The British Invasion

This Friday (2/20/15), WYEP will be celebrating the 1960s British Invasion era of U.S. popular music. We'll be playing some British Invasion bands throughout the day. Make your suggestions for what songs most represent that time period to you here.


But what, you may ask, was so important about the British Invasion? Well, let's go back in time.On February 9, 1964, The Beatles made their famous appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and everything changed. Not just for the Fab Four, but for the entire popular music world in the United States. Beforehand, British artists weren't taken seriously by U.S. record labels or by the public. In 1963, of the 658 songs that were on Billboard's weekly 100-song pop chart, only fourteen were from artists originating from Great Britain.


In 1964, there were 95 British artists who made it on the chart. In 1965, that number swelled to 127. And in 1966 and '67, there were 86 and 79 U.K. acts charting in America, respectively.


But it's not just the number of songs that climbed the U.S. chart that made the British Invasion a sea change in American musical culture. It's also the heights to which those hits rose. In 1963, no artist from the U.K. topped the U.S. chart, and there were only two top 10 hits and a total of only three top 40 hits.


By contrast, in 1964, British artists scored nine #1 hits in the U.S. (six of them by the Beatles, but also by The Animals, Manfred Mann, and Peter & Gordon). There were twenty-eight top 10 hits by U.K. acts and fifty-nine top 40 hits.


So over 60% of the charting British acts were top 40 hits in 1964, while only slightly more than 20% of them were in 1963. (The 1964 figure was matched or slightly rose through the rest of the British Invasion period: 60% in 1965, and then 65% in both 1966 and 1967.) That means that not only was there more representation from the U.K. on the chart, but much more radio airplay and record store sales of those songs.


And there's the sound of the actual hits themselves. In 1963, the highest charting singles from the U.K. were much less credible fare than what was to explode on the music scene in 1964. There was the breathy pop of sister singing duo The Caravelles. Their #3 hit in '63, “You Don't Have to Be a Baby to Cry” could easily have been recorded several decades prior. There was Aussie-to England transplant Rolf Harris' novelty hit “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport.” The only other top 40 hit from a British artist in '63 was “Mr. Bass Man” by 18 year-old teen pop singer Johnny Cymbal. “Mr. Bass Man” was fun, had tempo, and was a clever merging of American teen idol and doo-wop genres. But there was nothing really rock 'n' roll about any of the U.S. top 40 hits from Great Britain in 1963.


In 1964, however, there was energetic rock 'n' roll to spare with The Beatles' “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” “A Hard Day's Night,” “Can't Buy Me Love,” and even “I Feel Fine” at the end of the year. Plus there was Manfred Mann's “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” and the gritty “The House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals. And those were just among the #1 hits originating from the U.K. in 1964.


In terms of both quantity and quality of charting songs, the British Invasion represented a true sea change in how American audiences perceived music from Great Britain. A milestone of sorts was achieved on May 8, 1965, when the U.S. top 10 featured nine artists from the U.K.


However, eventually the invasion began to wane. October 15, 1966 was the first time since The Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan in 1964 that no British artist was found in the U.S. Top 10. And beginning with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in June 1967, rock 'n' roll bands began to transition towards the album as a unit of currency, and so the chart success of an artist or a song -- a key yardstick of the British Invasion -- was much less important.


The British Invasion gave way to album-oriented counterculture rock in 1968 and beyond, but by then, artists from the U.K. were firmly and permanently established as part of the cultural dialogue in music.

The Biggest British Invasion Artists (By Number of U.S. Chart Appearances, 1964-1967)

  1. The Beatles (60)

  2. Dave Clark Five (23)

  3. The Rolling Stones (19)

  4. Herman's Hermit (17)

  5. Peter & Gordon (14)


U.K. Artists Whose U.S. Hit-Making Career Was Contained Entirely Within British Invasion Years of 1964-1967


Freddie & the Dreamers - This Manchester band was centered around the rambunctious frontman and former milkman Freddie Garrity. Although the band only had five songs hit the U.S. pop chart, they had a 1965 #1 with "I'm Telling You Now" and attempted to start a daft leg-swinging dance craze with the single "Do the Freddie" (the song had more success than the dance).


Gerry & the Pacemakers - Following closely in The Beatles' wake, this Liverpool group was managed by Brian Epstein and was produced by George Martin. Eleven of their singles hit the U.S chart, although they were never able to top their first American hit, "Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying," which hit #4 in the summer of 1964.


The Swinging Blue Jeans - Another Liverpool band, they began as a skiffle group in the late '50s and evolved into a rock 'n' roll act as it became clear where the wind was blowing. They only had three singles chart in the U.S., all cover songs: "Hippy Hippy Shake," "Good Golly Miss Molly," and "You're No Good."


The Yardbirds - The London band which launched the careers of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page started off their chart success in the U.S. with the #6 hit "For Your Love" and then fared less well for their subsequent eight singles to make the American pop chart. Of course, after their 1968 dissolution, Page put together The New Yardbirds which would quickly be renamed Led Zeppelin before the release of their debut album.


Some Lesser-Known British Invasion Artists


The Nashville Teens – This group, despite their American-sounding name, was from Weybridge, Surrey (where Kenwood, John Lennon's estate from 1964 to 1968, was located). They had two songs chart in the U.S.: 1964's “Tobacco Road” hit #14 in America, and another single, “Find My Way Back Home," peaked at #98 in March 1965. Like The Beatles, The Nashville Teens honed their chops early on in the clubs of Hamburg, Germany, backing Jerry Lee Lewis in an engagement there that was captured on an acclaimed live album. The also backed Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry on record or on stage. Although they started off with commercial success, it tailed off before the end of the British Invasion period. The band continued into the 1970s, and a version of The Nashville Teens still exists. They had a bit of attention in 2010 when “Tobacco Road” was included on the TV show Mad Men.


The Ivy League – This band's biggest claim to fame wasn't for one of their own recordings, but rather for their prominent backing vocals on The Who's “I Can't Explain.” The Ivy League issued a few singles under their own name in 1965 and '66 (and one album in '65), but although they had decent chart success in the U.K., they couldn't translate their American collegiate name into recognition in the U.S. Their one chart entry on these shores was “Tossing and Turning” which peaked at a disappointing #83. Very soon, personnel turnover and a lack of a distinctive identity sunk the band (although the band apparently continues to exist, albeit with no original members).


Hedgehoppers Anonymous – A quintet that began in Peterborough (75 miles north of London), since most of the bandmembers were in the Royal Air Force at a base located there. The “hedgehopper” of their name was aviator jargon for a low-flying plane. The group's producer was Jonathan King (himself a British Invasion-era artist, with two songs that charted in the U.S., including the top 20 hit “Everyone's Gone To The Moon”), who also wrote Hedgehoppers Anonymous' lone minor hit in America, 1966's “It's Good News Week." It climbed to #48 in early 1966. After a few further unsuccessful singles, the band broke up.


The Overlanders – This trio began as a folk group but then shifted their sound to take advantage of the excitement for “Beat” groups in the wake of The Beatles. The had some regional interest in the U.S. but only hit the American chart once in 1964 with a cover of the Chad & Jeremy song “Yesterday's Gone," which peaked at #75. In total, they only recorded a handful of songs, but a version of the band still continues to today.