Before they arrived in the U.S., The Beatles were warned that it wouldn’t be easy to make it big in America. In response, John Lennon nervously laughed and said, “Well, I just hope it goes alright.” Needless to say, it went more than alright. In 1964, CBS announced: “The British Invasion this time goes by the code name Beatlemania.”
Beatlemania turned into Britishmania. From The Rolling Stones to The Animals to The Kinks, British bands dominated the airwaves in the ’60s and created a culture full of long-haired Anglophiles with electric guitars and floral suits. So, what exactly happened? How did America become so English-crazed that they began to dress like the English, style their hair like the English, and even borrow their slang?
America already had a rich rock n’ roll scene in the ’50s, and it seemed like England had little to offer the country. America had Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Little Richard. England had (for the most part) cheesy Elvis imitators and dull songs. British writer Nik Cohn explained, “Nobody could sing, and nobody could write. And, in any case, nobody gave a damn.”
But in the U.S., America’s music industry was bursting with original rhythms and revolutionary rock n’ roll tunes. The radio played songs that stripped the dull, bland fabric from people’s lives and thrust them into a new, loud, and exciting reality. So, what happened at the turn of the decade?
It’s tempting to think that America was devoid of any good musicians in the ’60s. But that wasn’t the case. The Beach Boys topped the charts with their iconic Surfin’ U.S.A. (1963), and Motown Records released catchy, soulful songs by artists like The Temptations and The Supremes.
There was a vibrant music scene at the time, and the radio burst with original material. If anything, it was the U.K. who drew inspiration from the U.S. – Hot 100 music charts in England had Elvis, Pat Boone, and Ray Charles right at the top of their list.
Britain was intrigued by America’s colorful sounds. The British drew inspiration from blues, jazz, country, and folk music to revive a genre known as the Skiffle. Skiffle bands were first popularized in the U.S. during the ’20s, but after 30 years, it became all the rage in Britain.
Skiffle bands often performed with improvised instruments like jugs and washboards and released a sort of folk-country-blues hybrid that sounded spectacular and unique. One of Britain’s most prominent Skifflers was Lonnie Donegan, a jazzy king who was looked up to by young fellows like – drum roll – Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Richard Starkey.
Growing up, John Lennon sat in his room, listening to Elvis on the radio and dreaming of becoming as big of a rock star. Meanwhile, his future bandmates Paul McCartney and George Harrison rode the bus to school every day and spoke enthusiastically about rock n’ roll legend Chuck Berry.
But the effect Skiffler Lonnie Donegon had on the three of them was like nothing else. He was living proof that a British guy could take on an American style and turn it into something huge. He prompted Lennon to create the Quarrymen, the band that marked the beginning of the boys’ legendary career.
John Lennon founded the Quarrymen with a group of school friends. They began by covering songs like Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day” and Fats Domino’s “Ain’t that a Shame.” Lennon marketed them as a Country-and-Western, rock n’ roll, Skiffle band, and they began booking little gigs here and there.
But their performance at St. Peter’s Church in 1957 would prove to be their most important one yet. This was the day McCartney and Lennon met. The day when Lennon finally felt he had found his kindred spirit and asked him to join the group.
Fast forward a bit to the early ‘60s – the Quarrymen were now The Beatles, Harrison was already their lead guitarist, and Ringo Star had just left the Hurricanes to become their drummer. The boys were now regulars at the Cavern Club, the center of all things rock n’ roll in Liverpool.
The Cavern Club was where Brian Epstein first laid eyes on the musical group. Enthralled by their unique stage presence, he took them under his wing and became their manager. Epstein tried to get the boys signed but was rejected by many record labels that claimed, “Guitar groups are on the way out, Mr. Epstein.” Finally, a smart and daring George Martin agreed to get them on board at EMI.
So, how did The Beatles’ first album do in the U.S.? Not so well. Hits from their debut LP Please, Please Me (1963) hit the charts in the U.K. but failed to make an impact in the States. In fact, many of their first hits barely cracked America’s top 100.
But The Beatles didn’t have time to worry about their lack of success overseas. They had way too many tours and concerts and appearances to worry about. Their amateur shows at the smoke-filled, homey Cavern Club turned into large scale performances at London’s glossy Palladium theatre.
American TV host Ed Sullivan first learned about The Beatles when he was at the airport in London with his wife. The Beatles had just landed from their tour in Sweden. And although the day was heavy with rain, around 1,500 teenagers huddled around the building in anticipation of their return.
Sullivan didn’t get what the whole fuss was about until he was informed of The Beatles’ arrival, to which he responded, “Who the hell are they?” Sullivan was astonished by the enormous effect these boys had on the nation and was tempted to bring them to the U.S. to perform on his show.
Towards the end of 1963, American newspapers started writing about the frenzy in England surrounding The Beatles. They were the first long-haired boys to perform in front of the Queen, an astonishing achievement that further sparked America’s curiosity. Finally, on February 7, 1964, the boys landed in America.
The media’s buildup prior to their visit was so intense that the boys had thousands of screaming fans waiting for them at the airport at the time of their arrival. Singer Quincy Jones recalled, “You couldn’t access the airport because it was flooded with teenagers. Some kids even fainted. We knew trouble had landed in the U.S.”
On February 9, 1964, TV host Ed Sullivan’s words were drowned out by the screaming of girls in the audience who begged for The Beatles to step out and perform. At home, 7.3 million Americans gathered around their television sets to witness the magical quartet from overseas.
The Beatles’ performance on the Ed Sullivan Show marked the beginning of Beatlemania. As the group romantically sang All My Loving and She Loves You, yeah, yeah, yeah…, they had no idea how huge they were about to become. But why did America embrace The Beatles with such enthusiasm? Some say it had to do with President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
In 1964, America was still shaken by President John F. Kennedy’s ruthless assassination the year before, and a sense of communal mourning flooded the country. The loss of JFK’s optimism left Americans frazzled. And then came The Beatles.
The cheeky, fresh-faced British boys seemed to be the perfect anecdote to the country’s depression. Their funny, easy-going attitude struck a chord with American audiences, and their upbeat songs sparked a wave of hope and a longing for a better world. A world in which people don’t murder their elected officials.
By March, the Beatles’ first album with Capitol Records, Meet the Beatles, had sold 3.6 million copies. It topped the charts for eleven weeks and was replaced in April that year by The Beatles’ second album. At the time, it looked like the only artists capable of kicking them off the charts were themselves.
People posed the question, “Is the furor over the singers who call themselves The Beatles a sign that American youngsters are going crazy?” Harvard sociologist David Riesman responded, “No crazier than hitherto.” So, crazy wasn’t really the word to describe what America’s youth was going through. It was more like a widespread awakening.
In the weeks following The Beatles’ appearance, many other U.K. acts were rapidly signed by American labels and promoted all over the media. London brought The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Dusty Springfield, The Dave Clark Five, Peter and Gordon, and Manfred Mann.
Newcastle brought The Animals. Manchester brought Wayne Fontana, The Hollies, Herman’s Hermit, and the Mindbenders. Birmingham had The Moody Blues and The Spencer Davis Group. In other words, “England became the center of the rock universe.”
The British Invasion affected everyone in the U.S., including, obviously, all the established American musicians of the time who slowly disappeared from the charts. Stars who were used to being the focal point of attention were now thrust to the side to make room for the British newcomers.
Artists like Rick Nelson, Fats Domino, and the Everly Brothers became old news. Even Elvis’ career was a bit shaken by the Brits’ invasion. Presley was so used to dominating the charts that he found it hard to stomach that he was longer on top. He even told President Nixon once that he believed they were “a force for anti-American spirit,” explaining they “came to this country, made their money, and then returned to England where they promoted an anti-American theme.”
Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson admitted that he was so taken by The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” that he stayed up all night just to hear it play once every hour on the radio. But apart from fascination, the band also felt a bit worried.
Brian revealed, “At first, we thought, what are we going to do? We’re getting eclipsed by a group from London.” Instead of backing away, they looked up to the British band as a source of inspiration. Brian mentioned he used The Beatles’ albums Revolver and Rubber Soul to create their iconic album, Pet Sounds.
Motown Records were a bit nervous about the British bands at first. But they slowly realized they had nothing to worry about. Four Top’s Abdul Duke explained, “They had their space, and we had ours. And it was really a great compliment to everybody that these two music styles were dominating the charts.”
In truth, if you look at the covers done by The Beatles (Please Mr. Postman) and The Rolling Stones (Can I Get a Witness), it’s easy to understand why the British Invasion didn’t faze Motown. When your so-called competition covers your songs, you know there’s no reason to worry.
When Bruce Springsteen styled his hair like the Beatles, his dad laughed until he realized that his son wasn’t joking, and then he got mad. Springsteen wasn’t the only one sporting a mop-top hairstyle. At the height of The British Invasion, middle-aged men all around New York wore Beatle hair wigs!
Radio host and TV personality Dick Clark revealed, “Kids had to have long hair like the British, we practically talked like English men and wore the same clothing. All sorts of things happened with the look that we borrowed from England.”
The Dave Clark Five startled everyone when they knocked The Beatles off the charts. They stormed into The British Invasion scene in 1964 and reigned at No. 1 in the U.K. Singles Chart with their hit “Glad All Over,” which replaced “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Their groundbreaking song peaked at number six on the U.S. Billboard.
After they, too, performed on The Ed Sullivan Show, it felt like they might become bigger stars than the Beatles. But they never managed to reinvent themselves as creatively as their “competitors,” and while The Beatles’ music became more sophisticated, DC5’s music came off as a bit stale.
Four months after The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan’s show, The Rolling Stones landed in America. If the former were “the good boys,” then the new British band in town were considered the “the bad boys.” The Rolling Stones gave everyone a run for their money.
Fans gushed, “They’re the greatest. They dress differently, their music is unique, and they’re the best thing that has happened in the United States.” But don’t be mistaken. Their first U.S. tour was challenging. While they were popular in places like L.A. and New York, they had to deal with many empty stadiums in other states.
The Rolling Stones’ mannerless attitude and bold guitar riffs captivated the audience. They hit the charts with songs like I Can’t Get No Satisfaction, Get Off of My Cloud and Paint It, Black. Like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones were constantly stalked by screaming fans and hysterical groupies.
Mick Jagger confessed there were moments when he felt genuinely scared. Moments when fans surrounded their limo to the point where they couldn’t move anywhere. He often found himself wondering, “Ok, what now? How are we going to get out of the car?”
By the mid-’60s, every British band wanted to take over the U.S., but to do so, they had to make sure their sound was uniquely theirs. And for Manchester’s Herman’s Hermits, that meant leaning towards more of a pop-like sound, as opposed to rock.
“I couldn’t write songs like John Lennon or Paul McCartney,” Peter Noone confessed, “[So I said] Let’s do romantic records that play in movies where everyone lives happily ever after.” And that worked out great for them. Herman’s Hermits hit the pop charts in the U.S. an impressive 22 times and starred on famous variety series like The Dean Martin Show and The Ed Sullivan Show.
Peter Asher and Gordon Waller were two English guys who hopped on the British Invasion wagon and recorded several hits in the mid-’60s. Their first single, “A World Without Love,” became an international sensation in 1964 and was written by the one and only Paul McCartney.
They were lucky enough to access The Beatles’ material because Peter’s sister, Jane, dated McCartney at the time. But even without The Beatles’ help, Peter and Gordon found success with hits like “I Go to Pieces” (written by Shel Dannon) and “Lady Godiva.”
In the mid-’60s, America treated London’s Carnaby Street as the fashion center of the world. Time Magazine’s 1966 cover read: “Perhaps nothing illustrates the new swinging London better than narrow, three-block-long Carnaby Street, which is crammed with a cluster of the ‘gear’ boutiques where the girls and boys buy each other clothing.”
Carnaby Street became one of the trendiest places to hang out in, partly (or mostly) because of bands like The Rollings Stones and The Kinks, who were Carnaby regulars and were spotted socializing, dining, and spending their riches on the latest fashions.
The British Invasion was wild to the point where some people couldn’t tell the difference between band members. And the fact that a lot of them sported the mop-top haircut certainly didn’t help. Mick Jagger was once mistaken for Herman Hermit’s Peter Noone.
The Stone’s manager, Andrew Oldham, revealed, “Mick was stopped in Honolulu Airport and asked for his autograph. And they were disappointed that he hadn’t signed ‘Peter Noone.’ The look on his face!”
The Yardbirds were probably the first British Invasion band with such an outstanding lineup of guitarists – Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page (albeit not at the same time). The band’s members changed with the years, but they never ceased to showcase tremendous talent. They went on their first U.S. tour in August of 1965.
Their rapid, psychedelic song “For Your Love” (1965) became their first hit in the U.S., peaking at No. 6 in the Billboard Hot 100. Despite its commercial success, it was the song that prompted Clapton to leave the band. He didn’t appreciate the transition from their bluesy roots to mainstream pop-rock.
London brothers Ray and Dave Davies felt empowered in the early ’60s by the surge of British acts and decided to form The Kinks in 1963. Their first break into the U.S. was with the sharp and grungy “You Really Got Me,” influenced by the American song “Louie Louie.”
But their U.S. tour was cut short because the guys were simply too much to handle. The American Federation of Musicians banned them for four full years. Ray Davies complained in 2014, “That ridiculous ban took away the best years of the Kinks’ career when the original band was performing at its peak.”
In the summer of 1967, The Who appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival in California. And despite not fitting in with the whole hippie-trippy peaceful vibe of the crowd, they still made a serious impact on Americans, and their song “Happy Jack” reached the top 30.
After two successful years touring the U.S., Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, The Who took the stage at the 1969 Woodstock festival. Again, the festival was all about peace and music, but when The Who came on, it became a loud exhibition of cursing and guitar throwing (but the music was great!).
The British Invasion is usually treated as a band-oriented movement, but there were some impressive solo acts that made an impression in the U.S. as well. Let’s not forget Dusty Springfield, whose husky voice led the ballad “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” (1966) into number four on the U.S. charts.
The British singer drew inspiration from Motown and, in 1965, hosted a TV special meant to promote Motown artists like Martha and the Vandellas and the Supremes to the U.K. audience. She performed her 1968 song “Son of a Preacher Man” just as soulfully as the American Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin.
Wide-eyed British singer Marianne Faithfull stood in front of the cameras in 1965 and softly sang the Rolling Stones’ masterpiece, “As Tears Go By.” The song was her ticket to international stardom, and it peaked at number six on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.
But don’t let Marianne’s sweet voice fool you. The British balladeer rapidly spiraled into some ugly entanglements with the police over drugs. But we don’t blame her. It’s probably inevitable when you’re Mick Jagger’s girlfriend. Regardless, Marianne was one of the biggest female stars of the British Invasion.
Successful solo males were less common in the band-frenzied era of the ’60s, but there are still a few worth noting. Like Ian Whitcomb, for example. The English singer had his fair share of screaming girls in his shows after he peaked at number eight on the U.S. chart in 1965.
Ian didn’t feel any less worthy during the Brit Invasion because he didn’t have other band members to go crazy with on stage. He proudly joined the already existing bands of the time and toured across the U.S. with The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, and The Beach Boys.
An ode to a brothel that has ruined many poor girls, The Animal’s song “House of the Rising Sun” (1964) landed No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and ensured them a spot at the forefront of the British Invasion. Straight out of Newcastle, The Animals arrived in the U.S. in 1964, eager to take on the States.
But Eric Burdon admitted that while he enjoyed the band’s international success, he hated the expression “British Invasion.” He explained, “In a world of peace and love … now we have an invasion? A British Invasion? At the time, it didn’t sit right with me.”
Allan Clarke and Graham Nash grew up together in Manchester and started performing during the rise of the Skiffle in the late ’50s. They drew inspiration from the American duo, The Everly Brothers, and later called themselves The Hollies as an ode to American legend Buddy Holly.
Their first big break in the U.S. was in 1965 when they released “Look Through Any Window.” It hit number 32 on the Top 40, but that didn’t make the Hollies a household name just yet. It was their song “Bus Stop” that gave the band their first taste of what it was like to be in the U.S. top ten.
Like any trendy fad, there comes a time when the party must end. And while it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what put a halt to the wave of Anglophilia, some claim that it died down when The Beatles broke everyone’s hearts and disbanded in 1970.
Others argue it died down in the mid-’70s along with the hippy movement after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Either way, it’s not like British musicians vanished from the face of the earth. A lot of them were still way more famous in the U.S. than in their English hometowns.
The early to mid-’80s were, once again, a time when British talents rose to popularity in the U.S. with bands like Duran Duran, The Police, and Dire Straits. This time in history is considered by many to be the Second British Invasion. The second surge had to do, in part, with the new and exciting music channel MTV.
The first music video shown on MTV was The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” (1981). The song’s name fit perfectly with the changes the world was going through, and interestingly, the English band chose to call themselves The Buggles as a pun on The Beatles.
The British Invasion is often treated as this wild period where English acts flooded the U.S. with incredible music and entertaining performances. Which, in part, it was. But the U.K. needed America just as much as America needed it. According to Andrew Oldham, manager of the Rolling Stones:
“You sucked up America as energy to get you out of the cold, gray, drab streets of London. Before global warming, I doubt that England had more than three sunny weeks a year. Which is one of the reasons that England fell in love with the Beach Boys, to a certain degree, more than America did.”
The Beatles broke the glass ceiling of the music industry on so many levels. One of the most important lessons their success gave to England’s people was the transition from America as a faraway land to a practical ambition.
Andrew Oldham revealed, “America was not even a possibility for anybody before The Beatles. As a place to practice your business, it wasn’t even a consideration. Before The Beatles, what were the possibilities? Scandinavia, maybe.”
It’s one thing to dress like someone from a different country or adopt certain habits and traditions they follow. But full-on changing the way you speak to suit their accent? That’s pretty weird. Believe it or not, that’s exactly what happened when the British Invasion was at its peak.
American radio host Bruce Morrow revealed, “Kids would call me for dedications and talk to me with British accents. Some kid from the Bronx would all of a sudden speak the King’s English:’ Ello? Sir Brucie, this is Sir Ivan… ‘Literally, they gave themselves knight titles.”
The Beatles kicked off the British Invasion, so naturally (and quite ridiculously, yeah?), Liverpool became the center of England. As if every British person came from that part of the country. According to Gordon Waller:
“Americans just assumed that everyone from England was from Liverpool. But if they referred to us as ‘the Liverpool Sound,’ I just went with the flow. If that made them happy and made the kids buy the records—solid!”
Many English bands began by covering American songs. The Rolling Stones, The Searchers, and The Hollies all rose to fame by covering songs that were already sure hits in America. The Searchers rose to the top of the U.S. Billboard with their cover of The Clovers’ “Love Potion No. 9.”
The Hollies covered Doris Troy’s song “Just One Look” and peaked at No. 2 on the U.K. charts. The Rolling Stones cracked the U.K. charts for the first time with the help of Chuck Berry’s song “Come On.” Although Stone’s cover didn’t do well with American audiences, it was their first big step into the music industry.