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Confessions Of A British Invader
He was in the vanguard of that wave of young Britons who, in the 1960s stormed our shores and gave us back our musical heritage
December 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 8
In the summer of 1963, that fatal year, I was finally able to make a pilgrimage to the land of my dreams, the source of my sounds. I went on a student charter flight to New York, bought a ninety-nine-day, ninety-nine-dollar Greyhound bus ticket, and set off to see the places of my choice. Not the Grand Canyon, not Washington, not Disneyland—but Nashville, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and the West Coast beaches. At the end of my trip I managed to talk myself into a job entertaining at a student coffeehouse in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. How impressed everyone was that I knew American folksongs like “The Sporting Life Is Killin’ Me.” And how shocked I was to find that the college kids knew little about the real country blues and, much worse, were wary of the urban shouts and screams of James Brown and his Famous Flames. They preferred to hear scrubbed-clean folksongs concerning jolly coachmen or being stuck a thousand miles from home. Flaxen-haired coeds stroked guitars and sang sepulchrally with eyes tightly closed. When I mentioned my love of Elvis & Co., the collegians talked of commercialism. I saw rock ‘n’ roll, and especially R&B, not only as great entertainment but also as strong meat flavored with the salt of truth.
I returned from America to find everybody talking about the Beatles. A silly name, I said, a play on Buddy Holly’s Crickets.
Back to Britain and the problem of how to create a proper home product that wasn’t an aping of American pop. Rock and Britain seemed inimical. My country was a land of homely comedians, of Shakespeare and tea cozies and everything covered in batter. Imagine, then, my shock and surprise when I returned from America to find everybody talking about the Beatles. A silly name, I said, a play on Buddy Holly’s Crickets. Now, the Rolling Stones were another matter: They were keeping the R&B torch alight and moving. They had sass too: They sneered, they never smiled, they couldn’t care less. And Mick Jagger with his slim hips and huge rubber lips seemed outrageously sexy.
But it was, at first, the cheeky, cheery northerners who were the darlings of the press and public. With their retreading of American R&B records and their own trifles like “Love Me Do” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the Beatles were a far cry from “I’m Your Hoochie Man” and the rigors of R&B. We true blues devotees were certain the Beatles could never break into the American hit parade. Americans had invented R&B and R&R and pop; why on earth would they want to buy pallid reproductions from a group of weedy limeys? But, as all the world knows, America did buy the Beatles. After a little huffing and puffing I stopped trying to reason why and determined to catch the wave and land on the U.S. beach as a bright and breezy British Invader. For suddenly everything British was in style.
Here, in my capacity as cultural historian, I should stop the narrative in order to interject a calm telescopic view of this turbulent period.
The British Invaders weren’t acting only for reasons of fun and money but also out of a sincere (and wellresearched) admiration for the musical heritage of the United States, a treasury woefully overlooked by most Americans. Maybe this was because Americans, being a go-ahead people, had (and still have) a healthy obsession for the new and immediate and thus quickly discard the old and out of fashion. Maybe the reason they often can’t recognize the dirty gold on their streets is the same reason that I and many of my British colleagues can’t see why there’s such an enthusiastic Shakespeare industry in the U.S.A. The grass is greener, as the saying goes.
At any rate, historically it’s always been foreigners who have taken America’s musical heritage seriously. In the 1930s and 1940s it was French, Belgian, and British writers who championed jazz. Later the Germans grew academic about ragtime. The Oxford Companion to Popular Music was written by an Englishman, as was the first serious examination of rock ’n’ roll, The Sound of the City , by Charlie Gillett. In 1967 I was the first writer, in the Los Angeles Times , to examine and question the so-called poetry of the new psychedelic rock groups, and there was an angry reaction from the rock industry, which saw the music only in terms of sales figures.
The British Invaders weren’t driven only by fun and money but also by a true (and well-researched) admiration for American music.
The fact is that British musicians have always been in the vanguard as curators of the traditions of ragtime, jazz, and authentic rock ‘n’ roll—from Harry Roy, Ken Colyer, and Chris Barber to the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and my own Bluesville. We studied the shouts, grunts, and blue note crushes as we listened repeatedly to our precious imported American records. We analyzed, we copied, and eventually we created, exporting back to America the vibrant, hurting, ultimately joyful musical culture so neglected in the country of its origin.