The best of British popular music
As all things London reign supreme this summer with the Jubilee celebrations and the upcoming Olympic Games, we thought it’d be fun to take a look back at the big cultural export the Brits are celebrated for all over the world – their music.
When the British Invasion hit in the 1960s the musical landscape was forever changed. And over the past five decades, England has continued to produce many of the most popular and respected musicians of our time.
60’s British Invasion
As the 1960s began, the music climate was still reeling off 1950s American rock and roll and blues music. Feeding off these influences, a spark ignited in the British music scene, and The Beatles ushered in what quickly became known as the British Invasion.
With Dusty Springfield working her way into America’s top 20 songs in 1962, the stage was set for a new breed of musical influencers from across the pond.
In 1963 Walter Cronkite ran a story on CBS News about the Beatlemania phenomonon happening in the UK, and North America suddenly took great interest in the fab four.
After hearing “She Loves You” on Cronkite’s report, a 15-year-old girl wrote her local radio station DJ Caroll James asking “Why can’t we have music like that here in America?” On December 17th James brought the girl in to introduce “I Want To Hold Your Hand” for its American premiere, and the local record stores were flooded with requests for an album they did not carry. Because of the demand, Capitol Records ended up releasing the album three weeks early during the Christmas break.
By April 4th, the Beatles had the top 5 spots on the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts all to themselves – a feat only they have ever accomplished.
In the following two years, the wave of successful British acts continued to grow, with The Rolling Stones, The Animals, Manfred Mann, The Kinks, Petula Clark and Donovan all reaching number one on the charts.
As the 60’s came to an end, even more British bands came out of the shadows to achieve great success, including The Who, Led Zeppelin and The Zombies.
70’s Rock Subgenres
Still reeling off the success of the Invasion bands, new genres of rock music began to emerge and take hold of pop culture.
Prog rock blended the popular 60’s blues and psychedelic sound into something entirely new. With a goal of elevating rock music to new levels of artistic credibility, progressive bands aimed to push traditional rock music boundaries by stepping outside the standard song structures.
Bands like Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Yes, Genesis and Jethro Tull used elements of classical, jazz and world music to create complex instrumentals, while their lyrics based songs featured abstract and fantasy based concepts.
The backlash against prog rock came in the form of punk rock with bands like The Sex Pistols, The Ramones and The Clash embracing simplicity and short anti-establishment songs to counteract the pompousness they perceived from these earlier bands.
Soft rock was also a huge part of this decade, with bands like Fleetwood Mac dominating the charts with their 1977 monster hit Rumours. Cat Stevens, Rod Stewart, 10cc, Elton John and Steve Winwood saw great success during these years.
You can’t talk about British music in the 1970s without mentioning glam rock which saw musicians like David Bowie, Queen, Roxy Music, Mott the Hoople and Marc Bolan of T.Rex blurring the boundaries of what was acceptable in rock music. Men wearing make up, outrageous outfits and crazy hairstyles were in contrast to the more traditional ideas rock music typically embraced, and complimented their campy, theatrical personas.
80’s Second British Invasion
Due mostly to the new music television channel MTV that began in the 1980s, this decade ushered in what would become the second British Invasion.
Predominantly springing from an anti-disco backlash, post-punk and new wave bands like Culture Club, Duran Duran, Adam and the Ants, Pet Shop Boys, Bananarama, The Smiths, New Order and The Cure came to fame as video stars. It started with the success of The Police’s 1979 single “Roxanne” which made it into the American top 40 at the same time that The Pretenders, Gary Numan and Elvis Costello reached success.
By the end of the decade, the independent rock scene emerged as artists began to avoid major record labels in order to keep control over their music. The term shoegaze became popular with bands that were known for staring at their shoes while onstage — including The Jesus and Mary Chain, Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive. These bands created a wall of sound through obscured vocals, feedback, distortion and continuous riffs.
The success of shoegaze bands in the late 80s gave way to a thriving Manchester music scene in the 90s referred to as Madchester. Bands like The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and Inspiral Carpets brought media attention to the British independant rock scene.
Meanwhile, Britpop was just getting started with bands like Blur, Suede, Oasis, Pulp and Supergrass reacting against the tidal-wave that was the 90s grunge scene in America by writing guitar pop songs heavily influenced by British music of the 60s and 70s. These bands brought British indie rock to the mainstream and helped to usher in a cultural movement called Cool Britannia, which largely fell apart by the late 90s.
As people grew tired of the Cool Britannia concept, bands began avoiding the Britpop label while still making music that was heavily influenced by the British Invasion, but this time incorporating some American influences, particularly from the post-grunge scene. Bands like Radiohead, The Verve, Stereophonics, and Travis were much more widely embraced than the Britpop groups before them because of this.
Of course, this decade also gave birth to ‘twee pop’ bands like Belle and Sebastian, known for their innocent pop melodies and sweet lyrics, as well as the overwhelming success of the all girl pop group the Spice Girls.
2000’s Indie Rock & Female Musicians
As the post Britpop tradition continued into the new millennium, bands like Keane, Elbow and Doves came to success, but none received the level of commercial success that Coldplay reached, and continues to see to this day.
Indie rock quickly took center stage in the aughts, with bands like Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys and The Libertines drawing from new wave and post punk bands like Joy Division, Gang of Four and Wire to establish a post punk revival movement.
This decade also finally brought notable success to female British musicians, with a new breed of soul singers taking center stage. Artists like Natasha Bedingfield, Joss Stone, Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse, Duffy, M.I.A and most recently Adele, came to achieve international success for their music.
Two years into a new decade, folky indie pop bands like Mumford and Sons are ruling the British airwaves, but who knows what will be next? One thing we can be sure of – if history proves anything, we have a lot to look forward to.