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The British Invasion of the 1960s

18 Apr

 (Click on the pictures below to enlarge them.)

This title refers to pop or rock music of course. To understand what happened in the mid-1960s we need to look at Britain, because this is where the wave of groups starting with The Beatles emanated from, quickly captivating America in what became known as ‘the British invasion’ and indeed spread around the world.

Look at any of the surviving British TV or film clips dealing with British pop music in the late 1950s/early 1960s, and one thing will strike you above all else - it was very ‘American’. In this era almost every hit song came to the UK from America, was covered by several British singers, and then entered our Hit Parade, as it was then called.

If you study the singers of that period, they too were very Americanized. We had Cliff Richard and many others modeling themselves on Elvis Presley, and all trying to sound American.


Take some specific instances: Tommy Steele recorded a song entitled ‘Elevator Rock’, Lonnie Donegan, King of Skiffle, took American folk and Country music and adapted it in his own unique style for a British audience. It remained very American, with songs like ‘Battle of New Orleans’ recorded by American Country singer Johnny Horton, and containing lines about defeating the ‘bloody British’ in the American War of Independence. Another of Lonnie’s famous recordings was Woodie Guthrie’s ‘Grand Coolie Dam’, again purely American. ‘Rock Island Line’ was yet another Donegan example, which even required the British singer to pronounce the letter ‘z’ as ‘zee’ rather than ‘zed’.


In surviving clips from Jack Good’s British ’Oh Boy!’ TV show from this era, we see Marty Wilde putting on an American Southern drawl to recite ‘All American Boy’, also recorded by American Country singer Grandpa Jones. Nearly all the songs were American in origin, and used American terminology, so we see Marty Wilde, Cliff Richard and Dickie Pride singing about ‘Three Cool Cats’ ogling three cool chics. Dickie Pride sings his great version of Little Richard’s ‘Slippin’ ‘n’ Slidin”.

The accents sounded American, the pronunciation was American, the words were American. It could be described as ‘the American Invasion’.


British groups such as The Beatles were heavily influenced by this American invasion. Paul McCartney started out in the British skiffle group The Quarrymen, and early Beatles’ recordings included covers of American rock’n'roll/rockabilly numbers such as Long Tall Sally, Dizzy Miss Lizzy and Honey Don’t. The Rolling Stones, The Animals and many other British groups were also very heavily influenced by American blues and R&B, covering some of these numbers.

Then, around 1962/1963, things began to change, and British groups began writing their own numbers in their own style, not trying to imitate the sounds and culture of the American Deep South. Suddenly it was OK for British pop singers to have Liverpudlian or Cockney accents, whereas before they had to sing as though they were born and raised in Tennessee.

Whether you liked the new British pop music or not (I didn’t at the time, and still prefer the original American rock’n'roll) it has to be admitted it had some originality, rather than just being carbon copies of American music.


It is true that some British singers before The Beatles recorded original songs aimed at a British audience, such as Wee Willie Harris’s ‘Rockin’ At the 2is’ about the Soho coffee bar where so many British singers of the era started out. Cliff Richard’s first hit was ‘Move It’, another British original. But all were in the American style.

Perhaps Lonnie Donegan was the most innovative of this era, when he adapted the skiffle style to self-penned British songs like ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’, which used entirely British terminology and Cockney riming slang. But other original songs like ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor/Flavour (On The Bedpost Overnight?)’ again contained American references to ‘the White House’ and ‘the President’.

For many of us, the truly interesting music of the 20th century came out of that rich multi-racial hodge podge emanating from the Southern States of the USA. Jazz, Boogie Woogie, Swing, the Blues, Country and Western, Rhythm ‘n’ Blues, Rockabilly and Rock’n'Roll all originated from this area and swept around the world, influencing singers and musicians from Britain and other countries - Johnny Halliday in France for instance. The fusion of black and white culture in early American rock’n'roll was unique, but had been pioneered by Country singers like Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams who first recorded the black music known as ‘the Blues’ for white audiences. White singers like Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, etc. later took their fusion of black and white music, christened ‘rock’n'roll’ by American DJ Alan Freed, into the pop charts and to a worldwide audience.

So the history of modern pop/rock music started in the Deep South of the United States, swept around the world, but by the mid 1960s the new wave of British groups had largely taken over from solo British pop singers trying to look and sound like white American Southerners. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, etc. looked and sounded quite different to anything which came before, even though they were influenced by American music.


Of all the American originals, for instance, only Jerry Lee Lewis wore his hair long enough to hang down round his ears, and that was only when he got really wild on stage. A couple of years after The Beatles and Rolling Stones came along, Jerry had his hair cut shorter since long hair was no longer original in rock singers.

It is now 2008. Where are The Beatles, The Animals and some of these other British groups of the early 1960s and later decades? Many of them have split up, some of their members have died. Others continue - The Searchers, The Ivy League, etc. But amazingly three of the greatest, original American rock’n'roll artists of all time, in fact my three favorites, are still alive, still touring, still performing - Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry.


In the case of Jerry Lee Lewis, he released his biggest selling album ever in 2006, ‘Last Man Standing’, duetting with many other super-stars including Ringo Starr from The Beatles, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood from The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Jimmy Page plus many Americans, then followed this up with a DVD, part of which was broadcast across North America and in other countries on TV. ‘Last Man Standing “Live”‘ also featured people like Tom Jones, Norah Jones and other American greats like Solomon Burke, Buddy Guy, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and John Fogerty.

American ‘Roots Music’, as the name implies, is the basis for most modern pop/rock music, along with other influences from places such as Jamaica.

But what happened in the mid-1960s with the new wave of British groups was that we stopped putting into our pop charts British artists who were trying to look/sound like they were American Southerners, covering mainly American songs. Instead the Mods were buying more original recordings from the new British groups, and Rockers like myself turned our attention more closely to the American originals who first inspired two generations of British rock/pop singers.

It was in the 1960s that many of the original American rock’n'roll artists began touring UK and Europe in earnest - Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, etc. Indeed many of these were put on at London’s Saville Theater in the late 1960s by The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein.

It all culminated a few years later in the London Rock’n'Roll Show at the old Wembley Stadium in the summer of 1972. The biggest festival of original rock’n'roll to be held in London, starring all the American originals mentioned in the last paragraph except for Fats Domino and Gene Vincent, plus some British acts including Screamin’ Lord Sutch.

So like ‘em or hate ‘em, at least the British groups of the 1960s stopped all British pop singers trying to look and sound like pale imitations of the American originals, giving us the opportunity to focus our attention on these original American rock’n'roll pioneers.

Whatever happened to Cuddly Duddley, Don Lang and his Frantic Five and Lord Rockingham’s XI? Bless ‘em, they tried. And Lord Rockingham did insert some home-grown originality with recordings like ‘Hoots Mon’ and ‘Wee Tam’ - rock’n'roll with a Scottish dialect. ’Wee Tam and a wee broon coo, Tam said “who” and the coo said “moo”‘. Now The Beatles never came up with lines like that did they? 


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