Music of the United Kingdom (1950s)  

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The roots of British popular music for the rest of the 20th century and into the next were set during the 1950s. In the aftermath of World War 2, the economy was still performing poorly. Many consumer goods were not available, and there was little high-wage labor. American media was popular, and the British youth grew infatuated with the apparent wealth of their American counterparts. The economy of the United States was booming, and the images on TV made it appear as though American teens were able to purchase much that the British could not. At the same time, a legion of American musical innovators, including Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, were adapting African American rock and roll for mainstream audiences, and American folk bands like The Weavers were fomenting a roots revival of old time music. Indigenous styles of music production and performance dominated the United Kingdom until the late 1950s, when imported American rock and roll, pop-folk and rockabilly gained fans among British youth, while American roots music, especially the blues, found its own devoted fanbase. Joe Boyd brought the "Blues and Gospel Caravan" to England in April 1964 (including Muddy Waters and Otis Spann). He found the English audiences more enthusiastic than the US ones (see ""White Bicycles" chapter 2). Many USA blues artists followed in their trail.


Late 1950s rock

American rock and roll caught on among British youth, who soon made it their own. In contrast to American listeners, however, the British soon looked past the dance stars and R&B performers into the roots of rock, towards an American folk form called the blues. Lyrically and instrumentally simple, yet passionate, the blues seemed exotic, foreign and exciting. The blues soon became so popular in the UK that virtually unknown cult performers from the US were able to tour and record across the ocean, and a legion of bands imitating their style sprung up.

By the mid-1950s, American rock had spread across the globe. Few countries, however, were able to sustain their own rock traditions. The United Kingdom proved itself an exception, and British rock soon became more popular than American. In the late 50s, though, there were British R&B performers that saw major mainstream success that fed into the British Invasion and beat boom of the later 60s. Almost as soon as Elvis Presley broke into American audiences, Wee Willie Harris was topping the British charts with his own version of rock, followed by the more long-term success of Tommy Steele. Many of these earliest songs were simple covers that showed little innovation, sung by pop stars and teen idols like Johnny Gentle, Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, Adam Faith and Billy Fury (Sound of Fury).

Lonnie Donegan, however, soon emerged as a truly influential performer, launching the skiffle fad. Skiffle was extremely simple, and required only cheap instruments. Local bands sprouted up across the UK, especially in Manchester, including The Quarrymen (who eventually became The Beatles) and other musicians who became seminal British rock performers.

While skiffle was developing with only limited pop success, more well-respected and original British rock bands appeared. Cliff Richard & the Shadows ("Move It") are perhaps the most well-remembered of these bands, and saw considerable fame across the UK and abroad, in countries like Thailand. Tony Sheridan, Screaming Lord Sutch & the Savages, The Tornados ("Telstar") Johnny Kidd and the Pirates ("Shakin' All Over") and Vince Taylor ("Brand New Cadillac") were also respected performers who exerted considerable influence on the next generation of British rockers.

The British Invasion occurred in the 1960's

1960s: British blues and rock

Blues musicians became very popular in the United Kingdom in the late 1950s and early 1960s. British blues soon became a distinct genre, and rock and roll, rockabilly, rhythm and blues and other forms of popular music mixed in the UK, resulting teen crazes such as mod and Merseybeat. By the mid-1960s, British rock dominated charts over much of the world, leading to the term British Invasion. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Yardbirds, The Animals and other British artists played pop and rock with grit and swagger. In the late 1960s, Led Zeppelin and contemporaries such as Black Sabbath (as well as American bands such as The Velvet Underground and Blue Cheer), developed heavy metal music. By the end of the 1960s, British psychedelic rock was reaching its peak of influence, and glam rock arose with artists such as David Bowie, Mott the Hoople and Slade The British rock scene veered into more experimental directions, such as in the Canterbury Scene and the further evolution and popularization of progressive rock bands such as King Crimson, Procol Harum, Genesis and The Moody Blues. Surviving 60s musicians, and sixties music, can still be found today performed by re-formed, and in some cases reformed, bands. See for a good example The Four of Diamonds

Folk music and roots revival

Althhough various permutations of rock dominated the British charts in the 1960s, indigenous folk music traditions remained vibrant and left a lasting influence on pop music. American folk musicians such as Bob Dylan saw widespread success in the UK. Dylan and other American folk performers had been influenced by British and Irish folk music, such as Dylan's old friends, the Irish band Clancy Brothers and seminal archivist Martin Carthy.

Inspired by Bob Dylan, some British youth were looking to their own folk traditions in the 1960s. Perhaps the most popular performer of British folk-based pop was Donovan, who was unable to sustain popularity in any scene as he moved through pure pop, psychedelia and folk in the 1960s. Pure folk music of the time includes well-remembered performers like Shirley Collins, Davey Graham, Bert Jansch and Martin Carthy. These performers left a lasting influence on pop stars, such as Carthy's teaching Paul Simon one of his earliest hits, "Scarborough Fair", and Graham's teaching Simon "Anji". Simon & Garfunkel's folk-pop was influenced by both British and American folk music, and become popular on both sides of the Atlantic during the 1960s, while Jansch influenced heavy metal pioneer Jimmy Page as well as Canadian folk-rock singer Neil Young.

With John Renbourn, Jansch formed a group called Pentangle that made them perhaps the first folk-rock fusion in British history. The folk scene at the time was just beginning to incorporate progressive elements inspired by psychedelia, resulting in the spacey folk fusions of groups like the Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention. Fairport Convention is often said to be the first electric folk group, and their 1969 Liege and Lief was enormously influential, heralding a roots revival in British popular culture that inspired a wave of more folk-based musicians like Richard Thompson, Steeleye Span, Fotheringay, Sandy Denny and Ian Matthews.

Early 1960s

In the late 1950s, British artists had begun slavishly imitating American performers of the blues. The 1960s, however, saw the evolution of a distinctly British version that drew on American pioneers like Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King. Eric Clapton was perhaps the most influential of these musicians, and he inspired a legion of fans who were so devoted to him that they famously graffitied the sentence Clapton is God in major cities. By the middle of the decade, British blues and other trends, like skiffle and merseybeat, had coalesced into British rock. The early 1960s had seen only some British flirtation with true rock; artists like Cliff Richard were popular, and played a distinct variation of rock, but without the stylistic innovation that was soon to define British rock. "The House of the Rising Sun" (1964) by the Animals was one of the first number one singles to be over 3 minutes long. It reached number one in the USA as well. It was also one of the first traditional songs to be performed with electric guitar.


Skiffle was a form of music based on American Appalachian folk music, with distinctively British characteristics. Skiffle bands were led by a guitarist, who was accompanied by a percussion instrument or washboard. Some were guitar and banjo duos who looked and sounded like updated versions of 1920s and 1930s jug bands. This music was wild and energetic, and often rough and unpolished. Of the many brief skiffle stars, Lonnie Donegan arose as perhaps the most influential, inspiring numerous imitators and the genre's flirtation with mainstream success. It is also worthy to note that John Lennon (of The Beatles) started his musical career in a skiffle band called The Blackjacks.

Mod, R&B and Merseybeat

The mod subculture (which began in the late 1950s) has been associated with several different music genres. Early mods enjoyed modern jazz, rhythm and blues, ska and soul (especially Motown recordings). Although the first British mod-related bands played cover songs, many of them soon began writing their own songs, which were faster and harder-edged than the music of their American R&B predecessors. Popular British mod bands included Small Faces, The Who and The Yardbirds.

In London in the early 1960s, British teens were discovering American R&B pioneers through hard-to-find imports. This formed an important part of the repertoire of bands of the beat boom, such as the Rolling Stones and The Animals. Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley were big influences on British R&B. Alexis Korner acted as a mentor for many of the earliest British R&B performers, including the Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and the Graham Bond Organization (featuring future Cream members Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce).

With the beat boom in 1963, Liverpool became the center for British rock, closely followed by a similar scene in Manchester. Merseybeat was a fusion of skiffle, rock and roll and R&B. Artists such as Gerry & the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer and The Beatles became phenomenally successful at home and found audiences in the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries. Manchester's Hollies, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, Herman's Hermits and Freddie and the Dreamers also found success. Pure Merseybeat was short-lived, but it left a lasting influence on bands such as The Kinks and The Yardbirds. Meanwhile, the gritty London band The Rolling Stones quickly established itself as part of the British rock scene, and were second in popularity only to The Beatles.

Alongside the Rolling Stones came bands such as the Pretty Things, Manfred Mann and The Yardbirds. The Yardbirds featured the legendary British guitarist Eric Clapton at the time, although they saw little commercial success until he was replaced by Jeff Beck. Eric Burdon's The Animals, Stevie Winwood's Spencer Davis Group and Van Morrison's Them also revolutionized the genre, adding new lyrical ideas and instruments such as the organ. John Mayall's Bluesbreakers used R&B as a major component of their blues-based recordings. Other artists added strong jazz influences, such as Georgie Fame, Graham Bond Organization and Zoot Money (with future The Police member Andy Summers).

Songwriting quickly became a major part of the repertoire of The Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones, although The Animals, Pretty Things and most of the other contemporary bands only had sporadic success with original works. Many of the new songs crossed the line into rock and roll, such as Them's "Gloria" and the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction". By the end of 1965, almost all of the British R&B bands had switched to rock or soul, and played almost entirely self-penned songs.

Mid to late 1960s

The earliest British rock performers quickly moved from innovative interpretations of American rock to romantic ballads and pop songs. While these performers, like Cliff Richard, Joe Brown and Billy Fury, remained popular among mainstream audiences, they fueled a backlash among many of the British youth, who wanted more energetic and original musicians that were more like their unorthodox American stars, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry. With the success of The Beatles in 1963 (Please Please Me), major labels began signing hard rock bands that were previously considered unsignable. Originally centered in The Beatles' Liverpool, other cities produced their own stars, many of whom emerged from the poverty-stricken urban areas of major cities. This wave of British popular rock bands became popular across the world, especially in the United States at first, but soon spreading to all the corners of Asia, Latin America, Africa and continental Europe; this became known as the British Invasion.

Liverpool, Manchester and London were perhaps the most important scenes of the British rock bands. Liverpool's merseybeat revolution was short-lived, but inspired a passionate local scene. London's bands tended to be harder and more R&B-influenced, though pure American folk blues was popular as well, especially Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley. London had been the center of the British blues movement, which produced bluesmen like Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner. These were the pioneers that inspired the Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who and The Yardbirds. Their rebellious attitude earned these London bands much controversy, which soon spread to The Beatles and everywhere else the British Invasion went.

British Invasion

Only some of the British Invasion bands were able to maintain their artistic integrity throughout the 1960s. Many folded due to internal rivalries, including The Zombies and The Yardbirds, and their members went on to form side projects and solo careers. The Who, Rolling Stones and Beatles were able to maintain international popularity and critical acclaim through the 1960s and beyond, while The Kinks became a long-running band that was popular primarily in the UK. The Kinks' Ray Davies is often considered a quintessential British performer, whose influence defined the next thirty years of British rock-pop.

Members of the bands who folded in the face of the pressures of sudden stardom became the root of many of the late 1960s' most popular bands. Traffic and Cream arose out of the ashes of other bands, featuring yet more innovative songwriting and experimental elements, as well as cohesive albums of original material. Still others, like Pink Floyd, had little in common with their forebears, but nevertheless emerged as pioneers taking British rock to new heights of experimentalism. By 1966, the major wave of the British Invasion was over. British bands remained popular abroad, but many British teens took to those that found relatively little success in the States, especially The Kinks.

Psychedelic rock

Psychedelic rock emerged late in the 1960s, both in the United Kingdom and United States, as the music of a youth-led revolution. The counterculture inspired political and social activism, and a challenge to British cultural norms. The degree of influence that recreational drug use, like cannabis and LSD, had on psychedelic rock is hotly debated. That drugs, especially LSD, were an important part of the counterculture, is certain. The degree to which they inspired the well-meaning activism of the countercultural youth as well as the degree to which they caused its failure is less certain.

British psychedelia was generally less dark than its American counterpart. Spacy lyrics with poetic imagery were common, as were experimental fusions of rock with the English folk tradition, jazz and Indian music. Psychedelic bands showed a rough and forceful image, though their music and lyrics were playful and accessible, showcasing a pride in British culture that was unusual in a time when globalized media was just beginning to dominate British society. Psychedelia is usually said to have evolved in 1966, drawing out of revolutionary recordings from the previous year like The Who's "My Generation". Almost immediately, Indian influences crept into British popular music, with The Kinks' "See My Friends" and The Yardbirds' "Heart Full of Soul", and the sitar on The Beatles' Rubber Soul among the earliest.

The Yardbirds' "Shapes of Things" is considered the true beginning of psychedelic rock. The Yardbirds were not the pop stars The Beatles were, but they were extremely popular and their songs' dark and sludgey sound set the stage for heavy metal music as well as American psychedelia. The Beatles also released numerous early psychedelic recordings, many of which saw great popularity but were obscured by lighter pop fare and experimental recordings. Revolver, for example, featured both early psychedelia with a dark tone as well as light and catchy orchestral songs inspired by The Beach Boys proto-psychedelic Pet Sounds. In spite of its stylistic variation, Revolver 's sheer complexity and cohesion as an album made it an influential psychedelic recording.

Though less well-remembered today, Donovan emerged during the same period with Sunshine Superman, a stylistic leap for the pop star that saw him incorporating the Bob Dylan-inspired folk of his earlier work, to more exotic, psychedelic sounds and instruments, including the Sitar, Tabla drum and Harpsichord.

The darker sounds of early psychedelia inspired American bands like The Doors, while The Kinks and other British bands preferred the lighter and simpler riffs of The Beatles and Donovan. Symphonic elements were introduced, and songs became yet more and more complex, eventually resulting in bands like Moody Blues and The Nice innovating a classical-inspired revolution in psychedelia called progressive rock. The darker edge of psychedelia dominated the American scene of the late 1960s, but soon lost its edge there in favor of light pop singer-songwriters like John Denver and James Taylor. The same sound, however, in British psychedelia never grew popular enough to gain a reputation for bloated and pretentious attitudes, instead inspiring the modern, yet simple passion of early heavy metal music and bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.

Alongside the psychedelic revolution of progressive rock came the concept album, associated with The Pretty Things, S.F. Sorrow, The Kinks' Face to Face and The Who's A Quick One. Bands that represent perhaps the pinnacle of British psychedelia include the quirky experimentation of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, the typically English character sketches of Tomorrow and the jazzier Soft Machine, who helped to inspire the unique Canterbury Scene of psychedelia. Californian expatriates The Misunderstood were also influential. The Beatles' 1967 "Penny Lane"/"Strawberry Fields Forever" and their Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band-era and The Kinks Village Green Preservation Society also showcased British psychedelia at its most characteristic.

Progressive rock

Progressive music began its evolution as early as 1965, and elements could be found in even earlier compositions. American and British artists added instruments like the mellotron and adopted longer and longer suites of complex music. Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone", from Highway 61 Revisited, was the first major pop song to became a hit in spite of a running time of more than three minutes. Though Dylan and other American artists were influential, it was a wave of British artists that formed the vanguard of progressive rock, which peaked in mainstream success from 1971 to 1976.

The two most influential bands of early progressive rock were The Nice and the Moody Blues. The Nice formed when P.P. Arnold needed a backing band, which featured Keith Emerson on keyboards. The Nice soon outshined Arnold herself, and they began a career of their own, using classical music and jazz to spice up compositions written by everyone from Bob Dylan to Italian soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone. Their first album was The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, released in 1967, just as Pink Floyd was beginning to make a name for themselves in the London club scene. Pink Floyd featured Syd Barrett's spaced-out, simple nursery rhyme-style lyrics with instrumental jams; the band was originally psychedelic, but with the departure of Barrett became less song-focused and included more jams and cohesive albums, becoming a progressive rock band.

Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" was extremely popular, and launched the band's career as a pioneering progressive rock band, in spite of the song having been recorded by a studio band only lated fronted by Procol Harum. "A Whiter Shade of Pale" paved the way for the Moody Blues, who had released several R&B singles (including a huge hit, "Go Now") before being chosen by their label, English Decca, to be paired with an orchestra in a recording of Dvořák's New World Symphony. The Dvořák idea was soon scrapped, and the band instead released the surprise success Days of Future Passed.

In the wake of the Moody Blues psychedelia/proto-progressive stylings came some other bands, like the Dutch Ekseption, the acoustic Providence (Ever Sense the Dawn), Barclay James Harvest and Giles, Giles & Fripp, soon to regroup as legendary band King Crimson. Aside from the sporadic success of the Moody Blues and other bands, progressive rock saw little mainstream success until the 1970s.

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