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British invasions: How do UK bands break the US?

About the author

Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune and co-host of the nationally syndicated public radio show Sound Opinions. He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers and the March Up Freedom's Highway.

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

What makes a British band do well across the pond? Apart from talent and charisma, it’s all about economics and plain old hard work. Greg Kot explains why.

Before The Beatles busted their mop-top, Mersey-Beat moves on primetime television 50 years ago this month, Brits were invisible on the American music scene. After The Beatles, you could be forgiven for thinking that UK bands were the only ones who mattered. The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Animals, and, yes, even Herman’s Hermits ruled the charts and changed the way Americans talked, dressed and rocked.

How many ’60s garage bands from coast to coast owed their sneer and swagger to The Stones and The Animals? How many guitar players picked up Rickenbackers because they saw George Harrison playing one? Even Dylan plugged in and mortified the folkies after the British Invasion Mach 1 stormed across the Atlantic.

But what of subsequent British invasions? Since the ’60s, the passions of UK music fans and their American counterparts have only occasionally coincided. Is it a question of taste? Cultural differences? A language barrier (does a Cockney accent play in Omaha)? I’d argue it’s more a matter of work ethic and plain old economics. A lot of things have to go right for a band from overseas – even one as accomplished as The Beatles – to catch America’s attention.

The Beatles had already adopted sounds familiar to an American audience (Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry guitars, Everly Brothers and girl-groups harmonies), and gave it a compelling twist. Indeed, John Lennon and Paul McCartney freely acknowledged they were building on the innovations of American music, and were sceptical that US audiences would find it worth their devotion and dollars. But they had something else. The Beatles melded their talents with the most powerful medium of them all at the time. Primetime network television and the top-ranked The Ed Sullivan Show put them instantly into tens of millions of American households. The Fab Four followed up with more TV appearances, movies and tours and – oh, by the way – great music delivered with charisma and charm.

Birds of a feather

Similarly, the flock of synth-pop seagulls that flew in from England in the early ’80s took advantage of a new television phenomenon – the dawn of MTV – to project a fresh sound and image into US living rooms. The British Invasion Part 2 − Duran Duran, The Human League, Eurythmics, Culture Club, A Flock of Seagulls − all scored massive hits that were fizzy and fluorescent, glammed up with angular haircuts and the latest New Romantic fashions. These bands were as much visual spectacles as musical events, and MTV mainlined their glamour at record shops and on the US charts. 

Without major American media as their close ally, subsequent waves of Brits didn’t have nearly the success of their predecessors. The more diffuse musical landscape of the ’90s saw only a few British bands succeed in America, despite massive success at home. Oasis, the most dominant of the Britpop bands, were capable of selling out Wembley Stadium in London several times over, but never equalled that dominance in America, though their single Wonderwall cracked the Top 10 in 1996. Contemporaries such as Blur, Suede and Pulp were even less celebrated overseas.

Oddly, the most successful UK rock band in the United States during the ’90s was Bush. The band − led by Mr. Gwen Stefani, Gavin Rossdale – scored a number one album in the US (Razorblade Suitcase in 1996), something they never did back home, and each of their five albums sold vastly better in America. But why? Bush had a distorted guitar sound that suggested a bubblegum version of multimillion-selling Seattle grunge bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam. They even hired Steve Albini, the engineer who worked on Nirvana’s In Utero, to record Razorblade Suitcase, and unlike many of their British peers, they toured the US relentlessly.

Press gang

By comparison, breaking through in the UK is relatively easy for a band with some talent. It’s a nation about the size of Michigan and can be covered in a week. In addition, the British music media has traditionally played a more active role in making or breaking bands; even marginally successful US bands such as Mudhoney and the Jesus Lizard found success in the UK during the ’90s thanks to music-press cheerleading.

In the US, it was a different story. Major commercial radio airplay was reserved for only a handful of acts each week, and the indie press more diffuse than in the UK. Many overseas bands simply couldn’t afford to stay on the road for weeks or months at a time to build a fan base from North Dakota to Louisiana, especially as they were also competing with American bands. “It’s just too hard for most of them,” one promoter told me, “especially after being treated like stars back home. They feel like they’re starting over here, and bands like Blur just weren’t willing to do that.”

In the last decade, the combination of internet word-of-mouth, frequent tours and a familiar sound has helped several UK bands break through in America, most notably Mumford & Sons. The band’s rootsy music joined a wave of folk-rock hitmakers such as The Lumineers and Fleet Foxes. Muse have scored three top-10 albums in a row after a decade of relative anonymity in the US thanks to another key component of new-millennium marketing: licensing of their songs to TV shows and movies such as the Twilight series. It doesn’t hurt that their sound evokes another UK band from the past that had major success in America – Queen.

Like The Beatles, Muse worked tirelessly to become an accomplished band that could deliver live. They toured America regularly despite the economic hardship and widened their audience by writing songs that got them into cinemas and on TV. For UK bands to get big in the US, many have to be willing to start small and overcome economic hardship, big-media indifference, and many months of travel in cramped vans and buses to any club that will have them. No wonder so many fail. It may be small comfort to many under-appreciated British groups, but most American bands fall short for the exact same reasons.

Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune. His work can be found here.

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