Was the arrival of a significant number of British artists on the American music charts in 1964 and 1965 actually an “invasion?” Was it the introduction of a new sound that replaced American rock and roll? Were the careers of popular American artists halted by the British bands? Or was this new sound really just original American rock and roll repackaged and the decline of many American artists just the natural attrition in the world of popular music?
When Americans first heard the Beatles chanting “yeah, yeah, yeah,” they rushed to buy these new sounding records. The implication is that there was nothing like it for them to buy from American artists because American rock and roll of the early 1960’s had become bland and American teenagers were longing for something new, something more energetic, something more akin to the rebellious attitude of the rock and roll pioneers. With their “cheeky” attitude (as expressed by the British), their unconventional haircuts, their self-assured stage presence, their booming guitars and vocal harmonies, the four Brits were just what the doctor ordered for this supposed malaise that then populated the American music charts.
But while the pre-Beatles music of the American Billboard Hot 100 might have included what some have called the “treacle” period of rock and roll (bland and syrupy), there was certainly some very credible rock and roll on the charts of 1963. A look at the Billboard top ten from the year end chart for 1963 clearly shows that American rock and roll wasn’t dead. The top two records, “Sugar Shack” and “Surfin’ U.S.A.” would stand up against the best records of any year. The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” is a forerunner of the great Motown records that were on the horizon and “Fingertips” is a fine example of the r&b side of rock and roll. The Impression’s “It’s All Right” is soul music at its finest. Other great examples of classic rock and roll from the 1963 top 100: “Wipeout” by The Surfaris (#20); “Walk Like a Man” by The Four Seasons (#24); “Surf City” by Jan & Dean (#28); “Everybody” by Tommy Roe (#38); “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes (#45); “Mean Woman Blues” by Roy Orbison (#46); “Da Doo Ron Ron” by The Crystals (#56); “Devil in Disguise” by Elvis Presley (#69); “Baby Workout” by Jackie Wilson (#71); “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash (#80); “Another Saturday Night” (#88) by Sam Cooke. And then there was “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen. Due to it being released late in 1963, it failed to make Billboard’s year end top 100 (it was #99 for 1964). But it is one of the most recognizable records of the era and was listed as #54 when Rolling Stone magazine compiled a “500 Greatest of All Time” in 2004. Rock and roll was doing just fine in the U.S. prior to the arrival of the Brits.
It is often asserted that the British Invasion re-energized American rock and roll because it was a new sound. But even The Beatles themselves acknowledged that the music they were producing in 1964 was not really new. In fact, they gave credit to the American rock and roll artists who they were imitating. The “new” sound was really a reintroduction of the rock and roll of the mid 1950’s. While the music of 1963 was still predominantly rock and roll, much of it had a lighter touch than earlier records. Over the years, much of rock and roll music had grown away from its rawer rhythm & blues roots as it appealed more to main stream tastes. The compositions performed by The Beatles were more in line with 1963’s The Dovell’s “You Can’t Sit Down” than Bobby Vee’s “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes.”
In fact, a significant amount of the British Invasion was a recycling of earlier American rock and roll. All three of The Searcher’s top twenty hits were remakes: “Needles and Pins” (#13, 1964) from Jackie DeShannon in 1963, “Don’t Throw Your Love Away” (#16, 1964) from The Orlons in 1963, and “Love Potion Number Nine” (#3, 1965) from The Clovers in 1959. The Dave Clark Five had a number of original compositions make it on the U.S. chart, but they also revived some earlier rock and roll with “Do You Love Me” (#11, 1964) from The Contours’ 1963 hit and “I Like It Like That” (#7, 1965) from Chris Kenner’s 1961 hit. The Beatles also did some remakes, the most successful being “Twist and Shout” (#2, 1964) from The Isley Brothers’ 1962 hit. On their first Vee Jay album released in the U.S. The Beatles also used an Arthur Alexander song from 1962, “Anna,” a Gerry Goffin / Carole King composition originally released by The Cookies in 1962, “Chains,” a Burt Bacharach song which was a hit for The Shirelles in 1963, “Baby It’s You,” and “A Taste of Honey” a Broadway show tune from 1962.
As to whether or not the British groups replaced U.S. rock and rollers, there is strong evidence of the decline of the American artists. But some of those artists disappeared from the Billboard chart for reasons other than the competition from the UK (see the “Victims” section). And had there been no “invasion” it is likely that the popularity of many of the artists on the chart in 1963 would have declined over the next couple of years. From 1956 to 1963 (The Elvis Era) there were 190 artists that had at least two records in the Billboard top twenty. Eight of those artists who had a top twenty record in 1956, were still able to post a top twenty in 1963: Elvis Presley, Nat King Cole, Pat Boone, Tony Bennett, Pat Boone, George Hamilton IV, Johnny Cash and Andy Williams. Ricky Nelson, Johnny Mathis and Sam Cooke posted their first top twenty record in 1957 and were still on the chart in 1963. In 1963 there were only seven artists who had made the top twenty three years earlier who were able to score a top twenty record. Many of the artists of the British Invasion would suffer the same fate. While The Beatles achieved super stardom, Brian Epstein’s other two groups, Gerry & The Pacemakers and Billy J. Kramer & The Dakotas had no more top twenty records after 1965. The Rolling Stones would go on making hits for decades, but other British acts like Herman’s Hermits would be done in 1966 and The Dave Clark Five would have only one top twenty after 1966, 1967’s “You Got What It Takes” (#7).
It’s notable that non rock and rollers from the early days of rock and roll were more likely to endure. Among the group of survivors from 1956, only Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry had rock and roll credentials. In fact, the “Rat Pack” group from Vegas did quite well in the middle 1960’s. Sammy Davis Jr. first had a top twenty record in 1954 with “Hey There” (#16) and then hit a drought during the early years of rock and roll with none from 1956 to 1961. But he was on the chart in 1962 with “What Kind of Fool Am I” (#17) and in 1964 with “The Shelter of Your Arms” (#17). Frank Sinatra had several top twenty hits in 1956 and 1957, but was absent from the chart until 1966 when he registered two in the top twenty: “That’s Life” (#4) and “Strangers in the Night” (#1). Dean Martin also got back on the chart during the British Invasion with his #1 “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime” and a #6 “The Door Is Still Open To My Heart” in 1964 and a #10, “I Will,” in 1965.
Perhaps the effect of the British Invasion is exaggerated. There is evidence that suggests that the music wasn’t all that new. There is evidence that suggests that American artists weren’t replaced as extensively as is sometimes assumed. But the impact of the British bands on music in the U.S. shouldn’t be disregarded. If nothing else, their presence drew attention to rock and roll that hadn’t been there since the twist craze. And when you look forward from 1965 to the end of the decade you can see a definite shift in America’s view of rock and roll. The music began to be taken more seriously, regarded as an art form. Singles started to be less important and concept albums became the focus of these more serious artists. The Beatles were at the forefront of those new trends and that was probably the most significant aspect of the British Invasion. Long term, consistent success in the realm of popular music is rare. At first, the American attitude toward The Beatles themselves was that they were just a passing fad in Britain. When asked if they thought people would get tired of them, John Lennon replied, “They probably will, but it depends on how long it takes.” Paul McCartney added, “We hope we have quite a run.”