The British Invasion.

The British InvasionThe United States and Britain have enjoyed (or endured) a ‘Special Relationship’ for a long time. After that Revolutionary War nastiness, we have pretty much remained ‘two nations separated by a common language’, and on the subject of War, we usually end up on the same side. During the sixties, however, there was a lot of social turmoil in the air. The post-WWII economic boom had put money in people’s pockets; new technologies (like cheap air travel and telecommunications) were changing people’s lifestyles; and people’s personal aspirations were growing and expanding. Especially young people’s.

“….. the music died.”

The fifties had seen the rise of ‘youth culture’ and the ‘teenage market’. Blue jeans and rock’n’roll records were iconic American goods, but they were part of a vision of the future for kids all over the world. The ‘moral panic’ felt by the establishment everywhere over ‘juvenile delinquency’ and ‘jungle music’ had died down by the end of that decade, contained by a society which dismissed them as passing trends. By 1962, mainstream pop music had become safe: Buddy Holly was gone; Elvis had been drafted then sold to Hollywood; Little Richard had got Religion; Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis had girl trouble, and the field was open to “the Bobbys”, as Jerry Lee put it; Bobby Vee, B Rydell, B Darren, B Vinton etc. and similar manufactured milquetoast singers. African-American music remained where it had nearly always been, in the Black community, in their clubs and venues and on Black radio stations. Things were happening below the radar in places like Detroit and Philly, with new R&B sounds, and Gospel was morphing into Soul, but Rock’n’Roll was burnt out and the Blues was seen by many as ‘old folks music’.

Rumblings in the old country.

Ealing Club PlaqueOver in Britain, something big was hatching. Big Bill Broonzy had made a couple of tours there in the mid-50s, and bandleader Chris Barber often invited Blues stars like Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee to play with his band. This exposure to imported American Blues had ground-shifting effects. A generation of young musicians and fans saw the power of this music, and began importing and sharing important Blues records by previously unknown players. Two of Chris Barber’s side-men, Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies formed Britain’s first Blues band, Blues Incorporated, and in 1962 they opened The Ealing Club in West London, which is acknowledged as the birthplace of British R&B. Rolling StonesThe Rolling Stones first met up there, and got their first gig deputising at The Marquee Club for Blues Incorporated. The audience in those early days, when they also held ‘open-mic’ sessions, included Rod Stewart, John Mayall, all of Cream, Elton John, Eric Burdon, Long John Baldry, Paul Jones and Manfred Mann and dozens more who would go on make their mark. They were all digging this new music that spoke to the soul, and they were desperate to play it themselves. That was a real possibility, because ‘skiffle’, which came out of the Folk scene, encouraged young players to get up and have a go, sometimes with improvised instruments like jug-bands used to. Future legends like John Lennon, Van Morrison and Jimmy Page were already honing their skills in the back-rooms of regional and suburban pubs!

The Mersey Beat.

BeatlesMeanwhile, up in Liverpool, bands formed on an almost weekly basis to play in venues that were springing up around the city. Merchant sailors in this busy sea-port returned from The States with thousands of R&B records, and the bands performing their cover versions would soon be writing their own songs. It is no accident that The Beatles early recordings included their versions of ‘Kansas City’, Chuck’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ and The Isley Brothers’ ‘Twist and Shout’. Similarly, The Stones’ first chart record was Chuck’s ‘Come On’, and they took Howlin’ Wolf‘s classic 12-bar Blues ‘Little Red Rooster’ to the top of the singles charts in the UK (but couldn’t get it released in America).

Blues from the Heart.

This simple but powerful Blues music was born in the Mississippi Delta as the voice of a dis-empowered people, relegated to the bottom of society because of the colour of their skin. In Britain fifty years later, the issue was not race but class. A working-class kid with a regional accent, or just anyone with long-ish hair and an open mind, could feel similarly outcast from society and cut off from opportunity, dismissed at at glance, and without a second thought. These youngsters felt the Blues in their hearts because it reflected their experience, and when they started to sing about it they found they had a massive audience, not just their friends down the pub, but kids who bought tickets and records, and soon the British Blues Boom was underway!.

The British Invasion.

The funeral of President Kennedy in late November 1963 is often noted as the first shared national American TV ‘moment’. Arguably, the appearance of The Beatles of The Ed Sullivan Show in front of 70m. viewers barely ten weeks later was the second. Their music, their clothes, their irreverend attitude and their effect on girls “…kicked out all the Bobbys”, as Jerry Lee put it, and opened the door for ‘The British Invasion’. Soon The Beatles were followed by The Zombies, Herman’s Hermits, The Kinks, The Searchers, Donovan, The Animals, The Yardbirds and The Stones. Many of these were entertainers, exploiting the sudden popularity of the British in America, but these last three had deeper roots. The Animals and Yardbirds had served some time playing behind American Blues stars like Rice ‘Sonny Boy II’ Miller, who was living in London, and the Blues legends who had begun touring Europe to enthusiastic new audiences. The Beatles and those pop bands helped open the door for African-American music in its own backyard, but The Stones kicked that door off its hinges!

“It all opened up then.”

Paul ButterfieldThe Stones were booked to play on the network TV show Shindig, but made it a condition that Howlin’ Wolf had to play too. Recording the show with the first Black Bluesman to feature on the networks, they sat around his feet like adoring kids, just in case anyone hadn’t noticed who their hero was! They went to Chess Studios in Chicago and met Muddy Waters, then recorded their No.1 single ‘It’s All Over Now’ there. Every time they were interviewed on TV, radio and in the press, Keef would talk about the records by Muddy, Wolf, Jimmy Reed and T-Bone Walker that inspired the Stones music. This, in turn, inspired young America to look at its own musical heritage. As BB King put it, “It all opened up then.” In the South, the search for the ‘originators of the Blues‘ gathered pace, as more gigging and recording opportunities came along. Blues players who hadn’t seen the inside of a studio for years were making records; writers who never got paid for their songs back in the day were getting royalty checks for all those new cover versions; they were all getting bigger, better-paid gigs; international tours were organised, and The American Blues Festival touring extravaganza became an annual event. In Chicago, Blues bands like Paul Butterfield‘s and Charlie Musselwhite‘s crossed the race line and made albums that are considered ‘classics’ even today, and everywhere youth music gained a new vitality.

Times they were a’changing.

American society was in turmoil in the mid-to-late sixties, over Civil Rights and the Vietnam War, and music was an important means of communication for the young, providing a ‘soundtrack’ and sometimes an ‘anthem’ as a rallying cry. A lot of music came out of the American tradition, like Dylan, and some bands adopted a ‘British’ sound, like The Sir Douglas Quintet from Texas, or The Byrds first album, but others just picked up the baton and ran with it, adding a definite political undercurrent to the music. The Beatles and their kind had stopped touring but a strong surge of new American rock bands came through, basing much of their work on Blues roots. Soul and R&B stars had always had some mainstream crossover, but the rise of labels like Atlantic, Motown and Stax totally changed the recording industry. The whole media business was exploding, with fantastic amounts of money being made and the west coast rising in importance.

Jimi HendrixThe summer of 1967 is remembered as ‘The Summer of Love.’Less than four years after the start of the British Invasion, the Monterey Pop Festival was perhaps the indicator that music had become a global industry when Indian sitar maestro Ravi Shankar and The Who shared the bill with Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin & Big Brother, and Jefferson Airplane. Sadly, The Stones, The Kinks and Donovan all had drug/visa problems or the transatlantic balance might have been more equal. The album and film of this festival gained world distribution, and was perhaps the start of a new era of social history in the States and elsewhere, and youth music stood at a crossroads. The huge changes in The States during the mid-sixties certainly wouldn’t have sounded the same if The Beatles and The Stones and those other ‘British Invaders’ hadn’t reminded America what rich cultural treasures lay in those little-known neighbourhoods across the tracks.