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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
The bolshie attitude of my fellow Invaders was even affecting American performers. When I returned to Hollywood, I was on a television show with a hot new folk-rock group called the Byrds. Now, while everyone else and I were clapping along to the beat, beaming and showing teeth, these Byrds stood like tombstones. They didn’t wear band suits; they wore buckskin with fringes and soiled sweaters and jeans. There was no velour in sight. They halfheartedly lip-synched, and I could have sworn they were having a chat while they were supposed to be singing along to their record. But the main surprise was they didn’t smile .
They performed a version of “We’ll Meet Again” on twelve-string guitars and with a kind of sneer in their voices. I pointed out to them that this song was originally made famous by Vera Lynn, “The Forces’ Sweetheart.” “We think it’s funny, spooky, and very old,” said one of the Byrds, a fellow in Ben Franklin wire glasses. I replied that the song meant an awful lot to those in Britain who had experienced World War H. At last I was given a smile, a bit twisted. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but whatever it was, I didn’t care for it.
In August I went on a disk-plugging trip with George Sherlock, the Tower promotion man. He was in good form because Mick Jagger had immortalized him on the flip side of the Rolling Stones recent hit “Satisfaction” as “The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man.” We were armed with promotional copies of my new single, “N-N-Nervous,” and we had an appointment with a top San Francisco radio program director called “Swinging Swallow.” He was a fat man, sleek and sallow, and he had little time for us. When George finally managed to get “N-N-Nervous” on the audition turntable, all Swinging Swallow did was lie back in his expanding chair, sip a beer, and talk about last night’s base- ball game while he kept picking up the tone arm in order to skip grooves on my new record, the one that my pop-life future depended on. “When you gonna make another record?” he asked. Before I could reply, he said, “I mean a record , something that’ll fly . Have you guys heard this ‘Eve of Destruction’ mother by Barry McGuire? No? Well, it’s gonna be a stone fox smash!” and he busted open another can of beer, soaking my record. “A lot of the lyrics I can’t make out, but what I can is goddamn treason! Can you believe a guy who knocks our draft, our senators, our church—and all on a pop record?”
“So I take it,” said George, with a boogaloo gesture from his hips, “that the disk, Swallow, is negative as far as your big boss playlist is concerned?”
“Not on your Hollywood scalp doily! It may knock the U.S.A., but I don’t knock success. Never knock success, Whitcomb. This ‘Eve of Destruction’ is Dylan made commercial. It’s a new kind of loot music under the title of protest . Remember that! Get me? And get out!” It certainly was the eve of destruction for me. My moment of fame was over. It was time to go. Just before I left for Dublin and my finals, I got a letter from a sort of fan. I have kept it:
Dear Ian Whitcomb,
I have watched you several times now and I want to say that sure you have talent and you’re magnetic, but why, oh, why, do you screw it all up by horsing around, being coy, by camping—as if you’re embarrassed by show business? You could be great if you faced your potential and saw it through but that takes guts. Instead you mince, or treat it all as a big joke. Come on now!
In October I sat for my finals in Modern History and Political Thought. A month later I received this letter from my tutor:
My dear Whitcomb,
You’ll be glad to learn that we’ve awarded you a second class degree. Under the circumstances—I mean your musical career and success in America—we all feel that you performed remarkably well. I speak for all of us on the faculty, including Julian [the college postman], when I say “well done” and “good luck” in your future life, whatever that may be.
While everyone else and I clapped along to the beat, the Byrds stood like tombstones. The main surprise was they didn’t smile .
My future, as it turned out, lay in the past. I left the pop scene to its apocalypse and, in the seventies and eighties, its subsequent coagulation into a monstrous corporate business that had nothing to do with roots music. Indeed the roots—ragtime, blues, jazz, country—had all been pulled up and gobbled and spat out by a long line of rock stars. Especially the British Invaders and, I’m sorry to say, me.
And what happened to the British Invasion? It was absorbed, like the Norman Invasion of 1066. American youth, after the first flush of infatuation, turned around to face their own heritage and started contributing once again to mainstream culture. The already burgeoning folk movement was electrified, leading to the heady (and sometimes even heavy) work of the Byrds, the Doors, and Bob Dylan. All had been galvanized into artistic action by the artless cheeriness of the British Invaders.