There are very few countries in the world, if any, that have served as the point of origin of more world-changing music than England. We can take a step back and ask ourselves why English-language music and culture dominates the global culture as it has, why songs written with English lyrics and “Western” rhythms have a disproportionate sway over, let’s say, music from China or even the Middle East where billions of people have lived and made music for thousands of years, but those questions are probably beyond our current scope. Instead, let’s stay oblivious, putting that kind of broad questioning aside to marvel at the sheer volume of musical genres that have originated in, and/or developed in, England…wow.
Even in the earliest of the early days, British music both found influence in and influenced music abroad. English musicians learned from and taught bards and troubadours from other nations on the British Isles, like the Irish, the Scots and the Welsh, and also had regular interchanges with musicians from France and elsewhere around continental Europe. Through these interchanges musicians from the the British Isles originated or advanced musical genres like Medieval drum dances, the Contenance Angloise, the rota, polyphonic votive antiphons and the carol.
In the 16th century the Protestant Reformation separated English Protestants from continental Catholic Church, leading to less musical interchange between the British Islands and the rest of Europe. In this era, which coincided with the Renaissance (roughly from the 14th to the 17th centuries), British composers developed their own madrigals and lute ayres. By the Baroque era (from about 1600 to 1750) British composers were in regular communication with their counterparts on the continent; the most significant British classical composer, George Frideric Handel, was raised in Germany before moving to England. (Listen to Handel’s most famous bit of his most famous work–the “Hallelujah” from his Messiah.)
If you’re curious about medieval and Renaissance era instruments–and why shouldn’t you be?–visit Music Antiqua’s website (online since 1996!) to learn about both those that are relatively familiar, like the lute, the harpsichord, the pipe and tabor and the dulcimer, and also less familiar, awesomely named instruments such as the cornamuse, the Hirtenschalmei, the sacbut and the zink.
Until the end of the 19th century “folk music” was less a celebrated musical form in England than it was a means of actual communication between British people. Like “folk” around the world, British “folk” sang while working, while celebrating, while sad. Many of the songs we now know as British folk music first appeared as “broadside ballads” that were printed and sold for a penny, but years of singing resulted in interpretation developing on top of interpretation. The songs told tales of troubles and tribulations, but many were quick and clever. There were laments to be sure, but even the saddest British ballads came with a wink, if not a laugh.
In the late 1800s American ethnomusicologist Francis Child begin to document the ballads of the British Isle; his “Child Ballads” are an essential document of English and Scottish folk. Still, only after World War II did England’s folk music find a popular audience. In the 1950s singer and activist Ewan MacColl led a group of folk artists who revisited and consciously revived the
old traditions. Folk clubs abounded as musicians reveled in the breadth and beauty of British
traditional songs. Folk took a backseat to the British rock boom of the mid and late ’60s, which
we’ll explore a bit below–the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the thousand other British rock bands were hard to ignore–but in 1969 a band of young British rock musicians called Fairport Convention applied their electric instruments and sense of eager rebellion to British traditional songs. Fairport’s Liege and Lief made British folk undeniably cool. While punk and other genres that flooded England in the late ’70s upstaged electric folk, traditional music has quietly held its own as a respected form.
— Ewan MacColl: Inspired in the 1950s by the extensive English folk music field research of
American folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, Scottish singer/songwriter/actor/activist Ewan MacColl built a career based on unearthing and re-energizing traditional English ballads. He was also a prolific songwriter; his best-known composition is “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” a love song he wrote during his controversial “May-December” relationship with folk singer Peggy Seeger. Watch MacColl perform his original “My Old Man.” Listen to MacColl and Peggy Seeger sing a Scottish ballad that we’ll learn in class, “Will Ye No Come Back Again.”
— Fairport Convention: Fairport was the first band to electrify British folk music–both literally and figuratively. Starting in the late 1960s Fairport energetically and innovatively embraced traditional British music and used it as a foundation for its own energetic and innovative originals. For over forty years Fairport and its expansive lineup of talented musicians have been at the heart of the British folk-rock scene. Watch Fairport play live at the Maidstone Fiesta in 1970. Listen to early Fairport member Sandy Denny and Fairport perform “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” a song you’ll learn in class. Watch early Fairport member Richard Thompson, a prolific and profound singer/songwriter and extraordinary guitarist, performing his “1952 Vincent Black Lightening” in 2006. In class we’re going to listen to Fairport’s “Come All Ye” from it groundbreaking 1969 folk-rock release, Liege and Lief.
— Steeleye Span:
Formed in 1969 by Fairport Convention co-founding member Ashley Hutchings, Steeleye Span has rivaled Fairport in its longevity (both bands still rock on–or should we say “folk-rock on”) and continued centrality in England’s folk/rock community. Watch Steeleye Span perform live in 1971.
Martin Carthy: Guitarist Martin Carthy has been at the heart of Britian’s folk-rock community
before such a thing even existed. Carthy began his career in the early ’60s as a folk troubadour and went on to not only inspire Fairport Convention’s British traditional music explorations, but to influence American folk-rockers like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. (Simon and Garfunkel used Carthy’s arrangement of “Scarborough Fair” on their 1966 Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme.) Over his enduring career Carthy was a member of Steeleye Span, The Watersons,
and the more recent Waterson Carthy with his wife Norma Waterson and their daughter
Eliza Carthy. Watch Carthy perform with influential British folk-fiddler and long-term Fairport member Dave Swarbrick live in the late ’60s.
By the mid-1960s British musicians had been listening to American rock and blues for a generation and they were ready to make it their own. In the U.S. at the time most of the popular pop stars were performers who presented songs written by composers commissioned by their record companies, and where therefore at the mercy of the recording industry. That would all change in 1964 when a group of hairy younguns known as the Beatles landed in the U.S. and
changed everything. The Beatles were the first wave of what has become known as “The British Invasion,” an almost unrelenting onslaught of British bands that wrote and performed their own music and performed with such explosive energy within a few years they had obliterated most established American pop music conventions. One important advance was that British Invasion bands like the Rolling Stones were able to celebrate and find direct creative inspiration in African-American music in a way American rock musicians had yet to do.
— The Beatles:
The Beatles are so ubiquitous that they rise above the need for introduction here, though if you want to introduce your kids to the Beatles you need do little more than search for “The Beatles” on YouTube to come upon infinite hours of incredible material. If you do want a place to start, watch The Beatles perform on Ed Sullivan in 1964 (you’ve probably seen it, but as you watch again, try to remember how profoundly global culture changed with that one appearance), watch a young Paul McCartney perform “Yesterday” and a slightly less young Paul McCartnety rehearse “Blackbird,” watch John Lennon perform “Come Together” and “Imagine” (recorded after the Beatles broke up, but still…), watch a formidably bearded George Harrison performing “Here Comes the Sun” and watch the luckiest guy ever, Ringo Starr, sing “Yellow Submarine” in 2005.
While you’re listening to the music you can let your kids know the Beatles changed everything in the record industry and pop culture in general. Why? In addition to being unrivaled songwriters, composing songs that are perfectly melodic, clever, serious and silly, funny and deeply, touchingly sad–truly, the wonderful songs are at the heart of it all–musically the Beatles were artistically innovative–almost fearless–and they forged new territory with their almost every move. In technical terms they pioneered myriad recording techniques that are now common, such as the use of samples and classical instruments in
rock recording. They broke a particular stranglehold record companies had on artists, being among the first super-popular bands to generate their own material rather than play songs written for them by record company-hired songwriters (though of course jazz, blues and other artists that were less at the center of pop culture had done this for decades), even starting their own record company to be able to record and promote their own music. In the realm of pop culture, they were not only the first truly global rock band–over 70 million Americans watched their first performance on Ed Sullivan–they were the first band to grow their hair long, proving as harbingers of the massive cultural change to come in the ’60s. (We forget how revolutionary long hair on men was in the early 1960s. It was really, really huge.) Politically the Beatles were the first globally popular bands to express their opinions on the issues of the day both through their music and beyond. (And they talked about religion and spirituality and the power of love too. Amazing!) Tell your kids all that. And they’ll probably still wonder what’s the big deal.
— The Rolling Stones: First invading the United States in the mid ’60s, billed as a bluesier (read: “more dangerous because they play African-American-inspired music”) version of the Beatles, The Rolling Stones have had an unfathomably successful career with an almost infinite number of international hits. The band’s leaders, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, are so far beyond iconic one can almost forget their actual songwriting prowess and unmatchable magnetism in live performance. Watch The Rolling Stones perform “Under My Thumb” in 1966, then fast forward and see The Rolling Stones still rock on many decades later.
— The Animals: A British blues-rock band fronted by dynamic vocalist Eric Burdon that rose, experienced enormous commercial success with hits like “The House of the Rising Sun,” “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” and disbanded in the ’60s (though there have been many “reunions” and “revivals.”) Watch the Animals perform “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” live in 1965.
— The Kinks: Brothers Ray and Dave Davies formed The Kinks early in the ’60s and went on to “invade” America in the mid-Sixties buoyed by their hits, “All Day and All of the Night’ (watch them perform it live in 1965, dressed a whole lot like the Beatles) and “You Really Got Me” (watch them perform it live in 1966). They went on to expand their songwriting beyond their original riff-inspired blues-rock, enjoying success with more intricate songs like “Waterloo Sunset” (watch them perform it live in 1973). Even so, their pioneering of
loud, raucous rock legendarily inspired early punk bands like The Clash (more about them below).
— The Yardbirds:
The Yardbirds were a rollicking yet short-lived blues-rock group that helped establish the loud, fuzzy, take-no-prisoners lead guitar as the core instrument of global rock. Three of the best guitarists of all time were in the Yardbirds’ early lineups–Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. The band broke up in 1968 but members went on to form other legendary rock groups like Led Zeppelin. Watch The Yardbirds perform “Dazed and Confused” live in 1968.
Rock’s first “supergroup,” composed of three musicians who were already at the top of their game when they came together in 1966–bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce, drummer Ginger Baker, and guitarist Eric Clapton. Watch them perform “White Room” live in 1968.
— The Who:
Quite regularly referred to by rock musicians and rock= fans alike as “the greatest rock band of all time”–one could argue for another “greatest,” but there would have to be a serious argument–The Who formed in England in the mid-’60s and had an almost
unmatchable string of hits like “I Can’t Explain,” “My Generation” and “I Can See For Miles.” Their power came not only in their tremendous songwriting, nor from the intense musicianship of vocalist Roger Daltry, guitarist Pete Townshend, bassist John Entwhistle and drummer Keith Moon, but also in their unrivaled live performances, which embodied the empowered anger of “their generation” by being loud (too loud) and explosive (literally). The Who also pioneered the progressive “rock opera” form, which wedding rock music with operatically ambitious storytelling, most notably in 1969 with the ground-breaking Tommy. Watch The Who perform Tommy live and in full in 1989. Also,
watch The Who perform “My Generation,” complete with exploding drum set–don’t try that at home–on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967 and “I’m Free” live in 1970.
— Led Zeppelin:
Led Zeppelin formed in 1968 as The New Yardbirds and essentially missed the first British Invasion, but their artistically ambitious songs and uniquely intense live performances–especially the soaring vocals of Robert Plant and the searing guitar of Jimmy Page–dominated the rock world of the ’70s. Led Zeppelin proved rock music could be virtuosic,
innovative and engaging and enlightening all at once. Watch Zeppelin perform the most epic of all epic rock songs, “Stairway to Heaven,” in 1973, as recorded for their concert film, The Song Remains the Same. Watch them perform “Kashmir” from their 1975 album Physical Graffiti.
By the early ’70s some British rockers had grown weary of relatively straightforward songs and simple chord patterns of blues-rock. They used rock as a foundation but applied a virtuosic, almost Classical sensibility. Their “progressive rock” (“prog-rock”) pushed the boundaries of what had previously considered a musically simple form. Sometimes this music was brilliant, other times pretentiously self-indulgent…often, both.
— Pink Floyd:
Pink Floyd formed in the mid-’60s at the height of the British Invasion but shattered the invasion’s blues-rock conventions by pioneering “psychedelic” rock music that knew few
bounds. Floyd didn’t really capture the popular imagination with its earliest, most strictly “progressive” projects, though the band did leap boldly into musically uncharted territory by abandoning simple song structures and blues-rock rhythms. Pink Floyd achieved commercial success in the ’70s with “concept albums” like The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals and The Wall. (According to the strict definitions of “prog-rock,” Pink Floyd left the genre when their songs became more simply, and commercially, structured.) Pink Floyd’s jaw-dropping live shows (LASERS! A FLYING PIG!) and its members intense “creative differences” are almost as epic as its songs. (Wikipedia’s entry on Pink Floyd will take you step by step from Floyd’s erratic beginnings through its unprecedented accomplishment to its unseemly end.)
Watch Pink Floyd obliterate the structures of rock early in its career in 1968’s “A Saucerful of Secrets” | Watch a modern incarnation of Pink Floyd perform songs from The Dark
Side of The Moon, “Another Brick in the Wall” and “Wish You Were Here.”
The Moody Blues:
In 1967 a British band called The Moody Blues found inspiration in the Beatles’ use of orchestral instruments in some of their production and dove headlong into envelope-pushing rock-classical fusion. Their 1967 Days of Future Passed was a “concept album” featuring songs written to portray an “everyman’s day” from his rising to sleep. Few expected a rock album so fully infused with classical arrangements to be commercially successful, but the band’s melodic songs and lush instrumentation proved rock music didn’t have to sound simple to sell. Watch The Moody Blues in the late ’60s performing “Tuesday Afternoon” and “Nights in White Satin.”
— King Crimson:
True progressive rock pioneers, King Crimson formed in London in 1969 with guitarist Robert Fripp at its core. The band has experienced constant personnel changes over the years and never attained popular/commercial success, but musicians and music-lovers alike revere King Crimson for its unabashed fusion of rock, Western classical music and jazz, as well as its audacity in infusing rock with any sort of psychedelic, new wave, electronic or even global sounds that would serve it artistically. Watch King Crimson
perform the rockin’ “21st Century Schizoid Man” live in 1969. Watch a much more “progressive” King Crimson perform live in 1982.
Emerson, Lake and Palmer:
Formed in 1970 as a “supergroup” composed of three musicians from already-successful bands, Emerson, Lake and Palmer pushed the bounds of progressive rock by creating keyboard-heavy rock music that took itself seriously as a classical form–perhaps too seriously, according to some very vocal critics ELP formally disbanded in 1978 but, like so many other bands of the day, continued in partial form (Emerson and Lake joined other musicians in the ’80s), then reunited for a world tour, then broke up again, then reunited for another comeback…. Watch ELP’s lauded debut at the 1970 Isle of Wright Festival | Is this when ELP truly jumped the shark? Or, as critics may say, did they jump at the Isle of Wright?
Yes formed in England in 1969 as a disparate ensemble of musicians–some with jazz and classical training, others more straightforward rockers–who eventually developed a distinctive “prog-rock” sound by blending jazz and classical arrangements with melodic pop songs. True, they had a radio hit in the early ’80s with “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” but don’t let that get you down. Instead, remember their earlier hit, “I’ve Seen All Good People,” and get a better sense of their progressive approach to rock by watching them perform “Close to the Edge” in 1975.
Genesis attained such popular success in the ’80s with hits such as “Throwing It All Away”, “In Too Deep”, “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight”, “Land of Confusion” and “Invisible Touch” one may easily forget the band’s earlier endeavors as a pioneer of progressive rock. Genesis formed in 1967 and initially played melodic pop songs but by 1970 their compositions had become more intricate, their arrangements more complex, and lead singer Peter Gabriel’s costumes more and more curious. Gabriel left the band after its ambitious 1974 concept album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway to pursue his solo career and eventually to become central in making “world music” more accessible in the West (for which “All Around This World” owes him a serious debt of gratitude). When Gabriel left drummer Phil Collins became lead singer, and the rest, as they say, is history. Watch Genesis in its earlier, odder days, performing “The Musical Box” in 1973.
Jethro Tull formed in the early ’60s as a blues-rock band but throughout the decade developed a
distinctly progressive take on rock and blues. Though not always deemed “prog-rock,” Jethro Tull’s musical signature is the soulful flute playing of vocalist Ian Anderson and the band’s expansive and lyrical approach to songwriting. Watch a compilation of live Tull performances of their 1969 hit “Living in the Past.”
See Anderson in all his eccentric glory performing “Thick as a Brick” in 1978.
By the early ’70s the British art, fashion and music scenes had fully flowed into one another. As a result, musicians became keenly aware of style as a means of personal expression. Performers like Marc Bolan and David Bowie indulged fashion as both a substantive art form and an act of pure theatre. In their performances they wore make up and glamorous costumes previously reserved for women, consciously blurring the line between the genders. (To the older generation, still reeling from the political and cultural revolutions of the late ’60s, seeing David Bowie dressed as the androgynous Ziggy Stardust must have made the “scandalous” long hair of the Beatles seem quaint.)
Marc Bolan & T. Rex:
Marc Bolan was a British guitarist whose flamboyant stage presence and increasingly extensive make up and costumes served as an inspiration for a generation of “glam rockers.” Bolan and T. Rex scored a number of glittery hits in the early ’70s, such as “Bang a Gong (Get It On).” Watch Bolan and T. Rex perform “Children of the Revolution” live 1972.
David Bowie first became known in England when his song “Space Oddity” hit the UK charts in 1969, but he only became an international phenomenon in 1972 when the “glam,” androgynous alter-ego he created for himself, “Ziggy Stardust,” took ownership of the song. Bowie indulged the glam rock form from ’72 to ’75, developing a devoted, almost cult-like audience. In 1975 he abandoned glam for what he called the “plastic
soul” of his hit album Young Americans, then went on to reinvent himself many times since–always with innovative music and an instinct to craft an incredible “look.” Watch Bowie perform “Space Oddity,” first live and unadorned in 1970, then all glammed up as
Ziggy Stardust in 1973.
Roxy Music was a critically acclaimed and popularly successful art rock band that formed in the early ’70s and brought a substantial amount of musical sophistication to glam. Vocalist/songwriter Brian Ferry and keyboardist Brian Eno collaborated on the band’s original experimental sounds and playful visual ethos, and while Eno left in 1973 to become one of rock’s most influential record producers (and innovator of electronic and ambient music), Roxy Music continued to make music and dress to the nines. Roxy Music broke up in 1983 but reunited in 2001. Watch Roxy Music perform “Virginia Plain” in 1972.
Queen may not have strictly been a progressive rock band, though their arrangements and instrumentation hinted that its member shared a a prog-rock soul, and they may not have strictly been glam band, but they wore costumes and looked great in make-up, especially frontman Freddie Mercury. Queen formed early in 1970 and went on to have over a dozen international hits, becoming rock icons and filling stadium after stadium with adoring fans while on a seemingly endless tour. Queen’s tour finally did come to an end when Freddie Mercury passed away in 1991. Watch Queen perform “Bohemian Rhapsody” live in 1986.
Rod Stewart wasn’t exclusively a glam artist, but his many incarnations over the years, since his early days as a lead singer for Jeff Beck’s Group and into his successful solo career in the ’70s, Stewart has always had a spiky haircut and a stylistic flair. Stewart may
have transformed from mod to glam rocker to disco star but his raspy voice and light hearted stage presence have been constant crowd-pleasers. Watch Stewart, as part of the band Faces, perform “Maggie May” in 1971.
Elton John is another British singer-songwriter who’s not technically “glam,” but throughout his long and insanely successful career he most certainly has been glamorous. Since 1967 John has collaborated with songwriter Bernie Taupin and together the two have generated numerous international hits, like “Your Song,” “Daniel, “Bennie and the Jets” and their greatest hit, “Candle In the Wind”–the greatest hit of all time, actually, having sold more than 33 million copies. Watch John perform “Candle In the Wind” dressed like a cross between Mozart (Beethoven?) and Liberace. (And Elton John is not glam…?)
In the mid-70’s art-fashion-glam rockers and increasingly pretentious prog-rockers were all the rage in the UK. A group of young and bold musicians rebelled against what they perceived to be a celebration of superficiality, both in music and in society as a whole, by developing a raucous music known as punk rock. Raw, rude, unabashed and loud, punk bands in the UK in the late ’70s were politically engaged, refreshingly (sometimes frustratingly) outspoken and, most frightening to their elders, not at all afraid.
The Sex Pistols:
The Sex Pistols exploded onto the British music scene in 1975 and in their short two and a half year long career, while they only released four singles and one album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, this band changed everything. Led by vocalist Johnny Rotten and bassist Sid Vicious, and helmed in a broader sense by manager Malcolm MacLaren, The Sex Pistols’ brash fearlessness instinctively made for brilliant theater. While they may or may not have truly been nihilistic, they projected a nihilism that gripped disaffected British youth, paving the way for other anti-establishment punk bands to express their furor against the “corrupt” political and “empty” pop cultural leaders of the UK. The band broke up in early 1978. Vicious died of a drug overdose in 1979. Though most Sex Pistols songs aren’t quite appropriate for kids, you’ll find clips in abundance on YouTube. You can also watch this 1976 BBC documentary about punk rock that features The Sex Pistols and The Clash. Speaking of whom….
Finding inspiration in the unpredictable punk of The Sex Pistols, guitarist Joe Strummer and other members of The Clash come together in 1976 and quickly rose to prominence because of their ability to rage honestly against the powers that be while still crafting catchy songs. While the Sex Pistols’ political stance was famously a call for chaos, The
Clash embraced anti-establishment liberation movements and tried to direct their anger, and the anger of their fans, toward positive ends. The band’s 1980 album, London Calling, fused punk with ska, funk, jazz and soul. It was a global hit. The Clash toured and recorded to great critical and commercial acclaim throughout the early 1980s but collapsed under the creative and commercial pressures. The Clash disbanded in 1986. Watch The Clash perform their most commercial, most conspicuously apolitical single, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” in 1982. We’ll sing “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”
Crass formed in 1977 and personified a different shade of political punk–the unapologetic embrace of anti-hierarchical anarchism as a route to global peace. Crass began as an art and music exploration in Dial House, the anarchist-pacifist communal house where its members lived. Even as they made electrifying music, Crass’s many members, such as Steve Ignorant, Eve
Libertine and Penny Rimbaud, were deeply engaged in political organizing and leftist direct action, and most continued to be politically active after the band’s 1984 demise. Watch Crass perform “Do They Owe Us a Living?” in 1979.
As British punk music looked to society for demons to fight–the monarchy, politicians, corporations…there were many–other British musicians explored the equally daunting oppression they found in their personal and emotional lives. This “post-punk” scene turned the focus inward, creating dark and moody music that in its own way felt just as dangerous as punk.
Joy Division/New Order:
When Joy Division began performing in 1976 punk music and ethos were electrifying the UK music scene. Joy Division found some inspiration in punk bands–especially the Sex Pistols–but ultimately created music that was less jarring and less directly political. Joy Division’s lyrics were dark and moody thanks to the dark and moody life of the band’s vocalist and lyricist Ian Curtis. Unfortunately Curtis’s struggles were not just put on for the band’s fans; Curtis’s deteriorating marriage and his frustration with his increasingly severe epilepsy caused him to take his own life in 1980. The remaining members of the band continued as New Order. Watch Curtis and Joy Division perform “Love Will Tear Us Apart” in 1979. (the audio is rather crummy.) Watch New Order perform “Blue Monday” live in 1983.
Siouxsie and the Banshees:
Siouxsie and the Banshees, led by dynamic vocalist Siouxie Sioux, started in the mid 1970s as
a punk band but developed a more atmospheric sound and by the late ’70s were decidedly post-punk. They helped pioneer “goth rock” in the early ’80s before finding commercial popularity in the late ’80s. The band broke up in 1996. Watch Siouxie and the Banshees perform live in Hong Kong in 1981.
Speaking of dark and moody, the Smiths’ songwriting duo, Morrissey and Johnny Marr, created
songs that were almost as gloomy as they were melodic. The Smiths emerged in the early ’80s as a “post” to post-punk and enjoyed tremendous critical and commercial success. Since they broke up in 1987 they haven’t reunited for a concert tour, but did “reunite,” in a sense, in court, when Morissey and Marr fought (and lost) a case defending their large percentage of the band’s songwriting royalties. Watch the band perform This Charming Man” in 1983, before all the band-break-up intrigue began.
The Cure rose from the UK punk scene of the mid ’70s through the post-punk and goth rock of the ’80s to achieve global popular success and a place among the alternative rock pantheon ’90s. The band’s line up has changed often, but the main figure has always been Robert Smith, whose distinctively haunting vocals continue to inspire almost cult-like devotion in the band’s fans. Watch The Cure perform their hig “Just Like Heaven” live 1989.
WAVE, THE SECOND BRITISH INVASION and THE NEW
With boundaries between genres becoming increasingly fluid in the UK in the late ’70s, musicians were able to blend previously divergent styles like electronic music, disco and ’60s pop. Not all musicians in the UK in the late ’70s wanted to fit into the punk movement and bring down the state or become post-punk and bring themselves down. Instead, another British movement started which came to be called New Wave. Though this genre developed at the same time as punk while man of its artists were critical of society, they expressed their disdain more through cynicism and sarcasm than through direct confrontation.
the British New Wave movement matured in the early ’80s an upstart American television channel known as MTV–yes, that MTV–embraced its musicians and welcomed a second British Invasion. New Wave artists found themselves in front of the camera, making videos that celebrated their style as much as their musical substance. This was especially appealing to a group of bands that came to be known as the New Romantics. Admiring glam rock and its consciousness about style, the New Romantics chose clean, snazzy clothes, and also “clean” synthesized music over the dirty, messy, unpredicatable ethos of punk.
— Elvis Costello: Singer/songwriter Elvis
Costello emerged from the UK punk and New Wave scenes of the late ’70s as a literate, clever and insightful lyricist and a distinctly soulful vocalist. Watch Elvis Costello and The Attractions perform “Pump it Up” live in 1978. Watch Costello perform “Everyday I Write the Book” in 1983.
— Nick Lowe:
Before Nick Lowe found success as a performer in the late ’70s he was a noted songwriter and producer for punk and new Wave musicians/bands like the punk band
The Damned and fellow songwriter Elvis Costello (Costello famously covered Lowe’s song, “[What’s So Funny ‘Bout] Peace, Love, and Understanding”). Watch Lowe perform his hit, “Cruel to be Kind,” in 1979.
Like a most of the punk and post-punk bands mentioned above, the Police came together in the mid-to-late ’70s. Instead of moving toward a denser, moodier sound, the Police were pure pop, scoring a string of now-iconic international hits quite early in their career, like “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” and “Message in a Bottle.” They fit more or less into the “new wave” movement, fusing punk and pop and jazz into a musically engaging package that was very appealing across the ocean in the U.S. Bassist/singer/songwriter Sting has gone on to become an ultra-mega-superstar. The Police disbanded in 1986 but reunited temporarily in 2007 and made a zillion dollars on a world tour. Watch the Police perform “Message in a Bottle” (as Sting says it in his not-yet-smoothed-over-by-years-of-international-stardom accent “Message in a Bo’le”) live in 1979.
— Spandau Ballet:
Spandau Ballet was a New Romantic synthpop band that found international success with hits like “True.” Their ascendance marked the arrival of a movement of youth in the UK that disdained the grimy punk scene and favored clean crisp clothes, a clean, crisp lifestyle, and the clean crisp music that accompanied it. The band broke up in 1989 but in 2009–you guessed it!–they reunited for a huge arena tour. Watch them perform “Revenge for Love” on Soul Train in 1985. (Why was Spandau Ballet important? The band’s bio on
SpandauBallet.com will tell you: “With Spandau, the music was not only timely, it was groundbreaking. Prescient, even. Of the moment. And unnerving to anyone not in the know…..”)
Human League was a New Wave band that pioneered the use of electronic music–synthesizers and other non-human instruments–to lay the foundation for the electro-pop scene of the early ’80s. They also took a page from the glam rock book and wore costumes, make up and a lot of hair care products. (or was that just the way people dressed in the ’80s?) Watch Human League endure an onslaught of silly string while performing “Don’t You Want Me” live in 1981.
A Flock of Seagulls:
The British New Wave/New Romantic band called A Flock of Seagulls invaded the U.S. in the early ’80s with the single, “I Ran,” a song that was a huge hit in the U.S.–in great part due to the song’s video that received a ton of play on new hit-making powerhouse MTV–but didn’t crack the top ’40 in the U.K. Watch A Flock of Seagulls perform “I Ran” live. Note singer Mike Score’s awesome hair. (as if you could miss it.)
New Wave/New Romantic band Duran Duran formed in the late ’70s was essentially a hit-making machine throughout the ’80s, scoring big in the U.S. with songs like, “The Reflex,” “Rio” and “Girls on Film.” The band owed much of its success, beyond its catchy songs, to its many MTV-friendly videos and its legendary good looks. Watch Duran Duran perform “Girls on Flim” 1981.
Speaking of good looks, Wham certainly had them. Wham–usually written “WHAM!”–was a British duo composed of singer George Michael and guitarist Andrew Ridgely that made it very very big with hit songs like, “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go,” “Careless Whisper” and “Freedom.” Early on the band changed its style regularly in an attempt to both indulge and parody the idea of being pop stars. They actually became such big pop stars that they quickly became a subject of parody themslves. Watch a very young WHAM! perform “Young Guns” on Solid Gold 1983. Watch WHAM! perform “Freedom” live.
Culture Club became huge in the U.S. in the ‘early ’80s with songs like “Karma Chameleon” and “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me.” In tune with the style-over-substance mood of the times, lead singer Boy George received much more attention for his hair
and make-up than for his singing. According to the Wikipedia entry on Culture Club, the band chose the name Culture Club after “realizing it had an Irish flamboyant dresser as the lead singer, a black Briton on bass, an Anglo-Saxon hairstylist on keyboards and lead guitar, and a Jewish drummer/percussionist.” They picked the name over other options, like “In Praise of Lemmings.” Good call. Watch Culture Club perform “Karma Chameleon”
Euryhmics started in the mid-’70s when Annie Lennox and David Stewart, like many other musical youth in the UK at the time joined a punk band. When that band ended they went to another, and when that ended too, they decided to go out on their own. They wanted to make avant-garde electronic pop music and decided to do that without a fixed band, bringing on musicians on a per-project basis. Their scheme worked; in 1983 they scored hits like “Sweet Dreams” and “Here Comes the Rain Again” and became international electronic-pop superstars. They were especially successful on MTV, where their cinematic videos, like this one for “Sweet Dreams,” featured a very striking Lenox. Watch Eurythmics perform “Would I Lie to You” live at MTV’s Video Music Awards in 1985.
— Tears for Fears:
Tears for Fears was a British electronic-pop duo whose global hits like “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” “Shout” and “Head Over Heels” brought them worldwide fame throughout the ’80s. Watch Tears for Fears perform “Shout” “live”–well, lip synched–in 1984. (Watch the band actually perform “Shout” in 2006 during its reunion tour. Note all the real human musicians playing non-synthetic instruments.)
BHANGRA and ASIAN UNDERGROUND:
In the early ’70s the British found themselves on the receiving end of an international musical “invasion” of sorts as music from countries throughout the former British England finally made its way to England. A generation of young immigrants from Jamaica to the United Kingdom brought reggae, which quickly wove into the fabric of British youth culture. Immigrants from India and Pakistan also bought their music–most prominently “bhangra” which originally appeared at Punjabi festivals–and by the ’80s had transformed it into electrifying British dance-pop. This South Asian “invasion” was just one part of a more general movement called “Asian Underground,” a blanket term that celebrated the
popular music-making of British musicians of South Asian descent.
British reggae pioneer Matumbi began its career in early ’70s backing up and opening for touring Jamaican acts like The Wailers. The band first broke through commercially with their 1976 version of Bob Dylan’s “Man On Me” and became a focal point of the UK’s homegrown reggae scene until their breakup in 1982.Watch Matumbi perform “Empire Road” live in 1978.
— Channi Singh and Alaap:
Formed in 1977 by Channi Singh, a recent Punjabi immigrant to the UK, Alaap broke new creative ground by not only featuring both Punjabi and Western music but also by reinterpreting Punjabi music from the perspective of the British pop and rock scene. The
resulting style came to be known as bhangra. Watch
Alaap perform “Kade Na Billo Hus Ke laap” in the “Asian Live Aid” in the 1980s.
— Bally Sagoo:
Sagoo was born in India but grew up in the UK. In the mid ’90s Sagoo pioneered the mixing of modern beat-driven electronic music with traditional South Asian vocals and instruments, especially music from Bollywood films. Listen to Bally Sagoo’s remix of the Punjabi song “Gur Naal Ishq Mitha.”
— Punjabi MC:
Punjabi MC (Rajinder Singh Rai) is a British DJ of South Asian descent who has become known for his remixes of Punjabi songs. His most successful international collaboration, with the rapper Jay-Z, fused bhangra with hip-hop. Watch Punjabi MC’s mix of “Mundian Te Bach Ke” as performed in 2003. Watch Punjabi singer Labh Janjua performs the original so you can get a chance of how Punjabi MC remixed the song.
Cornershop is a popular Britpop band that Asian Underground supporters claimed because of the South Asian ethnicity of its leaders, vocalist/songwriter/guitar player Tjinder Singh and his brother Avtar Singh (bass guitar, vocals). Cornershop achieved its greatest commercial success with “Brimful of Asha” from its 1997 release, When I was Born for the 7th Time. The band has gone on to record music with influences from Indian music to electronica to hip hop. Watch Cornershop perform “Brimful of Asha” in 1997.
In the late 1970s some dynamic British musical ensembles, inspired by a highly danceable Jamaican music known as ska, blended ska rhtyhms with punk rock, rocksteady, reggae and New Wave to create a genre known as “2 tone.” Some ska bands broke down racial barriers by developing ensembles composed of both black and white musicians, while others found themselves embroiled in racial controversy for playing Jamaican-originated music that appealed to British youth who didn’t always have the most enlightened views about race.
The Specials was a short-lived but influential British band that broke new ground by popularizing Jamaican “2 tone ska” in the U.K. The band, which was known for featuring both white and black musicians, all of whom wore ’60s style “mod“/”rude boy” outfits–neither of which was common at the time–formed in 1977 and soon found itself touring
with, and sharing some political activity with, The Clash. The Specials perform “A Message to You Rudy” and “Long Shot Kick da Bucket” in 1979.
Madness was a 2 tone ska band that formed in London in 1976/77 and became a staple on the British ska scene through the late ’70s through to its 1986 breakup. They became controversial for their ambivalent relationship to the skinheads who came to their concerts (be they racist or non-racist), and also for moving on from pure ska in some of their later releases. The band broke up in 1986 but has reunited on and off since 1992. Watch Madness perform its “enormous” international hit, “Our House,” live in 1983.
In the early ’90s American grunge bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam had become popular in the UK, creating their own musical “invasion.” British alternative/independent bands reacted to gritty American music by revisiting the British pop/rock of the ’60s and ’70s and writing about social and political issues that were pressing in the UK. By this time electronic dance music had become so popular in British clubs that it almost inevitably flowed into the forming alternative genre know as “Britpop.” In musically-rich cities like Manchester, for example, musicians mixed acid house with guitar-based Britpop to create yet another sub-genre called “Madchester.”
— The Stone Roses:
The Stone Roses were a band that pioneered the Madchester sound in the late ’80s and early ’90s,
producing mesmerizing songs by washing melodic guitar-based tunes in production that evoked the kind of acid house music popular in dance clubs. The band was almost as famous for its members off-stage behavior as it was for its music–promoting itself through graffiti tags, for example, or refusing to talk to the press to such a maddening degree that they would even hold press conferences and then refuse to speak when journalists asked them questions. The Stone Roses is also known for breaking up in the mid-’90s before attaining the greatness many of its fans believed it could achieve. A reunion seemed unthinkable for many years but is now in the works. Watch the band perform its greatest hit, “Waterfall,” in 1989 before the song was released.
Finding inspiration in Madchester bands like The Stone Roses, brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher formed Oasis in Manchester in 1991 and crafted their own guitar-heavy, hook-laden, Britpop sound. Though Oasis achieved international fame, in the UK the
band was really big. Really, really big. In 2010 Oasis was listed in The Guinness Book of
World Records in 2010 for “Longest Top 10 UK Chart Run By A Group,” charting 22 top 10 hits in a row, and is also in the record book for spending 765 weeks in the Top 75 singles and albums charts, making it the most successful band in the UK for the years 1995 to 2005. Like the Stone Roses, Oasis is almost as famous for its non-musical controversies, such as the bitter, often-public fighting between the Gallagher brothers, as it is for its songs. Watch Oasis perform “Wonderwall” in 2000.
Rivaling Oasis for Britpop primacy in the mid-’90s was Pulp, a band that formed in the late ’70s and pressed through the ’80s with marginal success, but really found its footing in the ’90s with Britpop hits like “Common People.” Watch Pulp perform “Common People” live in 1995, accompanied by an adoring audience.
Blur became a Britpop sensation in the mid ’90s, achieving commercial and critical success in the UK in the mid ’90s with a string of popular albums like Parklife and The Great Escape. In 1995 the British media pitted Blur against Oasis in “The Battle of Britop.” The two bands scheduled releases of their new singles on the same day and a media frenzy began. Ultimately Blur’s “Country House” sold more copies than Oasis’ “Roll With It,” though Oasis’ supporters argue that the fight wasn’t fair (the “Country House” single cost less than “Roll With It,” etc.) Which band had the last laugh? Oasis certainly ended up achieving incomparable musical and financial success. On the other hand, Blur moved on from Britpop, exploring alternative
rock, electronica and other genres. Both bands experienced legendary in-fighting and have broken up, or come close to it, or broken up and then reunited, numerous times. Watch Blur perform “Country House” in 1995 on the TV show, Britpop Now. (Enjoy the snarky text the show provides on the video: “Apparently they’re all suing each other at the moment…but they’re not breaking up.”) See Blur in 1997 playing their biggest U.S. hit,”Song 2,” on David
“Acid jazz” developed in the late ’80s and early ’90s as a fusion of jazz, funk and soul. While some acid jazz did include electronic music, and while there was an active interplay between acid jazz and music found in dance clubs, he most popular acid jazz bands performed live.
The Brand New Heavies:
The Brand New Heavies was a funk band that formed in the late 1980s and helped pioneer the genre of acid jazz. The band began as instrumental ensemble and has had a number of singers throughout its career, thought most of its hits came in the early ’90s with N’Dea Davenport singing lead. The band has continued to evolve musically collaborating over the years with many funk and hip-hop artists. Watch The Brand New Heavies perform “Back to Love” live in 1994.
Fronted by dynamic vocalist Jay Kay, Jamiroquai was powerhouse in the British acid jazz scene of the 1990s. The band confidently fused jazz and funk, achieving substantial success in the UK and internationally before breaking into the U.S. with “Virtual Insanity” in 1996. Watch Jamiroquai perform, “Too Young to Die” live in 1993.
“Trip hop” is a genre born in England in the early ’90s that is an atmospheric mix of electronic music and hip hop.
At the core of Massive Attack, the performing unit most often credited with sowing the seeds of trip hop, is a duo of DJs, Robert “3D” Del Naja and Grant “Daddy G” Marshall. Since begging their collaboration in the late ’80s the two have worked with a number of producers, artists and musicians, a cast of artists that shifts each time they want to
experiment with a new sound or take on a project that points them in a different direction. The duo has split at times, then reunited Watch Massive Attack perform “Unfinished
Sympathy” live in 199.
Portishead is a British trip hop band that has been recording atmospheric trip hop since the early ’90s. Departing from the acid jazz explorations of Massive Attack, Portishead slowed down the tempo, darkened the mood and added some mystery–band members, especially lead vocalist Beth Gibbons, shied away from the press. As a result, fans and
music critics alike never knew what Portishead was doing and were often surprised as to which direction the band chose to go next. Watch Portishead perform a haunting “Sour Times” live in 1997.
Starting in the early ’90s electronic music became the focal point of dance clubs throughout the UK. Deejays embraced synthesizers, turntables and other technological means of creating music, challenging these new “instruments” to provide them with infinite tonal and rhythmic possibilities. There are many subgenres of electronic dance music, some differentiated by little more than a different range of beats per minute, others distinct because of their structure or intent. For example, house music, which originated the U.S. in the mid-80s but became internationally popular because of how British deejays reworked it in the ’90s, focused on drum machines creating repetitive rhythms and featured the sound kick drum on every beat. [Watch Utah Saints perform their house hit, “Something Good,” live in 1992.] Drum and Bass (not too different from a genre known as “jungle,” though adherents see them as distinct) is an electronic genre that emerged from the U.K. rave scene in the mid-90s and features fast beats (between 160 and 180 beats per minutes), with very heavy bass lines. (Watch the video for Drum and Bass deejay Goldie’s 1995 hit, “Inner City Life.” (the drum beats kick in at 1:08.)] Dubstep is an electronic genre that originated in South London in the late ’90s; Allmusic.com describes it as “tightly coiled productions with overwhelming bass lines and reverberant drum patterns, clipped samples, and occasional vocals.” Dubstep features rhythms that have 138–142 beats per minute and almost always have a snare hit ever third beat in a four beat bar. Dubstep songs almost always feature a wobble bass (you’ll know it when you hear it). Dubstep is the musical cousin of a Jamaican dancehall music known as dub music. Watch dub/dubstep deejay Mad Professor energize a club crowd with a dubstep mix.
Today in England the British pop scene has a little bit of everything. Pop, folk, rock, soul, dance music of all sorts, alternative, ska, music with influences from all over the world…. There may not be one genre that galvanizes musicians in the UK like some of the movements described above, but there still musicians who obliterate boundaries as a matter of course, or at the very least have become popular just because, at the heart of it, they can sing, rock out on an instrument, and write a great song.
Radiohead is a groundbreaking alternative rock band that has been reinventing itself, and in the process reinventing entire genres of music, since its formation in the early ’90s. Radiohead rose to international success as somewhat of a traditional rock band–their 1993 “Creep” was a big hit around the world–but on their later albums like Ok Computer and Kid A the band entered an
intense creative space in which they blended rock, electronic music and influences from jazz and even Krautrock to develop their own unique, almost uncatagorizable sound. Subsequent albums like Hail to the Thief and the pioneering In Rainbows (released directly by the band as a “pay what you want” digital download) have continued to entrance fans and music critics alike. Watch Radiohead perform “Creep” live in 1993–at the MTV beach house, of all places. Watch Radiohead perform “15 Step” from In Rainbows.
Coldplay is a British alternative rock band led by vocalist Chris Martin that rose to international prominence with their 2000 single “Yellow” and has since continued to top charts, both in the UK and the U.S., with hit after hit. Coldplay has become known for its turning down most (though not all) offers to use its music in commercials, as well as for its members’ stances against U.S. military action in Iraq, its support of fair trade programs and promotion of Amesty International’s human rights campaigns. Watch Coldplay perform “Yellow” live in 2003.
— Amy Winehouse:
Amy Winehouse was a British vocalist whose sultry rhythm & blues songs and deep, soulful vocals inspired comparison with the great Motown singers of the ’60s. Winehouse was a commercial success throughout the 2000s struggled with drug and alcohol abuse. Her 2006 hit, “Rehab,” was a defiant assertion that she wouldn’t benefit from forced substance abuse rehabilitation. Whether or not rehab could have actually changed her life path, Winehouse continued on a very public downward spiral. She died of alcohol poisoning in 2011. Watch Winehouse make her American TV debut in 2007, performing “Rehab” on Late Show with David Letterman.
Adele is a chart-topping British vocalist/songwriter who has achieved tremendous critical and popular success with her 2008 release 19, and her 2011 follow-up, 21. Adele was an art school student in 2006 when she recorded a demo that a friend posted to MySpace. (Remember MySpace? Remember 2006?) A record company heard the demo, signed Adele to a contract and, as they say, the rest is very recent history. Watch Adele perform “Rolling In the Deep” live in 2011.
What’s next for British music? More mystifying electronica? More retro R&B? A return to glam or punk? Most likely all of those, and at the same time something unexpectedly, inspirationally, world-changingly new.