The British Invasion

by Alan Ross

Alan Ross worked in UK commercial radio from 1979 to 2013, and grew up listening to the British offshore “pirate radio” stations. He launched one of the first English “oldies” radio stations in 1988, inspired by listening to Florida’s Cool 105.9. He lives in the Northeast of England.

A little less than 200 years after their defeat in the American Revolution, the British triumphantly returned.  The victory wasn’t achieved on the battlefield, however, but on the playing fields of rock ‘n roll.  Until the early 60s, this music was just about entirely the domain of American musicians, but then, out of the blue, came one particular group of four young men and everything changed dramatically and forever.

A New York friend dates his first experience of hearing the Beatles to early 1964: a girl he knew who’d spent Christmas in London excitedly showed up at a Sarah Lawrence mixer clutching a black-labeled 45 rpm Parlophone single called “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The girl’s enthusiasm became widespread just a few weeks later when the Beatles occupied all top five positions on the Billboard Hot 100.

Pop historians call it “The British Invasion”a remarkable phenomenon that was the exact opposite of the usual transatlantic state of affairs when songs and styles started out in the US and later found their way to the UK. Since rock n’ roll’s emergence in the mid-1950s, British teenagers largely had been force-fed a diet of watery cover versions of American hits. The British music industry received the original versions from their US counterparts, and doled them out for rerecording to British stars acceptable to the BBC, which then had a monopoly on radio broadcasting.

Every UK teenager of the time, for example, knows “Bobby’s Girl”  as sung by Susan Maughan—a very different version of the gutsy US hit from Marcie Blane.  Similarly,  The Drifters’ soulful “Up On The Roof” was only a minor hit in the UK, eclipsed by a version from Kenny Lynch, an English actor who could sing a bit.

There were some areas of Britain, usually port cities, that were exceptions to the rule and were exposed to the original versions of American hits. Liverpool, for example, was and still is a major trading partner with the United States.  Merchant seamen coming in and out of that city brought the latest discs home from America, and the embryonic skiffle and rock and roll groups in the area avidly embraced this new music.

One of those groups was the Quarrymen.

 But after the Quarrymen had morphed into the Silver Beetles and then into the Beatles, went to the West German port city of Hamburg to hone their stage act, changed their manager, and acquired an EMI recording contract, they discovered that America initially wasn’t interested in their music. At least Capitol Records, EMI’s American partner, wasn’t. 

Capitol had, of course, first refusal on any EMI product for US release.  But since British artistes rarely made it onto the US charts, Capitol rejected the first Beatles releases, despite the entreaties of their British counterparts. After all, they recorded for Parlophone, for goodness sake—a label previously only known for spoken word and comedy records!

This explains why, when “Beatlemania” finally made it over the pond in January 1964,  just about all the songs from the previous year made it into the charts and onto the radio all at once. It was a logjam, cashed in on by other small labels who had licensed the records that Capitol hadn’t wanted to release.

 For example, “Please, Please Me,” the second Parlophone single from the Moptops in the UK had been farmed out to Vee-Jay records in Gary, Indiana. (This was the label that handled the enormously popular Four Seasons with lead singer Frankie Valli.)  Quite rightly sensing that they could be onto something, Vee-Jay rushed out a “Battle of the Bands” album with the Beatles’ early material on one side, and the Four Seasons hits on the other.

Americans initially made the mistake of thinking that all the British groups that subsequently made it stateside were from Liverpool.  Californians Jan and Dean’s “From All Over The World” contains the immortal line “the Rolling Stones from Liverpool are bound to be there”  but since the Stones hailed from London and the neighbouring Home Counties, this was more than a few miles out.  However, no matter where they were from, Mick and the boys gleefully followed through the big hole in the wall that John, Paul, George, and Ringo had finally made.

Perhaps the ultimate turnabout in this story of cross-fertilisation was the Number 2 Hit Parade placement for the Beatles’ version of “Twist and Shout,” originally done by The Isley Brothers from Cincinnati, Ohio.

 The Animals, who hailed from the port city of Newcastle, also had a monster hit in 1964 with a reworking of an American folk song about a New Orleans brothel, “The House of the Rising Sun.” The Animals were managed by Mickie Most, a shrewd British promoter who certainly had an eye on opportunities over the water.

Even if the Animals had initially been very parochial in outlook (one of their “B sides” was called “Gonna Send You Back to Walker,” a reference to a down-at-the heels Newcastle suburb), they soon found success in the States. Alas, this success came to an end when the group broke up due to the commonly cited “musical differences.” 

Lead singer Eric Burdon then formed a new Animals in America, and, operating out of the West Coast, embraced the psychedelic ethos of the time, releasing some truly dreadful nonsense. This included a little ditty from 1967 called “Good Times” where he sang, “When I think of all the good time that I’ve wasted, having good times”—a sentiment more in tune with the older generation rather than the record buyers he was hoping to attract.

The Byrds, the American group formed in Los Angeles in 1964, was strongly influenced by the Brits. Have you ever wondered where they got that wonderful jangly twelve string guitar sound from on “Mr Tambourine Man” and “All I Really Want to Do”?  Look and listen no further than the previous year’s hits from British group the Searchers, named after the eponymous Western film. Their biggest hit in the States was a reworking of the Washington, DC, band the Clovers’ “Love Potion No. 9.” Imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery. Mickie Most, the aforementioned promoter, was perhaps the most skilled at scheduling releases from his roster to suit the territories at which they were aimed.  As well as the Animals, he managed three other artistes who all made impacts in the United States: Donovan, Lulu and, most astonishingly, to the British, anyway, Herman’s Hermits.

Herman’s Hermits came out of Manchester, not a port, but just down the road from Liverpool in the north west of England. (Domestically the group had always played second fiddle to the indisputably more talented Hollies.)  The lead singer, Peter Noone, may have had teeth that were dreadful even by British dental standards, but exuded a winsome charm that women of a certain age found irresistible. Personally, just thinking of “Mrs Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” and “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” sets my own teeth on edge, but they both topped the US chart. (Wisely, I suspect, neither was ever released as a single to a British audience.) 

Lulu’s biggest hit in Britain had been her 1964 reworking of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout,” but her career had taken a dip. Enter Mickie Most again, who took her under his wing, placed her in a successful film, and promoted her excellent version of the film’s title song “To Sir with Love,” to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 where it spent five weeks in the autumn of 1967.

Most also resurrected the career of Dylan-sound-a-like Donovan with a stunning comeback single, “Sunshine Superman,” in 1966. Due to contractual problems in the UK, this big hit very nearly wasn’t given a British release at all. 

Who else merits a mention in this look back in time?

Dusty Springfield was always the best of our female singers, though Petula Clark had more US hits with those catchy Tony Hatch songs like “Downtown.”

And then there was the Dave Clark Five, from Tottenham, who’d produced two amazing dance records that still fill a dance floor today: “Glad All Over” and “Bits and Pieces.” For some reason, this group meant far more in the States than in Britain and appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show more often than any other of their countrymen.

America caught onto the Who late—their wonderful mod anthem “My Generation” was never a hit in the former colonies. By the time the rock opera Tommy was released in 1968, however, the States had fallen under their spell. 

And occasionally there were genuine, out of nowhere, one-hit wonders. Remember the New Vaudeville Band and their 1966 hit “Winchester Cathedral”?

One of America’s finest songwriters and Svengalis of the time certainly knew that this British Invasion would have a lasting impact on Tin Pan Alley and the music machine in New York’s Brill Building. Bert Berns, who brought us the McCoys’ “Hang on Sloopy”  and Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” among many others, was quoted as saying, “Those boys have genius. They may be the ruin of us all.”

So what was I, then a teenager in the UK, listening to while all this was going on?

Thanks to the pirate radio stations anchored offshore, which broke the BBC monopoly, we were getting a wider choice of music. That meant that this future British broadcaster was enjoying American exports: Jay and the Americans, the Mamas & the Papas, Spanky and Our Gang, the Lovin’ Spoonful, Dion Di Mucci, Tommy James and the Shondells, and Gary Lewis and the Playboys, among many others.

Thank goodness for cross-fertilisation.

Issue Twenty Two