Welcome to my ongoing series entitled “What the Heck is Americana, Anyway?”
This month I’d like to turn the spotlight toward the lasting effects of the 1960s British Invasion on American pop music. I’d like to show how one of those British Invasion bands, thanks to its irreverent approach, would presage the alt.country genre—which, in turn, became Americana.
So take a moment to get comfortable, and come along as we drift backward through time to an American living room in the 1960s, complete with black and white television set.
For those of you who are too young to remember, the “British Invasion” was a cultural phenomenon of the mid-1960s. (Disclaimer: I am too young to remember it, since I was only born the year the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.) And since I am also unencumbered by the process of peer-review before publishing these musings, I’m going to boil it down for you very quickly.
In the 1950s, a new sound from performers like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and others had started to capture the ears and the hearts of young Americans across the country thanks to big 50,000 watt radio stations blasting the music to home and car radios. Meanwhile, home record players and commercial juke boxes were spinning little 45s often pressed on small, upstart record labels. Diners, bowling alleys and teen clubs were abuzz with the new sounds.
But there was concern, from prejudiced white America, about the risk posed by exposing their young, impressionable, reproductive children to such passionate music coming from a different racial group.
Meantime, a lot of this new American music was making its way across the Atlantic stored on vinyl records in the bags of young sailors in the merchant marine. You have to remember that pre-1964, Liverpool was known primarily as an English port city. It was not yet globally famous as the birthplace of the Beatles.
American music was also traveling in this fashion to similar ports like Hamburg, Germany—where the Beatles famously honed their early sound by playing lots of gigs. American sailors and GIs stationed around the world played a huge role in dispersing American music to every corner of the globe. It was a bi-product of American dominance after WWII.
By the mid 1960s, white British teens had also been getting exposed to black American blues and R&B artists for almost a decade. The energy and rhythm of the music stood in sharp contrast to the square, white British pop of the time. So, suddenly, by 1964, you had this explosion of young English bands trying to play cover tunes by their idols, such as American bluesman Howlin‘ Wolf.
But all you have to do is listen to Howlin’ Wolf’s primal, haunting version of “Little Red Rooster” and follow it right up with the same song from the Rolling Stones’ first record. Yes, the London lads clearly have a reverence for the American version. But try as they might, their take is fairly pedestrian, shall we say.
The Animals, the Beatles, Cream, the Dave Clark Five, the Small Faces, the Who, the Yardbirds —all of these British Invasion acts were influenced by black American artists. But when it came right down to idolizing and worshiping the blues and R&B, there was probably no act that did it more genuinely than the Rolling Stones.
In interviews, both Keith Richards and Mick Jagger have talked about their first American tour, and how they made it a point to visit Chess Records in Chicago in the hope of meeting their blues idols. According to Richards, Chess Records artist Muddy Waters was painting the ceiling in the hallway when they arrived.
It was also a shock for them to see firsthand the blatant segregation that still existed in the American south. To see how their idols were treated at home blew their minds. The country that produced such great music was so messed up that it took an “invasion” of young white Britons to show suburban America how exciting and fun it could be to clap along to a Chuck Berry tune like “Carol”?
The Rolling Stones deserve, and frequently do receive, a lot of credit as blues ambassadors. But like ethnomusicologists, their interest in American music did not stop there. By 1968 they’d released a tune called “Dear Doctor” that was more or less a send-up of a country song, complete with an exaggerated yokel-vocal by Jagger. But they had yet to discover that the best country music was also as serious, direct, honest, and heartfelt as the blues.
Through their friendship with Gram Parsons, Richards and Jagger were more thoroughly introduced to country music — whose audience was predominantly blue-collar, conservative and white. Parsons was a son of white southern privilege, who envisioned a blend of our various ethnic musics into something he called “Cosmic American Music”.
The country influence began to show up in Stones’ songs like “Country Honk” (aka the acoustic version of “Honky Tonk Women”), “Wild Horses” (which Parsons covered), “Dead Flowers,” “Sweet Virginia,” “Torn and Frayed” and the tongue-in-cheek masterpiece “Far Away Eyes.”
You couldn’t be a fan of The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band without also getting introduced to their laid back and somewhat sloppy approach to country. It’s an influence you can hear in many so called alt.country bands of the 90s, from Uncle Tupelo to the Jayhawks and others.
So hats off to the Rolling Stones, for making Country music seem cool enough to be embraced by a new generation of musicians. If you’re interested, here’s a link to a pretty good primer and guide to their Country tunes.