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.