The British Are Coming: Early Bands of the British Invasion

The following is an article from the book Uncle John’s Perpetually Pleasing Bathroom Reader.

The “British Invasion” period of rock music in the 1960s exposed American audiences to some of the best bands of all time. For anyone who lived through it, it was electrifying. Imagine hearing a new record by the Beatles for the first time. (Bonus: Parents hated it!) There were new groups and new sounds coming over the radio airwaves and arriving in record stores every week. But given how many bands there were, it’s amazing how many disappeared just as quickly as they appeared.

(Image credit: Flickr user Shawn Rossi)

ANARCHY IN THE U.K.

Inspired by American music forms, particularly early rock ’n’ roll, country and western, and rhythm and blues, British teenagers started forming garage bands in the early 1960s, merging those styles together. The music press called them “Beat” bands because they had a driving drum beat, but also “Merseybeat” bands, named for a small magazine that covered local bands. The magazine— Mersey Beat— took its name from the River Mersey, which is located in northwest England and runs through one of the centers of British garage-band music, Liverpool. Not all Merseybeat bands were from Liverpool, though. Many hailed from Manchester, Newcastle, and other working-class towns in England’s “Midlands” that were decidedly not London.

But when dozens of these groups began signing record deals and scoring international hit records— primarily because one Beat band, the Beatles, paved the way for them— the wave of English acts that swept over North America became known as the British Invasion.

Here are a few of the bands from that era, which dominated rock music from the early 1960s well into the ’70s.

BILLY J. KRAMER AND THE DAKOTAS

If the Beatles were the varsity team, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas were the JV squad. They had the same manager (Brian Epstein), the same producer (George Martin), and a lot of their songs were written by Lennon and McCartney. Epstein signed Kramer because he was good-looking and could possibly be a teen idol. (The rest of the band was signed separately and assigned to Kramer.) Their first single was a cover of the Beatles’ “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” with piano played by Martin. It went to #2 in the U.K.

(YouTube link)

The next one, Lennon-McCartney’s “Bad to Me” went to #1. Before long, Kramer, whose real name was Billy Ashton, got tired of doing Beatles castoffs, so the band recorded “Little Children” (written by an American) and released it in the U.S., backed with “Bad to Me.” Both songs went top-10. Their success would be short-lived, though— it was okay to sound like the Beatles as long as the Beatles still sounded like the Beatles. But by 1966, they had gone experimental and progressive, and all the bands that sounded like the pre-Sgt. Pepper Beatles were suddenly very passé. Kramer’s group broke up in 1968.

THE LIVERPOOL FIVE

Whenever something gets really popular, there are going to be bandwagon-jumpers if not full-on imitators. Such is the case with the rise of the Beatles and the Liverpool Five. But it wasn’t the band’s fault… mostly. Singer Steve Laine got four friends together in 1963 and formed the Steve Laine Combo. Like the Beatles, they honed their instrumental and performance skills on the German club circuit, which is where they acquired a German manager in 1964, who sought to cash in on Beatlemania by, it would seem, trying to confuse consumers. He renamed the band the Liverpool Five (even though none of them were from Liverpool), and dressed them in familiar-looking moptop haircuts and matching suits.

The makeover did help— in 1964 they won a contest to tour Japan and play at the Tokyo Summer Olympics. After making a minor splash in Asia, the Liverpool Five relocated to the U.S. and toured with the Kinks, Rolling Stones, and Beach Boys. And yet their only single to chart in the U.S., “Any Way That You Want Me,” peaked at just #98, despite promotional appearances on American Bandstand and Hullabaloo.

THE BEE GEES

The Bee Gees may be the definitive disco group, but “Night Fever” and “Stayin’ Alive” overshadow their very successful 1960s years as a pop-rock band. They didn’t come directly from England. The Bee Gees— brothers Maurice, Robin, and Barry Gibb— were born on the Isle of Man and lived in Manchester, but moved to Australia as children in the late ’50s. When their music career began to take off in the early ’60s, they moved to the hub of the rock world at the time— London. Producer Robert Stigwood signed them to a deal, found them a guitarist and drummer, and released their first international album, First, in 1967. The result was a very Beatles-esque sound, with tight, layered three-part harmonies from the Gibbs.

(YouTube link)

Stigwood sent their first single, “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” to radio stations with the band’s name intentionally left off, correctly guessing that DJs would think it was a new Beatles song and play it. (A New York DJ referred to it as “English surprise #1” and the B-side, “I Can’t See Nobody” as “English Surprise #2.”) It went top 20 in the U.K. and the U.S., as did “To Love Somebody,” “Massachusetts,” “Words,” “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You,” “I Started a Joke,” and “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.” By 1972, their sound was no longer hip, and it wouldn’t be until 1975 that the Bee Gees would have another hit— and a rare second act, with the disco song “Jive Talkin’.”

THE FOURMOST

Like the Liverpool 5, the Fourmost had a name that made audiences think of the Beatles, or the “Fab Four.” But that was merely a coincidence. They formed and started playing gigs in German clubs long before their fellow Liverpudlians struck it rich. The band began back in 1957 as the Two Jays, consisting of teenage singer-guitarists Brian O’Hara and Joey Bower, and later became the Four Jays when they added a bassist and a drummer. They played gigs at the Cavern Club in Hamburg in early 1961— before the Beatles.

By 1962, the group had changed its name again, to the Fourmost, and in 1963, hired a manager— Brian Epstein, who also managed the Beatles. He got them a record deal and their first two singles, “Hello Little Girl” and “I’m in Love” were both composed by John Lennon. (“Hello Little Girl” was actually one of the first songs Lennon ever wrote, in 1957, long before the Beatles.) Both were big hits in the U.K., reaching #9 and #17, respectively. Those two will go down in music history as the first Beatle songs released in the U.S., but unfortunately, the Fourmost didn’t quite ride the tide of the British Invasion, either pre- or post-Beatles. Neither song made the pop charts. And after “I’m in Love,” the Fourmost never had another Top 20 hit in England, not even a 1966 cover of “Here, There and Everywhere” written by… John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

THE TREMELOES

On January 1, 1962, Decca Records auditioned two similar bands: the Tremeloes and the Beatles. Decca signed the Tremeloes, mainly because they were from London (unlike the Liverpudlian Beatles), which would make it easier to book them for concerts and TV appearances, all of which taped in London. The band couldn’t gain much of a toehold and would forever be compared to the Beatles, in part because one of their first singles was a cover version of the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout,” which the Beatles had covered a few months earlier. The Tremeloes version hit #4 in July 1963; the Beatles version hit #2 in January 1964.

Other singles included “Do You Love Me” (a cover of a song by the Contours), “Candy Man” (a cover of a Roy Orbison song), and “Someone, Someone” (originally done by Buddy Holly). All those songs hit the top 10 in the U.K., but not until 1967 did the Tremeloes have hits in America. They were more covers— of the Four Seasons’ “Silence is Golden” and Cat Stevens’s “Here Comes My Baby.”

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The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Perpetually Pleasing Bathroom Reader. The 26th annual edition of Uncle John’s wildly successful series is all-new and jam-packed with the BRI’s patented mix of fun and information.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!


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