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The British Invasion

Manfred Mann

The pattern of early American imitation and absorption of British models and the gradual reversal of the process to a more reciprocal interrelationship also manifested itself in popular culture. After independence Americans continued to import British sports and games, transforming them in some instances - for example, turning rugby into football. British popular music maintained its ascendancy, as did British theater, particularly evident in the many performances of Shakespeare's plays and Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas. The circus was another nineteenth-century British import that enjoyed enormous popularity in America.

In the 1950s American rock and roll music dominated the British popular music scene more completely than jazz and the blues had done in the 1920s. The first rock and roll tunes to make a major impact in Britain were Bill Haley's (1925-1981) "Shake, Rattle and Roll" and "Rock Around the Clock," both released in 1954. Other pop singers and groups who quickly obtained wide popularity and inspired numerous British imitators were Little Richard (b.1932), Chuck Berry (b. 1926), Jerry Lee Lewis (b. 1935), Buddy Holly (1936-1959) and the Crickets, the Everly Brother (Don, b.1937; Phil, b.1939), and Elvis Presley (1935-1977). The influence of American music is shown by British teenagers dancing on the "rock 'n' roll railroad car," a youth club run by the Reverend John Oates, who played the bass in his clerical robes.

The Beatles and other British rock groups helped create in the 1960s a milieu that emphasized youth, exuberance, and innovation not only in music but in fashion. Young Americans found British fashions as appealing as the music crossing the ocean. American publications carried advertisements that promoted British products or American products that fit the cool image. The "London Look" was epitomized by the most famous British model of the era, "Twiggy" (Leslie Hornsby). Along with fashion, British television shows such as The Avengers and James Bond films furthered the "Swinging Britain" image.

To the white middle-class American youth of 1964 and early 1965, the invasion that interested them most had nothing to do with Vietnam. In February 1964, the Beatles came to the United States for a concert tour and, to many, their arrival signified the success of British culture within American consumerism. The Beatles (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr in their final format) remained the well-dressed quartet from Liverpool who, thanks to experimentalism, catchy harmony, and unique haircuts, changed the direction of pop music. After years of Elvis, Chubby Checker, and other homegrown rock-and-roll pioneers, American music fans were ready for innovation and change. The Beatles filled the gap at a critical time, and their wildly enthusiastic young fans proved it.

Appearing on CBS television's popular variety program The Ed Sullivan Show, the Beatles won an even greater national audience than they thought was possible. Early Beatles hits such as "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You" were romantic songs that especially appealed to teen life and concerns. The screaming adulation or "Beatlemania" for this mop-haired group confounded and even worried parents. But American music adjusted to the Beatles' sound and not the other way around. The Beatles led the way to American pop chart success for their own British-based competition - from the irreverent blues-based rock group the Rolling Stones to vocalist Petula Clark. But the Beatles had staying power and were often hailed as Elvis's replacement in true rock-and-roll leadership.

Less than two years after their American tour, the Beatles abandoned the road. Wealthy beyond their dreams, the group turned to Indian philosophy and drugs for solace. Although they preferred to do their work in a studio, their dominance of the American rock music industry remained assured. But music was not the only indication of the British presence. Fashion was another obvious example.

Working out of a small dress shop in London's Chelsea district, young designer Mary Quant changed the look of American women. Her brightly colored short skirt design, usually with stripes and a broad belt, was nicknamed the "miniskirt." Largely designed for very thin models also wearing high boots, the miniskirt was not for everybody. The nationwide department store chain of J. C. Penney first marketed the dress in the United States, causing an immediate sensation as a "sexual revolution" item. America's young women tried their best to fit into one of Quant's designs, annoying feminists who pointed out the unrealistic goals being set by the fashion industry.

Quant's clothes, also called the "Mod" or "Chelsea" look, were especially well displayed by British fashion model Leslie Hornby. Professionally known as "Twiggy," Hornby was a short and skinny working-class girl from London who adorned most of America's fashion and even news magazines throughout the mid-1960s. "Thin is in;" she said, but, once again, this set difficult, unhealthy standards for many American women.

Although there were arguments over whether the British invasion was started by James Bond or the Beatles, it was obvious that American life was fast becoming globalized in ways it had not experienced before. From Beatles haircuts to women's fashion, there were more opportunities for Americans to dress in their own way. America was not alone in trying to set certain standards, and the British influence was usually seen as a positive one as long as it did not disturb American politics or the leading domestic industries. In short, the invasion had little impact on the big-picture issues of the day, although the new songs and fashions always encouraged listeners and buyers to "do their own thing." That advice was as American as apple pie.

The Beatles' triumphant arrival in New York City on February 7, 1964, opened America's doors to a wealth of British musical talent. What followed would be called--with historical condescension by the willingly reconquered colony--the second British Invasion. Like their transatlantic counterparts in the 1950s, British youth heard their future in the frantic beats and suggestive lyrics of American rock and roll. But initial attempts to replicate it failed. Lacking the indigenous basic ingredients of rock and roll--rhythm and blues, and country music--enthusiasts could bring only crippling British decorum and diffidence. The only sign of life was in the late '50s skiffle craze, spearheaded by Scotland's Lonnie Donegan. Skiffle groups (like the Beatles-launching Quarrymen) were drummerless acoustic guitar-and-banjo ensembles, jug bands really, who most often sang traditional American folk songs, frequently with more spirit than instrumental polish.

By 1962, encouraged by the anyone-can-play populism of skiffle and self-schooled in the music of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, James Brown, and Muddy Waters, some British teens had a real feel for the rock-and-roll idiom. Blending that with such local traditions as dance hall, pop, and Celtic folk, they formulated original music they could claim, play, and sing with conviction. Young groups with electric guitars began performing and writing up-tempo melodic pop, fiery rock and roll, and Chicago-style electric blues.

Liverpool became the first hotbed of the so-called "beat boom." With the Beatles, other exuberant male quartets such as the Searchers, the Fourmost, and Gerry and the Pacemakers--plus the quintet Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas--launched "Merseybeat," so named for the estuary that runs alongside Liverpool. The Beatles first reached the British record charts in late 1962 (shortly after the Tornados' "Telstar," an instrumental smash that sent word of what was in store by becoming the first British record to top the American singles chart); the rest joined the hit parade in 1963.

Rock swept Britain. By 1964 Greater London could claim the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, the Who, the Kinks, the Pretty Things, Dusty Springfield, the Dave Clark Five, Peter and Gordon, Chad and Jeremy, and Manfred Mann. Manchester had the Hollies, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, Freddie and the Dreamers, and Herman's Hermits; Newcastle had the Animals; and Birmingham had the Spencer Davis Group (featuring Steve Winwood) and the Moody Blues. Bands sprang up from Belfast (Them, with Van Morrison) to St. Albans (the Zombies), with more inventive artists arriving to keep the syles moving forward, including the Small Faces, the Move, the Creation, the Troggs, Donovan, the Walker Brothers, and John's Children. While the beat boom provided Britons relief from the postimperial humiliation of hand-me-down rock, the Beatles and their ilk brought the United States more than credible simulations. They arrived as foreign ambassadors, with distinctive accents (in conversation only; most of the groups sang in "American"), slang, fashions, and personalities. The Beatles' first film, A Hard Day's Night (1964), further painted England as the center of the (rock) universe. American media took the bait and made Carnaby Street, London's trendy fashion center in the 1960s, a household name.

From 1964 to 1966 the United Kingdom sent a stream of hits across the Atlantic. Behind the conquering Beatles, Peter and Gordon ("A World Without Love"), the Animals ("House of the Rising Sun"), Manfred Mann ("Do Wah Diddy Diddy"), Petula Clark ("Downtown"), Freddie and the Dreamers ("I'm Telling You Now"), Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders ("Game of Love"), Herman's Hermits ("Mrs. Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter"), the Rolling Stones ("[I Can't Get No] Satisfaction" and others), the Troggs ("Wild Thing"), and Donovan ("Sunshine Superman") all topped Billboard's singles chart.

These charming invaders had borrowed (often literally) American rock music and returned it--restyled and refreshed--to a generation largely ignorant of its historical and racial origins. In April 1966 Time magazine effectively raised the white flag with a cover story on "London: The Swinging City." Peace quickly followed; by the pivotal year 1967, a proliferation of English and American bands were equal partners in one international rock culture.

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