A BRITISH MUSICAL INVASION
What has made the invasion of musical artists from the United Kingdom so special? Why is their influence so widespread? Is this influence still felt today? And why are some of these groups (i.e. the Rolling Stones) are still going strong some 50 years later?
The British music invasion of the early Sixties is a hazy memory to most of us who are old enough to remember it at all. For many of us, it’s the kind of memory that makes us smile and remember a time when things were less complicated… when we shared with each other the pure joy and energy
The British Invasion was a phenomenon that occurred in the mid-1960s when rock and pop music acts from the United Kingdom, as well as other aspects of British culture, became popular in the United States, and significant to the rising “counterculture” on both sides of the Atlantic. Pop and rock groups such as The Beatles, The Dave Clark Five, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits and The Who were at the forefront of the invasion.
The rebellious tone and image of US rock and roll and blues musicians became popular with British youth in the late 1950s. While early commercial attempts to replicate American rock and roll mostly failed, the trad jazz–inspired skiffle craze, with its ‘do it yourself’ attitude, was the starting point of several British Billboard singles.
Young British groups started to combine various British and American styles, in different parts of the U.K., such as a movement in Liverpool during 1962 in what became known as Merseybeat, hence the “beat boom”. There were some observers that noted that US teenagers were growing tired of singles-oriented pop acts like Fabian. Bands with a Mod aesthetic became the most popular, but bands able to balance both (e.g., The Beatles) were successful.
It’s hard to imagine the invasion taking place without the Beatles. Many of the bands swept along on the Fab Four’s coattails to the top of the American charts possessed no more talent than the bland teen idols they had displaced. The Beatles, however, were another matter. Three of members–the songwriting team of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and, to a lesser extent, lead guitarist George Harrison–were capable of producing first-rate material. After a brief period of covering American R & B, pop, and country standards, the group went on to compose a long string of rock classics, many of which are likely to be performed for generations to come. The band members were also all excellent musicians, thanks in large part to years spent performing in small clubs in England and Germany. Lennon and McCartney both were superb vocalists, capable of putting across rave-up rockers and introspective ballads in an equally convincing manner.
Despite the band’s ability–so easy to assess in retrospect– success in the U.S. might easily have eluded them had not conditions proved ripe for receptiveness on the part of the American public. The Beatles, under the skilled management of Brian Epstein, had attempted a number of times in 1963 to secure a hit record on the American charts. Songs like “Love Me Do,” “From Me to You,” “Please Please Me,” and “She Loves You”–all hits in the U.K.–had gone nowhere when released by various labels in the states By late 1963, however, the nation was caught up in communal sense of mourning, brought on by the assassination of popular President John F. Kennedy. The Beatles–with their cheeky wit, and catchy, upbeat pop songs–proved to be the perfect anecdote America’s collective depression. In addition, the mop-top hairstyle exhibited by the band members garnered considerable attention. As had been the case with Elvis Presley’s heavily greased DA hairstyle of the mid-1950s, the Beatles look engendered considered controversy on the part of the adult establishment when it first assaulted the public consciousness. It provided instant credibility with America’s youth, who were always in search of culture symbols to both collectively identify with and flaunt in the face of authority figures as an act of rebellion. On February 9th, they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, Nielson Ratings estimated that 45 percent of US television viewers that night saw their appearance. It is ironic that the biggest moment in the history of popular music was first experienced in the US as a television event.” The Ed Sullivan Show had for some time been a “comfortable hearth-and-slippers experience.” Not many of the 73 million viewers watching in February 1964 would fully understand what impact the band they were watching would have.
Over the next several years groups like Peter & Gordon, The Animals, Manfred Man, Petula Clark, Herman’s Hermits, The Rolling Stones, Lulu, Dusty Springfield, The Dave Clark Five and others, would have one or more number one singles in the US. Other Invasion acts included Van Morrison and Them, The Searchers, Chad & Jeremy, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Tom Jones, The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin, The Spencer Davis Group, Small Faces and numerous others. And some had achieved a measure of success on the American charts. The Kinks, although considered part of the Invasion, initially failed to capitalize on their success in the US after their first three hits reached the Hot 100’s top 10. Perhaps of even greater importance, countless other British youths were inspired to become musicians, resulting in a steady stream of talent which has remained undiminished to the present day.
A second wave of the invasion occurred featuring acts such as The Who (who went on to create the rock-opera Tommy), The Zombies and The Hollies, which were influenced by the invasion’s pop side and US rock music.
The musical style of British Invasion artists, such as the Beatles, were influenced by earlier US rock ‘n’ roll genre which had lost some popularity and appeal by the time of the Invasion. Other white British performers, particularly The Rolling Stones and The Animals, appealed more to an ‘outsider’ demographic, essentially reviving and popularizing, for young people at least, a musical genre rooted in the rhythm and blues culture, which had been largely ignored or rejected when performed by black US artists in the 1950s. Such acts were perceived by the US public as much more ‘edgy’ and even dangerous. This image marked them as separate from beat artists such as the Beatles, who had become a more acceptable, parent-friendly pop group. The Rolling Stones would become the biggest band other than The Beatles to come out of the British Invasion. The British Invasion had a profound impact on popular music, internationalizing the production of rock and roll, establishing the British popular music industry as a viable centre of musical creativity, and opening the door for subsequent British performers to achieve international success. In America, the Invasion arguably spelled the end of instrumental surf music, pre-Motown vocal girl groups, the folk rock revival, and the teen idols that had dominated the American charts in the late 1950s and 1960s.
By early summer the floodgates had burst open; there seemed to be more British artists than American on the airwaves. Indeed, a considerable number of established U.S. acts–to say nothing of the more marginal recording artists–virtually disappeared from the charts in 1964 (some never to return). Only a handful of American artists continued to thrive in 1964 and beyond, most notably the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons. New homegrown talent found it necessary to incorporate elements of the Mersey-beat sound such as the trademark jangly guitars and seamless three-part vocal harmonies. The garage punk and folk rock movements were particularly influenced by English rock bands. Some American groups found it expedient to ape the British Invasion look to the extent of carefully covering up their native origins.
Probably the most positive result of the British Invasion was its role in clearing away the musical deadwood which had found a home on the American charts. With many of the long established American acts–as well as countless lesser luminaries–unable to compete with the host of often lackluster British stars, fresh stateside talent was more readily able to garner the attention of record company executive. Within a year or two of the initial British onslaught, a new wave of American musicians had already laid the groundwork for the creative renaissance in popular music during the latter half of the 1960s.
Though many of the acts associated with the invasion did not survive its end, many others would become icons of rock music. The claim that British beat bands were not radically different from US groups like The Beach Boys and damaged the careers of African-American and female artists has been the subject of controversy about the Invasion, even though the Motown Sound actually increased in popularity during that time.
Other US groups also demonstrated a similar sound to the British Invasion artists and, in turn, highlighted how the British ‘sound’ was not in itself a wholly new or original one. Anticipating the Bay City Rollers by more than a decade, two British acts that reached the Hot 100’s top 20 gave a tip of the hat to America: The Dakotas and the Nashville Teens. The British Invasion also drew a backlash from some American bands, e.g., Paul Revere & the Raiders who dressed in Revolutionary War uniforms, and Gary Puckett & The Union Gap donned Civil War uniforms.
The British Invasion’s influence on rock music in the United States waned from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s. Early 1970s exceptions were Bad-finger, The Raspberries and Sweet, who played a heavily British Invasion-influenced style deemed power pop. In 1978 two rock magazines wrote cover stories about power pop and championed the genre as a savior to both the new wave and the direct simplicity of the way rock used to be. New wave power pop not only brought back the sounds but the fashions, be it the mod style of The Jam or the skinny ties of the burgeoning Los Angeles scene.
The genre has, over the years, continued to have a cult following with occasional periods of modest success.