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

July 14, 1988
Bill Wyman Brian Jones Keith Richards Mick Jagger Charlie Watts Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones in Marble Arch Car Park circa 1963.
Fiona Adams/Redferns

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.

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