UK comedian Chris Morris is one of the most biting satirists of his generation, but as classic TV shows like Brass Eye and Jam proved, he’s also something of a musical genius. Scott Wilson picks out seven highlights from his long career.
In our era of reality TV presidents, Brexit and fake news, the work of Chris Morris has never felt quite so prescient. Long before real life and fiction started to collide in headlines like “Donald Trump’s wall plan sparks avocado price hike fears,” Morris was skewering the media and establishment alike with similarly nonsensical headlines and celebrity stings in news satires The Day Today and Brass Eye. Look back on any one of the headlines from those shows, broadcast in 1994 and 1997, and they feel indistinguishable from real life: The Day Today‘s “Nato annuled after delegate swallows treaty,” seems less like a joke in 2017 and more like a depressing inevitability.
The success of Morris’s comedy stems from the way he splices the English language to create mental images that are more hilarious than any visual gag: “Clinton welcomed home after machine-gunning 400 buffalo,” for instance, or “like Dante meets Bosch in a crack lounge.” However, just as important to Morris’s world is music. Together with collaborator Jonathan Whitehead, Morris co-wrote much of the incidental music and parody songs for The Day Today, Brass Eye and 2004’s hipster satire Nathan Barley, creating the perfect soundtrack for his dark, surreal universe.
Looking back at Morris’s body of work, 20 years after the first episode of Brass Eye was broadcast on January 29, 1997, it’s clear that few people have combined music and comedy quite as successfully. Whether he’s creating strung-out ambient music for a short film about a talking dog or parodying Eminem to highlight the media hysteria surrounding paedophilia, Morris’s use of music strikes the balance between creating black comedy and something that’s actually listenable. Below are seven of his finest music moments – just be careful not to find yourself jazzing to the bleep tone of a life support machine.
Prior to appearing on television, Morris was part of The Thick of It and Veep creator Armando Ianucci’s On The Hour, a satirical news show broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in the early ‘90s. His performance caught the ear of defunct music publication Select, which enlisted him to record a one-off radio show for a freebie 7″ called The Select Floppy Disc™, which was the first of several appearances of Morris on vinyl across his career.
While the spoken word highlight of the 7″ is arguably Morris tricking men’s rights advocate Piers Morgan (then showbiz editor at The Sun) into thinking he was getting a news exclusive about a U2 gig at Alton Towers straight from Bono himself, it was the spot-on Pixies spoof ‘Motherbanger’ that proved Morris’s knack for the parody song. All you need to know is that it’s about the singer’s incestuous relationship with his mother, and features the lyric “my mother gummed my weapon” to the tune of ‘This Monkey’s Gone To Heaven’.
One-second rave track from Brass Eye‘s ‘Drugs’ episode (1997)
The ‘Drugs’ episode of spoof current affairs show Brass Eye is Morris at his peak, savagely critiquing the media and government hysteria surrounding ecstasy and rave culture, and duping B-list celebrities into endorsing a fictional anti-narcotics charity called F.U.K.D. & B.O.M.B.D. The fictional drug ‘cake’ is Morris’s finest satirical device, a substance that affects time perception and tricks your brain into thinking a second lasts for a month. “Almost sounds like fun,” said celebrity snake oil salesman Noel Edmonds. “Unless you’re the Prague schoolboy who walked out into the street, straight in front of a tram. He thought he’d a month to cross the street.”
A lot of celebrities came away from the cake sting looking bad – Edmonds, convicted sex offender Rolf Harris, racist comic Bernard Manning – but it was MP David Amess who looked the worst, believing that a split-second sample sounded to the “speeded up brain of a user” like a comedy mash-up of happy hardcore, noise and early ’90s chillout. There’s an urban myth that Aphex Twin produced the track used on the show, but the absurd conceit of a one-second track stretched out to four hours is pure Morris. Also, it accurately predicted deconstructed club music.
Blouse – ‘Me Oh Myra’ from Brass Eye (1997)
The Day Today and Brass Eye poked fun at everything from from gangster rap (‘Uzi Lover’) to musical theatre (Sutcliffe! The Musical), but Morris’ most memorable parody song was an alternative version of a Britpop classic. Blouse were Morris’ take on Pulp, using ‘Disco 2000’ as the template for a love song to notorious child killer Myra Hindley. While it was one of Brass Eye’s many taboo-breaking moments, Morris was raising a wider point about the moral majority and the kind of censorship debates that led to parental advisory stickers being put on albums.
It also seemed to be a comment on the number one battles between Blur and Oasis, largely stirred up by the NME to sell magazines. Speaking as Blouse frontman Purves Grundy, Morris says: “I do think if someone’s gone and bought this record they should throw it away. And then they should go and buy another copy because they like the song.” ‘Me Oh Myra’ is definitely offensive, but it’s just as likely to get stuck in your head as ‘Disco 2000’.
Chris Morris’s comedy has always pushed the boundaries of taste, but even by his own standards Jam is a deeply disturbing watch. Hidden away at 11pm on Channel 4 in early 2000, the dark, surreal sketch show went largely unnoticed by the media, despite covering topics such as rape, infant mortality and prostitution, and airing a sketch in which a doctor slowly kills his conscious patients after telling them they have “symptomless coma.” Coming just a few months after the conviction of serial killer Dr. Harold Shipman, it was close to the bone, even for Morris.
Slowed down, stretched out and punctuated by moments of long, uncomfortable silence, Jam‘s secret weapon is the incredible selection of licensed music from Brian Eno, DJ Shadow, Massive Attack, Coldcut, Sade and more. Hearing Jam‘s soundtrack play out is a lot like listening to a rolling playlist created by a group of incapacitated ravers at an after party, full of musical non-sequiturs that only enhance the surreal vibe. There aren’t many DJs who’d segue from post-rock originators Bark Psychosis to Minnie Riperton’s ‘Loving You’, but as with his comedy, Morris’ selections are fearless.
Amon Tobin ft. Chris Morris – ‘Bad Sex’ (2000)
Morris’ musical career doesn’t just cover material made for comedies. In 2000, he collaborated with Ninja Tune artist Amon Tobin over email on a track called ‘Bad Sex’. It’s difficult to know for sure what Morris’ contribution was, but it’s probably a safe bet that it’s the tortured vocals and moans that sound more sinister than sensual. “Chuck the spade at the child,” a woman says towards the end, in what once again sounds like a offcut from one of his Jam sketches.
My Wrongs 8245–8249 & 117 (2002)
Long before he directed the BAFTA-winning jihad satire Four Lions, Morris made his film debut with My Wrongs 8245–8249 & 117 (the first release on Warp Films), a 12-minute short in which Paddy Considine plays a man whose mental breakdown manifests itself via a talking dog called Rothko.
It’s basically an extended version of a Jam sketch (it started life as a segment from Morris’ pre-Jam radio show Blue Jam), but instead uses an original score. Co-written by Morris and Adrian Sutton, the music is very much a post-IDM, post trip-hop product of its time, but its mix of twitchy electronics, wonky acoustic tones and library music-inspired moments are probably the closest we’ll get to being inside Morris’ brain.
‘Bad To Have A Bad Uncle’ from Nathan Barley (2004)
Of all of Morris’ shows, Nathan Barley is perhaps the most prescient. Largely unpopular with critics and audiences when it was broadcast in 2004, the sitcom (co-written with Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker) took aim at Shoreditch hipsters when such a term barely existed. It was so ahead of its time that people didn’t have the references to get most of the jokes, but revisiting it now is almost like watching a fly-on-the-wall documentary on London’s media industries.
Music is obviously a big part of Nathan Barley‘s narcissistic world, and while the show critiqued everything from offensive landfill London indie bands to awful bedroom electro house producers, the most enduring moment is ‘Bad To Have A Bad Uncle’. A tale of sexual abuse sung by a 13-year-old cocaine addict, its ironic detachment and sugary electronic production is like hearing a dark parody of PC Music’s GFOTY long before A.G. Cook started the label. If that’s not proof of Brooker’s clairvoyant satirical genius, nothing is.