California Dreaming: US Band Plans British Invasion

Earlier this year, I was contemplating the problems British bands had in making a mark in the US. It seemed that the passport to American hearts and minds — stamped hundreds of times between the British Invasion and the launch of MTV — had finally expired. Yet there is a paradox worth pointing to: while UK bands are having huge difficulty in attracting attention on the other side, a decent percentage of American artists still have a genuine desire to crack the British scene.

This may be down, perversely, to the very same Beatles effect that helped propel the Animals, the Stones, and others to transatlantic triumph. Many young American musicians, who were born two decades after Lennon and McCartney rocked the Ed Sullivan Show, still have a desire to leave their imprint on London or Liverpool or Manchester audiences. It’s a kind of retrospective homage, perhaps, to British groups who changed the meaning of rock forever in that golden moment between 1964 and 1967.

The Strokes are the latest world-beaters to step off the isle of Manhattan and shake England side-ways. In fact, there are those who would propose that the British pop media have played a key role in propelling Casablancas and company from New York parochials to global gods. And this phenomenon is hardly new. Look back a quarter of a century, and it seems unlikely that the Ramones and Television, Talking Heads and Blondie, would have so spectacularly escaped the bosom of the Bowery without UK rock magazines trumpeting their artfully chaotic posturing.

There may well be, though, other, more pragmatic reasons for American rockers to continue chasing British acclaim. At a time when the international record industry is feeling the pressure of technological change and the plague of piracy, it’s worth remembering that the UK is still the world’s third biggest marketplace — after the US and Japan — and sales, at least until the last quarter, have been steadily rising, not declining.

These thoughts were triggered by an e-mail I received in the last couple of weeks, sent by the manager of a young Californian rock band that is interested in spreading their wings and contemplating the offer by a promoter of a UK tour. The group’s mentor was concerned that his act — whose style he dubbed “alternative/melodic rock” — might stumble on a British circuit dominated, he thought, by “techno and fast dance music”. He was seeking advice on how an unknown Yankee combo could approach the mysteries of this tiny island and not leave with their tail between their legs.

Which made me think that it might be worth sharing a few thoughts with readers on the state of play in Britain; a nation where music still matters even if our pop purveyors no longer possess the gloss, the glow, or the glamour to set pulses racing in Memphis, Milwaukee, and Miami. So, a lightning tour through the highways and byways of the contemporary UK rock’n’roll circuit follows.

The British club scene runs on two distinct tracks: one focused on DJ-led, dance music activity, which is vast in scale; and a circuit based on live music, which has been in freefall since the 1970s. The two sectors have very little overlap.

The live gig scene has suffered because so much interest and investment heads these days towards the dance floors of the vast club network. We would have to go back to the late 1970s and the punk/new wave nexus for a time when affordable gigs by live groups could be enjoyed in the pubs and halls of most communities of reasonable size. Yet today there is still a dedicated, if minority, segment who follow rock with a passion.

Even a decade ago there was still a vibrant college and university circuit. It has shrunk considerably in recent years, as entrepreneurial money and, to a degree, its fan base has dried up. After all, it is so much easier to pack 3,000 kids into a huge cavern of a venue and pay one name DJ than risk bringing in an unknown band for a 40 minute set. Club culture, except for the aficionados, is about the mating game and ample drinking. The actual music falls way down in the agenda.

However, every city and many towns have places where live rock is played. That really divides again along sub-cultural lines — indie versus heavy metal — although the boundaries have become blurred in the last three years as the indie attitude of nu metal has seeped into the adolescent British consciousness.

The Midlands — cities like Birmingham and Nottingham — is still a key heartland of authentic rock culture. It’s worth noting, as well, that Kerrang! overtook NME last year as Britain’s best-selling rock weekly, a clear sign that the indie dominance of the rock sector has been overturned by the metal scene. Acts like Korn, Slipknot, Papa Roach, Deftones and Limp Bizkit are now the drug of choice among teenage males. So, you see, British audiences of a certain age and gender are still in the grip of US bands.

That said, radio in the UK is not that friendly to rock. Apart from XFM in London there is no radio network, local or national, dedicated to playing alternative music. On BBC Radio 1, Steve Lamacq, John Peel and Mary Anne Hobbs are the three DJs who might take an interest in unknown, unsigned, demo-stage bands, and the US factor may help quite a bit, too. But our Californian hopefuls may well discover that melodic rock is all too readily linked with America’s dubious rock history — from elaborate AOR and stadium stodge — to earn a fair hearing from broadcasters or listeners.

One man who has all too recently experienced Britain’s live scene first hand is up and coming, London-based singer-songwriter Chris T-T. Having just completed a tour of prestigious venues, supporting Ben Folds and the Divine Comedy, he has a pretty good grasp of what is possible.

Chris T-T has spent the last three years gigging in bars and back-rooms and gradually built a crowd familiar with his three indie-tinged albums. Commenting on the American band’s chances he says: “My first thought is pretty positive. If the booking agent is prepared to go find/organise these dates, the band has a big advantage over most unknown US visitors who put their own tours together through individual venue contacts or by getting help from English groups.”

Adds Chris: “If they can afford the trip, it should definitely be done, since they just have to get here, get gear and play. Someone else is taking the weight of organisation. In my experience the challenge will be finding a crowd. The agent will need to couple the band with another, maybe UK band who’ll draw people. Or else release music here, a single or mini-album, which can then get PR/radio. If they don’t have product (or they’re only selling it at gigs), then it’s tough. Venues have no built-in audience and they’ll be playing to near-empty rooms. Which might not even matter: bands here almost expect that the first time around!”

But he has a word of artistic advice to would-be melodic rockers. “The UK audience is self-consciously cool and quite cynical. Most acts here break by being perceived as very hip or alternative, before going on to mainstream success. This applies to rock bands like Travis/Oasis, and R&B dance acts like Craig David. So my tip would be to go easy on the power ballads and try to make a live set here as edgy as possible.”