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British pop music

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British pop music

While various forms of commercially produced popular music had existed in Great Britain for several centuries, what is now understood as British pop music emerged in the mid-to late 1950s as a softer alternative to rock 'n' roll and later to rock music. Like American pop music it has a focus on commercial recording, often orientated towards a youth market, usually through the medium of relatively short and simple love songs. While these basic elements of the genre have remained fairly constant, pop music has absorbed influences from most other forms of popular music, particularly borrowing from the development of rock music, and utilising key technological innovations to produce new variations on existing themes. From the British Invasion of the 1960s, led by The Beatles, British pop music has alternated between acts and genres with national appeal and those with international success that have had a considerable impact on the development of the wider genre and on popular music in general.

Early British popular music

Jack Hylton, c. 1930

Early British popular music, in the sense of commercial music enjoyed by the people, arose in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the arrival of the broadside ballad, which were sold cheaply and in great numbers until the nineteenth century. Further technological, economic and social changes led to new forms of music in the nineteenth century, including parlour music and the brass band, which produced a popular and communal form of classical music. Similarly, the music hall sprang up to cater for the entertainment of new urban societies, adapting existing forms of music to produce popular songs and acts. In the 1930s the influence of American jazz and swing music led to the creation of British dance bands, who provided a social and popular music that began to dominate social occasions and the radio airwaves.

Traditional pop, skiffle and rock 'n' roll 1950-62

In the early 1950s sales of American records dominated British popular music. In the first full year of the charts in 1953 major artists were Perry Como, Guy Mitchell and Frankie Laine largely with orchestrated sentimental ballads, beside novelty records like "(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?" re-recorded by British artist Lita Roza.[1] Some established British wartime stars like Vera Lynn were still able to chart into the mid-1950s, but successful new British acts like Jimmy Young who had two number one hits in 1955, did so with re-recorded versions of American songs "Unchained Melody" and "The Man from Laramie" or Alma Cogan with "Dreamboat".[1] Many successful songs were the product of movies, including number ones for Doris Day in 1954 with "Secret Love" from Calamity Jane and for Frank Sinatra with the title song from Three Coins in the Fountain. A notable British musical genre of the mid-1950s was skiffle, which was developed primarily by jazz musicians copying American folk and country blues songs such as those of Lead Belly in a deliberately rough and lively style emulating jug bands. The most prominent exponent was Lonnie Donegan, whose version of "Rock Island Line" was a major hit in 1956. The success of the skiffle craze, and the lack of a need for expensive instruments or high levels of musicianship, encouraged many working class British males to start their own groups.[2] It has been estimated that in the late 1950s there were 30-50,000 skiffle groups in Britain.[3] Sales of guitars grew rapidly and other musicians were able to perform on improvised bass and percussion in venues such as church halls and cafes, without having to aspire to musical perfection or virtuosity.[2]

At the same time, rock and roll was played in Britain after 1955.[4] The British product has generally been considered less successful than the American version of the genre at the time, and made very little international or lasting impact.[4] However, it was important in establishing British youth and popular music culture and was a key factor in subsequent developments that led to the British Invasion of the mid-1960s. Since the 1960s some stars of the genre, most notably Cliff Richard, have managed to sustain very successful pop careers and there have been periodic revivals of this form of music.[4]

Beat and the British Invasion 1963-69

The arrival of The Beatles in the U.S., and subsequent appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, marked the start of the British Invasion

In the late 1950s, a flourishing culture of groups began to emerge, often out of the declining skiffle scene, in major urban centres in the UK like Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and London. This was particularly true in Liverpool, where it has been estimated that there were around 350 different bands active, often playing ballrooms, concert halls and clubs.[5] Beat bands were heavily influenced by American bands of the era, such as Buddy Holly and the Crickets (from which group The Beatles derived their name), as well as earlier British groups such as The Shadows.[6] After the national success of the Beatles in Britain from 1962, a number of Liverpool performers were able to follow them into the singles charts, including Gerry & The Pacemakers, The Searchers, and Cilla Black. Among the most successful beat acts from Birmingham were The Spencer Davis Group and The Moody Blues. From London, the term Tottenham Sound was largely based around The Dave Clark Five, but other London bands that benefited from the beat boom of this era included the Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds. The first non-Liverpool, non-Brian Epstein-managed band to break through in the UK were Freddie and the Dreamers, who were based in Manchester,[7] as were Herman's Hermits and The Hollies.[8]

The British Invasion of America led by the Beatles from their arrival in April 1964 saw them, uniquely, hold the top 5 positions on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart simultaneously.[9][10] During the next two years, Peter and Gordon, The Animals, Manfred Mann, Petula Clark, Freddie and the Dreamers, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, Herman’s Hermits, The Rolling Stones, The Troggs, and Donovan would have one or more number one singles.[11] Other acts that were part of the invasion included The Dave Clark Five, Tom Jones, The Kinks and The Who[10] At this point most of the British Invasion bands did not distinguish their rock 'n' roll or blues based music from pop music. However, around 1967 as blues-rock acts, emerging folk rock and some beat bands, including the Beatles, veered towards a more serious forms of music (with an emphasis on meaning, virtuosity and orientated towards the albums market), the term pop music began to be applied to rock and roll based music with more commercial aims, often with inconsequential lyrics, particularly simple love songs, and orientated towards the singles chart, continuing the path of traditional pop.[12] Although some bands occupied territory that crossed the emerging rock/pop divide and were able to produce successes in both camps, including the Beatles and Rolling Stones, the British pop genre in the late 60s would be dominated by individual singers like Sandie Shaw.[13]

Band pop, punk and new wave 1970-78

Ian Dury and the Blockheads on stage

The early 1970s were probably the era when British pop music was most dependent on the group format, with pop acts, like rock bands, playing guitars and drums, with the occasional addition of keyboards or orchestration. Some of these groups were in some sense "manufactured", but many were competent musicians, playing on their own recordings and writing their own material. Some of the technically more impressive groups who enjoyed number one hits in the UK were 10cc, Status Quo and Mungo Jerry. Aiming much more for the teen market, partly a response to the Osmonds were The Rubettes and The Bay City Rollers.[14]

British soul and disco enjoyed mainstream popularity during this era, with artists such as Biddu, Carl Douglas, Tina Charles, and Jimmy James.[15] The 1974 hit "Kung Fu Fighting" (by Carl Douglas and Biddu) in particular sold eleven million records worldwide.[16][17] Largely vocal-based groups included the New Seekers, Brotherhood of Man, the last of these designed as a British answer to ABBA.[18] In addition there were the rock and roll revivalists Showaddywaddy, Mud and Alvin Stardust.[19] Individuals who enjoyed successful pop careers in this period included Gilbert O'Sullivan, David Essex, Leo Sayer and Rod Stewart.[1]

Perhaps the most unique British development in pop was glam or glitter rock, characterised by outrageous clothes, makeup, hairstyles, and platform-soled boots.[20] The flamboyant lyrics, costumes, and visual styles of glam performers were a campy playing with categories of sexuality in a theatrical blend of nostalgic references to science fiction and old movies, all over a guitar-driven hard rock sound.[21] Pioneers of the genre included Marc Bolan and T. Rex, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Mott the Hoople.[21] These, and many other acts, straddled the divide between pop and rock music, managing to maintain a level of respectability with rock audiences, while enjoying success in the singles chart, including Queen and Elton John. Other performers aimed much more directly for the popular music market, where they were the dominant groups of their era, including and Slade and Sweet.[21] The glitter image was pushed to its limits by Gary Glitter and The Glitter Band. Largely confined to the British, glam rock peaked during the mid-1970s, before it disappeared in the face of punk rock and new wave trends.[21]

The initial impact of punk on pop music, even when not banned from the charts, was not overwhelming, but by the end of the decade the British pop music industry was becoming dominated by post-punk new wave acts like Ian Dury and the Blockheads.[1] Other successful new wave pop bands included XTC, Squeeze and Nick Lowe, as well as songwriters like Elvis Costello, rock & roll influenced bands like the Pretenders, and the reggae influenced music of bands like The Police.[22] By the end of the decade, many of these bands, most obviously the Police, were beginning to make an impact in American and world markets.[23]

New Romanticism and the second British Invasion 1979-85

David Sylvian (right) of Japan onstage in 1979

The British charts at the opening of the 1980s were dominated by the usual mix of imports, novelty acts, oddities (including rock and roll revivalist and Elvis impersonator Shakin' Stevens) and survivors like Queen and David Bowie, but there were also more conventional pop acts, including Bucks Fizz, whose light lyrics and simple tempos gave them three number ones after their Eurovision Song Contest victory in 1981.[1] Frankie Goes to Hollywood's, initially controversial, dance-pop gave then three consecutive number ones in 1983 and 1984, until they faded away in the mid-1980s.[1] Probably the most successful British pop band of the era were the duo Wham! with an unusual mix of disco, soul, ballads and even rap, who had eleven top ten hits in the UK, six of them number ones, between 1982 and 1986.[1]

New Romanticism emerged as the dominant force in the singles charts at the beginning of the 1980s. Originally part of the new wave music movement in London nightclubs including Billy's and The Blitz Club towards the end of the 1970s and influenced by David Bowie and Roxy Music, it further developed glam rock fashions, gaining its name from the frilly fop shirts of early Romanticism. Among the commercially most successful acts associated with the movement were Adam and the Ants, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran.[24] By about 1983, the original movement had dissolved with surviving acts dropping most of the fashion elements to pursue mainstream careers. New Romantic music often made extensive use of synthesizers, merging into synthpop, which followed electronic rock pioneers in the 1970s like Kraftwerk, Jean Michel Jarre, and Tangerine Dream. Tubeway Army, a little known outfit from West London, dropped their punk rock image and topped the UK charts in 1979 with the single "Are Friends Electric?", prompting their singer, Gary Numan to go solo and release the album, The Pleasure Principle from which he gained a number one in the single charts with "Cars", and which much to popularize the synth-pop sound. Trevor Horn of The Buggles captured the changing scene in the international hit "Video Killed the Radio Star". New Romantic acts that made extensive use of synthesizers included Visage, Ultravox, Duran Duran and Japan. There were also more straight forwardly pop acts like The Human League, Depeche Mode, Soft Cell, and Yazoo. Other key artists from the early to mid-1980s include Eurythmics, Talk Talk, A Flock of Seagulls, Tears for Fears, Pet Shop Boys, OMD, Thomas Dolby, Thompson Twins, Bronski Beat, Heaven 17, Howard Jones and Blancmange.

Madness on stage in 2005

Having emerged from the post-punk and reggae scenes in the West Midlands in the 1970s, the ska revival associated with 2 Tone records was a remarkable commercial success in the early years of the 1980s. Bands like The Specials, The Selecter, The Beat, Madness, Bad Manners and The Bodysnatchers all enjoyed chart success, with Madness and The Specials managing number ones. The Specials' "Ghost Town" (1981) is often seen as summarizing the disillusionment of Thatcherite, post-industrial urban youth.[25] Madness managed to sustain a career that could still chart into the second half of the 1980s, but the 2-Tone movement faded early in the decade, and would have a longer term impact through American bands of the third wave of ska.[26] The more reggae based music of UB40 allowed them to continue to chart in to the twentieth century, enjoying four number ones in the UK, the last of these in 1994.[27]

In the 1980s, soul emerged as a major influence on British pop music, with flourishing soul scenes in major cities like London and Manchester, with many black artists supported by local and pirate radio stations.[28] This interest was reflected in a series of covers or songs inspired by soul for a number of major acts, including Faith album (1987).[29] Also significant were Sade, Simply Red and toward the end of the decade Lisa Stansfield and Soul II Soul.[29] Soul II Soul's breakthrough R&B hits "Keep on Movin'" and "Back to Life" in 1989 have been seen as opening the door to the mainstream for black British soul and R&B performers.[29]

From its inception in 1981, the cable music channel MTV featured a disproportionate amount of music videos from image conscious British acts.[30] In the fall of 1982, "Rolling Stone would release an England Swings issue.[30] In April 1984, 40 of the top 100 singles and in a May 1985 survey, 8 of the top 10 singles, were of British origin.[33]

Manufactured acts and indie pop 1986-90

Rick Astley performing in 2009

In the late 1970s and early 1970s Hi-NRG (hi energy) disco had become popular in the gay scene of American cities like New York and San Francisco with acts like Divine, and The Weather Girls.[34] In 1983 in the UK, music magazine Record Mirror championed the gay underground sound and began publishing a weekly Hi-NRG Chart.[35] Hi-NRG also entered the mainstream with hits in the UK pop charts, such as Hazell Dean's "Searchin' (I Gotta Find a Man)" and Evelyn Thomas's "High Energy".[36][37] In the mid-1980s, Hi-NRG producers in the dance and pop charts included Ian Levine and trio Stock Aitken Waterman, the latter had two of the most successful Hi-NRG singles ever with their productions of Dead or Alive's "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)" (UK #1 & US #11 in 1985) and Bananarama's cover of the Shocking Blue song "Venus" (US #1 & UK #8 in 1986) . Artists, including Rick Astley and Australian actress Kylie Minogue, dominated British pop music and the charts in the late 1980s.[38]

In stark contrast to the upbeat dance based music of the Hi-NRG was the emergence Indie pop that emerged as part of the independent or alternative rock scenes of the 1980s, following the lead of early 80s independent bands like Aztec Camera, Orange Juice and particularly The Smiths. It was initially dubbed as 'C86' after the 1986 NME tape, and also known as "cutie", "shambling bands" and later as "twee pop".[39][40] Indie pop was characterised by jangling guitars, a love of sixties pop and often fey, innocent lyrics.[41] The UK label Sarah Records and its most popular band The Field Mice, although more diverse than the label indicates, were probably its most typical proponents. It was also inspired by the DIY scene of punk and there was a thriving fanzine, label and club and gig circuit. Genres such as Riot Grrrl and bands as diverse as Nirvana, Manic Street Preachers, and Belle and Sebastian have all acknowledged its influence. A further development was Dream pop, which followed bands like Cocteau Twins, The Chameleons, The Passions, Dif Juz, Lowlife and A.R. Kane began fusing post-punk and ethereal experiments with bittersweet pop melodies into sensual, sonically ambitious soundscapes.[42] A louder, more aggressive strain of dream pop came to be known as shoegazing; key bands of this style were Lush, Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, Chapterhouse, Curve and Levitation. These bands kept the atmospheric qualities of dream pop, but added the intensity of post-punk-influenced bands such as The Chameleons and Sonic Youth.[43]


The Spice Girls on stage in 2008

The success of American boy bands like New Edition and New Kids on the Block led to acts in the UK, including Nigel Martin-Smith's Take That and East 17 from about 1992, competing with Irish bands Westlife and Boyzone.[44] Soon after, girl groups began to reappear, like the R&B act Eternal, who achieved a string of international hits from 1993.[45] The most successful and influential act of the genre were the Spice Girls, who added well-aimed publicity and the ideology of girl power to their pop careers. They had nine number 1 singles in the UK and US, including "Wannabe", "2 Become 1" and "Spice Up Your Life" from 1996.[45] They were followed by British groups like All Saints, who had five number-one hits in the UK and two multi-platinum albums.[46] By the end of the century the grip of boy bands on the charts was faltering, but proved the basis for solo careers like that of Robbie Williams, formally of Take That, who achieved seven number one singles in the UK between 1998 and 2012.[46] New girl groups managed to continue to enjoy sustained success, including Sugababes[47] and Girls Aloud, the last of the these the most successful British product of the many Popstars format programmes, which began to have a major impact in the charts from the beginning of the 2000s.[48]

Britpop emerged from the British independent music scene of the early 1990s and was characterised by bands influenced by British guitar pop music of the 1960s and 1970s.[49] The movement developed as a reaction against various musical and cultural trends in the late 1980s and early 1990s, particularly the grunge phenomenon from the United States.[49] New British groups such as Suede and Blur launched the movement by positioning themselves as opposing musical forces, referencing British guitar music of the past and writing about uniquely British topics and concerns. These bands were soon joined by others including Oasis, Pulp, Supergrass and Elastica.[49] Britpop groups brought British alternative rock into the mainstream and formed the backbone of a larger British cultural movement called Cool Britannia.[50] Although its more popular bands were able to spread their commercial success overseas, especially to the United States, the movement largely fell apart by the end of the decade.[49] After the decline of Britpop, British indie was kept alive by "post pop" bands including Radiohead, Feeder, Stereophonics and Travis, who largely abandoned the elements of national and retro-60s culture.[51] Recently British indie bands with a foot in both the rock and pop camps has experienced a resurgence, spurred in part by the international success of The Strokes. Like modern American indie rock, many British indie bands such as Franz Ferdinand, The Libertines and Bloc Party draw influence from post-punk groups such as Joy Division, Wire, and Gang of Four. Other prominent independent in the 2000s include: Editors, The Fratellis, Razorlight, Keane, Kaiser Chiefs, Coldplay and Arctic Monkeys, the last the most prominent act to owe their success to the use of internet social networking.[52]

After Soul II Soul's breakthrough R&B hits "Keep on Movin'" and "Back to Life" in 1989, existing black soul acts, including Omar and acid jazz bands Incognito and Brand New Heavies, were now able to pursue mainstream recording careers.[29] Particularly noticeable was the proliferation of British female black singers including Mica Paris, Caron Wheeler, Gabrielle and Heather Small.[28] British soul in the 2000s has also been dominated by female singers, including Leona Lewis, Natasha Bedingfield, Joss Stone, Amy Winehouse,[53] Lily Allen, Florence Welch, Adele and Duffy, all of whom have enjoyed success in the American charts, leading to talk of a "Female Invasion", "British soul invasion" or, together with successful indie acts, a "Third British Invasion".[54] Male R&B artists who have had mainstream success in the United States include Jay Sean and Taio Cruz. Many of these British R&B artists have increasingly incorporated electropop sounds in their music.[55]


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See also

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