- 12 Oct 20
The British Are Coming, The British Are Coming!
Mott The Hoople once memorably sang about ‘The Golden Age Of Rock N’ Roll’, but can the era in question be positively identified? Yes, as far as David Hepworth is concerned at least, a man who I will forever owe a pint for co-creating the (2nd) greatest cultural periodical of all time, The Word. As he did with the equally brilliant A Fabulous Creation - and let’s not forget that he, quite correctly, picked 1971 as an annus mirabilis for music either - Hepworth focuses here on the approximate period from the rise of the Beatles to the widespread adoption of the compact disc, wherein (mostly) English music was sold back to the Americas, a volte-face that seemed as probable as life on Venus before the inexorable rise of The Fab Four.
As the unlikely pop figure of Bismarck pointed out, the fact that America and Britain share a common language is a hugely significant factor in modern history, especially cultural history, although this still wasn’t going to make anyone mistake Cliff Richard for Elvis. The arrival and the sound of American rock n’ roll in the shape of alien figures like Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and even Chubby Checker was seismic. “For generations of English adolescents who had felt the most they could expect from life was a kiss from pursed lips this represented the sudden shock of someone unexpectedly placing a hand on their crotch.”
The abolition of British national service in 1960 made it all possible, leaving spotty Herberts up and down the island with time on their hands and, once The Beatles kicked open the door, the musical traffic moves predominately in the other direction. Hepworth, quite rightly, takes a quasi-nationalistic pride in this. British dominance in sport, industry and other areas of the arts are, at best, imaginary, but music, specifically music under the wide umbrella we call rock n’ roll, is something that they do very well. Think of your ten favourite acts of all time, chances are that at the very least, half of them are British.
As one might expect, and as they deserve, The Beatles do take much of the credit here, be it the novelty of their natural hair or their debut movie, A Hard Day’s Night, selling the notion of prolonging adolescence by being in a band, with would-be apostles like The Byrds going to see the film multiple times and trading up to electric instruments shortly after. It’s not all positive fab press however, as the canny business acumen of Dave Clark is directly contrasted with the often hapless Brian Epstein.
The Stones’ rejection of showbiz mores by, of all things, dressing the same on stage as they did in the street, is as revolutionary as the sound of ‘Satisfaction’, although it’s not a constant torrent of cool Britannia all the way, as the story of Herman’s Hermits illustrates. Figures like Graham Nash, leaving club work with The Hollies behind for the sunshine and pot of California, are seen living the impossibly good life, and there were plenty of young men following behind, with “hope in their heart and a dream in their trousers.”
The bombast of Led Zeppelin was tailor-made for America. When Terry Reid turned down Jimmy Page’s offer, he recommended Robert Plant. “Is he good looking?’ asked Page, with both eyes on the prize. Elton John breaks America in one night at The Troubadour in Los Angeles while The Who have to work their arses off. David Bowie returns from his first trip to America with a suitcase of albums that help him change music, while Rod Stewart ascends to some sun-drenched lad’s nirvana. All well and good, but when we get to the likes of David Coverdale performing on stage with literally a cheque for a million dollars in his pocket, things seem to have changed for the worst.
For every Coverdale there was the less fortunate - but surely more deserving - likes of Slade, T. Rex, and Roxy Music, who couldn’t get arrested, while noise juggernauts like Black Sabbath cleaned up. Subtlety was not in demand for, as Hepworth sees it, “to make it in America, you had to be obvious.” Similarly, the Sex Pistols “smash and grab” taking of Britain was never going to work in The States where bands, like The Who, had to work hard at it to make it. There was a refusal to even play the game and Malcolm McLaren’s insistence on booking them solely in the South on their only American tour seems like intentional suicide at this remove. The Clash, on the other hand, released a valentine to American music in the form of London Calling and made the cover of Rolling Stone.
Hepworth identifies U2 – who qualify for inclusion here thanks to the hoary old notion of the British Isles - as “the real inheritors of the legacy of the British invasion” and points out how they benefitted from sharing a language with America while not being handicapped with Britishness. “They happened to have the nationality that all Americans for some reason believe they have,” Hepworth reasons, ever so slightly down his nose. “This was far better than having the nationality that most Americans like to feel they have outgrown.”
The second, video-led invasion is personified by the short-lived reign of Boy George, whose band Culture Club were the first group since The Beatles to have three US top ten hits from their debut album. The parents gasped, the kids couldn’t get enough, but it didn’t last. The Springsteen of Born In The USA, alongside Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson all helped to turn the tide, coupled with the rise of hip-hop and modern R&B. The notion of the group, as invented by The Beatles, was overtaken by the solo artist, an idea perhaps more suited to American individualism, as Hepworth explains.
You might not always agree with his musical choices and assertions, although any man who insists that The Rolling Stones is the greatest debut album ever will forever have my vote, but Hepworth, as per usual, certainly spins a fascinating and entertaining yarn.