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Revisit: The British Invasion: How 1960s Beat Groups Conquered America



American popular music experienced a seismic shift in 1964.  That year, British bands launched what became commonly known as an “invasion” of the American pop charts and culture.  Led by The Beatles, other British bands and artists such as the Rolling Stones, Donovan, the Dave Clark Five, the Kinks, the Yardbirds, the Searchers, the Animals and many more completely and dramatically affected the course of rock & roll in America.  At no other time in the 20th century had American popular music been so jolted by foreign sounds and influences.

What many young Americans in 1964 didn’t realize was that these “new” sounds coming from across the Atlantic weren’t new at all.  Many of the British Invasion bands and artists claimed America and its remarkably rich pop music tradition as their primary influence.  What made the re-invention of American music by the British acts so alluring was the fresh and innovative ways they interpreted it and then the manner by which they made it their own.  Coupled with intriguing accents, radically new fashion ideas and hairstyles, and a genuine artistic excellence, the British Invasion ignited a music renaissance in America and permanently and prominently established the U.K. on the rock & roll map.

Blues, Folk, and Skiffle

American blues and folk music were both roots of rock & roll and main inspirations for the British Invasion.  Folk musicians such as Josh White, Woody Guthrie (who wrote the great American folk classic, “This Land Is Your Land”), and Lead Belly helped give rise to a pre-rock & roll sound in the U.K. called skiffle.  In 1956 Lonnie Donegan, a young British musician deeply influenced by Lead Belly, recorded his version of “Rock Island Line,” a popular Lead Belly tune.  The hit song sparked the skiffle craze in the U.K.  In Liverpool a young John Lennon formed a skiffle band called the Quarrymen and recruited guitarists Paul McCartney and George Harrison. The band led to the formation of The Beatles.

Rhythm & Blues, Rock & Roll, and Soul

America’s music landscape in the late 1950s and early 1960s contained numerous music styles, among them rhythm & blues, rock & roll, and soul.  Rhythm & blues, a precursor to rock & roll, came of age right after World War II.  Ray Charles and James Brown were R&B stylists who helped this predominantly African-American sound find its way to white audiences.

Soul music evolved from R&B.  It owned a smoother, more pop-friendly groove than R&B.  The Motown Sound that came from Detroit featured such soul artists as Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, and the Supremes—all regular visitors to the pop charts in the early 1960s and collectively, a main influence on British Invasion groups. Out in California, the Beach Boys created surf music that reflected the sunny sound of Los Angeles.

The Beatles Visit America

The Beatles’ first visit to America lasted only two weeks, but it was enough time to ignite Beatlemania in this country and to usher in new eras in pop culture and pop music.

The Beatles arrived in New York on February 7; fifteen days later, they returned to England.  During their brief stay in the States, The Beatles did dozens of interviews, visited three cities and played three concerts, and appeared three times on The Ed Sullivan Show.  Their single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” was firmly entrenched in the number one slot on the pop charts, and nearly every teen who had seen The Beatles perform on television anxiously awaited their return.

Courtesy of Chuck Gunderson

The British Invasion

Once The Beatles paved the path to America, dozens of British acts followed.  Solo artists, duos, and a slew of bands, some from Liverpool, and others from London, Glasgow, Birmingham and nearly everywhere else in the U.K., flooded the American pop charts with hit songs.

Suddenly America was awash with new sounds and styles from across the Atlantic.  Part of the mania was cultural: American teens fell hard for British accents, hip fashions, and new hairstyles.  But much of it was musical.  Though the early British Invasion sounds clearly had American antecedents, U.K. rock sounds became increasingly original as the invasion wore on.

A Fan’s Bedroom

In the 1960s, many middle-class suburban homes in America featured separate bedrooms for the teens in the family.  Such household space afforded them privacy unavailable to previous generations of young Americans.  Many teens turned their bedrooms into private domains, decorating them with photos and posters of The Beatles and other British Invasion artists.  Phonographs and record collections competed for space with scrapbooks, schoolbooks, diaries, trophies, and stuffed animals. Private telephones were an added luxury.

In the mid-‘60s, at the height of the British Invasion, many teen bedrooms in America celebrated their new love of British pop culture and music.  This example of a teen bedroom from suburban California circa 1965 includes many Beatlemania and British Invasion objects popular at the time.

Bob Bonis Photo Gallery

Bob Bonis was the U.S. tour manager for the Rolling Stones and The Beatles from 1964 to 1966.  A camera buff that often had his Leica M3 around his neck, Bonis took hundreds of photos of the Stones and The Beatles during the three-year period, many of which had never been presented publicly before and are featured in this exhibit.  With unlimited access to both groups backstage as well as on tour and onstage, Bonis has provided history an extraordinary glimpse of the British Invasion of America.

The American Response

The British Invasion unleashed a creative music explosion in America in the mid-‘60s.  Guitar sales soared.  Longer hair for young men became instantly popular.  The British flag became a fashion statement.  A music press was born.  New bands formed all across America.

In Los Angeles, the Byrds based its early sound on The Beatles.  The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson used The Beatles’ albums Rubber Soul and Revolver as inspiration for his masterpiece, Pet Sounds.  The Monkees created their own mania.  In San Francisco, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead had early roots in the British Invasion.

In Boston the Standells reflected the rawness of the Rolling Stones. In New York, Bob Dylan’s transition from folk to rock owed something to The Beatles.  In Detroit, Motown acts were interpreting Beatles songs. Even in Texas, where the Sir Douglas Quintet looked and sounded more British than Texan, the effects of the British Invasion were felt.

The Second Wave

There was no official end date to the British Invasion of America’s pop charts.  However, many music historians point to The Beatles’ final concert in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in August 1966 as the invasion’s most logical conclusion.  After that, The Beatles became a studio-only band and broadened rock’s creative reach with singles such as “Strawberry Fields Forever” and the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  The Beatles also inspired a second British Invasion.

Coming to America in the late 1960s was a legion of new bands, all following in the footsteps of The Beatles.  Packed with new ideas and sounds, Cream, Pink Floyd, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Led Zeppelin, the Small Faces, the Moody Blues, Procol Harum, and others, along with holdovers the Rolling Stones, The Who, and the Kinks, made the second British Invasion as influential, musically exciting, and memorable as the first.

Shown here is a gold Premier drum kit played by The Who’s drummer, Keith Moon. Moon’s celebrated bashing of his drums was only part of his British rock legacy.  In the late ‘60s, Moon catapulted the drummer out of the background and into the spotlight, turning the drums into what had previously been a part of the band’s rhythm section into, at times, a lead instrument.  Other drummers from the period – most notably Cream’s Ginger Baker and Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham – also elevated the importance of the drums in hard rock and heavy metal and matched Moon’s intensity and close-to-the-edge lifestyle.