THE SECOND BRITISH INVASION
I was fortunate to have been alive for the first British musical invasion in the Swinging Sixties. Shortly after the death of President Kennedy in November of 1963, the country got its mojo back with an open-armed, manic response to the British bands who toured the country, knowing that success in the American market would bring them fame and fortune. I bought many 45 rpm two-and-a-half-minute singles with pop ditties by the likes of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Animals, The Yardbirds, Herman's Hermits, The Dave Clark Five, The Hollies, Chad & Jeremy, Peter and Gordon, and many others. I mean...it was a transformative time for music. "It's got a backbeat, you can't lose it," as Chuck Berry opined about Rock & Roll Music. The tunes were simple songs of love or lost love, the rhymes were often sketchy, the melodies were pretty much limited to three chords, and some of the musicians were just learning how to play, but the songs were infectious and made you feel good to be alive.
That feeling was reborn in the first half of the 1980s, when American television was saturated with songs from British pop bands who desired to replicate the success of the previous generation's song stylists with three-minute hits of their own. But instead of having records spun by DJs, they had videos played by VJs on the latest phenomenon--MTV. I have written before about MTV and its hold over pop culture during the early 80s. Today, I'm focusing on a few pop bands from Britain who found success in this new format. Often, more money was allocated for an exotic video production than for the music itself because sales were generated when American viewers demanded that a video be put in high rotation on MTV. The release of a new video at midnight was a thing. Having your video "spun" every few hours was a sign that you had made it in America!
Here are a few of the hit songs of the period with a little back story:
One of my favorite videos from the period featured a minor band in the 80s: ABC, from Sheffield, England. ABC featured the song stylings of Martin Fry, a "lounge-lizard" vocalist with style and an interesting tenor voice. He and the band knocked out five songs that "charted" in America during the decade, none bigger than "The Look of Love" from their debut album. Really, almost every song on that album, The Lexicon of Love (1982), was eminently danceable and extremely catchy. "Poison Arrow" and "Tears Are Not Enough" also received significant airplay. As the lyrics go, "When your girl has left you out on the pavement....", the song was a plaintive cry by Martin Fry about the trials of lost love (including a self-referential chat with the listeners near the end of the song!), told in the video with irreverence, silliness, and a little wit. The video above (and linked below)
I'll have to include a few of the more memorable video releases from the period. The first was the subject of laughter and ridicule at the time, primarily because of the band's "look". Look notwithstanding, the song was a hit for the band A Flock of Seagulls. It's called "I Ran (So Far Away)". It was bad then and it's still bad! A member of England's New Wave bands, A Flock of Seagulls made it to the Top Ten in the United States with this tune, a prime example of synth-pop--bands using electronic synthesizers, drum kits, and a bass to create a propulsive sound.
Another New Wave classic was Gary Numan's one-hit wonder "Cars". London-born Numan actually has had a rich and diverse career as a songwriter, collaborator, and innovator. But in the US, he is almost entirely known as the androgynous presence behind "Cars", a classic synth-pop tune with an infectious hook. In England, he is considered one of the leading figures in the history of electronic music. In his career, he has actually sold over 10,000,000 records! But if you need to know one thing about Numan--this is that thing. This song also became a Top Ten hit in America.
And I couldn't pass up including Thomas Dolby. In 1982, this Brit climbed the charts thanks to a strange but fun, tongue-in-cheek video for his hit tune "She Blinded Me With Science". He, too, was a purveyor of the New Wave synth-pop sound. The song was not a big hit back home but made it to #5 on the charts in the US. If I had to make a list of my top ten videos from the British Invasion II, this video has a firm grasp on one of the slots. It's just wacky and inventive and catchy. I think it must remind me of my favorite television series from the 60s, The Avengers (see earlier blog post). Great praise, indeed.
Here comes a controversial song, although nobody much thought so in 1985 when it was released. "Money for Nothing" was a monster hit for the British band Dire Straits, led by guitar god Mark Knopfler. Knopfler was inspired to write the song when he was shopping in one of those huge appliance stores that dot the American landscape on the likes of Route # 1, Route # 9, Route # 22, and many other soulless highways in New Jersey. This one was in New York City. As he put it to Bill Flanagan, "The lead character in "Money for Nothing" [depicted at the very top of this post] is a guy who works in the hardware department in a television/custom kitchen/refrigerator/microwave appliance store. He's singing the song. I wrote the song when I was actually in the store. I borrowed a bit of paper and started to write the song down in the store. I wanted to use a lot of the language that the real guy actually used when I heard him, because it was more real." In effect, the song is a dramatic monologue, with the "listener" to the complaints helping the guy move big boxes of appliances but not contributing to the one-sided complaint. As Knopfler remembered, "There was a male employee dressed in a baseball cap, work boots, and a checkered shirt delivering boxes who was standing next to him watching. As they were standing there watching MTV, Knopfler remembers the man coming up with lines such as "what are those, Hawaiian noises?...that ain't workin'," etc. Knopfler then requested a pen to write some of these lines down and then eventually put those words to music. The character in the lyrics refers to a musician "banging on the bongos like a chimpanzee" and a woman "stickin' in the camera, man we could have some fun". He describes a singer as "that little [homophobic slur] with the earring and the make-up", and bemoans that these artists get 'money for nothing and chicks for free'." As you can see, the song practically wrote itself!
The song was released in June of '85, and it vaulted to #1 for three straight weeks. It won Best Rock performance at the Grammys the following year and was also nominated for Song of the Year and Record of the Year. It also won Music Video of the year at the MTV Video Awards ceremony. I remember watching many hours of the simulcast concerts that made up Live Aid, a fundraiser put together by Bob Geldof to help the famine-ridden citizens of Ethiopia in July of 1985. There were European performers in London's Wembley Stadium and American performers in JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. At Wembley, Dire Straits opened with this song, backed up, of course, by Sting, who employed his falsetto to start the song, singing "I Want my MTV", which became a catchphrase.
The original award-winning video is no longer in general circulation, although I have included a clip of the opening minute. The homophobic slur used casually by the neanderthal store employee became too toxic to use. Knopfler recalled a complaint and responded, "I got an objection from the editor of a gay newspaper in London – he actually said it was below the belt...in fact, I'm still in two minds as to whether it's a good idea to write songs that aren't in the first person, to take on other characters. The singer in "Money for Nothing" is a real ignoramus, hard hat mentality – somebody who sees everything in financial terms. I mean, this guy has a grudging respect for rock stars. He sees it in terms of, well, that's not working and yet the guy's rich: that's a good scam. He isn't sneering." I am constantly reminding my students that characters who have polarizing views or use offensive language don't necessarily reflect the views of the authors, but I suspect we are never returning to a time when people didn't equate character with author. In the concert clip above, Knopfler substitutes other words for the slur. You can find the original video on YouTube, but it was uploaded from foreign countries. It's funny that the video was a hit because Knopfler, himself, hated the idea of groups having to make videos in order to promote themselves in the business. He hated all the "pretty-boy" bands with their teased hair and glam outfits, and this song actually pokes a little fun at them. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the video was also a bit of a landmark as an example of early computer animation techniques. Regardless of the controversy and the computer animation, you can simply enjoy it as a great rock song, propelled by Knopfler's legendary guitar riff.
I thought I would include a video from a band that was around from the original British Invasion, or shortly thereafter. The British rock group YES formed in the late 60s and, along with a few other bands like King Crimson, the Moody Blues or Genesis in its early days, established a genre of music that came to be known as Progressive Rock (Prog Rock). This variant picked up on the experimental qualities found in the mid-60s songs of the Beatles or Brian Wilson and took them to the next level, often fueled by orchestral accompaniment, obscure lyrics, electronic synthesizers (mellotrons and Moog), and grandiose thematic elements. It had a niche appeal, but a viable one commercially, and there were a few crossover hits. In the early 70s, YES hit it very big, especially with their breakout track "Roundabout" (1971). But they were a defunct band a decade later. By 1983 they reformed with some additions and hit the MTV world with "Owner of a Lonely Heart", their biggest hit yet. It contains many of the elements that made videos a subject for debate and discussion. The conventional video starts about two minutes into this long form video: