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The British Invasion, orientalism, and the summer of 1965

Fifty years ago, at the height of the British Invasion, The Yardbirds released “Heart Full of Soul” (28 May 1965) and The Kinks, “See My Friends” (30 July 1965). Both attempted to evoke something exotic, mysterious, and distinctly different from the flood of productions competing for consumer attention that summer. Drawing on Britain’s long fascination with “The Orient,” these recordings started sixties British pop down a path that proved both rewarding and problematic.

The diversion had begun perhaps a year earlier when, on 29 July 1964, guitarist Davy Graham and singer Shirley Collins performed at the Mercury Theatre in London in a program the press described as having an “Eastern flavor.” Collins had travelled in the southern United States with folklorist Alan Lomax collecting songs from the Anglo-American tradition. In contrast, Graham had previously spent time in North Africa listening to and engaging in local musics, and began to incorporate these stylistic ideas into his own playing. Notably, his composition “Maajun” (1964) reveals how he had adapted elements from the repertoire of the North African version of the Arabic ‘ūd, a four-stringed short-necked ancestor of the lute (for example, his use of a drop-D tuning on the guitar). Some musicians in London clearly noticed.

Possibly the first to pick up on this idea in pop music, Graham Gouldman had written The Yardbirds’ first hit “For Your Love” (March 1965) and now presented them with a follow-up: “Heart Full of Soul.” He sets his primary melody in D minor to support lyrics about loneliness and despair, shifting to the parallel major during the refrain to evoke optimism. The impression of something South Asian comes through the limited range of the recurring instrumental motif and its apparent lack of resolution. Indeed, an early version of the recording includes anonymous Indian musicians on sitar and tabla, but inadequate microphone choice and placement (and probably producer Giorgio Gomelsky’s inability to convey what he wanted) rendered the sound inadequate. Guitarist Jeff Beck (who had just replaced Eric Clapton) played with the relatively new device of a distortion pedal (probably a Gibson Maestro) to approximate the overtone-rich sound of the sitar.

During a flight layover that The Kinks made in Mumbai in January 1965, a jet-lagged Ray Davies found himself watching the ocean in the early morning hours from his room at the Sun-n-Sand Hotel when a group of fishermen took their nets to the sea, singing as they went. The experience left a deep impression on him. The drone through much of the verse and a melody that rises from the third of the scale, while not entirely exotic, does carry a quality of otherness… Something not quite English any more. Notably, in the realization of “See My Friends,” his brother Dave Davies remembers Davy Graham as an influence, particularly in how he tuned his guitar.

Stereotyping nationalities, ethnicities, and cultures has long been a part of human behavior, and the West has historically offered no exception to this rule in music both popular (The Mikado) and elite (Madama Butterfly). What changed in the 1960s was (a) the speed and the volume at which information disseminated around the world and (b) the increasing commonness with which cultures interacted. That this interaction could never be on an equal footing was a social reality, but in that decade it also became an everyday reality.

The so-called British “invasion” that began in 1964 more properly offers us an example of modern globalization wherein cultures increasingly came into contact with each other through developments in the technologies of transportation and media. As much as Americans understood the experience as an intrusion into their cultural domain, the appearance of artists from Britain, Spain (Los Bravos), Australia (The Easy Beats), etc. on American charts reflected globalization. Rather than a mounted assault on any one culture, mid-twentieth-century technology enabled intercultural interaction on a global scale.

For the British, centuries of imperial involvements and the subsequent creation of the British Commonwealth of Nations (with its guarantee of open travel between the member states) generated waves of immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa, and South Asia, not to mention emigration from Britain to Canada, Australia, and other Commonwealth members. Notably, the Britain of the sixties popular-culture explosion experienced a sudden challenge to its established hegemonies of class and ethnicity through a questioning of British identity.

As Edward Said has broadly observed, the West invented myths about immorality and inferiority to justify its military and economic domination over cultures around the world. But for the adolescents of the sixties, challenging adult norms and the Establishment became a preoccupation and a justification for exploring these presumptions.

Like Ray Davies, some artists came to this musical realm because it challenged established western conceptions of how music worked and opened up their world to other possibilities, whether or not they would be able to take advantage of them. “See My Friends” offered a subtle incorporation of Indian ideas that were probably not entirely obvious to most listeners. Similarly, Gouldman and The Yardbirds’ “Heart Full of Soul” balanced this relationship, taking inspiration from Indian ideas, but incorporating them in a way that would have disguised the possible origins from listeners.

More problematically, when musicians conflated ideas of melodic and rhythmic complexity and/or the acoustic sound of an instrument such as the sitar with an orientalist projection that drug use and open sex was a norm in non-Western cultures, they ultimately generated objectified representations that members of the originating cultures found offensive. Davy Graham’s title of his recording “Maajun” (a term for a mix of marijuana and hashish) provides such an illustration. As interesting as his musical ideas were, conflating them with drug usage betrays an orientalist stereotype of the exotic other.

Over the next three years, numerous other British and American musicians would incorporate ideas and idioms borrowed from the non-Western world. What would begin to change very gradually would be the willingness of musicians from these cultures to see their art appropriated and re-contextualized.

Featured Image: “Ray Davies of the Kinks” by Jean-Luc. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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