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“East-West, Perpetual Motion”: British-American Popular Music Exchange

East-West, Perpetual Motion”: les échanges transatlantiques entre les musiques populaires américaines et britanniques
Paulo Renato Ferreira Pinto de Oliveira
p. 10-19


L’objet de cet article sera d’étudier les échanges transatlantiques entre les styles musicaux britanniques et américains, ainsi que leur rôle dans l’avènement de certains mouvements sous- culturels. Nous nous attarderons sur les idiomes musicaux d’époques marquantes dans le développement de la musique populaire depuis la seconde guerre mondiale. L’étude de certains groupes britanniques nous permettra de montrer l’ambivalence de l’attraction qu’exercent les Etats-Unis, étape obligée — aux effets parfois dévastateurs — pour accéder à une véritable popularité.

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Entrées d’index

Index chronologique :

20th century / XXe siècle
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Texte intégral

  • 1 Orwell’s famous essay “The Decline of the English Murder” is a typical example of the author’s preo (...)

1Anxiety over a supposed excessive Americanisation of British culture is an ongoing motif in British intellectual life. From George Orwell to Richard Hoggart, almost every respectable cultural critic has decried the vulgarisation of “quaint” British institutions, such as the crime novel1, by excessive American brashness. Post- war culture became an easy target for those complaining about American cultural imperialism. An avalanche of American cultural products flooded Europe and especially Great Britain, due to the lack of a language barrier and to the great number of American servicemen staying on after the war. Arguably, popular music was the medium that had to deal with the loudest criticism. For instance, a 1956 Daily Mail editorial (“Rock ’n’ Roll Babies”) stated that:

  • 2 Emphasis added.

It is deplorable. It is tribal. And it is from America. It follows ragtime, blues, dixie, jazz, hot cha-cha and the boogie-woogie, which surely originated in the jungle. We sometimes wonder whether this is the negro’s revenge.2

2These lines reveal contempt for supposedly lower forms of music, in associating them with the “primitive” expression of “inferior” peoples. Of course, it had to come from America. Interestingly, this editorial was written at the time of the first “Rock and Roll Riots” perpetrated by teenagers who had seen The Blackboard Jungle. The title tune “Rock Around the Clock” became associated with teenage degeneracy and dementia that was simply not supposed to happen in Britain. Cultural critics, social commentators and journalists were quick to blame America for these happenings and also for the rise of the Teddy Boy movement. Simplistic associations linked rock music, teenage delinquency and a general lack of respect for state institutions, such as school. The “shiny barbarism” denounced by Hoggart in The Uses of Literacy became the hallmark of a post-war generation supposedly more preoccupied with material values than spiritual ones and less communitarian than traditional working-class culture.

3But, as Iain Chambers affirms in Urban Rhythms,

looking with care into an earlier epoch, before “Americanisation” provided a tidy explanation, we find that popular urban culture, at least in Britain, has borne all the signs of a modern entertainment industry for quite some time (6).

4In Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears, Geoffrey Pearson uses a similar reasoning to demonstrate that youth subcultures and delinquency are not post-war phenomena and reactions to them have been the same, at least since Victorian times. The typical conservative argument is that the world is changing for the worse and the old times were a golden age of peace and prosperity. Quoting newspapers from diverse eras in British history and comparing laments from writers such as Orwell, F. R. Leavis and T.S. Eliot, Pearson demonstrates that the arguments produced are always the same for similar problems. For instance, in Orwell’s novel Coming up for Air, the main character, George Bowling, complains that “There’s something that’s gone out of us in these twenty years since the war” (27); but, as Pearson notes, “We have already met this sorry postwar blues, with its nostalgic lament about the shallow artificiality of life in the concrete jungle […] The complicating difficulty, however, is that this is a statement from before the war” (25).

5The British were quick to take up the new music style, however, and singers imitating American stars began to appear. Cliff Richard, Adam Faith and Billy Fury were some of the first breed of British rock singers that took by storm an already converted teenage audience. Before them, the British had Tommy Steele whom Nik Cohn, in “English Rock”, called “the lovable Cockney” (63) because he continued the British music-hall tradition of cheerful and witty popular characters. Though successful, these singers had a major drawback—they were not original. Even though they had an English quirkiness about them (the fanciful names for instance, Dickie Pride and Vince Eager), the public always saw them as second-rate stars, imitators of a foreign style. Their style was parochial and, as Cohn writes, their success was insular and limited to Britain:

Compare his [Steele’s] saga with Elvis and you have the precise difference between the great American and the great British entertainment epic. Elvis became God. Tommy Steele made it to the London Palladium. (63)

6The social landscape of the late fifties was also beginning to show disturbing signs of restlessness and prejudice that culminated in the so-called race riots in Notting Hill. Nevertheless, this did not stop Colin MacInnes celebrating in Absolute Beginners and England, Half-English these singers and their fans as the harbingers of a new era where the affluent teenager and her/his style would become an unavoidable symbol of London’s urban landscape.

  • 3 Denmark Street was London’s Tin Pan Alley where most established songwriters worked for the publish (...)

7When you cannot compete in the same area with the best, you have to invent something new, and that is what the British did in 1952 with the trad jazz revival and skiffle fads that took the nation’s youngsters over in a music- making frenzy only comparable with the punk explosion and its DIY ethic. According to Iain Chambers, “skiffle was the first popular attempt undertaken to appropriate parts of American popular music” (45). The inventive skiffle groups had to make do with what they had, for there was a shortage of quality instruments, which is why one of the key instruments was a simple washing board. But British inventiveness did not stop here. The early 60s saw the beginning of the Merseybeat movement set around the Liverpool area. Undoubtedly, the port was a gateway to America and its music. Lots of young boys began to save their wages to buy guitars and drum kits to begin a band. The impoverished Liverpool working class surroundings spawned a desire for flight to fame and success. And as in all provincial yearnings, the big city, London, and the big country, America, were the dreamt-for places. What marked these bands as different was the brashness and cheerfulness of a northern working class background, as opposed to the safe, clean image of Cliff Richard and his peers. More importantly, they either covered American blues songs or wrote their own, which made a stark contrast with the songs written by Denmark Street hacks.3 The sight of these young hoodlums surely appalled the most respectable quarters of British society and even made some sigh for Richard’s anodyne antics in the 1959 film Expresso Bongo.

8The advent of The Beatles, undoubtedly the most successful and influential of all the beat groups, made the first great British triumph in rock music possible. Until then, musical exchange between America and Britain had been mostly a one-way street; what the Americans invented the British copied and adapted. It is not the aim of this article to trace and investigate what made The Beatles so special and successful, but to highlight the importance that they had for the British record industry, and more importantly, for British musicians. Ever since The Beatles set foot in America amidst a horde of screaming and fainting fans, all British bands have wanted to succeed there. This new cross-Atlantic exchange is well demonstrated by the song that inspired the title of this article—“East-West” by Herman’s Hermits, the second British band to have a number one hit in America—which describes the “perpetual motion” between both sides of the Atlantic and the price that has to be paid for fame and fortune (i.e. the ensuing home-sickness).

9The conquest of the American audience is still a crucial aspect of assessing a band’s success, as can be seen from the outcome of the “battle” between Oasis and Blur in 1996; Oasis “won” because they sold more records and sold out more shows than Blur. This “battle” was more or less staged by the music press as was the previous “battle” between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, but it goes to show that hitting it big in America is the ultimate goal for any British rock act and arguably reflects the uneasy shift of power between the former colony and its down-at-heel coloniser.

  • 4 See Lomax (280): “’The Rising Sun’ occurs as the name of a bawdy house in two other traditional son (...)

10The appropriation of American styles by British youth reached full maturity in the mid 60s when there was a big explosion of R&B bands influenced by the raw sounds of Chicago’s urban African-American singers. In Newcastle, Eric Burdon put together The Animals who had the massive hit “The House of the Rising Sun” and became the epitome of British white blues bands. Typically, this song had its origins in 17th century British folk music and was popular in America in the 19th century.4 The song was first recorded by The Almanac Singers then brought back to Britain via Bob Dylan’s first album. The blues boom concentrated in the clubs all around London that presented to the audiences The Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones and The Who. This new, raucous style was greatly indebted to soul music coming from the most prominent soul labels in the United States—Stax, Motown and Atlantic. This cross-breeding between an Afro-American style and British musicianship led to the creation of diverse trends in popular music that can still be traced nowadays.

11The Rolling Stones went on to conquer America and had almost as prominent a profile as The Beatles’. Their main difference was their “bad boy” image and their link with a “primitive” sexuality expressed by the rawness and immediacy of both their music and lyrics. Obviously, this was a great leap from the safe image of the first British pop singers referred to above. Whereas Billy Fury and others were still associated with the white crooner style embodied by Frank Sinatra and Perry Como, The Rolling Stones cut the links with previous white popular music and went straight on to the black sounds of Muddy Waters and Otis Redding. At the same time that the Rolling Stones were transforming themselves into universal rock stars, The Who became the epitome of the new Mod working class style. Their song “My Generation” was the hymn for a youth enmeshed in consumerism. Still, the Mod style was very creative, fashion-conscious, elegant and effeminate, fuelled by amphetamines and a desire to party all night. This Swinging London era led to the recognition of Britain as a tantalizing, trendy and youthful country filled with a creative and hip crowd. The Beatles’ and Rolling Stones’ huge success in America led to a British craze where anything coming from Britain was the archetype of cool. One of the outcomes of this was the creation of The Monkees, a crude imitation fabricated to appeal to America’s teenage audience.

12This British appropriation was not confined to the development of subcultural styles, but also led to the creation of different trends in rock music. The Yardbirds, and later Cream, created a high-fuelled blues-rock that laid out the tracks for two musical styles that flourished in the early 70s: progressive rock (Yes, ELP and Genesis) and heavy metal (Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin). Whereas The Who and The Small Faces relied on short and fast R&B, the progressive and metal bands concentrated on sprawling tracks full of—sometimes pompous—instrumental virtuosity. It can be argued that this dichotomy relates to class matters: working class youths favoured the short and lively R&B of The Who and educated middle class youths went for the “serious” musical exploitations and psychedelic meanderings associated with progressive rock.

  • 5 As used by Dick Hebdige in Subculture, The Meaning of Style.

13By now it is clear that British youth was not happy with the simple usurpation of American music styles. They not only “fabricated” 5 new subcultural Ted, Mod and Skin styles, they also developed the music coming from the other side of the Atlantic. One thing that was always bigger and more important than its American counterpart was dance-hall culture. In Britain these places, like the Hammersmith Palais, were a common ground for courtship and enjoyment of music even before the Second World War and, with the explosion of rock and roll, they also became the source for much parental anxiety.

14The dance hall environment was the subject of a study by Geoff Mungham, “Youth in Pursuit of Itself”, in which the author described a highly stratified and regulated world:

the mass-dance is the forum for what might be called “mainstream” working class youth. Their convergence on Friday or Saturday night in the “suite” or ballroom” resembles the sort of ersatz community […] defined in terms of an intolerance of deviations in dress, appearance, personal mannerisms or musical experimentation (82).

15What Mungham’s study shows is the way both youth and adults controlled the atmosphere and procedures of the dance hall. In order to keep the dance halls respectable institutions, deviation was not encouraged and frequently forbidden. One of the outcomes of the more extreme types of rock music was the growing differentiation between venues and clubs; the dance hall evolved into the more specialised locations where the crowd could expect a selection of music that related to the tastes of the punters. One extraordinary outcome of this differentiation was the emergence of the Northern Soul movement all over Yorkshire and Lancashire from the mid-60s onwards as a reaction against a certain intellectualisation of rock by the middle classes. As Chambers notes, “soul was a music for predominantly white, working-class teenagers who refused the passive acceptance and bombastic ritual of the rock performance” (146). The Northern Soul sessions at places such as the Wigan Casino or the Blackpool Mecca, were fuelled by a deep appreciation of both soul music and amphetamines. It is in the “all-niter” tradition of these sessions that the roots for the rave scene can be found. The underground, almost illegal, nature of the parties was combined with a desire to transcend the ordinariness of everyday life into a celebration of music and dance. Interestingly, as in the dance halls and Northern Soul, the music came from the United States, but the styles and movements were created in Britain. Techno music originated in Chicago and Detroit, however its mass expansion was engineered in the British club and rave scene.

16These interchanges alert us to the continuous spreading of popular youth and music styles throughout the world. Although these styles are mostly disseminated by the majors, alternative networks of distribution—such as The Cartel instituted by Rough Trade in the 80s to serve as a unified distribution system for all English independent labels—also play a crucial part in this process. The role of the connoisseur is extremely important, for it is inside knowledge and stratification of tastes within the various subcultures that allow for a specific delineation of what is acceptable and what is not. It can be argued that the role these movements play in the diffusion of marketable styles is crucial to the definition, incorporation and transformation of the commodities and forms made available.

  • 6 Bowie and Glitter did not only appeal to the working class crowd, they were actually indebted to it (...)
  • 7 McNeil has to be given a lot of credit for he was the cofounder in 1975 of the fanzine that titled (...)

17The next big cross-fertilisation between British and American musical styles was punk. Around 1975 a scene developed at the CBGB’s venue in New York, where bands inspired by the MC5, The Velvet Underground, The Stooges and The New York Dolls created a nightmarish vision of urban decay and pessimism. This style, with its emphasis on simplicity, was the complete opposite of the West Coast corporate hippie rock and its stylistic and musical complacency. Bands like Television, The Ramones and the Patti Smith Group took up residence at the CBGB’s and at the nearby Max’s Kansas City clubs and a nihilistic crowd soon followed. On the other side of the Atlantic, working class kids were beginning to discover a newer, simpler kind of music — Punk. The main influences were the proletarian6 glam rock of David Bowie and Gary Glitter and 50s heroes such as Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. Obviously, the New York scene had an enormous influence on the style and sound of the British punk bands. Most notably, Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols’ manager, spent some time in New York and managed the highly influential and outrageous New York Dolls, which prompted Legs McNeil7 in Please Kill Me to downgrade the importance of British punk as just an offshoot from the New York artistic vanguard. However, a case can be made for the importance of the British punk bands in the consolidation of the movement. The Sex Pistols’ outlandish behaviour and look combined with The Clash’s political stance made punk rock a world-wide hit, prompting teenagers all over the place to emulate the ragged style and defiant look of the British punks. Jon Savage’s book, England’s Dreaming, is a detailed history of the relations between British and American punk bands, with less of a need to establish the birthplace of the style than McNeil’s work, concentrating instead on the development of punk rock as a musical and political movement.

18Reflecting the differences and inherent contradictions between American and British punk, the outcome of these movements was quite different. British punk was always more raucous and directly led to two main divisions: the intellectual post-punk twisted funk of The Gang of Four and P.I.L. and the straight-on working class racket of Sham 69 and The Exploited. Being more intellectual and cynical in nature, American punk divided also into two schools: the No Wave deconstructionist rock of Sonic Youth and DNA and the New Wave cold intellectualism of Blondie and Talking Heads. These ramifications are just short examples of the extreme richness of both punk movements, with styles such as Oi! and Hardcore expanding even further the stylistic possibilities of this genre.

  • 8 See Reynolds “The Independents Day. Post Punk 1979-1981”.
  • 9 See for example the accidents during the Sex Pistols’ tour of the American South and Bible Belt Sta (...)

19The 80s saw the advent of several pop styles directly associated with the political conservatism of the era like the New Romantics, a flashy, extravagant but shallow embodiment of the Thatcherite era8. But, the DIY ethic and small entrepreneurship that began with punk laid the foundations for the independent scene in Britain and the alternative movement in North America. The most successful British indie band, The Smiths, followed their predecessors’ steps towards the conquest of America with long, gruelling tours. According to Johnny Rogan in Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance, “Without the benefit of strong promotion, healthy record sales or authorized videos, The Smiths had attracted audiences that excelled [sic] those of several major chart acts” (237). In an uncanny repetition of The Beatles’ and Sex Pistols’ destiny, this tour was their last. The Beatles decided not to play live again after their concerts in American baseball stadiums where the music was drowned by the screaming frenzy of the fans, and the Sex Pistols broke up in America following a disastrous tour of the southern states. Much of the blame for these happenings can probably be traced to the immense territory and numerous cities covered on a tour of North America as well as the cultural conservatism and deep suspicion that greets any British act outside New York and Boston.9

  • 10 Interestingly, he has a cover version of fellow Mancunians Herman’s Hermits’ song referred to above
  • 11 They even call the areas they live in “Moz Angeles.”

20After The Smiths broke up in 1987, Morrissey has had most success in America 10 and nowadays lives in Los Angeles and is worshipped by the Chicano gangs as their biggest idol.11 But, in a manner typical of many British bands this does not stop him from showing ambivalent opinions towards America. As he states in a Q magazine interview:

It just isn’t the fact [sic] that people who live in America support their country in everything and uphold their influence on our poor pathetic isle. I don’t feel I’m being anti-American, just reasonably intelligent (97).

21This ambivalence is reminiscent of the suspicion that American-British relations still carry in respect of cultural products, but sometimes Britain can be a safe harbour for American bands that are not recognised in their own country. For instance, in the mid-80s, British indie label 4AD signed the Boston cult bands The Pixies and Throwing Muses, catapulting them to a remarkable cult following in Europe. More recently, The Strokes found success in Britain through the championing of the music newspapers and the support of their British label, Rough Trade. Contemporary bands coming from the New York area like Interpol and Radio 4 unashamedly acknowledge the influence of post-punk British bands, while they situate themselves in the American garage rock tradition. Even more extraordinary is the current “Electroclash” trend with bands such as Fischerspooner ore A.R.E. Weapons that, in true post- modern fashion, fuses British indie with synthesiser and New Romantic pop, punk rock and techno.

22These examples clearly show that the creative route is not limited to a one-way Atlantic exchange. As the Americans can claim to be the “inventors” of most musical styles, the British can claim the invention of the most popular subcultural styles. American popular music styles have been continuously transformed by British musicians, whose creativity is arguably less stifled by the large-scaleness and conservatism of US business practice—a place where it is hard to develop new and innovative products without the interference of senior business managers. British youth’s inventiveness has allowed for a renewal and a reworking of given styles which have had a major influence on contemporary popular music.

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Works cited

CHAMBERS, Iain. Urban Rhythms: Pop Music and Popular Culture. London: Macmillan, 1985.

COHN, Nik. “English Rock.” Nik Cohn. Awopboaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age ofRock. 1969. New York: Grove Press, 1996. 61-79.

HEBDIGE, Dick. Subculture, The Meaning of Style (New Accents). (1979) London and New York: Routledge, 2001.

HOGGART, Richard. The Uses of Literacy. (1957) London: Penguin, 1992. LOMAX, Alan. The Folk Songs of North America. Garden City: New York, 1960. MACINNES, Colin. Absolute Beginners. (1959) London: Allison & Busby, 2001. MACINNES, Colin. England, Half-English. London: Allison & Busby, 1961.

MCNEIL, Legs, and MCCAIN, Gillian. Please Kill Me: The Oral History of Punk. New York: Abacus, 1992.

MACONIE, Stuart. “Hello Cruel World. Morrissey interviewed by Stuart Maconie.” Q April 1994: 92-101.

MUNGHAM, Geoff. “Youth in Pursuit of Itself.” in Working Class Youth Culture. Eds. Geoff MUNGHAM and Geoff PEARSON. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976. 82-104. ORWELL, George. Coming up for Air. (1939). Penguin: London, 1962.

ORWELL, George. “The Decline of the English Murder.” in The Decline of the English

Murder and Other Essays. London: Penguin, 1965. 2-6.

PEARSON, Geoffrey. Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears. (1983) New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

“ROCK ’N’ ROLL BABIES”. Editorial. Daily Mail, 5 Sep 1956.

REYNOLDS, Simon. “The Independents Day. Post Punk 1979-1981”. Homepage 04/05/2004. <> Last checked May 3rd, 2004.

ROGAN, Johnny. Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance. London: Omnibus Press, 1993.

SAVAGE, Jon. England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols and Beyond. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1993.

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1 Orwell’s famous essay “The Decline of the English Murder” is a typical example of the author’s preoccupation with “pernicious” American influences, claiming, “Perhaps it is significant that the most talked-of English murder of recent years should have been committed by an American and an English girl who had become partly Americanized” (6). Orwell is referring to the “Cleft Chin Murder” perpetrated by an eighteen-year-old ex-waitress named Elizabeth Jones, and an American army deserter named Karl Hulten.

2 Emphasis added.

3 Denmark Street was London’s Tin Pan Alley where most established songwriters worked for the publishers who dominated the music market until the early 60s.

4 See Lomax (280): “’The Rising Sun’ occurs as the name of a bawdy house in two other traditional songs, both British in origin […]. The melody can be linked with one setting of Lord Barnard and Little Musgrove’ and with other old traditional tunes. Yet this song is, as far as I know, unique. I took it down in 1937 from the singing of a thin, pretty, yellow-headed miner’s daughter [Georgia Turner] in Middlesborough, Kentucky, subsequently adapting it to the form that was popularized by Josh White [...]”.

5 As used by Dick Hebdige in Subculture, The Meaning of Style.

6 Bowie and Glitter did not only appeal to the working class crowd, they were actually indebted to it for some of the styles they projected.

7 McNeil has to be given a lot of credit for he was the cofounder in 1975 of the fanzine that titled the movement—Punk.

8 See Reynolds “The Independents Day. Post Punk 1979-1981”.

9 See for example the accidents during the Sex Pistols’ tour of the American South and Bible Belt States and the death threats made to The Beatles.

10 Interestingly, he has a cover version of fellow Mancunians Herman’s Hermits’ song referred to above.

11 They even call the areas they live in “Moz Angeles.”

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Paulo Renato Ferreira Pinto de Oliveira, « “East-West, Perpetual Motion”: British-American Popular Music Exchange »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. II - n°2 | 2004, 10-19.

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Paulo Renato Ferreira Pinto de Oliveira, « “East-West, Perpetual Motion”: British-American Popular Music Exchange »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. II - n°2 | 2004, mis en ligne le 16 novembre 2009, consulté le 03 décembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Paulo Renato Ferreira Pinto de Oliveira

(Aveiro, Portugal)
Paulo Renato Ferreira Pinto de Oliveira graduated in Portuguese and English teaching at the University of Aveiro in 1997. He is now a researcher at the University of Aveiro working on British working class youth subcultures. His other research interests are popular music, film and television studies.

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