I hear the radio is finally gonna play new music
You know, the British Invasion. . . .
But what about the Minutemen, Flesh Eaters,
DOA, Big Boys and the Black Flag?
Will the last American hand to get played on
the radio please bring the flag? . . .
Glitter-disco-synthesizer night school.
All this noble savage drum, drum, drum . . .
—”I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts,” X
A revolution in sound and style — lying somewhere between artful ingenuity and pure pop fun — has taken root in this country over the past year and a half. Much like the first great explosion of pop culture upon mass consciousness, which commenced with the Beatles’ arrival in America in February 1964, the primary impetus for all this has been emanating from the far side of the Atlantic. We are, as X gripes so loudly, in the throes of the second British Invasion.
This last statement sounds like hype but became a certifiable matter of public record on July 16th, 1983, upon which date no fewer than eighteen singles of British origin charted in the American Top Forty, topping the previous high of fourteen, set on June 18th, 1965. There are now more British records on the U.S. charts than at any other time in pop history. Leading the charge has been that strange animal variously called ”New Wave” and ”new music” — the one, you will recall, they all said would never make it. In mid-July, six of Billboard‘s Top Ten records were British, and five came from relative upstarts: the Police (whose ”Every Breath You Take” topped the charts for weeks), Kajagoogoo, Madness, Duran Duran and Culture Club. The sixth U.K. act, by the way, was the Kinks, who were also present back in the 1965 charts with ”Tired of Waiting for You.”
The question is, why is it happening all over again, nearly twenty years down the road?. ”For whatever psychological reason,” ventures one record-industry insider, ”there is a very vocal and influential Anglophile rock audience that salivates to hits from abroad.” And for whatever reasons of design and serendipity, the past eighteen months have witnessed more new bands breaking into the music scene than in the previous five years. The redcoats are coming. And coming.
Thinking back to the first British Invasion, which occurred roughly from the years 1964 to 1966, one tends to forget that Britain had not, prior to that time, been a principal exporter of pop culture. America had given Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly to the world, not to mention Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters and a legacy of rhythm & blues that was the bedrock upon which rock & roll was built. Britain, by contrast, appeared to be an outpost of uptight civility, ”a primitive backwater,” wrote Nicholas Schaffner in The British Invasion, that had ”only one radio and TV network — government-owned and commercial-free — and only one fast-food chain, appropriately called Wimpy’s.”
No surprise, then, that a nervous Paul McCartney was heard to wonder aloud, aboard the very plane that would soon set the Beatles down upon U.S. soil for the first time, that America had ”always had everything. Why should we be over there making money? What are we going to give them that they don’t already have?”
Similar thoughts must have passed through the minds of the Police — the first British New Wave act to break through in America on a grand scale, and possibly the biggest band in the world — as they flew Freddie Laker’s low-budget Skytrain from London to New York on October 8th, 1978. Toting their instruments as carry-on baggage, the group was about to embark on their maiden tour of the States. There were, however, no screaming hordes to greet them on the tarmac at JFK, as there had been when the Beatles landed there fourteen and a half years earlier. Rather, the three Police and one roadie piled into a van and piloted themselves about the East Coast for a round of sparsely attended gigs at small clubs. It was not Ten Days That Shook the World, but manager Miles Copeland, brother of drummer Stewart, had a cocky faith in the band and felt the time was right for something new to take hold here.
Their first big break came when Top Forty radio, which had been a laughingstock throughout the Seventies, picked up on ”Roxanne,” the standout track from Outlandos D’Amour, the first Police album. It was the first sign that radio would be changing, loosening. The Police, meanwhile, continued to press their case, ”taking advantage,” Miles Copeland says, ”of any chink in the armor of resistance.”
Meanwhile, some fascinating new music began arriving on these shores; it was dubbed electropop, because electronic instrumentation — mainly synthesizers and syndrums — was used to craft pop songs. ”Pop Muzik” by M was one of the first. There was a gradual accumulation of worthy electropop discs, though they were still mostly heard only in rock discos. But in 1981, the floodgates opened, and ”new music” at last made a mighty splash. The breakthrough song was ”Don’t You Want Me” by the Human League, an all-synth band from Sheffield, England, which would eventually go all the way to Number One. This was a very different New Wave record: it was apolitical, there were no guitars, and it was poppish, uptempo and danceable — so much so that it could fit in nicely at the stateside discos frequented by all the John Travolta white-suit types. And do so without mortally offending the musical sensibilities of those who hated such places. Obviously, some sort of bridge was being built here.
Another claim was staked when Soft Cell, a tweezy synthesizer and singer duo whose fondest subject was sexual perversion, had a huge turntable hit in the clubs with ”Tainted Love,” which then crossed over to radio, enjoying the longest tenure, at forty-three weeks, of any single in Billboard history. The runaway success in early ’82 of ”I Ran (So Far Away)” by A Flock of Seagulls was the icing on the cake. Fronted by a singer-synth player with a haircut stranger than anything you’d be likely to encounter in a month of poodle shows, A Flock of Seagulls struck gold on the first try. The message seemed abundantly clear: America was ready for anything — the stranger, the better.
And Britain, home of the brave new world of pop, has kept lobbing them over. One need only look at the current charts, which are flecked with such dauntless new-music wunderkinds as Eurythmics and Madness, not to mention the unlikeliest pop scion of them all, by george: Boy George O’Dowd of Culture Club.
This term new music — an umbrella for everything from punk to synth pop, New Romantic to Oi — does not so much describe a single style as it draws a line in time, distinguishing what came before from what has come after. New music betokens a kind of pop modernism with a British bias, without getting too specific. It can be said to have originated in the U.K. around 1977 with the noisy, infidel insurrections of the Clash, the Sex Pistols and the Jam, and it continues — in a broken line and through all manner of phases and stages — to the present day, with such artists as Culture Club, Duran Duran and Big Country.
To understand how we got from there to here, one must realize there was more involved than a simple matter of taste in records. For there to be a British Invasion, there had to be American accomplices on the industry side. And there were, in a stepwise procession, from independent-label impresarios to dance-club deejays, MTV veejays and radio program directors, winding up in a mandate that could no longer be ignored by the major record labels.
So there you have it: a happy ending. ”I realized that a movement of the new generation of kids had to succeed in the end,” says Miles Copeland with an evident sense of vindication. ”It just took five years to really happen, which is a short time.”
America did not suddenly wake up in 1981, like a pregnant woman with an inexplicable yen for pickles and ice cream, with a deep craving for kooky, eccentric British pop music. In the main, the country had shunned most anything that could be branded punk or New Wave, and took extreme displeasure at affectations in dress, makeup and hair style, particularly on men. (How many have endured the dullard’s refrain, ”Turn off that punk shit”?) Even the newer strain of British synth pop, with its less abrasive edges and to-the-dance-floor invocations, was not at first received with much joy.
”I remember getting a lot of catcalls from people,” says Richard Sweret, who has been a deejay at Manhattan’s Danceteria off and on since 1980. ”I was into that whole electronic sound, and people didn’t take to it at all. They said it was disco, like Studio 54. ‘Why is this music being played at Danceteria?’ they asked. ‘It’s not our music.’ It was difficult at first to get people to listen to it, but this is going back to before any of this was really popular. There was a slow transition from that around 1980 and 1981.”
Some of the muckier conceptual stuff, admittedly, could be migraine-inducing over the course of an evening. But as musical refinements and a lighter pop sensibility worked their way onto record, the public started to come around. The first record that really broke in the rock dance clubs, Sweret remembers, was Lene Lovich’s ”Lucky Number”: ”What Epic did was kind of novel — they put out a twelve-inch extended version, which was only being done with disco stuff at that time. The idea was transferred to a rock record, and it pretty much broke the idea of a twelve-inch single.”
There followed a veritable torrent of acts whose careers kicked into gear, initially, because of dance-club play: Spandau Ballet, Ultravox, ABC, Bow Wow Wow, Thompson Twins, Joy Division, Depeche Mode, Visage, the Specials, Soft Cell, Human League and more. ”The deejays led the way to this kind of sound,” vouches Mark Josephson, president of Rockpool, which supplies records to clubs and radio stations. ”Unlike disco, it’s got edges to it, but it’s got a big beat like disco does, and it works like crazy in a club.”
Josephson founded Rockpool in 1980, after he’d perceived the need for some sort of middleman to get the newer dance-oriented product from the record companies into the hands of deejays. Richard Sweret joined the small staff just over a year ago. Rockpool currently services 125 clubs and 50 radio stations nationwide, publishes a biweekly newsletter and compiles charts for college radio, commercial radio, retail outlets and dance rock clubs. Both Josephson and Sweret firmly believe it all comes down to the disc jockeys. ”By the deejays, the public are educated,” says Josephson. ”From the deejays, the record companies get ideas. If you’re looking for a single soft point from which to effect musical change, the deejays are it.”
True enough, but another ”soft point” of no small consequence sprang into view on August 1st, 1981: MTV. Who could have guessed that the public would raptly enjoy listening to music through the low-fi speaker of a TV set while watching musicians cavort in awkwardly literal video stagings of a song’s narrative?
The British won out here, hands down. Next to the prosaic, foursquare appearance of the American bands, such acts as Duran Duran seemed like caviar. MTV opened up a whole new world that could not be fully apprehended over the radio. The visual angle played to the arty conceits of Britain’s young style barons, suggesting something more exotic than the viewer was likely to find in the old hometown. The big Duran Duran hits, ”Girls on Film” and ”Hungry like the Wolf,” were MTV favorites three months before radio began to pick up on them.
And via MTV, Duran Duran and their like have engendered an outpouring of good old-fashioned hysteria among teenage girls. AOR radio, the dominant Seventies medium, was primarily a male preoccupation, pushing aggressive hard rock with zero sex appeal. When MTV ushered forth all these foppish, fresh-faced new acts from overseas, the teen-mag crowd, the screaming under-fifteens who were wont to have crushes on sharpies like Simon Le Bon and Adam Ant, returned to the rock fold in large numbers.
MTV has paved the way for a host of invaders from abroad: Def Leppard, Adam Ant, Madness, Eurythmics, the Fixx and Billy Idol, to name a few. In return, grateful Brits, even superstars like Pete Townshend and the Police, have mugged for MTV promo spots and made the phrase ”I want my MTV” a household commonplace. MTV has become a kind of Maypo for young music junkies. ”I think the kids who watched it felt that there was something more than what they were being spoon-fed on local radio stations,” says Jerry Jaffe, head of A&R at Polygram Records. ”Radio stations, for the first time, were getting requests for songs they were not playing.”
Indeed. The anaesthetic formula of corporate-rock snoozers like Journey, mixed in with all the Springsteen-Seger-Petty clones, had worn out its welcome by the end of the decade. ”Everybody was aware that their core library was sizzled,” says Bill Hard, editor of FMQB, an influential radio-industry tip sheet.
The architects behind radio looked for relief to new music. One of them, Rick Carroll, had already made over L.A.’s KROQ into a new-music station back in 1979. By last year, KROQ had overtaken established AOR giants in the area, and consultant Carroll began to bring the KROQ formula, known as ”Rock of the ’80s,” to stations up and down the West Coast.
A good percentage of the records played on KROQ are British and have been from the start. ”There wasn’t American product worthy of being played every three hours, so we had to look and listen to British imports to fill the void,” says Carroll. As of this writing, Culture Club’s ”Karma Chameleon” was the hottest record at KROQ — and hadn’t yet been released in the U.S.
A major defection to new music was plotted in February of 1982 by consultant Lee Abrams, the selfsame creator of AOR back in 1970. Abrams has revamped the old-wave Superstars format with new music, and while the term Superstars might betray the intentions of the new movement, it has, he claims, been received ”extremely well.” Today, the Abrams formula calls for sixty percent current product, double the figure of a year or two ago. New Wave could have made it big even earlier, Abrams says with a trace of mea culpa, but for ”radio’s lack of exposure. That’s ninety-nine percent of it. Once it’s exposed, it does as well here as it does there.” For all that, one is still not likely to hear much independent-label or noncommercial new music on American radio. And one is not likely to hear many American bands, period.
Abrams, who consults for approximately seventy AOR stations, professes to be tickled at being able to play all the new music from Britain. ”All my favorite bands are English,” he says. And why? ”It’s a more artistic place. Experimentation thrives there. Everything over here is more like McDonald’s.”
And nobody seems to want yesterday’s Big Macs — the Starship and Speedwagon types — including the record companies. The commercial burnout of corporate rock around 1979 cracked open the door for something new — and new things were happening, but mainly in England. There is no lack of theories as to why:
”Nine out often bands you see in America are an amalgam of what they’ve heard on AOR radio,” says Polygram’s Jaffe. ”The motivation for American kids is, ‘We want to be the next Van Halen and get rich.”’
”Bands in America want to be signed to make money, while bands in the U.K. want to be signed to communicate,” concurs Bob Currie, manager of A&R for British EMI.
From the record companies’ viewpoint, there are other attractions to the British Invasion. Most British acts signed in the U.S. are picked up cheaply from sister labels in Europe. Such ”reciprocal agreements” have become a relatively inexpensive way to acquire a market-tested commodity. ”It’s much easier to license a product,” says Bob Hinkle, comanager of the U.K. duo Naked Eyes. ”You don’t have to pay for the album. In a way, it has helped to justify some of the cutbacks to domestic artist-development and artist-relations staffs.”
”The great preponderance of attention given to the talent from the U.K. is, I think, frustrating,” says Karin Berg, an A&R staffer at Warner Bros. Records. At Warners, Berg spends most of her time trying to find and develop American talent — an uphill battle when a British bandwagon is rolling.
Still, the bottom line is talent, and Britain seems to turn it up with greater ease. ”I think that Britain has the highest rate of artists, songwriters and musicians I’ve ever seen anywhere,” says EMI’s Currie. Part of it has to do with England’s crippling unemployment: it’s either sit around or make music. Part of it, too, is broadmindedness, a greater willingness to experiment and soak up influences. ”English kids know that the rest of the world exists,” says Miles Copeland, ”and they’re constantly getting input from all over the place.”
Size works to advantage, also. Britain is small enough that talent can be identified, and a buzz tends to spread quickly around the island. Unlike the U.S., lots of bands can be tested with 45s; if a record fails, no great investment has been lost. Radio will play unsigned artists. Originality is valued; the club scene does not cater to cover bands. Independent labels thrive in such a climate. And so does artistic risk-taking.
Having heeded the call to new sounds from abroad, will America rise to the challenge of the British Invasion with some absorbing new tangent of its own?
”My feeling is that anytime somebody identifies a trend, the trend is over,” says Don Ellis, division vice-president at RCA. ”I think the British Invasion has already taken place and that we will launch an American counter-invasion.”
Homegrown acts like Dream Syndicate, R.E.M., Rank and File, the Bongos, Violent Femmes, Let’s Active, Shockabilly and Flipper are already being touted as the next wave. If patriotic fervor figures in at all, it might just happen.
”I’m all for American music,” says Rick Carroll. ”This is my country, and I’d love to see American artists as well represented on my stations as the British and Australian groups are.”
”Flying back and forth to England every month is a drag,” says manager Hinkle. ”I really do like English beer, but I’d be willing to forsake it if I could find something really hot to work on over here.”
Britain, consider yourself warned.