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Tuesday, March 08, 2005
Ferry Cross the Mersey
If the Americans, and Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley and even Hank Williams, invented rock 'n' roll as we know it, the British Invasion forever reinvented it. It took rock 'n' roll from its primitive style in which you had an obvious bandleader, and a faceless combo backing him (Elvis and the Jordanaires, for example, or Buddy Holly and the Crickets) to its longest lived style, where the "group" and its interrelationship took precedence (in theory) over the individual members, who shared musical responsibilities. Many (though not all or even most) of these bands wrote their own material; a new development in rock. They'd play a brash, guitar-oriented rock. They'd break into nonsense, the yeah-yeah-yeahs. They had energy, they were exciting, they were unlike anything in America at the time.
In America, the time was ripe for some musical reinvention. Rock 'n' roll had been in the doldrums for over 5 years when the Beatles landed; Elvis had gone into the army and came out neutered, Chuck Berry was railroaded into prison on racially motivated charges, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochrane were dead, Jerry Lee Lewis blackballed, albeit by his own doing. Sanitized teen stars like Ricky Nelson and Bobby Vee were foisted upon the kids of the day, slowly and silently nurturing a need to rebel.
In the wake of the Beatles' arrival in 1964, the American charts were completely overrun by the British, and remained so for two years. With the exceptions of the Beach Boys and Supremes, almost all the major hits of the day came from England. Things began to change in 1966, when the original British Invasion acquired the rep of "teenybopper" music, and heavier American bands like the Byrds began to emerge. The best British Invasion bands evolved and endured; most of the rest faded into history quickly.
In England, the scene that had produced the Beatles had been around for a while. Evolved from skiffle, with elements of blues and r&b added, it took root in Liverpool, Manchester, London, Newcastle, virtually everywhere there was easy access to import 45's from America. Each city produced its own stars, and had its own distinct flavor to its sound.
The Merseybeat scene did produce the Beatles, but most of the other Liverpool bands, which included the Searchers and Gerry and the Pacemakers, were much lighter weight purveyers of tuneful pop; they weren't known for instrumental prowess. The Animals, from the chilly northern coal town of Newcastle, played gritty blues with special attention to 'authenticity'. The Moody Blues, led by Denny Laine, were sentimental popsters from Birmingham, The Rolling Stones, led by Brian Jones, were London blues 'sophisticates'. A subset of the British Invation (by American classification) were the Mods, dapper dandy fashion-plates who specialized in aggresive, punky music. Few of these bands became well-known in America, but the Who and Small Faces were among them.
As such, the legacies of these bands vary. Every home needs a complete collection of Beatles albums. Every rock fan ought to at least have every Rolling Stones album from the late 60's. Ditto, the Who. The Kinks made several indispensible albums and plenty of brilliant but flawed ones, the Animals' hits endure, and they are deserving of deeper exploration. The Yardbirds gave Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page their first big breaks.
Beyond that are some good bands less known in America: The Pretty Things, whose best work ranks up there with the Rolling Stones, Them, which was Van Morrison's launching pad and rocked harder than he ever did alone, the Hollies, who had hits in America through the early 70's.
And a legion of also-rans: The Dave Clark Five, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, Cilla Black, Lulu, Herman's Hermits, Peter and Gordon, Chad and Jeremy, Georgie Fame, Dave Berry, The Nashville Teens, The Walker Brothers (who were, in fact, American), The Swingin' Blue Jeans, the Tremeloes, Freddie and the Dreamers, and too many others to mention.
In that enormous batch, you'll find plenty of recognizable hits, some good (The Nashville Teens), some dorky (Freddie and the Dreamers). You won't find much in the way of good playing on these records; many of the r&b titles they covered are hopelessly unsoulful in their hands. Still, there is an undeniable "fun" factor that these dusty old recordings somehow manage to convey. They speak from a time when rock 'n' roll itself was growing into teendom; while they lack the sophistication of the later heavier bands on both sides of the Atlantic, they compensate with charm and exuberance.
Today's playlist comes from all titles with "British Invasion" tags in my library, limited to 1963-1967 recordings; the genre's peak, plus a year either way. This created a pool of 543 titles, first 10 randomly selected by randomplay are profiled, Jam Tags, 1-5 stars, follow.
1. Them: The Story of Them ****
Slow, traditional sounding blues with excellent playing from the band. The autobiographical lyrics tell a pretty good shaggy dog story here (the song clocks in at 7:21). Young Van Morrison is in fine form, sounding somewhere between Eric Burden and Mick Jagger, but with his own distinct timbre. This track was unreleased in the band's era, and turned up on this excellent collection from the vaults. Them are best known in America for "Baby Please Don't Go" and "Here Comes The Night". If you liked those, there's plenty more grit for you on any of Them's albums.
2. The Troggs: I Can't Control Myself ***
One of the great things about rock 'n' roll is that even morons can produce moments of genius. The Ramones are the standard bearers of this thesis, but the Troggs occupied that slot for over a decade. Their moments of idiot-genius included "Wild Thing" and "With a Girl Like You". This single, from their first LP is more in a similar vein, with primitive chord structure, pounding drum, sloppy, loud guitars, simpleton lyrics. File it under garage band or bubblegum, but it's somewhere in-between. Not as memorable as their hits, but fans won't be disappointed.
3. Manfred Mann: Quinn the Eskimo *****
Their other hit was the equally poppy "Doo Wah Diddy Diddy". Both are a ruse; Manfred Mann (named after their keyboardist) actually specialized in a jazzy-r&b hybrid, and recorded the pop hits to get on the charts. "Quinn the Eskimo", recorded in 1967, gained added chart appeal at the time due to its being a Bob Dylan tune that Dylan himself hadn't yet released. There's no denying it's a classic; its given attractive harmonies and hooks, and the Dylan lyrics are vaguely psychedelic. Manfred Mann eventually evolved into Manfred Mann's Earth Band, which scored a 1976 hit with Bruce Springsteen's "Blinded by the Light"
4. Peter and Gordon: Woman ***
These guys benefited from Paul McCartney dating Peter Asher's sister for a few years, McCartney writing them their first hit, "A World Without Love". Left to their own devices, these guys were pretty minor. "Woman", from 1966, is a catchy, vaguely Beatley tune with busy strings reminiscent of "Eleanor Rigby" and a very intrusive horn section. Pleasant enough, but hardly important, and not really all that good, either. McCartney didn't write this one. Asher later worked as a successful producer for Warner Brothers; Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor were among the artists he worked with.
5. The Beatles: Hippy Hippy Shake (live at the BBC) ***
Collectors and fans desperate for new Beatles product were finally rewarded in the 1990's with the Anthology and Beatles at the Beeb releases. Bootlegs of this material have circulated almost as long as the Beatles have, but it had never appeared with such fidelity before. "Hippy Hippy Shake" which was a hit for the Swingin' Blue Jeans a year later, is given a good Little Richard-esque vocal by McCartney here. On the minus side, it's a ridiculously out-of-date song, and there's no way you can just play it with a straight face. It's also not a prime example of the Beatles; it was left off their albums for a reason.
6. Freddy & The Dreamers: I'm Telling You Now **
The British Invasion at its geekiest. True, this is much better than their ill-conceived attempt at starting a dance craze, "Do the Freddy" But this is as lightweight as you can get; and the band's twerpy image doesn't help. Freddie and the Dreamers weren't even in league with third stringers Dave Clark Five and Gerry and the Pacemakers. For British Invasion diehards only.
7. The Kinks: Waterloo Sunset *****
Considered by many people of taste to be possibly Ray Davies' most beautiful song, it is indeed quite lovely. At this juncture in time, the Kinks had matured from power riffing rockers to a more delicate mix of melody and lyricism. Their peak in this vein was approximately three years, from 1966-1968. Eventully Davies' conceits would get the better of him. But this is the sound of a band reaching a new plateau. The ragged instrumentation and homely vocals are part of its charm.
8. The Animals: Outcast ****
Animalisms, the album from which this was taken, was a transitional one; keyboardist Alan Price had left the band, and Eric Burdon was moving away from the heavier blues influences of his earlier music. This, in fact, is a pretty good Motown rip-off, made more palatable by a dynamic garage-band fuzz guitar. Animalisms displayed considerable growths in the band's abilities; unfortunately, lineup changes and erratic work from Burdon would retard their development.
9. Gerry and the Pacemakers: How Do You Do It? **
The famous story is that after the Beatles had recorded "Love Me Do" and had some minor success with it, producer George Martin brought them this professionally written tune to record. The band, particularly Lennon, was displeased with this idea; they had already worked out their own "Please Please Me" as their second single. Martin insisted they record it though, and the band purposely sabotaged their own performance. Left with little choice, Martin gave the song to another Liverpool band he was producing, Gerry and the Pacemakers. They give it suitably cheerful, chirpy treatment. "Please Please Me" remains a classic to this day.
10. The Small Faces: Sha-La-La-La-Lee ****
Poppy harmonies on top of very ragged and raw guitar, with a good organ section on the bridge and some brief stinging lead guitar licks towards the end. The Small Faces were masters of concise, 3 minute stompers in a manner very similar to fellow Mods, The Who. This is typical of their very early style, they'd get a little heavier and more progressive with each release.
Sometimes I wish I had the time to profile 25 tunes at a time or 100, because this barely even makes a dent in the subject. Still, as an overview, this playlist does give an accurate representation of prevailing styles and quality. We'll re-visit the important bands again, many times.
On a sidenote: The U.K. and Canada have been running neck and neck for second place behind America for origin of visitors to this blog. So stay tuned, Canada, you'll have your day too.
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