So “Cool Cymru”, Part Three: Welsh Wits

Safe as Fuck

It’s sometimes said that great comedy is born out of insecurity. It’s not surprising, therefore, considering the identity crisis that Wales has long struggled with in relation to its historically meager contributions to British rock, that the nation has birthed its fair share of humorists. Like the “rube” humorists of American country culture, Welsh rock humorists often betray a national inferiority complex by comically exaggerating their culture’s more stereotypical idiosyncrasies. Super Furry Animals particularly reflect this identity humor, and the self-deprecating nature of its expression. Just as the “rubes” are often playful with their language and lifestyle features, so Super Furry Animals, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci (translation: dimwit reproductive monkey), and others have done likewise through their sometimes punny use of their native tongue and whimsical representations of modern life in Wales.

Such humor—a common outlet for those feeling marginalized or oppressed—also serves positive functions. Besides its self-effacing features operating as pre-emptive strikes against those who would more maliciously mock them (i.e., the English vis-à-vis the Welsh), this home-grown and home-oriented humor bonds the community in local pride, social unity, and self-defense. As a result, collective laughter fends off the usual despair or insecurity, and a communal relief is achieved by one’s ability to laugh at oneself, or, more pertinently, to laugh at ourselves together. The uplifting effects of such humor can be seen in American country communities at the stand-up performances of Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy, or at the musical ones of Brad Paisley and Gretchen Wilson. Some recent Welsh wits are performing the same function.

When one contemplates Welsh rock music today, rap music and its attendant hip-hop culture are not the first genres that come to mind. However, just as the Beastie Boys once negotiated a relationship with what (in the ’80s) was an almost wholly African-American style by using self-deprecating humor, so, too, have a particularly oxymoronic breed of geo-genre hybrid Welsh rappers done likewise. Nowadays, Cardiff, like most urban cities, has its own vibrant hip-hop culture, though its rappers’ approach to the genre is reflective of that city’s distance from the traditions, circumstances, conventions, and language of the form. Welsh rappers recognize the apparent on-the-face-of-it absurdity of their adoption of and participation in the genre, hence they relate to it accordingly, via the codes of incongruity and sometimes absurdist humor. The principle flag-wavers of contemporary Welsh mock-hop are Goldie Lookin Chain (no apostrophe), a Newport-based seven-piece posse referred to by some crit-wits as “the Beastie Boyos”.

Goldie Lookin Chain (or GLC, or the Chain) have been dismissed by some as a novelty act in the vein of “Weird Al” Yankovic, while by others they have been hailed as perceptive cultural documentalists. Sharing the latter view, NME’s Dan Martin called their album,Safe as Fuck (2005), “a hip-hop record that accurately reflects regional Britain in the 2000s”. For GLC, such is the soul of hip-hop: to capture the lives of local youth in all its nuanced details. Just as country humorists use the “rube” (or “hick”) for their caricatures, GLC employ the persona of the stereotypical “chav” (or “clart”), the white pseudo-gangster of the suburban hoody set best known from Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G character. Like Cohen with Ali G, GLC’s players accentuate the dumb, parade their excess bling, and sit around stoned in their trackies and trainers. Chavs are essentially the British equivalent of what in the US some used to call “wiggas”: white suburban kids acting out their black urban fantasies. The comedy of GLC (and Ali G) comes in identifying that space between fantasy and reality, in the exposure of the clichéd and mediated nature of the chavs’ “acting out”, and in how hilariously far these kids inevitably are from the real street realities they ape.

Inhabiting this world as rappers, GLC mock themselves and their assumed subculture, but they also ridicule the industry and culture that play their parts in the feeding frenzy of sensationalizing and marketing the presumed and popular facets of the persona. Predictably, drug songs abound in the GLC catalogue; however, these gangsta wanna-be’s are neither drug runners nor crack heads, their collected odes to weed amounting to no more than misdemeanors. Songs like “HRT” (2005) and “Short Term Memory” (2005) could even be seen as cautionary warnings against the dangers of drugs, as the tales they tell hardly show the boys in a romanticized light, only as stoned, burned out slackers mindlessly mouthing “What? Where? Who? Why? What’s going on?” because their memories have “gone to pot”.

As befits their dumb persona, dumb humor permeates GLC’s lyrics. “Your Mother’s Got a Penis” (2005) is as infantile as anything Blink 182 or the Bloodhound Gang have concocted, while “Your Missus is a Nutter” (2005) is another playgrounder, though its implementation as a jibe anthem Welsh soccer fans have used against David Beckham (and his Missus) has given the song an extended shelf life.

GLC’s parody wit attains a more subversive edge when targeted beyond themselves and their fellow “clarts”. “Guns Don’t Kill People, Rappers Do” (2004), with its media savvy and inverted logic, illustrates how clever dumb humor can sometimes be, while “Self Suicide” (2004) deepens the band’s satirical but sharp take on modern hip-hop with the following “killer” couplets: “Committing suicide to announce my career / It worked for Biggie and Tupac Sha-keer / Jesus was nailed up to some wood / Two thousand years later book sales are still good”. The idiot (savant) narrator here cuts to bottom line realities, in the process deflating the hot air from the gangsta rap bubble, with all its self-importance, self-mythologizing, and self-seriousness. Like Molière and Jonathan Swift before them, GLC, at their best, practice superiority humor, simultaneously exposing and chastising the narcissistic, the pretentious, and the hypocrits. Jenni Cole, of MusicOMH, also sees a socially critical role in GLC’s superiority humor, commenting, “In an industry that is frequently cynical, over-earnest and prone to disappear up its own backside (sometimes all at the same time), there’s an endearing honesty about Newport’s best novelty act”.

As silly as GLC’s caricature humor can often be, recent releases indicate the same kind of maturing process that original “nutters” like Madness and the Beastie Boys made over the course of their careers. “Unemployed and Over Drawn”, for example, from their latest album, Asbo4Life (2009), goes beyond the take-the-mick-hop of GLC’s earlier work, offering social commentary on the recent binge-drinking crisis that has boomed as the UK economy has tanked. Yes, the boyos’ endearing humor remains in the narrative mix, but it has become more poignant than puerile in nature.

Cardiff’s Los Campesinos! (exclamation point required!), like GLC, mix humor with common details to document the lives of their local youth constituency. Like GLC, too, they have looked to the US as much as the UK for their musical inspirations. The quirky indie rock styles pioneered by Pavement and Broken Social Scene have often served as the atmospheric backdrops for Los Campesinos!’ social satire, though the band’s open embrace of the post-ironic twee genre was also indicated through the title of their early single release, “The International Tweexcore Underground” (2007). Resistant to the macho postures of Britpop bands like The Libertines, Oasis, and Arctic Monkeys, as well as to the equally macho guitar struts of US rockers like The Strokes and the Kings of Leon, the co-ed Los Campesinos! have pursued a less masculine course and cause, one more in tune with the “intellectual wimp” and “hopeless romantic” persona elements of American indie and emo. This hipster tradition also has its British correlatives in forerunners like The Smiths and Orange Juice, as well as in contemporaries like Art Brut, A Divine Comedy, and Wales’s own Super Furry Animals. Adopters and adapters like so many Welsh acts before them, the sounds, lyrics, and sense of humor articulated by Los Campesinos! have their primary foundations in many places, yet their Welsh roots are never fully severed.

The band’s embrace of American indie and their unrelenting outsider stance against modern British guitar rock is reflected in their media coverage, too, where they have been championed on US hipster sites like Pitchfork and Drowned in Sound, while being largely ignored by the NME and other UK music outlets. Even within Wales, though their frenetic rhythms, pop hooks, and quirky electronic injections bare resemblance to the region’s much beloved Super Furry Animals, the fact that the band members are Welsh-based rather than Welsh-born has limited their (adopted) home appeal. Furthermore, their name (which loosely translates from the Spanish as “peasants”) suggests that these nomadic Welsh-English men and women operate beyond the kind of national identity and identification that have been such self-conscious features of so many past Welsh bands.

Being outsiders looking in, though, has afforded Los Campesinos! the luxury of operating beyond regional expectations, and Cardiff has proven (for them as well as for other recent bands) to be an ideal locale from which to develop aesthetics independent of the usual industry pressures. Indeed, individualism and independence have been the band’s principle and constant themes, at the core of their lyrical tales about the trials and tribulations of youthful life in the 21stt century.

Like that other seven-piece combo, Goldie Lookin Chain, Los Campesinos! are comedic chroniclers of a particular youth demographic. But whereas GLC caricature working class chavs through their fun-dumb narrative raps, Los Campesinos! assume the role of middle class hipsters, complete with emo insecurities and literate pretensions. “Shout at the world because the world doesn’t love you / Love yourself because you know that you’ll have to”, bemoans singer Gareth in the mi(d)st of the Morrissey-esque melodrama, “Miserabilia” (2008).

Despite performing “in character,” Los Campesinos!—like GLC—draw from autobiography yet operate beyond self-parody. Their wordy regurgitations are crafted with everykids in mind, intended to be reflective of their fan base as well as of their real selves. An incurable wordaholic, lyricist Gareth uses verbosity for comedic ends, writing in excessive lyrical barrages and emoting like a manic high school blogger or an adderall-addled creative writing major. Hold on Now, Youngster…(2008), the title of their debut album, infers that this freight train of youthful expression is unstoppable, while the title of their next extended release, We are Beautiful, We are Doomed (2008), faux-romantically captures the emotional overkill of their woe-is-me parody. An ironic twist and double entendre pun further feed the wordy wit of their most recent album title, Romance is Boring (2010).

In the mode of Jarvis Cocker, Gareth scrutinizes with amusement the raw nerves of modern youth by highlighting the minutia of “common” relationship experiences. And what is more common to the average college-age kid than considerations about sex? As in Cocker’s Pulp, sex pervades the work of Los Campesinos! but it is rarely represented in a pleasurable or even satisfying light. Instead, it is dismissed or diminished in short, sharp, shocking tweets, each cynically colored by a bathetic word-play reminiscent of Oscar Wilde. Consider how the following aphorism from “We are Beautiful, We are Doomed” (2008) pithily encapsulates the sex-obsession, insecurity, foreboding, and dependence of the typical hormonally-charged young person: “We kid ourselves there’s future in the fucking / But there is no fucking future”. If only more emo artists could summon such wicked wit to temper and enliven their own unquenchable revelatory outpourings!

“Hilarious, grotesque, and immensely affecting character sketches”, said Pitchfork’s Paul Thompson of the songs on Romance is Boring. He could just as well have been referring to any of the band’s previous releases, or, indeed, to the work of Cymru’s other contemporary caricaturists par excellence, Goldie Lookin Chain.