and regional vernacular, are the very foundations of Macc Lad humor. Curiously, the band’s methods also have much in common with African-American dozens humor, particularly as expressed by contemporaneous “dirty” rappers like 2 Live Crew and Ice T. Both play on stereotypes of themselves and others as the bases of their signifying. Put-down insults and exaggerated boasts are at the heart of each, and sex and violence are the ubiquitous source topics. Storytelling is common to both schools, too, self-aggrandizing and outrageous tall-tales constructed around a slang-speech that emanates from their respective working-class neighborhoods. A group of gutter-punks from North-West England may appear to have little in common with black rappers from Miami or South-Central Los Angeles, but through humor (and modern communications) vast bridges exist, creating bonds between the like-minded who would likely never cross paths.
Like much rap, too, a proud, parochial regionalism is prevalent in the Macc Lads’ insular lyrical world. Following Hemingway’s dictum to write what you know, the Macc Lads wrote about Macclesfield: its pubs (The Bear’s Head), its beer (Boddingtons), and its girls (Charlotte, Miss Macclesfield). Each element of this world is detailed with its own fixed clichés and stereotypes: the girls are “slags”, beer other than “Boddies” is “piss”, and men who are not Macc Lads are “poofs”. This caricature portraiture is all-pervasive across Macc Lads’ lyrics, and no one is exempt from its one-dimensional depictions. But whereas parodists like Randy Newman and Jello Biafra constantly change their narrative masks from song to song and subject to subject, Muttley McLad (the Lads’ singer-songwriter) always stays in character and keeps within his limited repertoire of banal activities, these encapsulated in the title of the band’s “sophomore” album, Beer Sex Chips ‘N’ Gravy (1985).
So what is this persona that provides the point-of-view of the Macc Lads? Essentially, their speaker is a parody of a very English “type” in extremis: the bigoted, boozing, xenophobic, foul-mouthed Northern working-class slob. Not surprisingly, this caricature has a thing or two to say about foreign policy (on both sides of the pond). “Buenos Aires” (1985) was written in the wake of the Falklands War and somewhat reflected Prime Minister Thatcher’s “muscular” approach, as seen through a Lads-eye-view: “After a scrap with the English navy they’ll ask for the recipe for chips ‘n’ gravy / Aye up, the Lads are on their way / With their bayonets and their Tommy guns / And their bellies full of Boddingtons”. The Sun newspaper apparently missed the irony of the Lads’ “political science” and began plans to ship multiple copies of the song down to the fighting British forces, thus revealing that parody—in the hands of the dim-witted—can sometimes have unintended consequences (a fact/fate Sacha Baron Cohen has recently been famously forced to face).
The outer reaches of the Macc Lads’ caricature-humor can be found in their Band Aid parody, “Feed Your Face” (1987). Excruciatingly offensive in point-of-view and content, the song features a typical Macc Lad watching Live Aid and mouthing reactions not quite in unison with the consensus sympathies of the day: “These foreigners need sorting out / They’ve always got either droughts or flooding / We’d make a killing if we opened a chippy”. Ironically inverting “Saint” Bob Geldof’s original sentiments, the chorus rings out, “Feed your face / Don’t give them a second thought”. Outrage followed the song’s release as it was banished from all commercial radio while being “officially” denounced by various members of Parliament. As substantiated by the above Sun example, this brand of parody humor invariably faces potential misinterpretation, or, at least, of audiences not seeing (or wishing to see) behind the narrative farce.
Besides the caricature provocations of his narrative strategies, Muttley McLad uses broad strokes of demeaning humor to paint the colorful cast of characters in the Macc-community. The local girls are his favorite prey, and they are all variants on the “slag” type. “Charlotte” (1985) presents a portrait of said-woman as an uncontainable sex addict with a voracious appetite for devouring men; she is “the biggest slag in Macc” who will “do anything to get you in the sack”. “Sweaty Betty” (1985) is more grotesque in caricature, but “after ten pints…looks quite fit”. She is the kind of figure one hears of in any number of ‘80s rap songs, though Muttley brings an Anglicized spin to his details: “I couldn’t believe the size of her bum / She used to play for Wigan at the back of the scrum”. A more appealing picture is painted of “Miss Macclesfield” (1985). Initially, the speaker describes her in glowing terms (at least from a Macc Lad perspective): “She was the perfect woman, she was my kind of a bird / Cos she stayed in the kitchen and never said a word”. The wholesome lass falls out of favor, though, after she wins the local beauty pageant and starts to get above her station (i.e. independent). Here, the anti-PC irony drips from every line, and it is clear that Muttley’s particular objections to the Miss Macclesfield competition are actually the comic inverse to what they would be from certain (feminist) quarters.
One of the more endearing elements of the Macc Lads’ humor is their willingness to open themselves up to self-mockery. In some of those songs, the guest-narrating Macc Lasses turn the tables on our macho heroes. “Two Stroke Eddie” (‘90) uses the famous Shangri-La’s girl group anthem, “Leader of the Pack” (1964), as its premise. However, instead of the original’s portrayal of romantic desire, the Lasses demand sexual satisfaction, only to be disappointed, as Eddie “only had an inch, and that was foreskin”. In “Dan’s Round Us Handbags” (1985) (sic), the Lasses seek refuge from their Lad boyfriends with a holiday in Marbella. Here, the band’s conventional abuse is twisted into an opposite gender perspective when a Lass grumbles, “My boyfriend’s a twat, he’s getting on my tits / He hasn’t shagged me for a week coz he’s always too pissed”.
As skilled as the Macc Lads were at satirizing conventions, their greatest gifts lay at primal linguistic levels. Their lexicon of local vernacular was as rich and evocative as Cab Calloway’s and Ian Dury’s, and their puns were deposited in abundance within their lyrics. Album titles include From Beer to Eternity, Beer Necessities, and Alehouse Rock, and among their song titles are “Don’t Fear the Sweeper”, “Fellatio Nell, Son”, and “Mary Queen of Pox”. Even at their most offensive and insulting, such “low” humor wordplay kept the wit front-and-center, ever calling attention to the fact that they were calling attention to the humor of their endeavors; this, in itself, was an implicit call for the uptight to get over themselves and to let some humor break down their overly serious natures.
As has been the fate for many of the more extreme language-based comics, the Macc Lads’ deeper messages and codes have been generally ignored, their surface content processed simplistically as obscene, dangerous, and unacceptable. In the UK, radio stations refused to play their songs, many venues refused to host their shows, and certain stores were unwilling to stock their records. Despite the blanket of censorship, the band’s cult status escalated during the 1980s in counter-parallel to the insinuating spread of mainstream political correctness. At the peak of their success in 1995, after just completing tours of both the US and Europe, the Lads did the unexpected in such circumstances and decided to call it quits. The catalogue of guilty pleasures they have left behind may not offer any progressive programs for social change, but they do provide a relief sanctuary for libertarian lovers of extreme humor, a place most of us wish to—though we may not always admit to wishing to—withdraw into once in a while.
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The above essay is an excerpt from a forthcoming book about rock-related artists who use(d) humor as a primary instrument of rebellion.