What Foul-Mouthed Singer Kunt & The Gang Tells Us About Offence in 2021

Kunt & The Gang's offensive attack on Boris Johnson was one last year's top-selling singles. Tim Burrows looks at the work of the Essexploitation songwriter and argues that there's still an important place for his brand of offensive pop in 2021

Although the majority of the those who streamed or bought ‘Boris Johnson Is A Fucking Cunt’, a song by the Kunts, AKA Basildon’s finest Essexploitation synth act Kunt and the Gang, must have already presumed that Boris Johnson is a fucking cunt, there was still something thrilling about it. Potty-mouthed humour like this felt like a cathartic release at the end of a hard pandemic year made worse by having to live under the prime minister’s blue-sky lying, empty promises, and entitled bluster.

As the single rose through the charts, becoming the 20th biggest selling track of 2020, it predictably prompted a half-hearted moral panic from some tabloids. "FURY as vile Boris Johnson protest song could bag Number 1 slot in Christmas charts" bleated a headline from The Express (also The Express, about the Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’: "BBC madness: Radio 1 to air watered down version of UK’s most played Christmas song"). But away from this confected furore, most of the country, even those who bought the single, still doesn’t know much about the work of the artist at the heart of it all, Kunt. Who is he, and who’s in his gang?

Despite a devoted online following and fans from Stewart Lee to Charlie Brooker and Andrew Liles of Nurse With Wound, it isn’t exactly surprising Kunt remains a fairly obscure figure. The name, for starters. Then there are the subjects of the songs he has released as Kunt and the Gang since 2003, ranging from masturbation (‘Wanking Over A Pornographic Polaroid Of An Ex-Girlfriend Who Died’, ‘A Lonely Wank in a Travelodge’, ‘Wank Fantasy’) to defecation (‘Bangers & Mash’, ‘Shitting On A Picture of the Queen’), tabloid paedophiles (‘The Wrong Ian Watkins’, ‘Jimmy Savile & The Sexy Kids’) to bad sex advice (‘Women Love A Bastard’, ‘50 Things You Should Think About to Stop You Doing Your Beans’). Some of the older videos are full of sex dolls and page threes pinned on bedroom walls and dated by wink-nudge laughs about being caught perving on girls by Tom from MySpace (‘Perverts On The Internet’).

It’s darkly crude stuff made largely in pre-MeToo times. Perhaps, I am sure many might argue, this is not culture that is really fit for this day and age. And yet… It is funny. Really funny. Going on output, longevity and quality I’d say Kunt has made some of the funniest work of anyone in England over the past two decades. He’s certainly made me laugh on more occasions than anyone else. This is where I start to feel weird writing about my long-term love of Kunt and the Gang. Argue too hard for Kunt’s work to be accepted and you feel like one of those Lozza "Loser" Fox-adjacent tossers who crows on about how you "just can’t say anything any more".

But Kunt proves you can. He’s carved out a career of near constant touring (until he stopped until 2016) and flooding the internet with music videos, documentaries, and comedy turns all relying on the vacantly disturbing persona of Kunt. His delivery is a dead-panned kind of speak-singing based on Ian Dury. If you wanted to boil down the voice of Essex (or at least the south Essex of stereotype) into one singer’s delivery, it would be Kunt’s. The key attribute is its nasal quality, which typifies received wisdom about the Essex accent.

The overall effect is one of a hybrid of super-catchy electronic pop and joyously wrong comedy. Imagine John Shuttleworth if John Shuttleworth was a six-foot geez from Basildon with a gold tooth who rhymes Michael Eavis with "micro-penis". Imagine Derek and Clive if they had the gumption to write genuinely life-affirming earworm melodies like ‘Fucksticks’ (a song that’s essentially the sweary version of ‘Favourite Things’ from The Sound Of Music. Imagine if Vince Clarke stopped worrying and started wearing a fake rubber penis that wobbles from his open fly on stage.

But his work is not one note. ‘A Lonely Wank In a Travelodge’ is a subdued masterpiece about the isolation of touring. ‘Fucksticks’ is a properly rousing singalong song about, in part, the awkwardness of dealing with an older family member’s bigotry. ‘Paul Stephenson’s Party’, about a party "in a Stifford Clays cul-de-sac" gatecrashed by hundreds of kids, is a poignant 2011 portrait of suburban teenage abandonment:

Now there was no Facebook in those days, no Beebo or MySpace

Fuck knows how 200 people ended up in the same place

Two blokes were fighting out front, it was actually quite frightening

So I just go in and make a start on three litres of White Lightning

It is surely a mistake to prescribe cultural formats or genres to local areas, to formalise any kind of connection beyond the prosaic and the intangible between place and text. And yet, while south Essex is far from illiterate, its cultural output is largely post-literary, and has grown as suburban development dovetailed with the rise of television and popular music. Kunt says Basildon’s Depeche Mode were an inspiration for him as much as comedians like Adrian Edmonson and Harlow-born Rick Mayall, and not just in terms of music. Depeche told him that "it was possible to come from Essex and go out and achieve something in the world," he says. "The fact that I only got my hit record after 30 years of trying, only when I called the prime minister a fucking cunt and only after he cancelled Christmas just goes to show how misguided that belief was."

Some of the rhymes make a virtue of Essex idiosyncrasies, such as "crotch" sounding like "much", and "bald" like "old". The whole joke of the song ‘I’m Gonna Think Of You’ rests on the fact the colloquial Essex it sounds like "I’m gonna finger you". Yes, it’s puerile, but his artistry is visible throughout. It is probably the incessant inventiveness of his rhyming couplets that really does it for me, a department where his only contemporary competition is, perhaps, the children’s author Julia Donaldson. Take, for example, ‘50 Things You Should Think About to Stop You Doing Your Beans’, a song that lists things to imagine to stave off ejaculating too early, which features some excellent free-association rhyming: "Farm machinery, pleasant scenery, your grandad with his vest on / The M25, being buried alive, the moustache of Simon Weston".

Kunt keeps his true identity anonymous, but smatterings of biography exist. He was born in Basildon, the new town that came to represent lost hope and by extension England itself and the way it votes, in 1973. His family later moved to Grays in Thurrock, a characterful place, albeit at the mercy of decline. He says in his autobiography I Kunt that his dad’s side were proper working class and his mum aspirational working class. He couldn’t find a future in industrial Thurrock and so worked on the shop floor of Burton’s in the newly opened Lakeside shopping centre for five years, and aside from music, he’s drifted through jobs he hasn’t much liked, such as labouring for his builder dad or painting and decorating.

In his act he embodies something approaching the Essex of popular caricature, but not exactly. When he first appeared he did so not as a mythical big shot waving his wads of cash (in reality not exactly ten a penny on the streets of Basildon or Grays), but as a downwardly mobile porn addict who still lives with his mum. Kunt’s earlier work narrates the moment lad’s mag largesse took a wrong turn and swaggered straight into the cul de sac of porntubes and misogynistic messageboards and Reddits. He became the straight man pointing and laughing at the grotesque nature of the modern man. And he never punches down – his target is always the base instincts that lurk within different but overlapping spheres, from lad culture to the faux morality of the rightwing press.

When I first heard Sleaford Mods, they immediately reminded me of a dour East Midlands Kunt & The Gang. Of course, the vibe could not be more different. While the ‘Mods make attack-minded music that exhales the acrid reality of much working-class life, with Jason Williamson isolating the madly repetitive poetry of the breadline, on the face of it Kunt exudes the nothing-sticks-to-me breeziness of south-east England. This relative whimsy is perhaps a hand-me-down from Cockney culture, which was transplanted to new towns like Basildon in the postwar period and has long papered over a similar sense of abandonment as Sleaford Mods’ bleak Midlands-into-Lincolnshire wasteland. I have always thought such cheerfulness despite everything reflects the churn of London, the fact Essex is a hostage to the fortunes of the metropolis giving the place a feeling of lightness bordering on nihilism.

Kunt’s songs and their videos are stitched together with the materiality of working class life in the first decades of the 21st century. He makes a virtue of his south Essex location in his videos, which are mostly filmed in pubs, housing estates and coastal vistas around south Essex. His manager, Mike Gibbons, "runs his small empire half an hour from London, on the A127 Southend Arterial road", we learn in Kunt’s 2009 Cockumentary. In a video from a couple of years later we are told that Mike is in a bad way after his caravan was towed away to be dumped "on a landfill in Linford", but with him still in it. While these fictionalised elements of biography are exaggerated for comedic effect, to those acquainted with the extremities of south Essex as a fragmented place characterised by divided zones of rich and poor and split by roads, dirty industry and patches of green belt, Kunt’s world doesn’t seem much of a stretch.

I talked to an old Essex friend, London-based illustrator Justyna Burzynska, about the appeal of Kunt. "It’s a really dark laugh," she said. "I wonder if coming from Essex also increases our acceptance of him. I showed it to my sister in New Zealand and it gave her a nostalgic flash of the bleakness of home."

It is difficult to pinpoint where this kind of offensive comedy fits in 2021. There seems to be a tacit acknowledgement that times have changed from Kunt himself. I, Kunt features an air of apology for material that might not stand up to a generation better educated about consent. He held up a pre-MeToo trigger warning on a Post-It note before most of his songs during the lockdown shows. But even this feels part of the joke. How could it not? Kunt has spent the best part of two decades performing in character as the blasé worst of bloke culture. He’s not going to break character now. Kunt’s lockdown broadcasts of him singing songs that cheerily proffer gross-out sex education lessons while showcasing his ventriloquism skills or how the death of Princess Diana ruined his wank, provide a service at a time without the possibility of going to the pub to swap filthy bantz, moan, and swear to let off steam. 

The filth that fuels his funnies is certainly still out there in the world beyond denouncements on Twitter – spouted in pubs (at least before lockdown) and inside shared houses and WhatsApp groups, in bedrooms and internal monologues. I have no interest in joining the current debates around offence, most of which end up being highly offensive themselves. I am sure some of those most offended by the Boris Johnson song would otherwise claim to be warriors for free-speech. But if one really does believe in the exploratory ideals that surely underpin the concept, why can’t a bloke called Kunt write a song extolling the lack of virtue held by our current prime minister; or, for that matter, a seasonal ditty about being Photoshopped in a variety of compromising sexual positions with the tabloids’ favourite paedophiles and serial killers by his mate Cliff to the tune of ‘Twelve Days Of Christmas’?

Kunt’s work exists in a comedic realm not too dissimilar to the literary one inhabited by the reporter-turned-longform master of the British popular macabre, Gordon Burn. The Newcastle-born writer was similarly obsessed with serial killers and perversion as subjects for his work. "Burn journeyed to the dark side and reported back for those who dared to delve into his findings," wrote Benjamin Myers of Burn’s book on Fred and Rose West (who provide a foil for at least one Kunt song), "If anything, Happy Like Murderers is a work of exorcism, a raising and banishing of ghosts, a catharsis for an entire country." Burn and Kunt alike create work that accepts we are an island of constant trauma. Creativity that admits as much feels a lot kinder and imbued with more solidarity than output that seeks to better us, or worse coddle us, while denying stark realities and making an enemy of anyone who brings them up. Rather than allowing taboo to remain hidden in the private or personal sphere, Kunt’s bracing humour gets it out in the open.

One of Kunt’s skills has been exercising the freedom that was afforded to him by being from Basildon, where the English establishment already expects you to be crude, while exorcising the horrors of English hypocrisy. The inbuilt pugnacity of the humour produced by these isles, of not giving a fuck about stature, sanctity, good sense or sacred cows, used to more readily charm me, but it has worn thin now it has become the way the body politic itself behaves, thanks in a large part to the former Have I Got News For You host Johnson and the horse he rode in on, Brexit. Kunt pushing things to extremes still feels a thrilling experience to watch, but it is difficult to avoid the feeling his escalating obscenities and boundary-pushing has been outpaced by the prime minister himself, whether threatening to beat up journalists, his infamous sexual profligacy, being pissed out of his head at an airport in his capacity as foreign secretary in 2018 or overseeing the direction of more than £100,000 in funds towards his "lover" Jennifer Arcuri while he was the mayor of London.

Kunt’s later work perhaps struggled to find focus (not even he wants to write songs about wanking forever). The rise of Ukip was first felt in places like Grays and Basildon, and so Kunt was early on the scene when he wrote ‘That’s Why I’m Voting Ukip’ in 2014 (later changed to ‘That’s Why I’m Voting Brexit’), which points out the ludicrous nature of patriotism by singing about defending "the great British minge". Perhaps inevitably it became a bit of an anthem in the parts where Nigel Farage was popular such as in this Bury St Edmunds boozer in 2014, where it is the one song everyone could joyfully sing along to. And yet, as Warren Mitchell and Alan Murray the pub landlord found when they played with bigotry in their work, sometimes the audience stops being in on the joke and starts to clap along a bit too earnestly.

Kunt stopped touring and retired in 2016 in part because a minority of his fans who would turn up to gigs were getting him down. Now he has returned from obscurity to achieve his biggest moment of fame by sharpening his ire and pointing it towards the prime minister – the only bigger cunt than him. It could reinvigorate him. The dream now is to write a musical, I Swear, the story of returning to Basildon after retirement to discover foul language has been banned. I have no idea who would stump up the money to produce it once the theatres are open again after Covid, but I’m there if they do.

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