Useful Notes: The British Invasion

This was a moniker applied by the American media to the huge influx of British pop music, notably Rock & Roll, to American consumers in the 1960s. While it's traditionally considered to have started when British bands started headlining concerts in America, starting with The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th, 1964, it actually started the year before. Beatlemania — not just the music, but the entire phenomenon — attracted the attention of news agencies and talk show hosts in November 1963. Capitol Records finally realized then that the Beatles were in fact marketable, marketed the band like crazy, and their first American hit single hit the charts around Christmas 1963.

The key here is this actually was a cycle, as most of these bands were actually influenced by American rock and blues, including some featured in the Jayne Mansfield film The Girl Can't Help It. Many of these bands took it to the next level, and not just the oft-cited Beatles; consider bands who laid the groundwork for hard rock and heavy metal, such as The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, and The Yardbirds. (It may not be a coincidence that the offshore pirate radio boom took place around the same time, giving bands much-needed airplay that The BBC didn't have time for until the launch of Radio 1 in 1967.)

The British didn't invade themselves, of course, and the term British Invasion sounds to British ears like a bad case of We All Live in America. In fact it all begins with an American invasion; not the 1944 invasion of France but the period before that when American GIs were, in the common phrase of the time, "overpaid, overfed, oversexed and over here". They brought with them from an America little touched at home by the war goods that the bombed and beleagured British were learning to do without like chocolate, chewing-gum and novelties like nylon stockings. They also brought a new kind of music with them, and for many this was their first exposure to jive and especially blues. Blues didn't get played on domestic radio but after the war was over enthusiasts could seek it out on the American Forces Network from occupied Germany, and from there began to import recordings and try playing it themselves. American blues artists then began touring and growing a following, but it was in 1958 when Muddy Waters came over, bringing with him the electric blues, that the British Blues movement really took off, led by performers like Alexis Korner.

A second front opened, largely in Liverpool for reasons that are no accident. Liverpool was the biggest transatlantic port and more heavy manufactured goods in those days were heading west than east. Ships arriving in Liverpool carried recordings of Black music, particularly Soul, and also comics, as ballast and these were eagerly seized on by the locals. The locals formed bands to play Soul covers in underground cellar clubs, sometimes creating their own version of Soul inflected with Music Hall and childrens' street songs.

Popular British artists like Cliff Richard were hitherto being billed as homegrown equivalents of American acts; so Cliff was the British Elvis. What was evolving and emerging from the blues clubs in London and the cellars of Liverpool was something new and something that many British people felt was needed; a popular music to call their own. From the perspective of American mainstream radio at the time it had a particular merit; it was a "white" music that was "safe" for mainstream American audiences, and thus America's black music, previously the stuff of Black-oriented radio, could be played back to a mainstream American audience.

The first invasion may have just been in the 1960s, but it turned full circle when American artists took the sound yet further, such as The Jimi Hendrix Experience (even if only the guitarist and second bassist were American) and early heavy metal bands. This lead to the Second British Invasion in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with punk rock, the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (or NWOBHM), and New Wave (not to be confused with the heavy metal). This second wave of British music was brought on, perhaps inadvertently, by MTV. In their early years, MTV was desperate for any music videos they could get their hands on, and it just so happened that most of the music videos of that time were coming out of Britain, thanks to shows like Top of the Pops that helped to popularize the format over there in The '70s. By contrast, most American music videos during the same period were merely videotaped concert performances. MTV threw these British videos on the air, and the bands suddenly saw themselves developing screaming American fanbases virtually overnight. Combine this with the creative slump in American popular music following the anti-disco backlash of the late '70s/early '80s, and British pop and rock took over the American music market.

One odd influence here is that, anytime there is a large influx of artists of any media from "across the pond" (such as Oasis or Radiohead), it is often labeled as a British Invasion by enthusiasts of that particular medium. For instance:

When British Comic Book talents like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison started coming over in 1980s America to make their mark, their tremendous success was likened to being a comic book British Invasion.

On a smaller note you could also annotate the British influence in the American video game scene of the 1980's, with the British made Commodore 64 being a massive success there (even though most of the games were developed by Americans) and the British influence on video games of the 1990's, when Rareware, thanks to the success of games such as Donkey Kong Country and Banjo-Kazooie, became a household name for most video game enthousiasts and would make of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System the best selling video game console during The Fourth Generation Of Console Games.

There was a third British music invasion in the late 90's, after the success of the Spice Girls caused American record execs to snap up any British (or Irish, for that matter) pop artists they could find. Following in the wake of the Spice Girls were 5ive, BB Mak, Samantha Mumba, B*Witched, and S Club 7. However, none of them were able to score multiple top 40 hits.

Finally in about 2005, there was a British television invasion on American shores, thanks to the creation of BBC America as well as the rise of video sharing websites and the revival of British juggernaut Doctor Who. Following in Who's footsteps were both of its spinoffs, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, Being Human, Sherlock, Top Gear, Merlin, and Downton Abbey.

A fourth British invasion started in 2007, when Amy Winehouse's album Back to Black enjoyed huge commercial and critical acclaim, including winning 5 Grammy's in a single night then more than any other British artist had ever won. It also became the highest charting debut album on the Billboard 200 by a British female artist at that point. Back to Black subsequently paved the way for British artists, particularly for female and soul artists to enjoy success on the Billboard charts. Following Back to Black's release, artists like Adele, Duffy, Florence and The Machine, Lily Allen, MIA, Mumford & Sons, Jay Sean and Leona Lewis all enjoyed critical and commercial success stateside to different degrees. Many of these artists including Florence Welch, Ellie Goulding and even Adele herself cited Winehouse's success with paving the way for them. In 2009 Susan Boyle's debut album "I Dreamed a Dream" became the best selling album of the year. In 2011 Adele's album "21" became the best-seller of the year and gave her three number-one hit songs and other artists like, Taio Cruz, Mumford & Sons, Jessie J, Tinie Tempah and The Wanted started having hits crossing over the Atlantic. The invasion continued into 2012, when an onslaught of British artists invaded the American pop charts. The only one of these artists to join Adele and Mumford & Sons in becoming U.S. superstars were One Direction; in fact, those three artists (along with Coldplay, who have been popular long before the start of this invasion), were the only British acts to have topped the Billboard 200 since "21" was first released. Still, The Wanted, Ellie Goulding, Cher Lloyd, Alex Clare, Ed Sheeran, Olly Murs, Emeli Sande, Labrinth, Passenger, Bastille, and John Newman have all scored one top 40 hit each, while Calvin Harris, the other big British breakout, had four top 40 hits (not counting a Rihanna song he was featured on), but all were sung by different people. Artists like Rita Ora, Marina & The Diamonds, Paloma Faith, Emeli Sande, Little Mix, The Saturdays, Conor Maynard, Disclosure, and Naughty Boy are also aiming for American stardom.

A list of bands for the first two invasions can be found at The Other Wiki.

Not to be confused with The American Revolution or the War of 1812, the only occasions of an actual invasion by His Majesty's Armed Forces of the United States.

Notable Bands:

Alternative Title(s):

British Invasion