THE 1960S - THE RISE OF BRITISH BEAT IN THE US
Rock was unquestionably born in the USA. Yet this revolutionary music might well have died prematurely, if British groups had not breathed new life into it during the Beat Boom era.
The British have always loved rock. They idolised early rock'n'rollers such as Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent and Buddy Holly. Britain was also not slow to find its own hit parade heroes, and the likes of Lonnie Donegan, Tommy Steele, Marty Wilde, Cliff Richard and Billy Fury scored hit after hit in the days when rock was young. In the early 1960s, the music softened on both sides of the Atlantic, and it was the British bands who rejuvenated rock and restored excitement and freshness to the music.
Anyone born in the last 50 years may find it difficult to imagine a world where British rock records and artists were considered second-rate. However, this was the situation before The Beatles turned the pop world upside down. They achieved the apparently impossible by leading a staggeringly successful British attack on the American charts in 1964, which buried forever the myth of British musical inferiority.
The intention of this series is to give a true picture of the Beat Group years (warts and all), and to shed some light on areas and artists that may have been overlooked in previous accounts of this exciting era. Being British, I am very proud of the UK acts who emerged from rock's backwaters to rule the airwaves, and have a natural patriotic tendency to praise the efforts of my fellow countrymen. However, also being pro-originality and anti-imitation, my feeling is that credit is long overdue to many American recording artists and songwriters, who inspired the artists of the British Beat Era artists and penned many of their hits. I have, therefore, tried to look at this fascinating period in pop history from an unbiased transatlantic viewpoint.
It may seem surprising that such a high percentage of Beat Boom hits were cover versions, or revivals of American records, and that most of the original recordings were made for the US R&B market. Many British artists simply watered down American R&B, aiming to make it more palatable and easily acceptable to white pop record buyers on both sides of the Atlantic. Even several of the group names coined by British acts had already been used by American R&B combos. There is, therefore, a case for calling the decade the stealing sixties rather than the swinging sixties, and for suggesting that there might have been no Beat Group Era or British Invasion without the input of African Americans - a fact that is equally true of rock'n'roll itself.
The Springfields - Top UK group before The Beatles
Rock on both sides of the ocean softened up in the early 1960s. The new decade saw the end of Britain's almost total reliance on American songs and production ideas. Numerous British artists were now recording original material, and many of the records boasted clever ear-catching arrangements and fresh commercial production ideas. Among the more interesting and inventive British artists of that era were Adam Faith, 14 year old Helen Shapiro, John Leyton, Karl Denver, actor turned singer/songwriter Anthony Newley, Eden Kane and Joe Brown (who, incidentally, recorded 'I'm Henry The Eighth I Am' four years before Herman's Hermits took it to the top of the US chart). Among the back room boys that Britain could be justly proud of at the time were producers Joe Meek, Tony Hatch, Norrie Paramor and George Martin, and songwriters Jerry Lordan, Lionel Bart and Johnny Worth.
Trad, which had been born in the jazz clubs of New Orleans and Chicago in the 1920s, had been building a British following since the end of the War, and was the musical style that took over from skiffle in the cellar clubs. By 1961 it had worked its way overground to become as successful on record as skiffle, even though it did not attract anywhere near as many would-be performers. The music's best known exponents were the bands of Kenny Ball, Chris Barber and Acker Bilk, all of whom had American success. Trad survived the arrival in Britain of The Twist in 1962, but faded with Chubby Checker's flagship, about the same time that The Beatles first appeared on the scene.
When 1962 dawned the only thing really missing from the British music jigsaw seemed to be original vocal groups. There were the clean-cut King Brothers, Mudlarks and Avons whose only successes had been with cover versions, and the Everly Brothers clones, The Brook Brothers, but only The Springfields (which included future solo star Dusty Springfield) seemed to have that extra 'something' that all top class acts need. Britain did however have several first division instrumental combos, the most popular and influential being Cliff Richard's backing band The Shadows. It's quite astounding that this group, who have had a British chart span of over 45 years, have yet to crack the US Top 100, although a cover version of their first British No. 1, Jerry Lordan's composition 'Apache', did sell over a million Stateside for Danish guitarist Jorgen Ingmann. The only British group to really make their mark in America in the pre Beat Group era were Billy Fury's backing band, The Tornados, who topped the chart with Joe Meek's composition 'Telstar' at about the same time that The Beatles were first coming to people's attention in the UK.
In the USA things looked a little brighter for the British in 1961 than it had in the 1950s. Fourteen year old actress Hayley Mills (no relation to Garry) took the novelty 'Let's Get Together' into the Top 10, balladeer Mat Monro made the Top 20 with 'My Kind Of Girl' and Lonnie Donegan became the only British artist in the pre-Beatles era to clock up two Top 10 hits when he recycled a 25 year old boy scouts' song , 'Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On The Bedpost Overnight)' (a UK hit two years earlier).
Britain's 'Kings Of Trad' Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball both had Top 3 singles in 1962 with the haunting 'Stranger On The Shore' and bouncy 'Midnight In Moscow' respectively. However this did not herald the launch of a trad boom in the USA, in fact many American record buyers did not realise they were buying records by jazz acts. In actuality, 1962, was a boom year for British recordings. The Tornados topped the chart with their five million selling 'Telstar' (an instrumental tribute to the communications satellite that linked Europe and America), and revivals of 'I Remember You' and 'Silver Threads And Golden Needles' reached the Top 20 by Frank Ifield and folk/pop trio The Springfields respectively.
In 1963, the year that Britain was enjoying its first year of the Beat Boom, America ignored all the new groups the old country threw at them. Cliff Richard had his most successful US year to date, and the only new British act that Americans bought in any quantity were female duo The Caravelles, whose updating of 'You Don't Have To Be A Baby To Cry' reached the Top 3 as Cliff's revival of 'It's All In The Game' moved towards the Top 40. A couple of weeks later The Beatles' fifth British hit single 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' was released in America......
Despite their phenomenal UK success, most of the British music industry did not expect 'Beatlemania' to be repeated in the USA. Although few would have put money on the Beatles next release firing the first shot in the British Invasion - record company EMI and the group's manager, Brian Epstein did. They invested an unprecedented $50,000 (around $1 million in today's money) into the promotion of 'I Want To Hold Your Hand'. The first battle of the invasion was to convince EMI's US outlet, Capitol Records, to even release the single (they had rejected the previous four). The hope was that the American media would consider the story of "Beatlemania" in Britain to be newsworthy, and of interest to a normally insular US public, who were still reeling from the murder of President Kennedy. This "all or nothing" attack on America was as carefully planned as any battle, and a massive publicity campaign was put behind the Beatles. Before they even achieved their first US chart entry the group received saturation coverage in top selling magazines Time, Life and Newsweek, and film of British "Beatlemania" was shown on the CBS and NBC news as well as the top rated Jack Paar TV show. Added to this, unprecedented double page adverts were taken in most music magazines. This blanket coverage convinced celebrated TV Show host Ed Sullivan to book them for two consecutive shows, despite the fact that he did not think they had the potential to break in the USA, and wondered if his $3000 payment to them had been well spent.
The "hype" not only worked, it was far more successful than anyone could have anticipated in their wildest dreams. 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' entered the Hot 100 at No. 45 on January 18, 1964 and was topping the charts when a record shattering 73 million Americans watched the Beatles on their first Ed Sullivan TV Show appearance. This single was replaced at the top by a re-issued 'She Loves You' and then by 'Can't Buy Me Love' - whose 1.7 million advance orders broke the US record. In March, the Beatles had the nation's Top 3 singles; in April they hogged the whole Top 5 and had 14 tracks in the Top 100 (two records no one is ever likely to come near to equalling), and in May had three of the Top 4 albums as well!
The barriers that previously prevented British acts progressing in the USA were instantly broken down and it became a real plus to be British. Every US label searched their catalogues for previously overlooked UK records, and fought each other over the rights to current UK hits. Battalions of Brits followed the Beatles into charts that year including No.1 hitmakers Peter & Gordon, The Animals and Manfred Mann. In 1964, UK records spent 24 weeks at the top and 49 singles reached the Top 20 - compared to a grand total of 31 in the previous 24 years of the charts (1940 -1963)! To rub salt into American wounds, many British bands shot up the charts with "friendly fire" - songs written and originally recorded by Americans. In the past, British cover versions would not even merit a release, but now they were outselling the original recordings! You could say that the battle was well and truly over by Independence day when UK acts held five of the Top 10 chart placings. Billboard summed the year up by saying "This was undoubtedly the greatest year in the history of the UK record industry" and added "Great Britain has not been as influential in American affairs since before the American revolution in 1775!"
British artists continued to rule the airwaves in the USA in 1965, with chart toppers from The Beatles, Petula Clark, Rolling Stones, Dave Clark Five and Manchester bands Freddie & The Dreamers, Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders and Herman's Hermits. In fact, the latter were the year's most successful band Stateside even claiming two US No.1s that were considered "too British" to be released in their homeland, 'Mrs. Brown You've Got A Lovely Daughter' (with a staggering 600,000 advance orders it entered the Hot 100 at a record breaking No. 12 position) and 'I'm Henry The VIII, I Am'. Arguably, the invasion reached its peak on May 8th when nine of the Top 10 US singles were "made in Britain". However, by the end of the summer 1965, American acts were fighting back and reclaiming ground on the charts. British acts still continued to rack up hit after hit over the next eighteen months, with over 300 UK singles in all reaching the US Top 100 between 1964-1966. As the NME's Derek Johnson put it, "Rest assured we shall never return to the dark days of not long ago when the appearance of a British disc on the American charts was regarded as a fluke".
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Adapted from Dave's book 'Beat Boom' (The Fab British Rock'n'Roll Invasion' - in the USA)