Saturday, June 19, 2004

The British Invasion Part Three

The roots of the British Invasion (and hence The Beatles) can be traced back to America. In the United States, the Fifties saw the birth of rock 'n' roll. "Rock 'n' roll" was the term coined by disc jockey Alan Freed for the rhythm and blues he programmed for a largely white audience. Of course, rhythm and blues was a musical genre born in the South and first performed by African Americans. Rock 'n' roll swept the nation in the late Fifties, with artists like Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, and, of course, Elvis Presley. It was only a matter of time before rock 'n' roll records would make their way to such British ports as Liverpool. And it was only natural that British teenagers, like their American counterparts, would be drawn to this "new" music. At the same time American rhythm and blues artists were beginning to tour Britain. Muddy Waters toured England in 1958 and other R & B artists followed. Soon Britain was swept up in a rhythm and blues craze. Between rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues, various bands were popping up all over Britain in the early Sixties. It would be these bands, starting with the Beatles, who would invade America.

Among the British disciples of rhythm and blues was a group called The Animals. The Animals played nearly unadulterated rhythm and blues. In fact, their first huge hit in America was an arrangement of a traditional folk song, "House of the Rising Sun." It was the first song by a British group to go number one in America after The Beatles. The Animals followed that success with other hit singles, each with a strong blues base. "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," and "Don't Let Me Down" all owed a great deal to rhythm and blues. By 1966 The Animals started to see membership changes and the band was renamed Eric Burdon and the Animals. The group also drifted away from its blues origins into the psychedelia popular at the time. They still managed to hit the charts, however, with songs like "Sky Pilot" and "Monterey." They broke up in 1969 after a rather fruitful career.

Another group inspired by rhythm and blues were The Yardbirds. Unfortunately, they did not see The Animals' success. The Yardbirds played a free-form style of blues that did not translate easily into hit singles. In 1964 their manager produced a song closer to the other British bands of the time, "For Your Love (by future 10cc leader Graham Gouldman)." The song was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. They had other hits with "Heartful of Soul" and "Over, Under, Sideways, Down". Departing from their purely blues oriented music did not sit well with some members, however, and lead guitarist Eric Clapton quit the band as a result. Clapton was replaced by guitarist Jeff Beck. Like many groups of the time, Yhe Yardbirds drifted into psychedelia, the song "The Shape of Things" being a prime example. The group saw yet more membership changes, with bassist Paul Samwell-Smith leaving the band. As a temporary measure, Jimmy Page took on the job of playing bass for The Yardbirds. Eventually, Beck and Page would play dual lead guitar with the band, until Beck left the group. Thereafter, The Yardbirds began to disintegrate. They charted no singles in the process. In 1968, the band finally folded. The Yardbirds' place in history was cemented by the performers who would emerge from the band: Chris Dreja, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page.

While The Animals and The Yardbirds were esentially blues bands, Manfred Mann performed R & B, soul, and jazz in addition to the British rock of the time. Named for their leader (something Mann did not particularly like at the time), the group had a hit single on both sides of the Atlantic with "Do Wah Diddy Diddy". They would have further hits in Britain with "Come Tomorrow," a cover of Bob Dylan's "If You Got To Go, Go Now," "Semi-Detached Suburban Mr. Jones" and "Ha! Ha! Said The Clown." Strangely, however, none of these songs were hits in the United States. They only had one other hit in America. In 1968 their remake of Bob Dylan's "The Mighty Quinn" hit the top ten. The group disbanded in 1969.

While Manfred Mann covered Dylan material, Donovan was seen as a poor man's Bob Dylan. Sometimes Donovan isn't cited in essays on the British Invasion, perhaps because of his folk roots. But as a Scottish native, Donovan Leitch is certainly British and he arrived in America at the same time as the British rock acts. At any rate, Donovan did not remain a folk act for long. His song "Sunshine Superman" was an early example of psychedelia. It was also a hit in the United States. Legal hassles hindered Donovan's career in the United Kingdom, but in America he had a steady string of hits. "Mellow Yellow," "Hurdy Gurdy Man (another bit of psychedelia)," and "Atlantis" were all hits Stateside. Unfortunately, by 1970, Donovan's career began to fade. I always found that regrettable myself, as I always had a great love for Donovan's music. "Sunshine Superman" is still one of my favourite songs.

I have never read anywhere the full extent of the British Invasion. I do know that there were a massive number of British groups that made the trek across the Atlantic. Gerry and the Pacemakers, Wayne Fontana and The Mindbenders, The Troggs, and other bands all had their time in the sun. I don't know that there is any real agreement as to when the British Invasion ended. I would say that it was more or less over by 1966 myself. My reasoning is twofold. First, by that time several American artists had broken the chokehold that the British had possessed on the AMerican charts. Second, the number of British groups coming to America sharply declined. Indeed, by 1966 music was changing once again, as psychedelia rose in America with groups like Jefferson Airplane.

Regardless, the effects of the British Invasion could be felt for years to come. Many of the major groups of the Sixties had their origins in the British Invasion groups of the Sixties. Led Zeppelin emerged from The Yardbirds. War emerged from The Animals. British Invasion artists such as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, and others went on to have successful solo careers. And British acts continued to make the trip across the Atlantic, if in fewer numbers. Status Quo, T. Rex, Duran Duran, and other British groups would follow the British Invasion bands in coming to America. Indeed, it was not until May 2002 that the Billboard singles chart featured no British artists! It was the first time since 1964.

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