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The British are coming: the Summer of 1964 (part one)

Fifty years ago, a wave of British performers began showing up on The Ed Sullivan Show following the dramatic and game-changing appearances by The Beatles. That spring, a number of “beat” groups made the transatlantic leap and scored hits on American charts prompting many pop pundits to declare (not for the last time) that the Beatles’ fifteen-minutes of fame had elapsed. The first pretenders to the throne were London’s The Dave Clark Five with “Glad All Over” (sung and written by organist Mike Smith with Dave Clark), which anticipated the many other British pop records that would find a place on American charts in the mid sixties. Soon, Liverpudlian performers The Searchers (“Needles and Pins”), Gerry and the Pacemakers (“Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”), and Billy J. Kramer (“Bad to Me”) followed fellow Merseysiders The Beatles and debuted on the Sullivan’s Sunday-night show, even as other American networks scrambled to get their piece of the British pop pie.

Publicity photo of The Dave Clark Five from their cameo performing appearance in the US film Get Yourself a College Girl. 27 November 1964. (c) MGM. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Publicity photo of The Dave Clark Five from their cameo performing appearance in the US film Get Yourself a College Girl. 27 November 1964. (c) MGM. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Over the course of that year, the success of acts like these changed both American impressions of British music and, importantly, British musicians’ attitudes about themselves. After an era of economic hardship and the occasional geopolitical embarrassment (e.g., the Suez Crisis of 1956), Britain came out of its postwar cultural funk to the soundtrack of pop music. At least two interrelated trends in this music emerged. First, British artists followed the long-established practice of white performers covering music created by African Americans and, second, they began to explore their own versions of what those traditions might sound like. Often, their approach was to take material previously performed acoustically and reinterpret it with electric guitars and keyboards accompanied by drums. They also applied production forces that had not been available to the original performers. Ultimately, British producers, songwriters, and musicians began to find the confidence—sometimes tinged with arrogance—that they could compete with Americans.

“House of the Rising Sun.” This traditional ballad (collector Alan Lomax had recorded an Appalachian version in the thirties) about a life gone wrong in New Orleans had been included on Bob Dylan’s eponymous first album. The Animals from Newcastle had already extracted and interpreted a song that appears on that album for British charts (“Baby Let Me Take You Home”), applying blues-rock aesthetics to a folk ballad. In a way, The Animals’ version of “House of the Rising Sun” was an early example of folk rock.

Guitarist Hilton Valentine and keyboardist Alan Price found ways to update and electrify the instrumental accompaniment of “House of the Rising Sun,” and Eric Burdon gave it a convincing and ultimately defining interpretation. The session unfolded at the unglamorous hour of eight AM after the band had traveled overnight from a gig in Liverpool, arriving at Kingsway Studios (opposite the Holborn Underground station) tired, but excited to be recording again. The band ran through the arrangement they had been playing in clubs and did two takes; but the second proved unnecessary. Mickie Most, the artist-and-repertoire manager on the session, knew he had a hit. Most later told Spencer Leigh, “Everything was in the right place, the planets were in the right place, the stars were in the right place and the wind was blowing in the right direction. It only took 15 minutes to make.”

Most’s role in the success of mid-sixties British rock and pop cannot be overstated. He would produce recordings by Herman’s Hermits, the Nashville Teens, Donovan, the Yardbirds, and many others. In the case of “House of the Rising Sun,” Most made the unconventional call to press all 4 minutes and 28 seconds of the recording. The combination of microgroove technology and vinyl allowed for longer playing times and a cleaner sound from a 45 rpm disc, even if most singles still followed the industry norm of 2:30 established by 78 rpm shellac discs. Most concluded that, if the recording and the performance were good, the length would not matter. He was proved right, even if MGM (the American distributor) would break the recording up into two parts for radio play. Released on June 19th, the record would hit number 1 on British charts in July 1964 and soon proved successful on American charts as well such that the Animals would debut on The Ed Sullivan Show in October with a hit.

“Doo Wah Diddy Diddy.” Named after South African keyboardist Manfred Lubowitz’s stage persona, the London band Manfred Mann got their break when asked to write theme music for the popular ITV television show, Ready, Steady, Go! EMI artist-and-repertoire manager John Burgess had signed them and “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” — their second release — had become a hit, albeit one that derived its success through its association with a television show. Their self-penned follow-up—“Hubble Bubble (Toil and Trouble)”—rose to a respectable #11 on UK charts, but they hoped for a piece of the transatlantic prize that The Beatles, The Dave Clark Five, and others were enjoying. As with many British performers at the time, the band and their producer decided to cover a tune that had already been released by an American singing group.

Written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich in New York, The Exciters’ version of “Do Wah Diddy” featured a very basic instrumental backing and had been a regional success; but it had been unable to capture a national market. Indeed, recordings by African Americans often found release only on small independent labels that lacked national distribution and promotion structures. Burgess would have guessed that his band could give it a different spin and, with the current hunger for British acts in the US and parent company EMI’s growing clout, a good promotion and distribution arrangement would ensure success.

Paul Jones gives a constrained performance, his singing style featuring a much more constricted and nasal quality when compared to the original’s open-throated joyfulness. Burgess with Norman Smith (who also served as the balance engineer on Beatles recordings in this era) capture a slightly more elaborate instrumental performance that included timpani and Mann’s electronic keyboard prominently in the mix. More importantly, Smith’s soundscape for the recording adds a depth that was lacking in the original production by the Exciters. “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy” would not be the band’s last American hit, but it would be their biggest.

“It’s All Over Now.” The Rolling Stones had had hits in the UK with a covers of Chuck Berry’s “Come On,” Lennon and McCartney’s “I Wanna Be Your Man,” and Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away”; but success had largely evaded them in the US in the first half of 1964. The summer had not bode well for the Rolling Stones, with The Daily Mirror at the end of May describing them as the “ugliest group in Britain.” But manager Andrew Oldham, if nothing else, had ambitious plans for the band.

In anticipation of their short inaugural American tour, he released one of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ earliest attempts at songwriting (the poppish “Tell Me,” which the songwriters had intended only as a demo) in the US to very modest regional success, but they had yet to get to the number-one spot in either the UK or the US. Once the two-week American tour began in June 1964, they played to half-empty houses and an indifferent press. If the Stones were on the road to success, it was beginning to look unpleasant.

When the tour stopped in Chicago, Oldham arranged for them to record at the studios for Chess Records. American legends who loomed large in the band’s imagination had recorded here: Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and others had all spent time at 2120 South Michigan Avenue. With Ron Malo selecting and positioning microphones before setting levels, The Stones felt they were tapping into history, while manager Andrew Oldham understood a good marketing opportunity when he saw one.

One of the tunes they had heard in New York seemed like just the thing to record during this session. Bobby and Shirley Womack had written “It’s All Over Now” for Bobby’s band, the Valentinos, but again the disc had failed to achieve much success. Their version had something of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” to its grove and feel, and a prominent bass line that drove the recording along provided a sense of humor and irony.

The Rolling Stones sped their version up and added an arpeggiated guitar part, while Mick Jagger delivered the lyrics as an angry victim who gains vindication, a role he would develop extensively in the coming years. When released in Britain on the June 26th, it would prove to be the Stones’ first chart topper the week after “House of the Rising Sun” had occupied that spot in July.

When asked the previous year about why British teens liked The Rolling Stones’ blues and rhythm-and-blues covers, Jagger acknowledged that their audiences liked white faces better. Indeed, British artists (including The Beatles) relied heavily on music originally created in the US by either African Americans or by rural whites.

As 1964 unfolded, songwriters, musicians, music directors, recording engineers, and artist-and-repertoire managers would gain self-confidence and begin producing something more identifiably British.

Recent Comments

  1. wayne cochran

    just compare the performances of james brown and the stones on the tami show (in which the stones were dumb enough to follow the godfather of soul). it’s real versus feeble. professing opposed to testifying.

    we intellectualized it for the white folks, said john lennon

  2. Gordon

    Not sure I would go that far. I’d describe the versions by the British performers as interpretations for a new audience.

  3. wayne cochran

    is that why most of them lasted so long. like lulu, freddie and the dreammers, gerry and the pacemakers, herman, billy j. kramer, etc. and so forth.

    when it came to blues and rhythm and blues few britishers could play the feeling although they could play the notes. the former are the ones who lasted. still no one in america could match the hardest working man in show buiness either.

    but back to the original point: compare clapton to duane allman and allman wins on feeling every time. but he’s a southern boy and it was in his soul. the british also never came up with anything to match the dead, airplane or quicksilver or dylan.

  4. Gordon Thompson

    Wayne, you seem to be approaching performance aesthetics as universal. I would argue that aesthetics are more along the lines of social norms. British musicians in the sixties reinterpreted the music they heard. It no longer sounded like the original, which was exactly what audiences wanted. I might prefer The Exciters’ version of “Doo Wah Diddy,” but Manfred Mann’s version was the successful version. And that’s not just a consequence of marketing; it reflects the priorities of the audience.

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