Ruling the Wavelengths: How Britain Defined Popular Music

Without even a sideways glance at a certain Merseyside foursome – but with one eye on that unstoppable institution, The Rolling Stones – our man attempts to discover the secrets to the UK’s ongoing clout in the global popular music arena...
Ruling the Wavelengths: How Britain Defined Popular Music
“We’ve invented pretty much every youth culture since the early 1950s,” Dylan Jones told The Rake some years back. “The Edwardian-styled teddies, the mods, the rockers, glam, punk – all this originated on the streets of London, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and so on.” And, indeed, it’s hard to think of even one of these British subcultures that wasn’t sound-tracked, fuelled or even given birth to by the domestic popular music scene. The drape-jacketed, drainpipe-trousered teddy boys greased their quiffs and polished their flick knives to the slap bass and washboard tones of the mid-’50s British skiffle revival, as spearheaded by Lonnie Donegan and The Vipers Skiffle Group. The mods, once they’d moved on from Jamaican ska and American rhythm and blues, moved onto British rock bands like The Kinks, The Yardbirds, the Small Faces and The Who: all, and especially the first and the last on the list, household names to this day. Rex frontman Marc Bolan performing Hot Love on Top of the Pops with two glittery dabs under his eyes in March 1971 was the moment glam sashayed onto the scene, with Bowie among the UK notables set to contribute rich fare to the oeuvre. The skinheads had ska, the punks had punk and the goths had a wealth of brilliantly dark domestic music – the Damned, Bauhaus, The Cure, Joy Division to name a hopefully diverse few – which they would go on listening to decades after the pots of ‘black liquid denim’ they seemed to paint on their legs each evening had been retired to the shed. Popular theory has it that heavy metal begins with Black Sabbath, followed by Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Motörhead et al – all British – power-chording their way into an already thriving domestic scene with palm-muted gusto. Add New Romantics (Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Roxy Music) and dance (The Prodigy, Paul Oakenfold and Calvin Harris have all broken America) into the mix, and Blighty’s movement-based music canon is as heterogeneous as it is brilliant.  
Singer Lonnie Donegan had a clean cut and sophisticated aesthetic, as seen here in 1960. Photograph by Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy Stock Photo.
The Kinks were favoured by the mods, pictured here performing on TV show Ready Steady Go! in 1965.
British rock band the Small Faces were also cherished by the mod subculture. From left to right: Kenney Jones, Ronnie Lane, Steve Marriott and Jimmy Winston, 1965. Photograph by RB/Redferns.
Singer Marc Bolan of English glam rock group T-Rex holds a Nikon camera during a British tour, June 1972. Photograph by Michael Putland/Contributon/Getty Images.
One of the progenitors of heavy metal, English rock band Led Zeppelin in Australia, 1970. Photograph by GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images.
Rock behemoth Pink Floyd at Kew Gardens, 1969. Photograph by Storm Thorgerson.
But what precipitated this? When it comes to the eclecticism, a straw poll amongst in-the-know musos saw one expert touch on the UK having “a more unified collection of cultural touchstones, a greater acceptance of eccentricity and weirdness and a less profoundly commercialistic drive than the US”. Elsewhere, a kind of rebound effect was posited whereby musical ideas came east across the Atlantic, then went back the other way having been smelted and spliced into something all the more compelling – the most salient example, perhaps, being The ‘Stones’ take on blues and country, on which Mick, Keith et al put a spin that was as British as scones, tea and hotel room destruction. “Port cities like Liverpool and their populations were often very curious about the music coming over from the US, so there was a ready market for hot-off-the-press releases and b-vinyl from the US, which proved such a massive influence on all popular music since 1950,” was one thought, and the fact that the two musicians who inspired a certain rock behemoth’s name - Pink Anderson and Floyd Council – were American bluesmen certainly supports this notion. “The ability to take black American music and sell it back to white America in a way that was both commercially and artistically valid - the US was far more polarised on race musically, until the 80s at least,” was another panellist’s take. “Surely the Windrush Generation [the Caribbean migrants who arrived in the UK in June 1948, marking the beginning of post-war mass migration] was a factor too?” House and techno is a particularly interesting test case according to one DJ friend who describes the genre(s) as “Truly American indigenous music that had to move to the UK to grow up, before returning to take over American pop”. Other ideas were the ease with which rebellious individuals could get into art school and be exposed to different ways of thinking in the post-war years; being more multicultural than most of Europe for many post-war years; one Australian friend whose name most readers will be familiar with – an Anglophile, and therefore, I’m sure, speaking with some affection – put it down to “the misery of their existence during nine-month winters leading to them creating shiny, happy, appealing music”.
Paul Weller from punk rock, mod revival band The Jam and Pete Townsend from The Who in Soho, London, 1980. Photo by Janette Beckman/Getty Images.
Popular theory suggests that heavy metal began with bands such as Black Sabbath, pictured here in 1970. Photograph by Chris Walter.
Manchester band Joy Division pictured on Waterloo Road in Stockport, 1979. Photograph by Paul Slattery/Retna Pictures.
Bryan Ferry on the cover of his second solo album ‘Another Time, Another Place’, 1974.
David Bowie poses for a portrait shot at RCA Studios, New York, 1973. Photograph by David Gahr.
When it comes to success overseas, it’s an ongoing phenomenon. Sales of British music outside the UK surged 11 per cent to a record £365m last year – being a beneficiary of US cultural hegemony thanks to a shared language has always helped British acts punch above their weight overseas (although domestic giants including The Jam, Oasis and The Manic Street Preachers never found their feet Stateside – too angry, too thuggy and too scathing of American consumerism, respectively), as well as helping with the aforementioned absorption of those American influences six or so decades ago. Music, of course, is changing profoundly. Will the Brits’ lofty status on the global popular music scene soar or plummet as the digital revolution juggernaut rumbles on, increasingly enforcing musical tastes on people based on algorithms? How will the global music scene weather the onslaught of global cultural homogenisation? Surely Britain can’t hold onto its relatively large stake in popular music clout amongst a global population, any more than it could the imperial grip it had over a quarter of the globe in the 1920s? That said, the factors that seem to underlie it – language, cosmopolitanism, eccentricity, a climate that would make the most endorphin-ravaged student pick up a beaten up Fender Strat and write lovely odes to chimerical joy – still seem a permanent fixture. Contrariness is, of course, another national trait which leads to creative alchemy – disputes between Simon and Garfunkel, Ray and Dave Davies, and David Gilmour vs. Roger Waters often served as creative alchemy, in the same way that friction makes a pearl. And it’s as a toast to contrariness that I’ve refused, throughout this discussion, to mention The Bea…
The Rake, British Music, The Beatles
The Beatles during their most mod-like phase wearing turtle necks, pointed collars and tailoring, 1965. Photograph by ​David Mcenery.