|Part of the Swinging Sixties and the broader counterculture of the 1960s|
|Location||United Kingdom and United States|
|Outcome||British influence to the music of the United States|
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 Ocean. Pop and rock groups such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Zombies, The Kinks, The Dave Clark Five, Herman's Hermits, The Hollies, The Animals, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Searchers, and The Yardbirds were at the forefront of the "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, produced two top 10 hits in the US by Lonnie Donegan. Young British groups started to combine various British and American styles in different parts of the U.K., such as the movement in Liverpool known as Merseybeat or the "beat boom".
While American acts were popular in the UK, few British acts had achieved any success in the US prior to 1964. Cliff Richard, who was the best-selling British act in the UK at the time, only had one Top 40 hit in the US with "Living Doll" in 1959. Along with Donegan, exceptions to this trend were the US number one hits "Auf Wiederseh'n, Sweetheart" by Vera Lynn in 1952, "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" by Laurie London in 1959, and the instrumentals "Stranger on the Shore" by Acker Bilk and "Telstar" by the Tornados, both in 1962. In 1961, Hayley Mills's "Let's Get Together" from The Parent Trap reached the top ten. Also in 1962 on the Hot 100, "Midnight in Moscow" by Kenny Ball peaked at No. 2, Frank Ifield's "I Remember You" became the next British vocal to crack the top 5, and the Springfields' version of "Silver Threads and Golden Needles" reached the Top 40.
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 November 22 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 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 (on sale January 18) 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 Walter Cronkite said, "The British Invasion this time goes by the code name Beatlemania." Two days later, on Sunday, February 9, the group 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" rumour 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".[nb 1] During the next three years, many more British acts with a chart-topping US single would appear.[nb 2] 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 as well as artists with a harder-driving, blues-based approach like the Kinks and the Rolling Stones. On May 8, 1965, the British Commonwealth came closer than it ever had to a clean sweep of a weekly Hot 100's Top Ten, lacking only a hit at number two instead of "Count Me In" by 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.
Other cultural impacts
Outside music, other aspects of British arts became popular in the US during this period and led US media to proclaim the United Kingdom as the center of music and fashion.
Film and television
The Beatles movie A Hard Day's Night marked the group's entrance into film. Mary Poppins, released on August 27, 1964, and starring English actress Julie Andrews as the titular character, became the most Oscar-winning and Oscar-nominated Disney film in history, and My Fair Lady, released on December 25, 1964, starring British actress Audrey Hepburn as Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, won eight Academy Awards.
Besides the Bond series which commenced with Sean Connery as James Bond in 1962, films with a British sensibility such as the "Angry Young Men" genre, What's New Pussycat? and Alfie styled London Theatre. A new wave of British actors such as Peter O'Toole, Michael Caine and Peter Sellers intrigued US audiences. Four of the decade's Academy Award winners for best picture were British productions, with the epic Lawrence of Arabia, starring O'Toole as British army officer T. E. Lawrence, winning seven Oscars in 1963.
British television series such as Danger Man (renamed Secret Agent in its US airings), The Saint and The Avengers began appearing on American screens, inspiring a series of American-produced espionage programs such as I Spy, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and the parody series Get Smart. By 1966, spy series (both British and American) had emerged as a favorite format of American viewers, alongside Westerns and rural sitcoms. Television shows that featured uniquely American styles of music, such as Sing Along with Mitch and Hootenanny, were quickly canceled and replaced with shows such as Shindig! and Hullabaloo that were better positioned to play the new British hits, and segments of the new shows were taped in England.
Fashion and image marked the Beatles out from their earlier US rock and roll counterparts. Their distinctive, uniform style "challenged the clothing style of conventional US males," just as their music challenged the earlier conventions of the rock and roll genre. "Mod" fashions, such as the mini skirt from "Swinging London" designers such as Mary Quant and worn by early supermodels Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton and other models, were popular worldwide. Newspaper columnist John Crosby wrote, "The English girl has an enthusiasm that American men find utterly captivating. I'd like to import the whole Chelsea girl with her 'life is fabulous' philosophy to America with instructions to bore from within."
Even while longstanding styles remained popular, US teens and young adults started to dress "hipper."
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 centre 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 early 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.
In February 2021, Ken Barnes, a former USA Today radio writer, analyzed American musical acts' success before and during the Invasion in an article for Radio Insight attempting to confirm or debunk the claim that the British Invasion devastated American music. In his analysis, he noted that several of the acts whose careers were decimated by the Invasion—among them Bobby Vee, Neil Sedaka, Dion and Elvis Presley—eventually made comebacks after the Invasion waned. Others, such as Bill Anderson and Bobby Bare, remained successful in the country realm, even as their pop crossover success had waned. Barnes noted that one record company, Cameo Parkway, sustained more permanent damage from the Invasion (and the concurrent rise of Motown) than any other, but also noted that it was also affected by another event that happened the same week as the Beatles' arrival: American Bandstand, which had been based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where Cameo Parkway was based and drew many of its performers from Cameo Parkway, moved to Los Angeles. In summation, he noted that a plurality of the alleged victims of the Invasion (42% of all American hit music acts of 1963) were already seeing diminishing returns in 1963 before the Invasion began; 24% of American acts that year saw their success continue through the invasion, such as The Beach Boys and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons; 14% were the likes of Sedaka, Vee and Presley in that they suffered during the Invasion but recovered afterward; and 20% suffered fatal damage to their careers because of it (with Barnes stating that 7% of American acts—mostly Cameo Parkway acts and folk revival groups—were wiped out almost entirely due to the Invasion, and the other 13% had the Invasion as one of several reasons for their declines). Stylistically, the proportions of American music being made did not change substantially during the Invasion, even as the British acts flooded the charts with a homogenous pop-rock sound; folk, country and novelty music, already small factors in the overall pop realm, dropped to near-nonexistence, while girl groups were also hard hit.
Though many of the acts associated with the invasion did not survive its end, many others would become icons of rock music. The claim[according to whom?] 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 was made[when?] about the invasion. However, the Motown sound, exemplified by the Supremes, the Temptations, and the Four Tops, each securing their 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 self-penned song titled "England Swings", in which although its title references the progressive youth-centric cultural scene known as Swinging London, its lyric pays tribute to Britain's traditional way of life. 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. The Seekers had two Hot 100 top 5 hits during the British Invasion, the #4 hit "I'll Never Find Another You" (recorded at London's Abbey Road Studios) in May 1965 and the #2 hit "Georgy Girl" in February 1967. The Easybeats drew heavily on the British Invasion sound and had one hit in the United States during the British Invasion, the #16 hit "Friday on My Mind" in May 1967.
British bands such as Badfinger and the Sweet, and American band the Raspberries, are considered to have evolved the genre into power pop. In 1978, two rock magazines wrote cover stories analyzing power pop as a savior to both the new wave and the direct simplicity of rock. Along with the music, new wave power impacted current the fashion, such as the mod style of the Jam or the skinny ties of the burgeoning Los Angeles scene. Several power pop artists were commercially successful; most notably the Knack, whose "My Sharona" was the highest ranked US single of 1979. Although the Knack and power pop fell out of mainstream popularity, the genre continues to have a cult following with occasional periods of modest success.
End of the first British Invasion
The historical conclusion of the British Invasion is ambiguous. American bands regained mainstream prominence in the late 1960s, and along with it, the wave of anglophilia largely faded as American culture shifted in response to the Vietnam War and the resulting civil unrest. Nevertheless, British bands retained their popularity throughout the decade and into the 1970s. British progressive rock acts of the 1970s were often more popular in the United States than their native Britain, as the American working class was generally favorable to the virtuosity of progressive rock acts while the bands' British audience was confined to the more genteel upper classes.
A subsequent wave of British artists rose to popularity in the early 1980s as British music videos appeared in American media, leading to what is now known as the "Second British Invasion". Another wave of British mainstream prominence in US music charts came in the mid-1990s with the brief success of Spice Girls, Oasis and Robbie Williams. At least one British act would appear somewhere on the Hot 100 every week from November 2, 1963 until April 20, 2002, originating with the debut of the Caravelles' "You Don't Have to Be a Baby to Cry". British acts declined in popularity throughout the 1990s, and in the April 27, 2002 issue of Billboard, none of the songs on the Hot 100 were from British artists; that week, only two of the top 100 albums, those of Craig David and Ozzy Osbourne, were from British artists.
The most recent recognized movement came in the mid to late 2000s when British R&B and soul artists such as Amy Winehouse, Estelle, Joss Stone, Duffy, Natasha Bedingfield, Florence Welch, Adele, Floetry, Jessie J, Leona Lewis, Jay Sean and Taio Cruz enjoyed huge success in the US charts, which led to talk of a "Third British Invasion" or a "British Soul Invasion".
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Further reading and listening
- Gilliland, John (1969). "The British Are Coming! The British Are Coming!: The U.S.A. is invaded by a wave of long-haired English rockers" (audio). Pop Chronicles. University of North Texas Libraries.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- Harry, Bill. The British Invasion: How the Beatles and Other UK Bands Conquered America. Chrome Dreams. 2004. ISBN 978-1-84240-247-4
- Miles, Barry. The British Invasion: The Music, the Times, the Era. Sterling Publishing. 2009. ISBN 978-1-4027-6976-4
- "The British Invasion" 2002 – oral history by Vanity Fair