PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
March 13, 2007

The British Are Coming! The British Are Coming!

by Jim Newsom

The second British Invasion officially began on February 7, 1964, when the four Beatles got off a plane at New York’s JFK airport to a rabid welcome from an adoring throng of screaming fans. The conquest of their homeland’s former colonies was quick and decisive, and the shock and awe of their performance on The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday night, February 9 cemented their takeover. By the next day, the youth of America had surrendered and the British occupation of the pop charts had begun.

It was quite a different outcome from the first British invasion back in 1776 in the early days of the American Revolution. This time the Americans offered little resistance, ceding the airwaves and the dime store record racks to John, Paul, George, Ringo and their compatriots from across the Atlantic. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” replaced Bobby Vinton’s schmaltzy “There I’ve Said It Again” in Billboard’s number one spot and, within weeks, groups with weird names like The Animals, The Zombies, The Kinks, Manfred Mann and the Rolling Stones were populating the playlists and jukeboxes that had been host to saccharine songs by The Rooftop Singers, Paul and Paula, the Singing Nun, Kyu Sakamoto and Steve Lawrence.

The impact on American teenagers and subteens was instantaneous and overwhelming. Everyone wanted an electric guitar, arguments erupted over who was better, The Beatles or the Dave Clark Five, and kids everywhere rediscovered their own rock ‘n’ roll heritage, a heritage that had nearly disappeared after Elvis joined the army, Buddy Holly died in a plane crash, and radio recoiled from the payola scandals of the late ‘50s.

“The Beatles made us want to play guitar,” Bruce Hornsby told me recently. “My parents got us this funky old Kay guitar and we got into playing it. I was a guitar player—I had a band in the sixth grade, my younger brother played organ and a friend of ours played drums. We played a lot of Stones—‘Get Off My Cloud,’ ‘Heart of Stone,’ ‘As Tears Go By.’ It had a definite effect on our family.”

Big brother Bobby Hornsby agrees.

“The British Invasion is what got us all started playing music,” he said. “I was ravingly into it. We had that one guitar and we got a Mel Bay chord book, and began learning the chords and learning to play. We had been sort of into it with folk music and hootenannies, but nobody bought a guitar. We’d been psyched about it and sort of prepped for it, and The Beatles just launched us into the whole new age of it.”

Even those who had already begun playing guitar during the early-‘60s “folk boom” got caught up in the excitement of the British “beat groups.”

“I had my folk group, the Coachmen, at Granby,” Chip Vogan, singer and guitarist with Dramtreeo remembered. “There were four of us. When The Beatles came out, we were doing the Kingston Trio, Chad Mitchell Trio, Limelighters. As soon as those guys hit, a good friend of mine took me to the Navy Exchange, and that’s where I bought Meet the Beatles. “After all this mania hit, we all went out and bought black wigs and started doing Beatles songs. One time we played at Great Bridge, and we broke into a couple of Beatles songs—and we got a Beatles reception from all these girls. They were storming the room next to the stage afterwards, screaming and yelling. We were just doing our folk thing at a hootenanny, but we added ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ and ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and put these wigs on.”

Noel Paul Stookey was already a hitmaking star with Peter, Paul & Mary when The Beatles and their British brethren arrived.

“There’s no doubt that it had an impact,” he told me a couple of weeks ago, “and I think for the most part it was salutary. It wasn’t all just ‘Ferry ‘Cross the Mersey;’ a lot of it was having to do with love, what does it really mean.

“Just as folk music, in a sense, introduced the listeners of popular music to the concept of subjects other than boy-girl relationships and dating, so I think The Beatles, in particular, took the concept of love and opened it up from just the boy-girl relationship and made it more agapé. And I was not beyond thinking of that myself, beginning with ‘The House Song,’ nor was Peter. He wrote a couple of tunes that reached out into the spiritual realm and wondered about the community of humankind and could it live in peace.”

In the beginning, though, it wasn’t big ideas that captured the young girls’ fancy and made the young boys yearn for a Rickenbacker guitar, Ludwig drums and a Hofner bass. There was something more elemental that fueled the excitement welling up within the worldwide baby boom generation.

“I was already playing music,” longtime local fave Lewis McGehee said, “so it didn’t really turn me on to music. What it did turn me on to was the whole stardom thing. Prior to that I was playing the Ventures, Lonnie Mack, and all these guitar guys; I thought of them as musicians, but I never thought of them as stars. When The Beatles came out, it just took on a whole different dimension. I’d seen girls screaming about Elvis Presley, but I didn’t identify with Elvis Presley. Elvis was in a different category. The Beatles seemed a little more accessible.

“And my band changed—we went from being an instrumental band to being a vocal band.”

While The Beatles seem to have been everyone’s first love of the British Invasion, once the other bands began arriving, playing on Ed Sullivan and getting Top 40 airplay, tastes diverged and favorites rose and fell.

“How about ‘Do the Freddy?’” Bruce Hornsby laughed. “Freddy and the Dreamers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, The Zombies, The Searchers, The Hollies and on and on.”

For Lewis McGehee, “The Rolling Stones came second. What I liked about the Rolling Stones was they obviously were not the pretty boys, and they were a little more blues based. Their songs weren’t quite as sweet. I played a bunch of their stuff. And I really liked The Animals, Eric Burdon—they were kinda blues based too. The Beau Brummels, The Kinks—Dave Davies’ guitar playing was always sort of unhinged!”

Most youngsters’ sole exposure to the music was through AM radio and television variety shows. But some got to experience it live and in person.

“Mom and Dad took us to see Herman’s Hermits live at the Norfolk Arena,” Bobby Hornsby recalled. “One of the first big concerts we went to was the Dave Clark Five at Princess Anne High School. We were there in the bleachers, and there were a group of opening acts. That was the first time we’d seen opening acts. I guess I was thirteen, Bruce was eleven. I remember there was a wire that ran under the bleachers onto the field, and someone tripped over it and unplugged the PA! The whole PA went out because someone tripped over an extension cord!”

Chip Vogan is one of the lucky few who actually got to see The Beatles in concert.

“I saw The Beatles in Detroit in 1966,” he said. “We always went north for vacations; my mom’s family emigrated from Holland and moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan. We had been to visit my dad’s parents in Pennsylvania, and we were on the Ohio Turnpike headed toward Kalamazoo. I was driving the family station wagon and the announcement came on the radio that The Beatles were going to be in Detroit that afternoon. It was a Saturday. We didn’t have a structured vacation plan, so we took a vote in the car and of course the three kids outvoted the two parents.

“We went north at the Toledo exit and we caught the matinee. It was in the Olympia hockey stadium in Detroit. It was an indoor stadium and it was dark. They had the guy that sang ‘Sunny’ [Bobby Hebb], the Ronettes, the Cyrkle— ‘Red Rubber Ball’—and a couple of other groups warm up. When The Beatles came out, there were so many flashbulbs going off at the same time, it had the effect of lightning inside the place. And we were all standing, not in our seats, but on the back of the chairs trying to get a better view because everybody was standing.”

The generally accepted chronological parameters of the original British musical invasion are the years 1964-66. But you don’t have to be old enough to have been around then to understand the staying power of that era’s music. And you don’t have to confine yourself to that three-year period either.

Singer/songwriter Julie Clark wasn’t born until 1966, yet she readily acknowledges the influence of the British performers on her, both as a listener and as a musician:

“To me, you’d have to have been living under a rock to not be influenced by the British invasion in all its many waves. I’ve had very diverse influence musically by the Brits, from all ends of the spectrum. From the raw, hard driving sounds of the Rolling Stones all the way to the mellower sounds of Elton John, I think that it’s been pretty powerful.

“The British invasion has been continual. I think it takes the cream of the crop of British musicians and songwriters to make the leap across the ocean, so the ones that make it here are great. I’m not limiting my concept of the British invasion to any particular decade. To me, everyone from David Bowie to the Bee Gees when I was growing up, they were tremendously influential.

“That music from the ‘60s was so powerful that I’ve been hearing it for the whole of my life. Even though I wasn’t alive when The Beatles played on Ed Sullivan, that music saturated our culture and my parents turned me on to all that stuff.”

I asked Bruce Hornsby if he would classify his piano idol, Elton John, as part of the British Invasion.

“It wasn’t such an invasion by that time,” he answered. “Cream and Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, they all came around in the late ‘60s—I would call them the second invasion. But Elton, that’s a different thing to me. He was his own thing, part of the first singer-songwriter era with Carole King, James Taylor and Cat Stevens.”

Bruce does have a close connection with the original British Invasion, though:

“The guy who signed me to RCA Records in 1985 was Paul Atkinson, the former rhythm guitar player for The Zombies. He had the Coke bottle glasses. He was my guy, he was my champion in the music business. From the time he signed me until he passed away three years ago, he was sorta the keeper of the flame.

“There was this Mexican Zombies group, and he was the guy who got a court order to stop them from playing. He was in charge of retrospectives and box sets; he was the guy who was putting them together. He was the carrier of the torch for The Zombies.”

Bobby Hornsby still has the Hofner “Beatle bass” his dad bought him on a trip to New York City. He keeps it on display next to the piano in his living room. And he remembers Beatles trading cards.

“I remember a moment going into the Williamsburg Rexall Drug,” he said. “I went and bought some Beatle cards one day on the way home from school. I was sitting there in Merchant’s Square on a bench looking at my Beatle cards, and some guy came out of the insurance agency in a suit and tie, an older gentleman. And he was excited to see a kid there looking at what he figured were baseball cards. He came over to me, I guess to relive the excitement of youth, and he said, ‘Hey, who’d you get? Did you get Mantle or Maris?’ And I said, “Naw, I got George and Paul!’

“And he just looked at me with utter disgust. He probably thought they were the long-haired death of humanity. I really let that poor guy down.”

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.