Titanic Efforts, But UK Acts Fail to Bridge Great Divide

In spring 2002, dismal news reached British shores. For the first time in over 38 years there was no UK act in the US Top 100 singles chart. As Craig David’s “Seven Days” slipped from view, a sustained presence, a splendid sequence indeed, came to an abrupt end.

It was a sorry end to that glorious but somewhat misguided dream that British pop was more than just a parochial matter. On the contrary, it was a consistent world-beater. For decades, UK groups assumed they had a divine right to the keys to the kingdom — the vast and lucrative American marketplace that turns street kids into multi-millionaires.

But in recent times the law of diminishing returns has wreaked its vengeance: the British Invasion effect, which kept UK music in the fast lane from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, has pretty well run out of juice. In fact, the hurricane that gusted the Beatles to global domination in 1964 has become, today, a wheezy and asthmatic huff.

Okay, so Radiohead and Gorillaz, Dido and even Bush still whistle a passable transatlantic ditty and some of America pays attention. But the facts are horribly stark. In 1999, British acts enjoyed just two-percent of the US bounty, a market worth $14 billion and by far the world’s largest focus for music sales.

No one truly believes that a new Fab Four or Rolling Stones, nor even a Dave Clark Five or a Herman’s Hermits, are going to come along today and snatch a string of Top 10 placings on the US chart. But Robbie Williams and Oasis — giants back home, minnows in Minneapolis — live in the hope that Stateside might just take a little notice of their melodious doodles, their bad boy antics.

Yet there is a paradox to this tale of gloom: the UK continues to see its home sales edge upwards (bucking trends in an era of piracy and internet duplication) and in the last two years has regained its place as the third biggest market behind the US and Japan. So Britpop is not dead, it’s just incapable of attaining a secure foothold on the American musical mountain. Once our groups struck the Union Jack at the summit; now they stumble among the loose scree of the lower slopes.

Not that we are lying down and taking this. In June, the British Council, an institution which promotes our art, craft and design to overseas markets, placed new emphasis on the importance of popular music. More used to selling ballet and opera, orchestras and fashion, the organisation has generally left rock to its own devices. But the once-buoyant sector badly needs a tonic and a new report suggests the cavalry — or more likely, perhaps, the Royal Marines — are on their way.

The report, Make or Break: Supporting UK Music in the USA, attempts to address the reasons behind Britain’s rapid decline in a market in which it once prospered. And it also points to a fresh initiative ploy to try and re-establish the UK brand as a viable player in the American hinterland.

Yet pop is a frustratingly difficult commodity to manage or predict. No one in England in late 1963, probably not even Brian Epstein, believed that the second-rate reputation of British popular song could be cast off. While we shared the advantage of language, the mass culture we produced — film, theatre, and musicals — lived in the long shadow of Hollywood and Broadway.

The Americanisation of the UK, much feared by intellectuals of all political hues, happened with great haste after World War II. If the establishment — the BBC, particularly — resisted the trend by blacklisting US pop and jazz, the teen baby-boomers of Britain took to Presley and Haley with the same vigor as their adolescent cousins over the water.

No one, though, truly expected Britain to have a say in this dazzling cultural surge. In the late 1950s, lame imitations of Elvis haunted the home airwaves. Marty Wilde, Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard tried to generate the spark of Memphis, the twang of Chicago, for the populations of austere post-war cities like Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow. Even the Quarrymen or Johnny and the Moondogs or the Silver Beatles, in a hotbed of rock ‘n’ roll like Liverpool, proved to be little more than a competent covers band, playing Little Richard and Chuck Berry tunes in the bar-rooms of Hamburg and the church halls of Merseyside.

But then the elastic band of eternal US optimism was savagely snapped in late 1963. Kennedy’s death, Lester Bangs once claimed, was the catalyst for the British Invasion which followed shortly afterwards. His opinion, as usual, was based on gut instinct, but maybe he had something. Young America, after JFK’s slaying, needed “a shot of cultural speed,” said Bangs in one Rolling Stone history, “something high, fast, loud and superficial to fill the gap; we needed a fling after the wake”. The invasion accomplished this, he believed, by “resurrecting something we had ignored, forgotten or discarded, recycling it in a shinier, more feckless and yet more raucous form”.

Whatever the reasons, and they remain clouded, British pop emerged in the ascendant. From the Who to Led Zeppelin, Cream to David Bowie, a definite élan was attached to rockers from this side of the Atlantic over the dozen years that followed. And, just when it seemed that punk had punctured that special relationship, the telegenic glamour of the new romantics — Duran Duran and Culture Club — joined forces with a youthful MTV to keep UK acts in the American eye.

Perhaps now though we need though another accident of history — hopefully not a dead president, but maybe a technological twist like video TV — to re-assert ourselves in the States. America’s love affair with hip hop and country is entrenched and UK pop acts can hardly compete with such home-grown and tailor-made talent.

The last ten years in Britain has seen club culture and the re-mix DJ reign supreme, but the tech talents of these studio masters far outweigh their profiles as personalities. Yet a recognisable identity and a flash of charisma may not be enough, you know. If that was truly the required ingredient then Liam Gallagher’s animal magnetism and Damon Albarn’s cocky, mockney charm would have made them household names in Seattle and Miami.

Proposals to remedy this malaise arising from the British Council are modest but at least realistic. A New York office is planned, costing around £340,000 ($500,000) over three years. The UK industry — labels linked to the BPI (British Phonographic Industries) — will presumably cover the bills and allow artists, managers, promoters and record companies to share information and intelligence on the complex US scene. Famous industry figures like producer Sir George Martin and Island founder Chris Blackwell are backing the scheme and there are hopes that the UK music business could have a Manhattan platform by 2003. Without it, it appears, the alternatives are really quiet worrying.

As Chris Wright, who created Chrysalis Records in the 1960s, remarks: “To be a truly worldwide superstar is impossible without success in America. That’s why this disappointing trend of the lack of success of UK music in the US must be reversed at the earliest opportunity. Otherwise we run the risk of the worldwide influence of British music plummeting to the levels of our film business”.