The world of popular music before the British Invasion had become a predictable media tool, astounding in its blandness and homogeneity. Rock, the wild and raucous interracial love child of the dirtiest blues and the coarsest form of country music, had exploded full born in the mid-fifties. It since had tried to split away from adult America and almost made it.
Alan Freed was hounded out of the business on the same trumped up payola charges that Dick Clark slid past not because he got payed to play music on the radio, but because he dared expose his white audience to black musicians. Elvis lost his hair and his sideburns to the Army and came back as tame as a Blue Hawaiian breeze. Jerry Lee Lewis married his cousin, and Chuck Berry went to jail. The raunchier and wilder the sound, the more it was hushed as some great error of culture. As records got banned, the whole sordid mess of out of hand rock 'n roll got wrapped up as so much cultural garbage.
By the early 60s the lockdown on youth was in full swing. The pop stars were fully vetted by the Sinatra set, punched out of Play Doh molds in terms of who might guest star on the Donna Reed Show. Frankie Avalon, Paul Anka, Fabian, even Steve Lawrence, all logged major Top 40 hits. The last pre-Beatles number one came from Bobby Vinton, his third in 18 months, called "There I've Said It Again."
The only problem was leakage. Over in England, in a world with no internet, John Lennon and Paul McCartney had been listening to the Miracles, The Marvelettes, Raw Elvis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry. Over and over. George Harrison changed his name to Carl for a while to emulate his guitar hero, Carl Perkins. Keith Richards and Mick Jagger sent away to Chicago for the whiskey soaked blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.
Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran had been amazed at the following they had in England in 1960. Roy Orbison felt rejuvenated. Here was a land where youth had taken charge of what they would be listening to, and they'd gravitated toward the best America had ever offered. When they were old enough they bought guitars, drum sets, amplifiers, and recreated the underbelly of rock that had been created stateside. From there came their own songs, their own sounds, their own styles.
And to American ears, it sounded beautiful.
The British Invasion, begotten so brilliantly by the Beatles 50 years ago this weekend, is what we celebrate this weekend on OpenAir. Guided by the brain trusts of Brian Epstein and George Martin, these bands knew exactly how to create and package rock music in a way that conformed and rebelled at the same time.
In 1963, John, George, Paul, and Ringo sold seven million singles, EPs, and LPs in the United Kingdom, yet remained virtual unknowns in the U.S., where their subsidiary, Capitol Records, had stayed stoically clueless. Ed Sullivan went to his grave thinking he had gotten the best of Epstein, booking the hottest act on the planet for $40,0000 less than what he'd paid Elvis in 1956. Brian took the $10,000 as pen money.
The payoff was three consecutive American television audiences that began the night of February 9, 1964, when 73 million viewers translated into a 45.3 rating translating into 23,240,000 Leave It To Beaver homes and an astonishing 60 share. (Just to measure by modern standards, last week's Super Bowl, the highest viewed television in history, had an overnight rating of 47.6 with a 70 share.)
The British Invasion had legs because of what followed. Those who gravitated toward pop imitations included the Dave Clark Five, Herman's Hermits, Freddie and the Dreamers, Gerry and the Pacemakers. But soon the grittier acts sealed the deal, led by the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Kinks, the Who, and the Yardbirds. Then there was a band that called themselves The Zombies of all things.
Things changed overnight. We showed up at school with our Vitalis hair all dry and combed over our eyes. We couldn't listen to anything that had been a favorite two months before. Even Bob Dylan plugged in his guitar. That's how big the British Invasion was, as albums like "December's Children" from the Stones and "Having a Rave Up" from the Yardbirds put the chart squeeze on "The Sound of Music" and "Sinatra: A Man and His Music."
The Beatles reigned throughout, reinventing and staying ahead of the pack, and ultimately recreating rock itself just when Beatlemania seemed to falter. Two years after the moptops played Sullivan, they were in the studio with "Rubber Soul" (which drove Brian Wilson crazy and so recharged the USA from California).
Then came "Revolver" and "Sgt. Pepper" and then five decades of a sustained musical earthquake that bounces from the Doors to Buffalo Springfield to Jimi Hendrix to Led Zeppelin to the Clash to Joy Division to Patti Smith and the Ramones to the Talking Heads to Prince to Wilco to Pixies to Radiohead to My Morning Jacket to the White Stripes to Animal Collective to Arcade Fire to Sleigh Bells to White Denim and Palma Violets and beyond--every one else that collectively makes up the worldwide wonder that is modern music. (I know I missed somebody's favorite band, this paragraph could have been 10,000 words).
A world where even the smallest voices can be heard. Plug in the amp. Plug in the computer.
The foundation was laid 50 years ago, and this weekend we pay homage. Every hour starting at 4 p.m. Friday starts off with another nugget on a British Invasion Weekend as we honor the half century mark of a time when youth finally gained control of Their Music and never looked back.
And, check out our Spotify playlist of some of the most memorable British Invasion tracks below!