The British Invasion was a cultural phenomenon of the mid-1960s when rock and pop music acts from the United Kingdom and other aspects of British culture became popular in the United States and significant to the rising “counterculture” on both sides of the Atlantic.
Pop and rock groups such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, the Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits, the Zombies, the Yardbirds, the Hollies, and the Animals were at the forefront of the “Invasion.”
Background of The British Invasion
The rebellious tone and image of US rock and roll and blues musicians became popular with British youth in the late 1950s.
While early commercial attempts to replicate American rock and roll mostly failed, the trad jazz–inspired skiffle craze, with its do it yourself attitude, was the starting point of several British Billboard singles.
Young British groups started to combine various British and American styles in different parts of the U.K., such as the 1962 movement in Liverpool known as Merseybeat or the “beat boom“.
That same year featured three instrumentals, each from an act with British roots, to reach the Hot 100’s summit. This included the Tornados’ instrumental “Telstar“, written and produced by Joe Meek, becoming the first record by a British group to reach number one on the US Hot 100.
All were preceded by British jazz musician Kenny Ball peaking at #2 on 17 March 1962 on the Hot 100 with the instrumental “Midnight in Moscow“.
Some observers have noted that US teenagers were growing tired of singles-oriented pop acts like Fabian. The Mods and Rockers, two youth “gangs” in mid-1960s Britain, also had an impact in British Invasion music. Bands with a Mod aesthetic became the most popular, but bands able to balance both (e.g. the Beatles) were also successful.
In October 1963, the first newspaper articles about the frenzy in England surrounding the Beatles appeared nationally in the US.
The Beatles’ November 4 Royal Variety Performance in front of the Queen Mother sparked music industry and media interest in the group.
During November, a number of major American print outlets and two network television evening programs published and broadcast stories on the phenomenon that became known as “Beatlemania“.
On December 10, CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite, looking for something positive to report, re-ran a Beatlemania story that originally aired on the 22 November 1963 edition of the CBS Morning News with Mike Wallace but was shelved that night because of the assassination of US President John Kennedy.
After seeing the report, 15-year-old Marsha Albert of Silver Spring, Maryland, wrote a letter the following day to disc jockey Carroll James at radio station WWDC asking, “Why can’t we have music like that here in America?” On December 17 James had Miss Albert introduce “I Want to Hold Your Hand” live on the air.
WWDC’s phones lit up, and Washington, D.C., area record stores were flooded with requests for a record they did not have in stock. James sent the record to other disc jockeys around the country sparking a similar reaction.
On December 26, Capitol Records released the record three weeks ahead of schedule. The release of the record during a time when teenagers were on vacation helped spread Beatlemania in the US.
On December 29, The Baltimore Sun, reflecting the dismissive view of most adults, editorialized, “America had better take thought as to how it will deal with the invasion. Indeed a restrained ‘Beatles go home’ might be just the thing.” In the next year alone, the Beatles would have 30 different listings on the Hot 100.
On January 3, 1964, The Jack Paar Program ran Beatles concert footage licensed from the BBC “as a joke,” but it was watched by 30 million viewers. While this piece was largely forgotten, Beatles producer George Martin has said it “aroused the kids’ curiosity“.
In the middle of January 1964, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” appeared suddenly, then vaulted to the top of nearly every top 40 music survey in the United States, launching the Fab Four’s sustained, massive output. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” ascended to number one on the January 25, 1964 edition of Cash Box magazine and the February 1, 1964 edition of the Hot 100.
On February 7, 1964, the CBS Evening News ran a story about the Beatles’ United States arrival that afternoon in which the correspondent said, “The British Invasion this time goes by the code name Beatlemania.” Two days later, on Sunday, February 9, they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. Nielsen Ratings estimated that 45 percent of US television viewers that night saw their appearance.
According to Michael Ross:
“It is somewhat ironic that the biggest moment in the history of popular music was first experienced in the US as a television event.”
The Ed Sullivan Show had for some time been a “comfortable hearth-and-slippers experience.” Not many of the 73 million viewers watching in February 1964 would fully understand what impact the band they were watching would have.
The Beatles soon incited contrasting reactions and, in the process, generated more novelty records than anyone — at least 200 during 1964–1965 and more inspired by the “Paul is dead” rumor in 1969.
Among the many reactions, favoring the hysteria were British girl group the Carefrees’ “We Love You Beatles” (#39 on 11 April 1964) and the Patty Cakes’ “I Understand Them“, subtitled “A Love Song to the Beatles“.
Disapproving the pandemonium were American group the Four Preps’ “A Letter to the Beatles” (#85 on 4 April 1964) and American comedian Allan Sherman’s “Pop Hates the Beatles.”
On April 4, the Beatles held the top five positions on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, and to date, no other act has simultaneously held even the top four.
The Beatles also held the top five positions on Cash Box’s singles chart that same week, with the first two positions reversed from the Hot 100.
The group’s massive chart success, which included at least two of their singles holding the top spot on the Hot 100 during each of the seven consecutive years starting with 1964, continued until they broke up in 1970.
Beyond the Beatles
One week after the Beatles entered the Hot 100 for the first time, Dusty Springfield, having launched a solo career after her participation in the Springfields, became the next British act to reach the Hot 100, peaking at number 12 with “I Only Want to Be with You“.
During the next three years, many more British acts with a chart-topping US single would appear. As 1965 approached, another wave of British Invasion artists emerged which usually consisted of groups playing in a more pop style, such as the Hollies or the Zombies or with a harder-driving, blues-based approach.
On May 8, 1965, the British Commonwealth came closer than it ever had or would to a clean sweep of a weekly Hot 100’s Top 10, lacking only a hit at number two instead of “Count Me In” by the US group Gary Lewis & the Playboys.
The British Commonwealth also nearly swept the Cash Box singles chart’s top ten the previous week, lacking only a hit at number six instead of “Count Me In“.
That same year, half of the 26 Billboard Hot 100 chart-toppers (counting the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” carrying over from 1964) belonged to British acts. The British trend would continue into 1966 and beyond. British Invasion acts also dominated the music charts at home in the United Kingdom.
The musical style of British Invasion artists, such as the Beatles, had been influenced by earlier US rock ‘n’ roll, a genre which had lost some popularity and appeal by the time of the Invasion.
However, a subsequent handful of white British performers, particularly the Rolling Stones and The Animals, would appeal to a more ‘outsider‘ demographic, essentially reviving and popularizing, for young people at least, a musical genre rooted in the blues, rhythm, and black culture, which had been largely ignored or rejected when performed by black US artists in the 1950s.
Such bands were sometimes perceived by American parents and elders as rebellious and unwholesome unlike parent-friendly pop groups, such as the Beatles. The Rolling Stones would become the biggest band other than the Beatles to come out of the British Invasion, topping the Hot 100 eight times.
Sometimes, there would be a clash between the two styles of the British Invasion, the polished pop acts and the grittier blues-based acts due to the expectations set by the Beatles.
Eric Burdon of the Animals said:
“They dressed us up in the most strange costumes. They were even gonna bring a choreographer to show us how to move on stage. I mean, it was ridiculous. It was something that was so far away from our nature and, um, yeah we were just pushed around and told, ‘When you arrive in America, don’t mention the [Vietnam] war! You can’t talk about the war.’ We felt like we were being gagged.”
“Freakbeat” is a term sometimes given to certain British Invasion acts closely associated with the mod scene during the Swinging London period, particularly harder-driving British blues bands of the era that often remained obscure to US listeners, and who are sometimes seen as counterparts to the garage rock bands in America.
Certain acts, such as the Pretty Things and the Creation, had a certain degree of chart success in the UK and are often considered exemplars of the form.
The emergence of a relatively homogeneous worldwide “rock” music style marking the end of the “invasion” occurred in 1967.
Impact on American music
The British Invasion had a profound impact on popular music, internationalizing the production of rock and roll, establishing the British popular music industry as a viable center of musical creativity, and opening the door for subsequent British performers to achieve international success.
In America, the Invasion arguably spelled the end of the popularity of instrumental surf music, pre-Motown vocal girl groups, the folk revival (which adapted by evolving into folk rock), teenage tragedy songs, Nashville country music (which also faced its own crisis with the deaths of some of its biggest stars at the same time), and temporarily, the teen idols that had dominated the American charts in the late 1950s and 1960s.
It dented the careers of established R&B acts like Chubby Checker and temporarily derailed the chart success of certain surviving rock and roll acts, including Ricky Nelson, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers and Elvis Presley (who nevertheless racked up 30 Hot 100 entries from 1964 through 1967).
It prompted many existing garage rock bands to adopt a sound with a British Invasion inflection and inspired many other groups to form, creating a scene from which many major American acts of the next decade would emerge.
The British Invasion also played a major part in the rise of a distinct genre of rock music and cemented the primacy of the rock group, based around guitars and drums and producing their own material as singer-songwriters.
Though many of the acts associated with the invasion did not survive its end, many others would become icons of rock music.
The claim that British beat bands were not radically different from US groups like the Beach Boys and damaged the careers of African-American and female artists were made about the Invasion.
However, the Motown sound, exemplified by the Supremes, the Temptations, and the Four Tops, each securing its first top 20 record during the Invasion’s first year of 1964 and following up with many other top 20 records, besides the constant or even accelerating output of the Miracles, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Marvin Gaye, Martha & the Vandellas, and Stevie Wonder, actually increased in popularity during that time.
Other US groups also demonstrated a similar sound to the British Invasion artists and in turn highlighted how the British ‘sound’ was not in itself a wholly new or original one.
Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, for example, acknowledged the debt that American artists owed to British musicians, such as the Searchers, but that “they were using folk music licks that I was using anyway. So it’s not that big a rip-off.”
Both the US sunshine pop group the Buckinghams and the Beatles-influenced US Tex-Mex act the Sir Douglas Quintet adopted British-sounding names, and San Francisco’s Beau Brummels took their name from the same-named English dandy.
Roger Miller had a 1965 hit record with a song titled “England Swings“. Englishman Geoff Stephens (or John Carter) reciprocated the gesture a la Rudy Vallée a year later in the New Vaudeville Band’s “Winchester Cathedral“.
Even as recently as 2003, “Shanghai Knights” made the latter two tunes memorable once again in London scenes. Anticipating the Bay City Rollers by more than a decade, two British acts that reached the Hot 100’s top 20 gave a tip of the hat to America: Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotas and the Nashville Teens.
The British Invasion also drew a backlash from some American bands, e.g., Paul Revere & the Raiders and New Colony Six dressed in Revolutionary War uniforms, and Gary Puckett & The Union Gap donned Civil War uniforms.
Garage rock act the Barbarians’ “Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl” contained the lyrics “You’re either a girl, or you come from Liverpool” and “You can dance like a female monkey, but you swim like a stone, Yeah, a Rolling Stone.”
In Australia, the success of the Seekers and the Easybeats (the latter a band formed mostly of British emigrants) closely paralleled that of the British Invasion.
According to Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, the British invasion pushed the counterculture into the mainstream.
*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.