Icons / October 2017

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…

The Rolling Stones pictured in Hyde Park, London, 1964. Photograph by Terry O’Neill/Rex/Shutterstock.

“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.  

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