The beginning of 1964 was gloomy. America was still in shock and grieving for President Kennedy following his November 1963 assassination. The nation needed a major injection of fresh energy and optimism. The scene was set for the British Invasion.
On February 7, 1964, Liverpool’s Beatles first set foot in New York and charmed America at their first press conference, but the British Invasion officially began when the Fab Four sang four of their original songs (“All My Loving, “She Loves You,” I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand) on the February 9th airing of The Ed Sullivan Show. This performance alone captivated 60 percent of the American viewing audience. That hour revolutionized American popular music, and it would be impossible to imagine a pop or rock group that has not been influenced in some way by its aftermath.
Singer/songwriter/musician and producer Mark Hudson told us, “They truly reshaped rock ‘n’ roll, and it’s never changed since. By the time they got to Revolver and Rubber Soul, we started stealing song changes from them. Their music made us become more melodic. If you break the music down – everybody from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones to Gerry and the Pacemakers to the Kinks – you go, ‘What an Impact!’ I think the British Invasion was great songwriting. It kept elevating rock ‘n’ roll to a musical level not seen before.”
The Beatles’ initial songwriters, John Lennon and Sir Paul McCartney, were prompted to begin writing by their great enthusiasm for the self-penned music of America’s Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins and Buddy Holly, whom they always considered heroes. Because their native Liverpool was a port city, they were able to obtain American rock ‘n’ roll records easier than those in many other areas, and they took full advantage, which allowed additional influence by the music of the Everly Brothers, Elvis, Arthur Alexander and Little Richard.
In turn, the Beatles; compositions so grabbed the imagination of potential young musicians that many became songwriters themselves. They made it look so easy and joyful, and their initial songs were easy to learn. Mark Hudson and Keith Stegall, producer of Alan Jackson and a fine songwriter himself, are among the countless writers who freely credit the Beatles for giving them the initial idea to write. Garage bands with musicians imitating the British sound but, more importantly, also writing their own songs, grew like mushrooms all over America.
“The British invasion encouraged individual artists to write their own songs,” says Joey Molland of Badfinger (“No Matter What,” “Come and Get It”), the most popular band on Apple Records next to the Beatles. “All of a sudden, young musicians were writing their own music. That was unheard of except for someone like Carl Perkins. Then Lennon and those guys took it to a different level, becoming more impressionistic and surreal. It gave it more dimension and political content juxtaposed with their music ideas as composers. I think that was critical in the development of Western music. Once young people got turned on to writing, it became wide open, with melodic lines veering away from the traditional in terms of pop music.”
Lennon-McCartney were named “Outstanding Composers of 1963” by the music critics at the London Times. Before long, the group’s George Harrison and, Later, Ringo Starr, began writing songs themselves. Among the four, the Beatles wrote 205 songs released on Capitol, Apple, or on the The Beatles Anthology or Live at the BBC albums, according to Stephen J. Spignesi’s The Beatles Book of Lists.
Their music changed rapidly from the suimpler lyrics and melodies of early ’64 to the more complex, innovative and thoughtful music that has influenced generations of writers. Their “I Feel Fine” was the first song to use feedback, inspiring later artists like Jimi Hendrix. They were among the first to incorporate diminished chords as a standard in their music. Inspired themselves by Bob Dylan, they began writing deeper lyrics. The Beatles wove stories that remained in the listeners’ memories. It’s just impossible to imagine anyone but Lennon-McCartney writing “Eleanor Rigby,” “She’s Leaving home,” “Penny Lane,” “A Day in the Life,” “We Can Work It Out,” “Help,” “Strawberry Fields Forever” and my personal favorite, “In My Life.” No Beatles song sounded alike and, amazingly, you usually knew which song it was from the opening chord, with “A hard Day’s Night” a prime example.
Emmy award-winning composer Earl Rose says, “To my mind, as a composer/arranger, a major musical event that arrived with the Beatles was how, on many of their recordings, classical music elements were incorporated both in the structures of songs as well as in the arrangements and orchestrations. ‘Yesterday,’ ‘Michelle’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ are a few examples. This opened up the ears of many fans who had never been exposed to classical music. The success of this approach also made it easier for other writers and artists up to the present time to draw influences from different musical styles, time periods, and countries into their own songs.”
On February 15, 1964, the Beatles were the first group to have five singles and three albums on the Billboard charts at the same time. Until then, no other British band had been successful in America. This encouraged other British groups and singers to cross the Atlantic and join the invasion. Suddenly it seemed the airwaves were full of mostly British music.
A group which gained popularity a little more slowly, but which has lasted over the ensuing years, is the Rolling Stones. Though the press insinuated the two groups were rivals, one of the first hits by the Stones was the Lennon-McCartmey tune “I Wanna Be Your Man.” The Stones were strongly influenced by American R&B, and the songs group members wrote often were reflective of that. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Ruby Tuesday” and “19th Nervous Breakdown” were among the early self-written (by Sir Mick Jagger and Keith Richards) hits of the stones.
Though the lineup of the Stones changed over the years – with the departures of Brian Jones (who drowned in 1969), Bill Wyman, Ian Stewart (who died in 1985) and Mick Taylor – the music of current members Jagger, Richards, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood still rocks. Their music had a harder, more insistent beat than that of most other British groups of the time, and the lyrics usually were more earthy than they were poetic.
The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, brought not just the Beatles but other popular British acts – including Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas and Cilla Black – to America. Others quickly followed: Herman’s Hermits, Dave Clark Five, Chad and Jeremy, Peter and Gordon, the Searchers, Eric Burden and the Animals, Dusty Springfield, Freddie and the Dreamers, Marianne Faithfull, Manfred Mann and the Kinks among them.
Though many of these groups or individuals recorded songs written by more established writers from America, several, including, most prominently, the Dave Clark Five, the Kinks and Gerry and the Pacemakers, wrote their own music. The Mersey Sound (by the groups from the Liverpool area) was best represented by the Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers, while its difference from the London Sound perhaps is best typified by the music of the Rolling Stones.
Other waves of the many British musicians who captured American attention during the next decade included Badfinger, Cream, the Hollies, the Who, the Yardbirds, David Bowie, the Spencer Davis Group, Lulu, Donovan, Mary Hopkin and Rod Stewart & the Small Faces. Every one of these was strongly impacted by the music of the initial British Invasion.
A PBS special, The Sixties Pop Rock Reunion, will air in March, and two of the acts featured will be Herman’s Hermits and Chad and Jeremy. This is just one sign of the continuing fascination with the British Invasion.
Another is the fact that The Beatles 1 album (featuring their number one hits) and their newly-released Let It Be – Naked album have topped the charts four decades after the group hit America’s shores (and over 30 years after their official breakup. As Hudson says, “The Beatles 1 album knocked the Backstreet Boys, who were so hot then, off number one on the charts. Who else do you know but the Beatles who could have that happen 40 years later? So now a whole new audience is digging on this music!”
Barry Tashian, who toured with the Beatles in the group The Remains and who is author of Ticket to Ride: The Extraordinary Diary of the Beatles Last Tour, perhaps encapsulated it best when he told us: “As a result of the Sixties British Invasion, pop music was reborn in America. We Yankees said, ‘Well, if they can do it, we sure as hell can too!’ Songwriting really changed and creative new styles appeared. A breath of energy and life flowed into our songs. The walls came tumbling down. Song-form assumed a million new faces. I’m very grateful for the British Invasion. Even though the British bands and writers stole the show for a time, in the long run we’ve all been enriched by their influence.