The teen revolution of the 1950s was not limited to America. In other parts of the western world teenagers were searching for the same self-identity that eluded the teens of Los Angeles, California, Chicago, Illinois and Minot, North Dakota. Perhaps because of their common (or supposedly so) language, teens in Great Britain followed the same path as those in the United States. The movies, books and songs which fueled the cultural revolution in America were accomplishing the same goal in Great Britain.
In the late 1950s, live performances by Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley and the Comets, Buddy Holly and other pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll were sold out at various concert halls in England. At the same time, the sounds of electric blues vocals and guitar players like Elmore James and Muddy Waters were also being enthusiastically received by British teens. The seeds of American rock and American blues were being sown in future British rockers.
The six or seven years between the first ’57 tours by American rock and blues icons and the return voyage by British bands were significant. British imitators of rockabilly began to appear, created their own brand; pop-rock performers like Cliff Richard and rockers like Tommy Steele followed the styles of Berry, Haley and Presley; and young British blues performers like Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies began exploring the sounds of blues.
Although few of the young British blues artists or their fans had ever been to Chicago, Memphis or Kansas City, their efforts at covering the blues was more authentic than the sanitized efforts being created by commercialized studios in America. British blues bands covering Muddy Waters, Elmore James and Howlin’ Wolf used slide guitar, note-bending techniques, blues harmonica and passionate, guttural vocals. No attempt was made to mainstream or commercialize the sound; the appeal for the British blues fans lay in the unadulterated grit that was the pure core of American blues.
In contrast, the rock ‘n’ roll tours of Chuck Berry, Bill Haley and others stirred the enthusiasm for American rock ‘n’ roll in its more commercialized form. Songs like “Johnny B. Goode” and “Rock Around the Clock” became hits on the pop charts in Britain just as they had been in America. Although the vast majority of British teens were aligned with the commercialized pop-rock sounds, an underground of blues fans were also growing.
These two musical movements: pop-rock and blues-rock had gained significant followings in Great Britain by 1960. While many bands in both styles were formed, disbanded, reorganized and renamed, two bands in particular signify the best that England had to offer: the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
The elements of both bands began in the late ‘50s. Lennon, McCartney and Harrison of the Beatles met first in 1957 and after a series of names (including the Quarrymen, Johnny and the Moondogs, and the Silver Beetles) and band-mates, brought in Ringo Starkey (renamed Starr) and began recording as the Beatles in September 1962. Mick Jagger and Keith Richard (Keith’s last name never included an “s” at the end, but after being misspelled for years, he eventually changed it to Richards) first met in elementary school, then met again while listening to a Muddy Waters album, then in 1960 formed the Rolling Stones, borrowing the name from a Waters song. By January 1963, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts had joined the band.
The two bands had two distinct sounds and separate paths ahead of them. The Beatles’ first single, “Love Me Do” immediately went to the Top 20 chart in late 1962 and within a year they had a second single “Please, Please Me” at #2, an album ready to release to the public and a national tour of England appearing in a top billing above Roy Orbison. By fall of 1963 they were selling out concerts in Europe and plans were being made to invade America.
Many early British blues performers got their start playing either at Alexis Korner’s London Blues and Barrelhouse Club, an underground (literally) venue for aspiring blues artists to meet with blues fans or with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. During the early ‘60s, Korner’s blues club and Mayall’s band provided performance opportunities for Mick Fleetwood and John McVie (later to form Fleetwood Mac), Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker (who met years later to form Cream), future members of Led Zeppelin and Free and Charlie Watts and Mick Jagger (later members of the Rolling Stones).
The Rolling Stones’ musical passion lay in performing the blues, but it was the covers of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and even Lennon-McCartney songs that gained them popularity in 1964. Although the majority of the American public in 1964 saw the British Invasion at first as being a mono-stylistic front, many of the British blues based bands like the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds road the coattails of the pop-oriented Beatles and then established their own following once in America.
The two-pronged British Invasion that began on February 7, 1964 was distinctly different in both sound and appearance. The pop-rock side, fronted by the Beatles and followed by the Dave Clark Five, the Hollies, the Searchers and many others with a more insipid sound, was careful to conform to the clean-cut image of pop performers. The Beatles had been cleaned up and put into matching suits, encouraged to speak pleasantly to the press and in whole, packaged as entertainment suitable for the entire family. The songs were about holding hands, and showed a respect for parents (“Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter”) and frequently ventured into the silly (“I’m Henry the VIII, I Am, I Am”).
The Beatles appear on the Ed Sullivan Show, Feb. 9 1964 – “I Want To Hold Your Hand”
In contrast with the wholesome pop-rock groups were the blues-rock groups of the invasion, fronted by the Rolling Stones, the Animals and the Yardbirds. This prong was marketed as a renegade street-tough movement with surly press conferences, disheveled outfits and hair and blues songs filled with sexual innuendos. The Animal’s hit song, “House of the Rising Sun” was about a prostitution house in New Orleans, the Stones’ recording of the blues classic “Little Red Rooster” filled with metaphors for sex was banned from American radio stations. Luke Oldham, manager for the Rolling Stones, took out a full-page ad in a London paper with headshots of the band and a bold banner reading “WOULD YOU LET YOUR SISTER DATE A ROLLING STONE?” Local newspapers reported the band members urinating publicly in a park. Scandal and disrespect was part of the marketing ploy, and it worked perfectly. When the Stones made their one and only appearance on the Ed Sullivan television show, Jagger purposely mumbled while singing the title line of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” which was introduced by Sullivan as “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” in order to pass the television censors.
The Rolling Stones – “Little Red Rooster” – Ed Sullivan Show, 1965
By 1966 many of the two dozen British acts who invaded America in ’64 and ’65 had disappeared and most serious attention was beginning to center around the two vanguard bands of the juggernaut invasion: the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Both groups were writing almost all of their own songs by this time and had established themselves as unique from one another with separate fan followings.
Although the Beatles never performed live after August 29, 1966, the Rolling Stones continue to tour and perform to sell out crowds over four decades later. The remainder of the Beatles’ time together (they disbanded officially in April, 1970) was spent in studio sessions both collectively and singly, drug and religious experimentation, bickering among themselves and generally creating some of the most significant music of their collective careers. Their final albums together, Sgt. Pepper’s (1967), Abbey Road (1969) and Let It Be (1970) show the group at the height of their creativity while also being at the peak of their dissension.
Paul McCartney performs an “Abbey Road” medley with the help of Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, and Mark Knopfler, 1997
Following the group’s breakup, all four established solo careers, though Ringo’s work has never come close to matching that of John Lennon, Paul McCartney or George Harrison. Lennon was murdered in 1980, Harrison died of cancer in 2001, and Starr performs regularly and records occasionally. Only Paul McCartney continued the creative pace of writing, recording and touring with his band, Wings. The Beatles were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1988; Sir Paul McCartney (since being knighted by the Queen) was inducted a second time into the Hall as a solo artist in 1999. Together with Elvis Presley, the Beatles form the two most powerful commercial and artistic forces in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.
Paul McCartney being honored: “Kennedy Center Honors” 2010
It is ironic that the group which shunned pop commercialism in favor of the purity of the blues musical experience has had the longest run as a band, performed for more fans in more concerts over more tours and recorded more albums than any other. Though hailed at one point as Satanic and dangerous, the Rolling Stones have established themselves as a permanent and accepted fixture in Rock ‘n’ Roll history.
The Rolling Stones – “She’s a Rainbow” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” – MetLife Stadium, 8/1/19
In the late ‘60s the Stones boasted that they were “The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band” and in the decades since, they have proved that if not the greatest, they are certainly the most enduring and successful. They were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, the first year of their eligibility. (Note: inductees to the Hall of Fame are eligible 25 years after the release of their first album and must be one of the top 7 or 8 to receive votes among the 1,000 ballots.) With a few slight musical deviations, Mick, Keith, Charlie, Bill and the others have continued to remind us that the roots of rock are based in the blues.