The British Invasion: From the Beatles to the Stones, The Sixties Belonged to Britain

When the Beatles came to America in 1964, the nation was gripped by a phenomenon unseen before

Bill Wyman Brian Jones Keith Richards Mick Jagger Charlie Watts Rolling Stones
Fiona Adams/Redferns
The Rolling Stones in Marble Arch Car Park circa 1963.
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Early in 1964, Life magazine put it like this: "In [1776] England lost her American colonies. Last week the Beatles took them back."

It was a sweet surrender, as millions of kids (and not a few adults) succumbed to the sound of guitar-wielding, mop-topped redcoats playing rock & roll that was fresh, exotically foreign and full of the vitality of a new age in the making.

This was the British Invasion, and the Beatles were its undisputed leaders. In 1963, the Fab Four released their first U.S. single, "Please Please Me." That same year, the term Beatlemania was coined to describe the phenomenal outburst of enthusiasm in England. But 1964 was the year of the Beatles' American conquest, and it began with the January 25th appearance of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" on Billboard's Top Forty chart and the February 7th arrival of the band in the States for a two-week promotional blitz.

Overnight, Beatlemania swept the nation. Before you could say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah!" we had a new game, and part of the fun was that there were no discernible rules. Reporters found themselves trading quips with the surprisingly quick-witted Liverpudlians. Young girls abandoned themselves to hysteria. And schoolboys started dreaming of long hair and electric guitars.

Britannia Ruled the airwaves in 1964. In the front ranks, marching in formation behind the Beatles, were the Dave Clark Five, the Rolling Stones, Herman's Hermits, the Searchers, the Hollies, the Animals, the Kinks, the Yardbirds, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Freddie and the Dreamers, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield, Peter and Gordon and Chad and Jeremy. Then there were the one-hit wonders — and what hits! "Have I the Right?" by the Honeycombs, "Hippy Hippy Shake," by the Swinging Blue Jeans, and "Concrete and Clay," by Unit 4 + 2, all made the charts during the rave years.

Rock & roll, seemingly so moribund at the start of the decade, set off a fever that defied all attempts to contain it or rationalize it as a fad. And Beatlemania precipitated a strange collision of generational currents. At the time, there was no youth-oriented alternative press to report on and interpret the British Invasion, so the job fell to the establishment media. Opinions ranged from effete condescension to a bemused thumbs up from more enlightened commentators. Many guardians of young morals saw the Beatles not as lovable mop tops but as the (Fab) Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The first question posed to Harvard sociologist David Riesman in a U.S. News and World Report interview was "Is the furor over the singers who call themselves the Beatles a sign that American youngsters are going crazy?" Riesman answered, "No crazier than hitherto."

In other words, the generation gap opened in 1964 with a crack that was more like a friendly grin than a roar of disapproval. American youngsters hadn't gone crazy. They just woke up, looked around and decided they all felt the same way about something that was important to them — and this newfound solidarity was an exciting thing.

There is no lack of theories as to why the States embraced the Beatles with such zeal. A popular one holds that the country, in the aftershock of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, transferred to the Beatles all the youthful idealism that had begun cresting under JFK. It's also plausible that the Beatles stood so far above the musical status quo of the early Sixties that they gave kids the first credible excuse for mania since Presley. Finally, of course, the Beatles' campaign was a shrewdly plotted one, involving considerable promotional money and a lot of advance work by managers, press agents and their record company.

This accounts for the band's fanatical reception in the States but doesn't explain how Great Britain, not previously known as a hotbed of rock & roll, produced the Beatles and their colleagues in the first place. In the Fifties the U.K. had little more to offer than pallid imitations of American rock & roll singers. British pop was "pure farce," according to writer Nik Cohn. "Nobody could sing and nobody could write," he said, "and in any case, nobody gave a damn."

The British music industry was rigidly controlled by the BBC and London's Denmark Street music publishers. A handful of powerful managers groomed a stable of homegrown singers in the mold of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. This clean-cut, nonthreatening lot included Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard, Adam Faith and Billy Fury — hardly household names stateside. On another front, however, a movement of musical purists, enamored of black American music, began replicating New Orleans-style jazz (a.k.a. "trad jazz") and acoustic folk blues. This route would indirectly lead to the Beatles and an indigenous British rock & roll sound.

One of the more promising offshoots of the trad-jazz movement was a simplified jug-band style of music known as skiffle. Britain's premier skiffler was Lonnie Donegan. Singing in a nasal American twang, he enjoyed a run of hits in the late Fifties; he mostly covered songs by Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. In fact, Donegan charted sizable hits over here in 1956 and 1961 with "Rock Island Line" and "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (on the Bedpost Over Night)" — an early warning sign that England could successfully sell America reconstituted versions of its own music. Young Britons — like John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Richard Starkey, the future lineup of the Beatles — took note of this. Prior to skiffle, the only significant blip on the British pop-culture time line had been a brief flurry of juvenile delinquency occasioned by the arrival of Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" (the record and the film) in the U.K. in 1955.

In the seaport town of Liverpool, Lennon, Harrison and McCartney first teamed up to form the Quarrymen. A few name changes later, following stints as the Moondogs and the Silver Beatles, they crossed the threshold into the Sixties as simply the Beatles. It is a measure of the talent found by the Mersey that the Beatles did not immediately become kingpins on the Liverpool scene. Until they cemented their reputation with a stint at a club called the Cavern, they stood in the shadow of such home-town favorites as the Big Three and Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, whose drummer was none other than Richard Starkey, a.k.a. Ringo Starr. These Mersey bands played a souped-up form of beat music — essentially amplified skiffle with a heavy R&B influence, a style inspired by the records imported from the States by Liverpool's merchant seamen.

Beginning in 1961, the Beatles commuted between Liverpool and Hamburg, Germany, where, dressed in black leather, they played dives like the Kaiserkeller and the Star Club. By 1963, they had an act, an image, a repertoire, a following and a manager — Brian Epstein, a local record-store manager. They also lost a bass player (Stuart Sutcliffe), fired a drummer (Pete Best), jelled as a quartet with the addition of Ringo and spruced themselves up, ditching the black leather and the bad-boy antics. The Beatles performed their 282nd and final show at the Cavern on August 3rd, 1963. They'd already scored two Number One hits in Britain with "Please Please Me" and "From Me to You." Only one month after their Cavern farewell, they saw their fourth single, "She Loves You," turn gold on its way to becoming the biggest-selling single ever issued in Britain. An October 13th television performance, on Sunday Night at the London Palladium, was viewed by some 15 million of their countrymen. Mob scenes followed them wherever they played.

"This is Beatlemania," the Daily Mail reported. "Where will it all lead?" To the lost colonies, of course — and the world's biggest market for rock & roll.

Nineteen sixty-four belonged to the Beatles. From the moment "I want to Hold Your Hand" was first played on an American radio station — WWDC, in Washington, D.C., in December of 1963 — the country fell under their spell. Preceded by a promotional campaign that included bumper stickers (The Beatles Are Coming! and Ringo For President), buttons (Be A Beatle Booster) and Beatle wigs — as well as tantalizing glimpses of their performances on Walter Cronkite's newscast and The Jack Parr Show — the Beatles' February 7th landing at New York's Kennedy Airport generated an unprecedented fanfare. Sounding what would become a recurrent theme, one of the first questions shouted at the Beatles' airport press conference was "Are you in favor of lunacy?" Paul McCartney, not missing a beat, replied, "Yes, it's healthy."

The group's February 9th appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show drew a TV audience estimated at 70 million, the largest in the history of the medium. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" topped the singles charts for seven consecutive weeks, and by March, Meet the Beatles — their first album for Capitol Records — had shipped 3.6 million copies, making it the largest-selling LP in history. Several record companies owned the rights to early Beatles tracks, and these also began turning up in the Top Forty. When the group issued "Can't Buy Me Love" in mid-March, it caused a veritable Beatles logjam on the pop charts. As records were sold, records were broken. Rising to Number One in its second week, "Can't Buy Me Love" was the third consecutive Beatles single to top the charts, breaking Elvis Presley's previous record. During the first week of April the Beatles occupied twelve positions on the Top 100 — and every position in the Top Five. The hits in this quintuple hegemony were, in order, "Can't Buy Me Love," "Twist and Shout," "She Loves You," "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "Please Please Me."

The Beatles' dominion was carried to new heights by the July release of their first movie, A Hard Day's Night — the Village Voice called it "the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals" — and the August kickoff of their first American tour. The merchandising of the Beatles, whose names and likenesses adorned everything from lunch boxes to inflatable dolls, accounted for an estimated $50 million in retail business in 1964 alone. The Beatles had become Britain's leading cultural export, and the trail they blazed to the colonies quickly became a well-trampled one.

Scads of would-be contenders were tapping their toes on the far side of the Atlantic, just waiting for a chance to show the Yanks a thing or two. The group that initially gave the Beatles the best run for their money was the Dave Clark Five, who hailed from London's northern suburb of Tottenham. Although they placed a poor second to the Beatles, the DC5 racked up seventeen Top Forty hits between 1964 and 1967 — more than the Rolling Stones or any other British act during that span of years. By the time the Sixties rolled to a close, the DC5 had sold 70 million records worldwide.

Because the band's single "Glad All Over" unseated "I Want to Hold Your Hand" from its lengthy perch atop the British charts in January 1964, it was assumed for a while that the DC5 were neck and neck with the Beatles in the superstar sweepstakes. But they didn't "progress," in the sense of graduating from pop stars to poets, as the Beatles did. Nonetheless, the Dave Clark Five were what they were: a singles band, a dance band and one of the best.

Meanwhile, Liverpool was teeming with an estimated 300 bands, and several performers under the aegis of Beatles manager Brian Epstein were having a field day. Gerry and the Pacemakers weren't a very convincing rock band, but they had a solid way with ballads like "Ferry Cross the Mersey" and "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying." Gerry's star shone only dimly after 1965, but his hits are pleasant memories, and he's notable for being the second act out of Liverpool (behind the Beatles) to crack the British charts.

Another Epstein protégé was Billy J. Kramer. Kramer and his band, the Dakotas, made their mark with some unreleased tunes from the Lennon-McCartney song bag; "Bad to Me" was a Number Nine hit stateside in mid-1964. The only other Mersey groups that saw any significant American chart action in 1964 were the Swinging Blue Jeans ("Hippy Hippy Shake," a song that was part of the Beatles' early repertoire) and the Searchers. This group was Liverpool's second most talented export. With their ringing harmonies and melodic, twelve-string-guitar hooks, the Searchers recast borrowed American tunes, like "Love Potion Number Nine" and "Needles and Pins," in fresh new arrangements. All in all, a handful of Liverpool bands did hit the big time, but legions more got lost in the shuffle, including such talented entities as the Merseybeats, the Mojos, the Escorts, the Fourmost, the Big Three and the Undertakers.

Like Billy J. Kramer, a London duo called Peter (Asher) and Gordon (Waller) turned Beatle leftovers into gold. Their access to unreleased Beatles songs came through Peter's sister, Jane, who was dating Paul McCartney at the time. This cute, strait-laced pair were the first British act to follow the Beatles to the top of the U.S. charts. Their ticket to ride was the McCartney-penned "A World Without Love." More singles followed from the same cask — "Nobody I Know," "I Don't Want to See You Again" and "Woman" — and all made the Top Twenty. But even without McCartney's help, Peter and Gordon reaped hits, with Del Shannon's "I Go to Pieces" and a music-hall novelty titled "Lady Godiva." After the duo split in 1968, Peter became a producer at the Beatles' Apple Records label. He produced James Taylor's first album at Apple, but his most famous client is Linda Ronstadt, whose classic sound he helped tailor in the Seventies.

Some of the loudest, rawest and toughest music of the British Invasion came out of London. A rhythm & blues scene was thriving at a handful of venues under the tutelage of elder statesmen and bandleaders Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies, whose ensembles included such stars-to-be as Mick Jagger, Brian Jones and Charlie Watts (of the Rolling Stones), Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker (of Cream) and Paul Jones (of Manfred Mann). An extended family of electric blues aficionados jammed and gigged at such haunts as the Marquee, the Flamingo, the Crawdaddy and the Ealing Rhythm and Blues Club. Out of the mass of players, a number of important groups took shape, including the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and the Pretty Things. The last of these never made it in America, though they were influential in their homeland and endured into the Eighties.

After twenty-five years, even with their current status open to conjecture, the Rolling Stones remain the most tangible link to the British Invasion era. They put the raunch back in rock & roll. Unlike the Beatles, the Stones came on unsmiling and without manners — the kind of group parents had every right to feel uneasy about. Whereas Brian Epstein transformed his charges from Teddy boys to teddy bears, manager Andrew Loog Oldham encouraged the Stones' delinquent tendencies.

The Stones got a delayed start in the U.S. They didn't enter the fray in a major way until 1965. After warming up the Top Ten with "Time Is on My Side" and "The Last Time," they delivered a knockout punch with "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." Its central riff and basic lyrical thrust were created by guitarist Keith Richards one restless night in a Florida motel room. Recorded in Los Angeles, with Richards' fuzz-cranked guitar blasting like the Stax-Volt horn section, "Satisfaction" remains one of the bedrock songs of the age. From here the Stones turned up the heat with numbers like "Get Off of My Cloud," "19th Nervous Breakdown" and "Paint It Black." The music of the Rolling Stones was an ice-and-fire contrast to the Beatles. Simmering, blunt edged and angry, it set off the Liverpudlians' sunnier pop visions in a way that perfectly caught the spirit of the times.

The Yardbirds, who inherited the Stones' regular spot at London's Crawdaddy Club, used their blues background as a launching pad for a series of experiments in futurist rock. They were the first British Invasion group to be recognized for the instrumental prowess of their guitarists — who were, in order of succession, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. They stretched the boundaries of pop, adding a harpsichord in "For Your Love" and a droning, sitar-style lead in "Heart Full of Soul." But most Yardbirds fans climbed aboard for the "raveups" — extended instrumental breaks that served as showcases for Clapton, Beck and Page.

Whereas the Yardbirds were known for instrumental virtuosity, a couple of other rising London bands — the Kinks and the Who — established themselves through the force of their songwriting. Ray Davies of the Kinks was arguably the most versatile composer to emerge from the Invasion. He was equally capable of driving hard rock ("You Really Got Me") and wry social commentary ("A Well Respected Man"). The Kinks, with Ray's brother, Dave Davies, on frenzied lead guitar, were a familiar sight to viewers of Shindig! and Hullabaloo, two TV variety shows that spread the gospel of British rock in the States.

The Who burst on the scene with an anarchic stage show, which featured the smashing of guitars, drums and amps and an arsenal of angry polemics on modern youth's state of mind. Such classics as "My Generation" and "I Can't Explain" sprang from the pen of Pete Townshend, the group's guitarist and spokesman. Although the Who was enormously influential in swinging London, the band's impact on America was not largely felt until the tail end of the Invasion, with "I Can See for Miles" rising to Number Nine in late 1967. Of course, this was just the beginning for the band, which went on to create such musical landmarks as Tommy and Who's Next.

Manfred Mann (whose "Do Wah Diddy Diddy" was another 1964 chart topper), Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames ("Yeh, Yeh"), the Nashville Teens ("Tobacco Road") and the Paramounts (a hot R&B act that later changed its style and became Procol Harum) kept London jumping to a bluesy beat. From the suburbs came a band called the Zombies, who scored with some artful pop singles ("She's Not There," "Tell Her No") despite their gruesome name. From out of town — all the way from Belfast, Ireland — another ugly-monikered group, Them, made the charts with "Here Comes the Night" and "Mystic Eyes." Them's singer was none other than Van Morrison, whose hit streak continued when he went solo in 1967 with "Brown Eyed Girl." And all the way from the West Coast of the United States came the Walker Brothers, a trio that settled in London and recorded two of the biggest ballads of the British Invasion, "Make It Easy on Yourself' and "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore)."

While the Invasion was generally a band-oriented phenomenon, the female artists stood alone and did quite well for themselves. Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield, Marianne Faithfull and Lulu are four of the more recognizable names to dent the charts. Pert, cheerful Pet Clark enjoyed a fifteen-hit reign, crowned by a pair of Number Ones ("Downtown" and "My Love"). Dusty Springfield's cool, soulful voice was familiar to transistor-radio owners via such mid-Sixties mega-hits as "Wishin' and Hopin' " and "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me." Lulu had one of the biggest singles of the decade, "To Sir with Love," which held down the Number One spot for five weeks in 1967. Faithfull, who was Mick Jagger's girlfriend, did well with her torchy recording of the Stones weeper "As Tears Go By"; she was also one of the more celebrated blond presences in swinging London.

Solo males were scarcer in combo-happy Britain. But they had several hits worth noting: the campy "You Turn Me On," by Ian Whitcomb; "Niki Hoeky," by P.J. Proby; and the dreamy space-race ballad "Everyone's Gone to the Moon," by Jonathan King. Then there was Donovan, the Dylanesque folk singer turned psychedelic minstrel, whose "Sunshine Superman" soared to Number One in 1966.

The provinces beyond London stoked the R&B furnace with such powerhouse acts as the Animals (from Newcastle-upon-Tyne), the Spencer Davis Group and the Moody Blues (both from Birmingham). Yes, the Moody Blues. Back in 1965, they could pound it out with the best of them. Exhibit A is the piano-thumping beat ballad "Go Now," with its beseeching vocal from Denny Laine (later of Paul McCartney's band Wings). The key talent in the Spencer Davis Group was sixteen-year-old lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Steve Winwood. His soulful pipes carried "I'm a Man" and "Gimme Some Lovin' " into the Top Ten in early 1967 and set the stage for his tenure as leader of Traffic and, eventually, as a solo superstar.

Gruff and earthy, Eric Burdon of the Animals sang about hard times in a powerful growl that made him sound decades wiser than his age. On the back of the Animals' first American LP, he listed his favorite color as "brown-black" — a claim that's obvious in his stylistic debt to a host of American rhythm & blues artists. With organist Alan Price supplying jazzy counterpoint, the Animals vaulted to Number One in September 1964 with "House of the Rising Sun," a four-minute-plus ode to a New Orleans brothel. Closer in spirit to the Stones than to the Beatles, the Animals issued some of the more desperate pleas of the day in "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" and "It's My Life."

The city of Manchester contributed a disproportionate share of pop hitmakers to the British cause. Herman's Hermits, the Hollies, Freddie and the Dreamers and Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders all claimed a piece of the U.S. charts. Fronted by doe-eyed Peter Noone, a former child actor, the Hermits recorded an impressive string of pop and music-hall-flavored tunes set to a Mersey beat. "Mrs. Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter" was their best-known song, but they cracked the Top Ten nine times in a row between 1965 and 1966 — a feat that even the Beatles couldn't claim.

The Hollies served up the best vocal harmonies of the era and outlasted many of their U.K. colleagues; they earned their biggest hit in 1972 with "Long Cool Woman (in a Black Dress)." Freddie and the Dreamers were the clowns of the British Invasion. Horn-rimmed beatnik Freddie Garrity and his bumptious, balding band mates devised the most ludicrous novelty dance of all: a flapping free-for-all called the Freddie. It did not catch on. They did, however, leave behind one big hit, "I'm Telling You Now." As for Wayne Fontana, his biggest hit was the catchy pop rocker "Game of Love." It was part 2 of what the Billboard Book of Number One Hits called the "Mancunian hat trick" — three chart toppers in a row from Manchester. This unusual alignment occurred in late April and early May of 1965, with "I'm Telling You Now," "Game of Love" and "Mrs. Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter."

The statistical high-water mark of the British Invasion fell only a month later, on June 18th, 1965. On that date, no fewer than fourteen records of British origin occupied the U.S. Top Forty. It was a record that stood until July 16th, 1983, when the second British Invasion — led by Duran Duran, Culture Club and the Police — landed eighteen hits on the chart. Ironically, during that historic week in the summer of 1965, the top seven positions all belonged to American acts. Herman's Hermits ("Wonderful World") and the Beatles ("Ticket to Ride") nailed down Number Nine and Number Ten, respectively, while the rest of the British entries were scattered among the middle and lower reaches of the chart.

The Beatles continued to reign supreme in the second half of the Sixties, although the British Invasion, in the sense the term is commonly understood, had pretty much run its course by 1967. It was still the Beatles everyone tried to emulate or top, though the music, the audience and the rules of the game had changed markedly. The simmering down of Beatlemania after 1965 reflected the group's loss of appetite for celebrity more than any waning of interest on the part of the public. With the release of Rubber Soul (December 1965) and Revolver (August 1966) and their decision to stop touring (they performed their last concert in San Francisco on August 29th, 1966), the Beatles moved into another phase. They were turning inward, and their music was greeted not with screams but with a more mature appreciation of the new places the Beatles were taking their audience.

"It sort of turned out all right," George Harrison said of the Beatles' decade, with monumental understatement, at the 1988 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame awards ceremony. "And still a lot bigger than we expected."

This is a story from the July 14, 1988 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 530: July 14, 1988