Saturday, December 31, 2005

British Hits

A few posts ago I mentioned the phenomenon of songs that become big hits in England and never cross the ocean. On the one hand, there should be nothing surprising about this; why shouldn't two countries have different musical cultures? But given the profound mutual influence American and British pop music have had on each other, it is a bit surprising to find out that something that's a big deal over there can remain unknown here. Rather than write a comprehensive post on this topic (something I have neither the knowledge nor energy for) I will make a few passing comments and observations.

1. The Beatles are only the most prominent example of a British band fundamentally reshaping American pop music. But did you know that Beatlemania went on for an entire year in England (and other parts of Europe) before anyone here knew about them? It's true, and in fact scant months before the famous Ed Sullivan performance George Harrison silently (invisibly?) came to the States to visit his sister, who was living in southern Illinois. Apparently he tried to find Beatles records and failed, even though Chicago-based VeeJay records had released a few singles.

2. Indeed, before the Beatles, British pop was not entirely unknown in America. The first British song to be a hit in America was 1962's "Telstar" by the Tornados, written and produced by the idiosyncratically brilliant Joe Meek. The only other Joe Meek production (and possibly composition - there's some dispute) to find success in America was 1964's "Come Right Back" by the Honeycombs. In England, however, he is remembered for producing such hits as "What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For," "Johnny Remember Me," and "Just Like Eddie." If you've heard of these, then you're either a Joe Meek fan or not American.

3. Quick, what was the biggest hit of Paul McCartney's solo career? Why, "Mull of Kintyre," of course. At least in England, where it was so popular that anyone who can remember when it was on the radio is utterly sick of it; it set a record for the best selling album in the United Kingdom that lasted for seven years, yet it is virtually unknown in the States. I had never heard of it until recently, though I never would have believed it if someone told me I'd never heard Paul McCartney's biggest hit.

4. Of course, this works both ways; sometimes some American music stays put and never makes an impact in the UK. Occasionally, British music will only be succesful in the US (and vice-versa, though I can't think of an example offhand). For instance, the Zombies' biggest hit in the US was "Time of the Season," which was never popular in England. This is somewhat ironic, because the album it was on, "Odessey (sic) and Oracle" was only released in the US after much wrangling on the part of Blood, Sweat and Tears keyboardist Al Kooper. If you are at all a fan of mid-to-late-sixties British pop, buy this album - it fully merits its cult status.

So what does all this show? I'm not sure; other than that anyone taking into account the compex interaction of British and American pop would do well to note the relative isolation of the two countries, which in my opinion is what makes this interaction so fruitful. And I'll explain why in a later post. Have a happy new year!

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