The rise of the 1960s American counter-culture owes much to the British. Throughout this turbulent and eventful decade, British music groups and cultural icons migrated in waves to the United States, bringing with them new ideas and influences that would help create the defining culture of the age. Music in the 1960s is inextricably associated with the cultural and political developments of the era, including the emergence of psychedelic drug use, the political anti-war and anti-capitalist movements, and the way in which particular bands defined revolutionary anthems for the civil rights movement.
- January 1964 – The Beatles release their first single in the United States
- August 1964 – A Hard Day’s Night is released in the United States
- May 1965 – 9/10 singles in US charts came from British & Commonwealth artists
- May 1965 – The Rolling Stones head US charts with (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
The music of the 1960s represented the identity and ideologies associated with the baby boomer generation, including the emergence of new aesthetics in art, fashion and popular culture, left-wing ideology, and sexual liberation. At the heart of this cultural revolution was the amalgamation of influences and styles from the United Kingdom with the musical genres and styles of the United States.
The British Invasion was not simply the migration of a fully formed British ‘style’ across the Atlantic: rather, it was a cultural phenomenon, born of both British and American influence, and formed in the crucible of 1960s American politics.
The 1960s: The Rise of the Baby Boomers
The defining feature of the 1960s and the factor that shaped the rise of the counterculture that surrounded the British invasion was the generation gap between the inter-war generation and the so-called baby boomers. The term ‘generation gap’ originated in the 1950s and was used to describe the radically different aspirations and socio-economic characteristics that separated the baby-boomers from their parents. For the inter-war generation, the 1950s represented a period of material comfort that they had never previously experienced. This generation grew up in the wake of the Depression and spent their early adulthood in the Second World War. As a result, their aspirations were conditioned by the lack of material comfort and political uncertainty that governed their lives, and they sought to actively profit from the newfound comfort and stability of the post-war period. The post-war boom resulted in a cultural focus on the family and the domestic sphere, particularly for women, who had taken on diverse working roles during the war, and were now encouraged to return to the domestic sphere and dedicate themselves to the family. The rise of the suburbs in this period was a product of this cultural trend.
However, the experiences of the subsequent generation termed the ‘baby-boomers,’ were radically different from those of their parents. The baby-boomers were raised in this suburban domestic idyll, which had been created from the aspirations of their parents, but proved to be politically and socially stifling. The counter-culture of the baby-boomer generation was, in part, a reaction to the materialism and consumerism that dominated 1950s society, and a yearning to be liberated from the social constraints imposed by their parents. The baby-boomers viewed their parents as politically complacent and stuck in a narrow-minded domesticated environment that prevented them from challenging social injustice. In addition to this, the baby-boomers had grown up without the shadow of conscription, in relative material comfort, and therefore had the opportunity to engage in a variety of leisure activities in their youth, creating the notion of ‘teenage’ years as a new space in which youth identities could be forged. This meant that they had time to engage in leisure activities, foster a new culture and were materially comfortable enough to challenge their parents’ worldview. This was the generation that needed an anthem: music that would operate as a rallying cry, and enable them to express ideas and frustrations that had been constrained by the domesticated, suburban idyll of the post-war period.
The British are Coming! The Music of the 1960s
American society at the beginning of the 1960s was, therefore, primed and ready for a new musical movement. At the same time, a radically new sound, based on a British interpretation of American rock and roll and blues, was developed, mainly in the north of England. At the head of this new ‘Merseybeat’ trend were the Beatles, who, after gaining considerable success at home, smashed on to the American stage in 1964. In January 1964, the Beatles released their single I Wanna Hold Your Hand in the US, and followed it up with a tour in February 1964. Beatlemania soon took root across the United States, and the unique, fresh style of their music resonated with baby boomers in all parts of the country.
The music of the 1960s represented a cultural revolution due to the radical change in the types of rhythm, melody, instrumentation and lyrical content of popular music, in contrast to the dominant sounds of the 1950s. In the 1960s, rock began to emerge on the international music scene, making a significant impact and transforming conventional musical styles. Rock music produced a new musical aesthetic and gave the baby boomer generation a distinctive musical identity, as these new forms of music were marketed directly at younger generations and were not typically consumed by older members of British and American society. In particular, in this period the influence of British rock bands was extremely significant, particularly in the emerging rock scene in the United States. British bands such as The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and the Hollies adapted traditional American styles such as blues and soul, and incorporated them into their music, creating a distinctive and original sound.
The rise to international fame of the Beatles gave added publicity and musical expression to the psychedelic movement, particularly with the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour. Music was extremely important in fuelling the counter-culture movement, by creating anthems that were used to unify various movements and create an iconic call to arms. The extent of the Beatles’ fame meant that they were by far the most dominant popular expression of the counter-culture movement, and to a certain extent, they ensured its transition into the mainstream and the absorption of some aspects of counter-culture and anti-establishment discourse within dominant forms of popular culture.
Significantly, the Beatles also opened the way for more British artists to break out on to the American music scene. The Rolling Stones, the Animals, and the Kinks all found considerable success in the United States and set the tone for the decade. Female artists such as Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark, and Lulu also managed to break into the American market. In particular, the impact of psychedelic rock bands such as Pink Floyd had a huge influence on the development of American sounds of the 1960s. Artists such as The Who also provided rock anthems for a generation that were used to galvanize the movement further.
Music and Politics: 1960s Counter Culture
The importance of these musical trends was that they produced a new musical identity for the young baby boomer generation that formed an accompaniment to the broader subversive cultural movement that was breaking out throughout the United States and Europe. In the 1960s, the revolt of the baby boomers against their parents and the domestic ideal associated with suburban life was the dominant driver of cultural production, as young people sought to produce radically new cultural identities, articulated in opposition to those represented by their parents. As the decade wore on, the impact of progressive rock bands such as Pink Floyd added innovative layers to this new identity, reflecting the cultural associations of the hippie movement, consumption of psychedelic drugs, sexual liberation and the breakdown of traditional societal norms. Bands such as The Who, Pink Floyd, and The Beatles all produced music with psychedelic elements, often incorporating musical influences from diverse cultures such as India or Latin America, which was a product of new encounters with esoteric spirituality and philosophy. The broader cultural trends of the 1960s found expression in popular music, which was heavily influenced by broader cultural developments, and also served as an important carrier for the popularisation of these new ideas.
Music in the 1960s also took on an important political role. The folk revival was particularly significant in the anti-war movement and became a dominant form of expression for student activists and protesters. The hippie culture and aesthetic, together with the increased emphasis on lyrical content, made folk music a particularly good vehicle for political expression. This may be observed in the work of singer-songwriters such as Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Pete Seeger, all of whom were profoundly influenced by British folk singers and songwriters such as Ewan McColl, who used music as a way to comment on the political developments and upheavals of the period. Although the iconic folk anthems of the political movements of the latter part of the decade were dominated by American and Canadian artists, the musicians of the British Invasion had established the foundations for their creative innovations.
The British Invasion had a lasting and profound effect on the music of the 1960s, both within the United States and internationally. The impact of British bands and musicians on American culture lent credibility to Britain as a cultural powerhouse, where the music industry had been traditionally dominated by the United States. This provided an avenue for subsequent British acts to establish a base in the United States, albeit with mixed degrees of success in the decades that followed.
Much of the debate surrounding the British Invasion focuses on the extent to which the rock music stars of the 1960s were actually that different from their American counterparts. Indeed, it is clear that many of the acts arising from the Merseybeat scene, and other movements of 1960s Britain took inspiration from American genres and movements, including rock and roll, Motown, and American folk. This approach, however, oversimplifies the nature and significance of the British Invasion as a cultural phenomenon: rather than seeing it as a wholesale ‘invasion’, it should perhaps be regarded as a synthesis of British and American influences and styles, formed in a process of cross-Atlantic dialogue, and popularised in the United States.
The British invasion represented a defining moment in 1960s counter culture and gave voice to a generation of Americans seeking new forms of expression. The iconic images, styles, and sounds of the 1960s were defined by this cultural profusion that found its niche in the collision of British and American styles.
Sites to Visit
- The Beatles Story Exhibition, Albert Docks, Liverpool, England. This exhibition traces the story of the Beatles from the early days of their success, through their move to America, and finally, their solo careers.
- Handel and Hendrix Museum, Brook Street, London. Jimi Hendrix and George Frideric Handel both lived in Brook Street, at numbers 23 and 25 respectively. The two buildings have now been connected to form this unique museum, in which visitors can experience Hendrix’s house exactly as it would have been in the 1960s.
- Abbey Road Studios, London, England. The iconic venue where the Beatles recorded the majority of their albums, including the 1969 Abbey Road, featuring an image of the band crossing the road outside the studio.
Film, Literature, and TV
- Sunny Afternoon. 2014 musical theatre production based on the life of Ray Davies and the rise to fame of the Kinks in the 1960s.
- A Hard Day’s Night. 1964 musical comedy starring the Beatles, and portraying their lives over several days of touring.
- Gerard de Groot, The 60s Unplugged: A Kaleidoscopic History of a Disorderly Decade, (Harvard University Press, 2008). Excellent, wide-ranging book covering all aspects of 1960s culture, including the significance of the British invasion as a cultural phenomenon.
- Barry Miles, The British Invasion: The Music, The Times, The Era, (Sterling, 2009). Useful introduction to the cultural scene of the 1960s, and the impact of British music on the United States.
- James Perone, Mods, Rockers and the Music of the British Invasion, (Prager, 2009). Detailed look at the variety of musical influences and genres emerging in Britain and the United States during the 1960s.