The so-called 'British Invasion' of
America in 1963/64 was a musical and cultural explosion with groups
like The Beatles, The Animals, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, Herman's'
Hermits, The Dave Clark Five, The Yardbirds and The Zombies in the
vanguard. Digger looks at how this musical explosion in Britain came
about and how we managed to 'take coals to Newcastle' by
re-introducing the Americans to blues, as interpreted by white British
How it all began
In the mid-1950s,
Britain was still reeling from the
ravages of the war, with shortages and austerity
still part of daily routine. This
was a grey time,
with British youth consoling themselves with their
dreams, and with pale imitations of the delights
and images which they saw on the big screen
of life for kids in America.
These young Americans would be driving
wearing the latest, smartest clothes,
having fun and spending money like
it was going out of fashion.
The British youths could also hear the latest wild and
'exotic' Rock 'N Roll sounds coming from the States.
British teens did not have the spending power of
their counterparts - certainly not the vast choice
that was available to American youngsters.
There was little mobility in Britain as most could not
afford a car, the choice of radio stations could
be counted on the fingers of one hand,
( and these catered for the parents and
not for the kids ), the concept of consumer
choice was simply limited to
"Can I afford it?" or
"Have they got one in stock?
- usually the answer to both was no.
Thus, British youth culture
was totally dominated
at that time by American trends and styles.
The British music industry, if its 50s manifestation
can be described in such grand terms,
relied almost exclusively on American imported product,
home-grown clones of American-style acts or
the occasional novelty or comedy performer.
It was controlled from London by middle-aged men,
for the most part, totally out of touch with the needs
and wants of the youth audience and not recognising
that there was a Britain outside of the confines
of London and the Home counties.
Out of this atmosphere, however, a uniquely 'British'
musical trend did emerge late in the 50s.
This was called 'Skiffle' -
( "kind of folk music played by a small group,
mainly with rhythmic accompaniment
to singing guitarist" )
This dictionary definition does not make it clear
that the accompaniment was, more often than not,
a washboard, and that the material performed
was normally of traditional US origin
( Cumberland Gap, Battle of New Orleans,
Rock Island Line and so on ).
This simple style was accessible to any collection of
teenagers with musical inclinations, just one guitar
and someone who could vaguely keep a rhythm on
the washboard or other improvised instruments.
Skiffle was popularised by Lonnie Donegan,
Glasgow-born, who gave nasal renditions of these old
American songs. Lonnie was hugely popular and,
an inspiration to the musical youth of Britain.
Lonnie was unknowingly responsible
for starting the careers of dozens of the famous
musicians and groups whose names you will see on this site.
"Where is Liverpool, anyway?"
Apart from Skiffle and the dominant US-imports,
from London and the south there came acts such as
Adam Faith, Marty Wilde, Johnny Leyton
Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard ( with or without
his Shadows ) who were the main staple diet. Their output
tended to be highly produced ( courtesy of Larry Parnes
and Joe Meek ) and orchestrated versions of
Cliff Richard & The Shadows
However, they and their writers
were to thank for what can be described as the first
truly original and influential British Rock 'N Roll
recordings, with titles such as Rock With The Caveman,
Move It, Johnny Remember Me and Apache.
As well as Lonnie Donegan, 'Shadow' Hank Marvin's
virtuosity on the guitar was another encouragement to
many young men to save up their pennies, buy a
guitar and form a band.
In 'the provincial cities' ( Liverpool, Birmingham,
Manchester, Cardiff, Belfast, Newcastle and all )
the seeds were being sewn for a worldwide musical
and cultural revolution. In ports such as Liverpool,
there had developed a music 'culture' fiercely
independent of London and which was influenced by
the availability of rare imported American music at the
point-of-entry to the UK. London might as well have been
3,000 miles away - these kids loved Rhythm 'N Blues
and Rock 'N Roll, not the saccharin substitute.
Beatlemania and Swinging London
By the early 60s in these cities a large and highly competitive
band scene emerged in which hundreds of 'local' bands
vied to find and perform the latest imported songs
and to get the attention of the discerning young
audiences, hungry for anything authentic and new.
In Liverpool, the music they played was an amalgam of
American product performed with a touch of the famous
Mersey humour and individualism.
The concept of a 'Merseybeat' was largely a convenient label
for this phenomenon, which had been picked-up by the
British press. There was no Merseybeat,
or Merseysound, or any other sound in any of
the other regions of Britain,
apart from the sound of youngsters
producing the music they wanted to hear.
They were now playing it loud enough so that the music
executives in London had to take notice of what was
happening and had to refer to their maps.
In 1962/3 there were many great groups in this scene, some
arguably better musicians than John, Paul, George and Ringo.
The fab four
The audiences, despite the occasional
Gerry and the Pacemakers as top group,
decided that The Beatles were number one.
This was a choice based, I believe, on the sheer
personality that The Beatles exuded on and
off stage, as much as to do with their musical style
or material. ( Look at the way, a year later,
the perhaps understandably cynical US reporters
warmed to The Beatles when they first
arrived in the States with their witty ad-libs ).
What happened next can, I believe
be explained as the result of three factors:
1) The youth of Britain had started to get an increased
spending power and, thus, independence, in the early 60s.
With ordinary youngsters, this was displayed by them
buying more clothes or records. Some more astute,
talented and ambitious youngsters bought cameras,
guitars, drums, acting lessons or leases on shops as
'investments for their futures'.
2) Tragically, the US president John F. Kennedy was
assassinated and this left America in a state of shock,
without a sense of direction and vulnerable.
3) The British youth, dragging the rest of the country
with it, had decided that The Beatles were best.
George, John, Ringo
By a dual stroke of good fortune the
fab four had
met Brian Epstein, who would control their excesses and
promote them energetically as well as George Martin who
was to interpret their ideas and produce them masterfully.
These two were responsible for their development
and many of their future achievements.
Once The Beatles had landed in the States in '64 and
I Want To Hold Your hand had gone to number one there,
followed rapidly by She Loves You and
Can't Buy Me Love, nothing could turn the tide.
Once you had cracked the American market
the rest of the world surely followed.
The British invasion had started and suddenly Britain,
although more accurately London, was swinging.
( In reality only a few streets and small districts were
'happening' - 'Swinging London' was the place to be
but it was mainly another creation of the media. )
Britain became the centre of the music, fashion and pop
worlds, and for a few brief years everyone wanted to
film in Britain too. Despite the media hype there was a
genuine energy, creativity and optimism which was totally
contrary to the mood of the country a few years previously.
Over the coming weeks, Digger will be adding details of all the
groups, TV, films and actors who/that made Britain such a vibrant and
creative force in the 60s. These articles originally appeared on his
sixties pop website which is now to be included within Retrosellers.
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