In February 1964, something happened that would change America forever. And that thing was British.
On the first day of that month, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” became the first Beatles song to top the Billboard Hot 100. It would stay there for a further seven weeks before being replaced at No. 1 by their (reissued) next single, “She Loves You”. Six days later the Fab Four touched down in the U.S. (“We turned left at Greenland,” quipped John Lennon) and on February 9 the nation got its first proper look at the Liverpudlian band, when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan show.
Seventy-three million souls tuned in to see the Beatles that night, around 40 percent of the U.S. population and more people than had watched any show in the history of television. At a stroke, Beatlemania was born – and from the beachhead that John, Paul, George and Ringo established on the continent, a full-scale British invasion soon followed.
It was not only the Beatles. It was not even only music. In the two or three years that followed February ’64, pretty much everything that was cool in America had a British accent.
In the Fab Four’s wake came the Stones, the Kinks, the Animals, the Hollies, the Zombies, Herman’s Hermits, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Dave Clark Five, the Who, the Yardbirds, Dusty Springfield, Tom Jones, Petula Clark, Cilla Black, Marianne Faithfull… and away from the charts, actors Michael Caine, Peter O’Toole, Audrey Hepburn, Julie Andrews and Peter Sellers were Hollywood’s hottest properties. British movies Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady and Lawrence of Arabia cleaned up at the Oscars; British TV shows The Saint, The Prisoner and The Avengers were cult hits; and coast-to-coast, every switched-on young wannabe copied Mary Quant and Terence Conran’s “Swinging London” look, as worn by proto-supermodels Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton and the effortlessly cool Terence Stamp.
It not only proved a shot in the arm for an ailing U.S. music industry, it was a genuine youthquake that would define generations to come – and the artistic catalyst for the reinvigoration of a nation that had been in danger of losing its cultural mojo altogether.
But the irony of the British Invasion is that it was only made possible by Britain’s own infatuation with all-things American.
Sparked by the arrival of tens of thousands of cocksure G.I.s in the run up to D-Day two decades earlier, and then stoked by the first wave of rock ‘n’ rollers 10 years later, for a post-war generation of restless young Brits who had grown up in bombed-out cities, the America they saw at the movies or heard on imported 45s seemed impossibly glamorous. James Dean, Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe; Cadillacs and quiffs and Converse sneakers; Gretsch guitars, Delta bluesmen and rock ‘n’ roll; Buddy Holly and Little Richard and Eddie Cochran and, most of all, above everything and everyone, Elvis Aaron Presley. As John Lennon put it: “Before Elvis there was nothing”.
For kids brought up on austerity and food rationing, stuck in a damp and grey and trauma-ridden north European island, America really did look like the promised land.
In a 2002 article for Vanity Fair, Peter Noone, singer and frontman of Mancunian band Herman’s Hermits (who as part of the Invasion would log 24 consecutive weeks in the Billboard Top 10 in 1965 alone) summed up this “Yankophile” yearning.
“I grew up thinking that all American music was good and all English music was crap,” he said. “I was a Yankophile. You have to imagine that these poor English guys were living in miserable, provincial, rainy, dreary cities, and saw posters with James Dean standing in the boots and the jeans and the T-shirt, with the cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve.”
Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham added: “You sucked up America as energy, to get you out of the cold, gray, drab streets of London.”
Inspired by their stylish cousins across the Atlantic, the first incarnation of homegrown rock ‘n’ rollers, led by Cliff Richard and including Adam Faith and Marty Wilde, made little pretense at any kind of authentic national identity, preferring instead to simply imitate their American heroes. And accordingly, when they tried to crack it Stateside, they found themselves dismissed as little more than poor facsimiles of the real thing… and came home again with their tails between their legs.
But the irony was, even as the British continued to obsess over all things American, back in the U.S.A., the initial burst of ideas and energy that rock ‘n’ roll had seemed to promise the younger generation was beginning to fade… and by 1963, was all-but washed out altogether.
Bill Haley was on the cusp of his forties, Little Richard had found God, and the two most talented songwriters of the era, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, had both died within a year of each other in tragic accidents. Most significantly, Elvis, after being drafted into military service at the height of his powers, had returned from the army, not as the snake-hipped iconoclast who had shook up the world after his own Ed Sullivan debut in 1956, but as the crooner of songs like “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and apparently more intent on a Hollywood career appealing to parents rather than shocking them.
All the danger, all the sex, all the rock ‘n’ roll was gone. (John Lennon, who had once declared “Before Elvis there was nothing”, would later rather cruelly, but in a sense accurately, remark: “Elvis died when he went into the army.”)
Into this cultural void came nothing more thrilling than the tuxedos and smirks of the Rat Pack. Sinatra had apparently seen off the threat of the noisy kids with electric guitars and suggestive stage moves, and returned, along with sidekicks Sammy and Dean, smoother and more self-satisfied than ever.
Was rock ‘n’ roll really dead? Of course not. Without America even noticing, in Liverpool and Manchester, in London and Newcastle, the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne had stopped copying their heroes, and begun to develop their own sound.
In the 10 years since the release of “Rock Around the Clock”, British teenagers had been taking what was best and most exciting about rock ‘n’ roll and instead of sticking to the same old formula, had developed, experimented and evolved it, mixing it with the blues sounds of the Black American underground, or else adding a healthy dose of deadpan British humor to the mix.
And crucially, instead of seeing the phenomenon as a passing teenage fad, they took it seriously. The Beatles were named after a nod to Buddy Holly’s Crickets, and the Rolling Stones were so called in honor of the Muddy Waters song of the same name. Eric Burdon of the Animals even stated: “In one of my first journals, I made an incision into my arm and wrote the word ‘blues’ in blood. It was a crusade.”
Scenes coalesced around these brash young bands, and, as the U.S. remained almost oblivious to the growing movement, broke through into the British mainstream. After building a fanatical following in Liverpool, the Beatles signed to EMI in 1962; debut single “Love Me Do” made the Top 20 in October of that year, debut album Please Please Me topped the charts five months later, and by the end of ’63 the Fab Four were not only the biggest band in the U.K., but had become an entire domestic youth culture phenomenon in their own right. Conquering America was just the next thing.
What nobody could really have predicted was the scale of that assault on the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll. The Beatles’ popularity Stateside would become so huge that it would expand to not only include the U.K.’s biggest artists, but just about any British act with a cheeky smile, a natty suit, and a suitably exotic accent.
Quoted in a 2004 article by Michael E. Ross, rock biographer Charles Cross explained: “It wasn’t just the success of the Beatles, the Kinks and the Who. This beachhead brought two dozen other bands into the United States. They found an audience and a popularity that exceeded their popularity in Europe. America was finally right for multicultural influences.”
Among them was the Dave Clark Five, a North London outfit whose single “Glad All Over” had knocked “I Want to Hold Your Hand” off the U.K. No. 1 spot. They became the second British band to play Ed Sullivan, and would go on to notch up no fewer than 17 U.S. Top 40 hits over the following three years. Less musically sophisticated than the Beatles, their relentlessly upbeat, radio-friendly songs nevertheless proved hugely popular… and they grabbed their opportunity with both hands. In 1964 alone the Dave Clark Five released four LPs in America – all made the Billboard 200 Top 20, with the worst performing peaking at No. 11. As Andrew Loog Oldham drily remarked: “It should be remembered that the Dave Clark Five were the next God for more than a few minutes.”
The walls to the promised land had been breached, and the hordes poured in. Prior to February 1964, only two British songs had ever topped the U.S. singles chart – by mid-April 1965, British acts accounted for nearly one third of all the singles in the Hot 100, and on the May 8, 1965 chart, constituted eight of the Top Ten. Over the course of that same year, 13 of the 26 Billboard Hot 100 chart toppers were British acts, spanning more than six months at No. 1 between them.
And they were not all likely lads with mop-tops and upbeat singalongs. They were not even all lads.
One week after the Beatles entered the U.S. charts for the first time, Dusty Springfield became the second artist of the British Invasion to score a Billboard hit, with “I Only Want to Be With You”, which would eventually peak at No. 12. It was followed by the No. 6 smash “Wishin’ and Hopin’” and in 1966 the song that would become her signature tune, “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”, which made No. 4 in the Hot 100.
Fellow Brit Petula Clark had found fame as a child actress and then critical acclaim across Europe as a singer during the early 60s, and in late 1964 her single “Downtown” was released in the U.S. – where it promptly rocketed up the charts, hitting No. 1 in January 1965, making Clark the first British female artist to have a U.S. No. 1 since wartime sweetheart Vera Lynn. “Downtown” also began an extraordinary run of 15 consecutive Top 40 hits for the singer, as well as two Grammy Awards.
“The first show I did live was The Ed Sullivan Show,” she later told Vanity Fair. “I walked out onstage, my first time in front of an American audience, and before I’d sung a note, they stood up and cheered. It was extraordinary – that was the moment that I realized what this British Invasion really meant. And then I remember waking up in the hotel and hearing ‘Downtown,’ thinking, Am I dreaming this? It was the St. Patrick’s Day Parade going up Fifth Avenue—the marching band was playing it.”
And as well as the poppier acts came other British bands who had been just as influenced by American culture as their contemporaries… but in a different way entirely.
The Animals, formed in the industrial northern city of Newcastle, were a darker, grittier, altogether less wholesome affair than anything the Americans had experienced yet. Playing rough, authentic blues driven by a swirling organ and fronted by the menacing and frequently volatile Eric Burdon, they scored a huge hit in September 1964 with a reworking of “House of the Rising Sun”, a traditional blues number that had previously been recorded by Woody Guthrie in 1941.
In the Animals’ hands, “House of the Rising Sun” took on an electrifying new life, becoming a musical embodiment of the “sin and misery” of the lyrics; the repeated chords, slow-building organ and Burdon’s delivery at once a threat and a promise of decadence and damnation too seductive to resist. They may have worn matching suits when they took their turn on Ed Sullivan in October ’64, but make no mistake: Burdon looked ready and capable of pulling a switchblade at any moment.
“House of the Rising Sun” remained at No. 1 for three weeks and heralded a new dimension to the Invasion – that of blues-obsessed British artists selling Black American culture back to the country who had created, and then marginalized it.
But if the Animals’ dark magnetism felt thrilling and dangerous, the Newcastle band were by no means a one-off… and America hadn’t seen anything yet.
The Rolling Stones had not followed the Beatles, Dusty, the Dave Clark Five and their other contemporaries to U.S. success in that first wave of Invasion acts – even though they had tried. Their first tour of the States, in June 1964, was later described as a “disaster” by Bill Wyman, and included a humiliating TV debut on the variety show The Hollywood Palace, where guest host Dean Martin, apparently blind to the revolution happening around him, mocked: “Their hair is not long – it’s just smaller foreheads and higher eyebrows.”
Andrew Loog Oldham – who had deliberately engineered an “anti-Beatles” look to the band, encouraging them to play up their roles as dangerous delinquents – told Vanity Fair: “I was in a f***in’ panic, man. All of my gifts were of absolutely no use to me. This was a country where you killed your president. I mean, c’mon, we’re turning up only six months after you’d popped Kennedy. That did have an effect on one.”
Undeterred, the Stones returned in October, on the back of the successes of singles “Tell Me” and “It’s All Over Now”, which had both broken into the Top 40, and this time were booked to play Ed Sullivan.
The first wave of Brits had wowed America with their straight suits, cheeky grins and upbeat pop; now the Stones presented a very different image. Where previous acts (the Animals aside) had bounced, they swaggered. Where the others smiled, they glowered. Mick Jagger didn’t even bother with a suit. They were magnetic and dangerous and quite the coolest gang of hoodlums ever featured on primetime television… and the crowd loved it, at times almost drowning out the band with their screams. Once again, a British act had astonished America.
“Ed told us that it was the wildest, most enthusiastic audience he’d seen any artist get in the history of his show,” Jagger later recalled. “We got a message from him a few days later, saying, ‘Received hundreds of letters from parents complaining about you, but thousands from teenagers saying how much they enjoyed your performance.’”
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The televised revolution went beyond mere image. If the first British invaders had brought with them a very Anglicized take on rock ‘n’ roll, the Stones and the Animals were doing something altogether more subversive: effectively exporting the blues back to its birthplace… and so paving the way for a slew of Black American musicians who until then couldn’t have hoped for mainstream success. They gave interviews raving about Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Robert Johnson – and a whole generation of white American kids who had never heard of those figures duly investigated… and had their minds blown.
The most dramatic example of this came courtesy of a young guitar protégé performing under the name Jimmy James that Chas Chandler of the Animals saw performing in a Greenwich Village bar in 1966. So blown away was the Englishman that he convinced the guitarist to accompany him back to Britain, where he found him a place to stay, financed a recording session, introduced him to Eric Clapton and persuaded him to change his name… to Jimi Hendrix.
“Jimi Hendrix’s first record was only available in Britain,” explained Charles Cross, whose book Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix, was published in 2006. “It was almost four months between its release in the U.K. and release in the United States. Hendrix was someone in America who couldn’t get a break doing what he wanted to do in America. Only when he was reflected back to America, only by going to Britain was he able to find a level of success.
“Hendrix was playing some of the same music in [Greenwich] Village early on, with no response. He comes back to America literally a year later, and he’s transformed and becomes, to that point, the single biggest thing in music.”
The infatuation with all things British (even if those things, as it turned out, were actually about as authentically American as it was possible to be) soon spilled out from music to encompass all popular culture.
The James Bond franchise began in 1962 and scored a string of hits between 1964 and 1967, including Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice, and in 1966 Michael Caine’s Alfie brought permissive, promiscuous Swinging London to America in vivid and seductive technicolor.
Even the “uncool” British films were devoured by U.S. audiences. Mary Poppins, released in August ‘64 with Julie Andrews in the lead role and Dick Van Dyke butchering a cockney accent supporting her, became the most Oscar-winning Disney film in the studio’s history. My Fair Lady, starring Brits Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, was released in December of that year and went on to pick up another eight Academy Awards.
Teenage American girls, previously in thrall to curvy movie stars like Marilyn Monroe or luminous beauties like Grace Kelly, were now desperate to copy the winsome, willowy “Chelsea Girl” look that was increasingly filling the newsstands. Writing in New York magazine in 1971, columnist Caroline Seebohm observed:
“It was not until the early sixties that the English girl changed dramatically from the ugly duckling of Europe into the swan, or more precisely, bird, and was subsequently immortalized in the pop culture of that decade. The words ‘King’s Road, Chelsea’ summed up, like Proust’s petite madeleine, an endless frieze of mini-skirted, booted, fair-haired angular angels, each one inviting with her eyes and her smiles the flash-popping tourist to wrest her from her pedestal and trap her for eternity between the sheets… of the photograph album.”
If American teenage girls were mimicking the likes of Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, Marianne Faithful and Julie Christie, then their male counterparts were also adopting new – very British – role models. And most perplexingly to the older generation, these weren’t the clean cut, square-jawed, captain-of-the-football-team young men that had previously been idolized… but skinny, shaggy-haired boys with bad teeth and worse attitudes. Nobody wanted to be wholesome boy-next-door Bobby Vee anymore – they wanted to be sardonic John Lennon, morally-deficient Alfie, downright dissolute Keith Richards.
It is not an exaggeration to claim that this shift from looks to attitude (or musicianship) in defining what made a man sexy can justifiably be said to have paved the way for countless future pin-ups of punk, indie, grunge, goth, emo… or any subsequent cultural movement where movie-star looks come second to unconventional charisma.
By 1967 the British Invasion had permeated just about every level of American society… but of course, it couldn’t last; like all the great cultural shifts, it wasn’t even supposed to. After three ubiquitous years, the success of the Invasion itself meant that the idea of a uniquely “British” pop-cultural identity at all had been diluted.
And besides – America had finally woken up to itself.
Within a year of the Beatles’ 1964 beachhead, the more switched-on young American musicians had taken the lessons learned from the Brits and started to assert their own artistic powers. In 1965 Bob Dylan plugged in (most famously in Manchester, England, of all places), and in Los Angeles and Detroit exciting new sounds were emerging – the Motown label, the Beach Boys, Phil Spector, and the Laurel Canyon scene that included the Byrds and Joni Mitchell would all go on to dominate music for the following decades.
And then, finally, the return of the King. Elvis’s 68 Comeback Special, aired on NBC on December 3, 1968 and the most watched show of the season, not only reminded the world that Elvis could still summon the power and glory of his former days… but that so could America itself.
Eight months later, Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, New York, hosted the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, at which half a million people came together for four days in August 1969 for what still stands as the nation’s supreme expression of its – and perhaps rock music itself’s – musical identity. Among the highlights of the festival was Jimi Hendrix – the American boy who had to go to London to become a star.
Would Hendrix, Motown, Laurel Canyon, the Beach Boys, Electric Dylan, Phil Spector, the 68 Comeback Special or Woodstock have happened without the British Invasion? Maybe. But more likely not.
The years immediately preceding the Beatles’ arrival in America had led the country to question itself like never before. The assassination of President Kennedy, as well as political disasters including 1961’s Bay of Pigs debacle and the escalation of the war in Vietnam, had not only severely weakened the nation’s image on the world stage, but had also critically eroded its self-esteem at home.
Married to these wider crises of confidence, the untimely deaths of James Dean (1955), Buddy Holly (1959), Eddie Cochran (1960) and Marilyn Monroe (1962) – not to mention Little Richard’s vow to give up “secular music” in the late ‘50s and Elvis’s apparent surrender to the establishment in 1960 – had left a generation of teenagers bereft of their most vital and thrilling sources of creative inspiration.
Into this breach came the Fab Four, the Dave Clark Five, Dusty, Petula, the Animals, the Stones and dozens of other young British bands, all bringing with them a tsunami of energy and optimism, art and attitude, noise and creativity… and a thrilling vindication of the power of the music that the U.S. had invented and then seemingly abandoned. How could the kids not go wild for it?
“It sounds absurd to say it now, but a Beatle cut in 1964 was considered shocking,” said Charles Cross. “Every grad student was dressing hipper. Many things in American culture changed: fashion, the style of speech. The British invasion helped launch what happened three or four years later. The Summer of Love, the hippies... Without the British Invasion, that sea change in American culture couldn’t have been possible.”
The British Invasion’s real legacy, ironically, wasn’t the lasting success of those brash young boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne… but that, just by doing what they did, they gave a nation its mojo back… and, to reclaim a tarnished phrase, helped make America great again.