British Invasion

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British Invasion

The British Invasion refers to the fleet of British bands that floated in the wake of the Beatles' hysterical success when they burst upon America in January 1964. It is commonly acknowledged that Beatlemania was generated not only by their fresh new sound but also by certain historical factors which had nothing to do with the Beatles. The first great pop revolution, rock 'n' roll, had begun around 1954 with Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock" and a string of hits by Elvis, but had died out quickly for a number of reasons: in 1957 Little Richard withdrew from rock to pursue religion; in March 1958, Elvis was drafted into the army; later that year, Jerry Lee Lewis's brief success came to a halt when it was discovered that he had married his 14-year-old cousin; on February 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash; and Chuck Berry was arrested in 1959 and imprisoned from 1962 to 1964. Thus rock was decimated. College students were getting interested in folk music, and a folk/pop hybrid spread to the mainstream through Peter, Paul and Mary and countless other folksinging trios. But there was nothing as visceral and exciting to appeal to youth as rock 'n' roll. The Beatles had been introduced to the American market through "Please, Please Me" in February 1963, and the album Introducing the Beatles in July on the Vee-Jay label. Neither made much impression upon youths. Things were good; America was on top of the world; and we did not need British pop. But this optimism, spearheaded by the young and promising President Kennedy, was shattered with his assassination in November 1963, leaving Americans in a state of shock and depression.

The Beatles burst upon this scene with the buoyant, exuberant sound of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," followed by an appearance on the "Ed Sullivan Show" on February 7, 1964. They followed up with a bewildering string of hits which chased away the clouds, and made Americans forget their troubles. It was partly their charming British accents, their quick, sharp wit, and group charisma which charmed Americans during interviews. The matching lounge suits and moptop haircuts were also new and exciting. Superficial as these factors seem, they must have contributed to the overall effect of Beatlemania, considering the poor reception of the Vee-Jay offerings the previous year, when no television publicity had been provided to promote the Beatles' humor. But this time, their new American label, Capitol, dumped $50,000 on a publicity campaign to push the Beatles.

Such an investment could only be made possible by their incredible success in England. Part of the reason Beatlemania and the attendant British Invasion were so successful is because the brew had been boiling in England for several years. But American record labels, confident of their own creations, ignored British pop, disdaining it as an inferior imitation of their own. They felt that England did not have the right social dynamics: they lacked the spirit of rebellion and the ethnic/cultural diversity which spawned American rock 'n' roll.

British youth partly shared this view of their own culture. They had an inferiority complex towards American rock 'n' roll and American youth, which they perceived as more wild and carefree. This image was conveyed to them through such cult films as The Wild One and Rebel without a Cause. But the British also responded to the music of black Americans, and embraced the blues more readily than most Americans, who were often ignorant of the blues and still called it "race music." Among British youth, particularly the art school crowd, it became fashionable to study the blues devotedly, form bands, and strive for the "purity" of their black idols (this "purist" attitude was analogous to the "authenticity" fetish of folk music around the same period). Hundreds of blues bands sprouted up in London. Most significant were John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Cyril Davies' Allstars, and Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated. Each of these seminal bands produced musicians who would move on to make original contributions to rock. Bluesbreakers provided a training ground for Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce, who went on to form Cream; Peter Green, John McVie, and Mick Fleetwood, who later formed Fleetwood Mac; and Mick Taylor, who eventually replaced Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones. The All-Stars boasted Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck, who all passed through the loose-knit band before, during, or after their stints with the Yardbirds. Blues Incorporated hosted Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, and Charlie Watts, all of whom eventually formed the Rolling Stones.

In the early 1960s the Rolling Stones and the Animals clung to the purist image common among white blues bands, although they didn't really play pure, authentic blues. The Stones resisted the commercialism of the Beatles, until Lennon and McCartney wrote "I Wanna Be Your Man" for them, and showed them how easy it was to score a hit record. The rest of the British Blues scene took notes from the Beatles' success. Unlike the early Stones, the Kinks and the Who were open to pop influences, and attracted the Mods as their followers. The Kinks and the Who were very similar in spirit. Both were searching for the same sound—something new, subversive, and edgy—but the Kinks beat the Who to it with the spastic simplicity of "You Really Got Me," the hardest, most intense rock ever heard at that time. The Who rose to the challenge with "My Generation." The Kinks broke into the American top ten long before the Who did, though the Who eventually surpassed them in popularity and artistry. However, the two bands displayed a remarkably parallel development throughout their careers.

The Yardbirds had started out as blues players, but Clapton was the only purist in the group. After he left in protest of their pop hit, "For Your Love," the new guitarist, Jeff Beck, combined the guitar virtuosity of whiteboy blues with the avant-gardism of Swinging London, and transformed the Yardbirds into sonic pioneers. After an amazing but all too brief series of recordings which were way ahead of what anyone else was doing, the band mutated into Led Zeppelin, who carried the torch of innovation into the 1970s.

But most bands were less successful at merging their developing blues style with the pop appeal of American radio. Since the establishment held a firm hand over the BBC, most bands at the time (and there were thousands) developed in a club environment, with few aspirations of a pop career. They developed an essentially "live" style, designed to excite a crowd but not always suited for close, repeated listening on vinyl. Manfred Mann tried to maintain a dual identity by delivering pop fluff like "Doo Wah Diddy Diddy" to finance their more earnest pursuit of blues and jazz. Most British bands of the time attempted this double agenda of commercial success and artistic integrity, with only the commercial side making it across the Atlantic. For Americans, the British Blues scene remained the "secret history" of the British Invasion for several years. The Beatles introduced this developing artform to a vast market of babyboomers who had not seen the movement growing, and they were flooded with a backlog of talent. The Beatles already had two albums and five singles in England when Capitol released "I Want to Hold Your Hand" in America. By April 1964, the Beatles filled the top five positions in the Billboard charts. It was this surplus that made the British Invasion seem so exciting, in spite of the fact that Americans were generally only exposed to the more commercial side of the movement, based on the record companies' guesswork of what would sell in the States.

Thus the Beatles had both a short-term and long-term influence. They inspired countless imitators who cashed in on their success, and most of these turned out to be the one-hit wonders who comprised the bulk of the British Invasion. But they also proved to the more serious musicians that one could still be relevant and innovative in a pop format. They broke down the prudish "purity" of the British blues players and (with Dylan's help) the insular "authenticity" of the American folkies. The British Invasion would have been a flash-inthe-pan phenomenon if it had not beckoned the blues and folk artists to come out and play.

But Americans couldn't always tell the difference between the mere imitators and the artful emulators. The Zombies looked very promising with the haunting vocals and keyboard solos of "She's Not There," "Tell Her No," and "Time of the Season," but they were never heard from again after their first album flopped. On the other hand, neither the Spencer Davis Group nor Them produced an impressive body of memorable recordings, but they became famous for their alumni, Steve Winwood and Van Morrison respectively. The Hollies started out with Beatlesque buoyancy in "Bus Stop" (1966) and then proceeded to snatch up any fad that came along, sounding suspiciously like Credence Clearwater Revival on "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress." Several tiers below them were Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Dave Clark Five, Herman's Hermits, and the Searchers. The Searchers are sometimes credited for introducing the jangly, 12-string-guitar sound later associated with folk rock (though they didn't actually play 12-string guitars!). Many of these bands didn't even produce enough highlights to yield a decent Greatest Hits collection.

The British Invasion ended when the Americans who were influenced by the Beatles—Dylan, the Byrds, and the Beach Boys—began to exert an influence on the Beatles, around late 1965 when the Beatles released Rubber Soul. This inaugurated the great age of innovation and eclecticism in rock which yielded 1966 masterpieces: the Beatles' Revolver, the Stones' Aftermath, the Yardbirds' Roger the Engineer, and the Byrds' Fifth Dimension. Henceforth the Beatles' influence was less monopolizing, and British and American rock became mutually influential. The so-called Second British Invasion—led by newcomers Cream, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, and the redoubled efforts of the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who—is a misnomer, since it ignores the burgeoning American scene led by the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, the Doors, the Grateful Dead, and so many others. The first British Invasion constituted an unprecedented influx of new music crashing upon a relatively stable musical continuum in America. The next wave of British rock, impressive as it was, mingled with an American scene that was equally variegated and inspired.

—Douglas Cooke

Further Reading:

Palmer, Robert. Rock & Roll: An Unruly History. New York, Harmony Books, 1995.

Santelli, Robert. Sixties Rock: A Listener's Guide. Chicago, Contemporary Books, 1985.

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British Invasion

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