The British are coming -- again!
In the mid-1960s United States radio airwaves and record sales charts began to be dominated by a raft of musical groups from England. The phenomenon came to be known as the "British invasion." It embraced the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, as well as a number of less memorable groups. And it loomed as the most significant development in American popular music of the decade.
Now, some 15 years after that initial onslaught, the US is in the midst of yet another "British invasion."
Though it is not yet as far-reaching as the first incursion, and has yet to produce any groups with the popularity of the Beatles and the Stones, its influence is being increasingly felt on the current American pop music scene.
It has been largely responsible for the coining of a popular music term, "new wave." The phrase has a neat double meaning: it refers both to the sharpness of the sound and lyrics of the Britons' songs and to the swell of new artists from overseas, a brigade that includes The Clash, Elvis Costello, Dire Straits, Ian Gomm, Joe Jackson, Nick Lowe, Graham Parker, The Police, and a host of others.
And, as was the case during the "British invasion" of the 1960s, an increasing number of American groups are beginning to adopt elements of the sound, if not the substance, of the songs by these new English groups.
But, perhaps most significantly, many of these artists are beginning to enjoy increasing popular acceptance in the United States. Several have captured the attention of pop critics for a couple of years now; for example, Costello's first American-released album, "My Aim Is True," was picked as the best album of 1977 by Rolling Stone magazine. Now, radio listeners and record buyers are beginning to follow suit; it is no longer uncommon to find songs by these artists on AM radio playlists or record trade industry magazine sales charts.
There are two striking similarities between this late 1970s surge of British pop musicians working their way into America's musical consciousness and the one that came before it.
The first is that, like its predecessor, this latest British Invasion has come at a time when American contemporary music seemed to be stagnating, and some feel it has infused it with a new vitality.
The second is that many of the groups have drawn heavily on the spare, furious sound of early American rock and roll, adding their own pungent lyrics to the mix.
Indeed, when The Clash embarked on its first American tour last winter, in support of its first American-released album, "Give 'Em Enough Rope," the group enlisted the near-legendary 1950s American rocker Bo Diddley as the opening act.
"We were looking for him," said lead singer and group spokesman Joe Strummer, explaining how Diddley came to be a part of one of the most talked and written about tours of the year. "It's a dream of a lifetime to be on a bus with Bo. It's like rolling the clock back. He's made so many great records. They're ones we're constantly listening to."
Strummer and the other three members of The Clash look like a latter-day version of the Dead End Kids and their music sounds like the caterwauling of alley cats set against the crumpling of steel girders.
The Clash's songs are raw and angry and bear such titles as "White Riot," a classic song of rebellion, and "I'm So Bored with the USA," off the group's first British album, which rails against the "evils" of the exportation of American culture and politics as it enriches itself in the country it is satirizing.
It is, in short, quintessential punk stuff. But that is by no means the sum and substance of the most recent British Invasion.
In fact, one of the most successful new British groups, Dire Straits, is anything but a punk group. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to classify it as "new wave" at all, other than the obvious fact that the group is new and British.
The four-piece group features lean melodies and the Dylan-esque vocals of lead singer Mark Knopfler on songs that are more personal than political.
Interestingly, though, these are again elements borrowed from American groups , principally folk and country singers of the late 1950s and early 1960s, which Dire Straits seems to have incorporated better than any current American group. The group's self-titled debut album, released last year, sold over a million copies and this year's release, "Comminque," was an impressive followup.
Interestingly, too, Knopfler played on "Slow Train Coming," the most recent album by Bob Dylan, the one American pop artist in the last 15 years who can match the stature achieved by the best of the British bands.
But the majority of the new British artists fall somewhere between the raging of The Clash and the smoothness of Dire Straits.
A couple -- notably Nick Lowe, who had a recent single entitled "Cruel To Be Kind," and Ian Gomm, whose current hit is called "Hold On" -- have proved to be masters of a fresh, new pop sound, featuring precise lyrical hooks and insistent guitar lines, on largely personal songs.
Others are maintaining a sharper and more satirical bent.
"Outlandos D'Amour," for example, the debut album by a three-piece group called The Police, was a Top Twenty success. The Police's just-released followup album, "Reggata de Blanc," continues the group's dark vision on songs such as "Bring On The Night" and "Deathwish." Musically, though, the album, like those of many of the new British groups, is spiced with strong doses of reggae, the highly syncopated Jamaican music.
Joe Jackson -- whose standard dress of white shoes, striped shirts and suits, and polka dot ties and handkerchiefs give him a look that is somewhere between mod and punk -- is one whose lyrics bite rather than bludgeon. Among the songs on his debut "Look Sharp!" album, which was released earlier this year and sold over half a million copies, was one entitled "Sunday Papers," a mocking critique of British press sensationalism.
"A lot of my songs are angry," Jackson explained during a recent tour of the US. "But rather than just say, 'I hate this, I hate everything,' I'm trying to be more subtle."
Jackson continues his subtle satirization and serves notice he, at least, is not getting soft, on his just-released followup album, "I'm The Man," the title cut of which mocks not only consumer tastes, but those who pander to them. As on his first LP, the music is crisp and sharp.
The influence of that characteristic sound, if not the attendant fury, of the new British invasion can be heard on an increasing number of American groups.
One is the Knack, a four-piece group from Los Angeles. The group released its first album earlier this year. Entitled "Get the Knack," it quickly reached the top of the record charts.
In fact, it went "gold," record industry terminology for sales of 500,000 or more, more quickly than any album that had been released by its record company, Capitol, since, well, "Meet the Beatles" came out in 1964.