His British invasion - and ours

myBI.jpgAmong Boomers, there are basically two kinds of '60s American pop fans: those who were conquered by the British Invasion, and those who weren't. You either tumbled completely for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the other UK bands who quickly followed in their wake, or you didn't. For American musicians, the choice was stark: adapt or die. The East Coast girl groups, pompadoured Italian-American crooners, folk balladeers, and surf and hot rod groups who had been dominating the charts after the initial flush of 1950s rock 'n' roll had been all but swept out to sea by the end of 1964 and were, as Billboard famously put it, "bubbling under."

The great irony, of course, is that most of the Brits initially just covered American artists and repackaged American songs, often with no particular distinction, as they'd been doing since the mid-1950s. British pop entrepreneurs like the flamboyant Larry Parnes had groomed their Elvis wannabes into pretty-boy simulations of Elvis, Carl Perkins, Eddie Cochran, christening the leather-clad working-class lads in their stables with sexually-charged stage names like Vince Eager (Roy Taylor), Marty Wilde (Reg Potterton), and Billy Fury (Ron Wycherly). Even the more successful and talented imitators like Cliff Richard (Harry Webb) and Adam Faith (Terence Nelhams-Wright) made little commercial impact in the US.

Musically, American hegemony at home seemed assured. Culturally and politically, not so much. Folk and protest songs fueled the civil rights and peace movements. The Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, racial tensions, and the 1963 assassinations of political leaders Medgar Evers and President John F. Kennedy, growing instability in Southeast Asia, and the rise of the "Radical Right" in the John Birch Society and the candidacy of Barry Goldwater--all were telling complacent but increasingly freaked-out Americans, as Bob Dylan later summed it up, "something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?"

By early 1964, rattled American teenagers and their anxious parents were desperate for distraction. And on February 9, pop music changed overnight when the Beatles made their major American TV debut on The Ed Sullivan show. Four months later, the Rolling Stones followed suit with their American TV debut on the West Coast on Hollywood Palace, where host Dean Martin quipped, "I've been rolled while I was stoned, myself. I don't know what they're singin' about, but here they are..." as the Stones broke into a manic cover of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away."

"The British are coming!!" trumpeted the teen mags, and soon the pop charts were filled with hits by the Dave Clark Five, Herman's Hermits, the Kinks, the Hollies, Manfred Mann, the Animals, the Zombies, and not long after, the Who, the Yardbirds, and countless others. Most relied at first mainly on covers of American rock 'n' roll, R&B, Motown, and East Coast doo-wop and girl group sounds, but their gritty apprenticeships in working-men's clubs, railway hotels, pubs, and European strip clubs and red-light districts brought a fresh, ferocious, and raw energy to that familiar material. And soon, the songwriting teams of Lennon-McCartney, Jagger-Richards, and musicians like the Kinks' Ray Davies and the Who's Pete Townsend were rewriting the musical playbook with their own original hits.

Most of the groups lacked the staying power of the Beatles, Stones, and the Who, and within a couple of years--Buddy Holly notwithstanding--they did, indeed, fade away, making way for changing musical fashions like Dylan-inspired folk-rock, Stones-inspired garage-rock, the country rock of the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, Summer-of-Love psychedelia, bubble-gum pop for the pre-teen set, jazz-blues fusion like Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears for the aesthetes, hard rock and heavy metal like Steppenwolf and Iron Butterfly for the head-bangers, and rootsy blues-rockers like Canned Heat and Creedence Clearwater Revival. But the river running through it all was American black music on labels like Motown, Stax, and Atlantic Records, with their infinitely talented roster of soul singers, blues shouters, and R&B combos.

myBI-crop.jpgI love it all, but for me, there'll always be an England. So I was particularly delighted when my old Rhino Records boss Harold Bronson recently published "My British Invasion," his personal paean to an era some of us never stopped loving. Bronson's book is part coming-of-age memoir--feel free to skim those bits--part Yank in the UK travelogue (which really resonated with me, since my first UK visit and pop pilgrimage in the mid-'70s followed his by only a couple of years, and hit many of the same places)--and part pop chronicle, spanning the 1964-66 heyday of the first-wave British Invasion bands to the early-'70s glam-rock era of David Bowie, T. Rex, Mott the Hoople, and lesser lights like the Sweet, Mud, and Slade. I particularly liked the section on the crucial role played by the offshore shipboard "pirate" radio stations, who seized the opportunity spawned by British Isles geography and the BBC's ban on playing recorded pop music (only lifted in 1967 with the introduction of BBC Radio One). While that restrictive BBC policy led to many great live-in-studio performances by all the top pop bands of the day, it denied exposure to the thousands of commercial pop recordings that UK fans craved, creating a lucrative market niche for pirates ike Radio Caroline and Radio London.

For neophytes, Bronson's book offers the added bonus of 10 pages of suggested playlists, many of the songs having already appeared in the various superb curated and annotated compilations lovingly produced over the years by Bronson and partner Richard Foos' Rhino Records label.

Bronson here is part rock fan and part rock journalist, a sub-genre with considerably more leeway than traditional journalism, and fewer constraints (putting it charitably) about promotional junkets, swag, and aggressive publicists massaging, generating and even spiking stories. But for all that, Bronson's critical judgment and distance, even from artists he admires, offer an intimate and insightful snapshot capturing a unique moment in American pop that for some us proved, sadly, all too fleeting.

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