A British Invasion Amasses, March 1964
Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. In the original post below he looks at the British invasion.
Like explorers returning with tales of American discoveries and treasures, the Beatles returned to the UK where a legion of would be rock and pop stars began marshaling for a British Invasion. In March 1964, long before Homeland Security and at a time when Americans feared a Russian invasion, the American Federation of Musicians in consultation with the Department of Immigration and Naturalization Services began constructing their defenses. In anticipation of hoards of longhaired beat groups massing at London Heathrow, the AF of M planned to restrict US visits by British musicians to those artists who were part of exchange agreements. In other words, for every British act to enter the States, Britain had to accept the same number of American musicians.
In the eye of the tempest, Paul McCartney and John Lennon continued to supply the invasion forces by writing catchy songs. In the previous year, Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas had scored hits with “Bad to Me,” “Do You Want to Know a Secret,” and “I’ll Keep You Satisfied,” helping to cement Lennon and McCartney’s reputation. George Martin, the artist-and-repertoire manager responsible for many of these recordings, piggybacked on this success by pulling one of the most common tricks in pop music in this era. The Parlophone producer had Kramer record a song Martin had written with Liverpool DJ Bob Wooler and then included it as the B-side of “I’ll Keep You Satisfied.” Their song held little chance of being a hit, but when the A-side sold, Martin and Wooler received royalties too.
Paul McCartney found a vehicle for songs when his girlfriend’s brother, Peter Asher and his friend Gordon Waller went into the studio. Venerable EMI artist-and-repertoire manager Norman Newell produced Peter and Gordon’s version of McCartney’s “World without Love” to rave reviews, making one more hit for Northern Songs, the publishing entity established by Dick James to handle Lennon and McCartney’s work. With good advice, Asher and Waller managed to get their own tune, “If I Were You” on the B-side. But the Beatles were not the only game in town.
On the same day that the New Musical Express broke the story about the changes in American visa policy, the venerable Marquee Club moved from its cramped quarters at 165 Oxford Street to their historic upstairs Soho premises at 90 Wardour. They opened with Sonny Boy Williamson, Long John Baldry and the Hoochie Coochie Men, and the Yardbirds. Indeed, British rhythm-and-blues acts pulled a significant London audience, but they could not compete with the Beatles until the best known of these bands received a marketing makeover.
Andrew Oldham had worked for Beatles manager Brian Epstein, joyfully tugging the soon-to-be Fab Four from one press office to another during their first days in London; but he longed for his own act. He found his grail across the river in Richmond where the Rolling Stones pounded out their version of American R&B. At first, he put them into matching clothing (dress shirts, blue waistcoats, and knitted ties), but too many groups were trying to be the Beatles, and only the Beatles could be the Beatles. Oldham needed another strategy: the anti-Beatles. Thus on 14 March 1964, Ray Coleman in the pages of Melody Maker took Oldham’s bait and asked his readers, “Would you let your sister go with a Rolling Stone?” The press answer may have been a resounding “No,” but the sisters had other ideas. Brilliant!