Make way for a hot new beat combo all the way from England! You're gonna love 'em!
As a great man once sang: “Oh oh oh – oh! There’s trouble in America.” Well, there was for these artists, given that they enjoyed great success in their native Britain, but bottomed out when it came to cracking the prestigious (and lucrative) American market. What went wrong? For whom, and why? Readers, you’ve come to the right place: here are nine amazing British acts that America never understood.
Dizzee’s terse, paranoid, brilliantly abrasive 2003 debut ‘Boy In Da Corner’ was clearly not made with the American mainstream in mind, but the Bow rapper’s later records almost certainly were: 2013 album ‘The Fifth’, for instance, was a brazen attempt to court American audiences with bash electro-house beats and super-producers from across the pond.
Biggest UK successes: Five number one singles, five albums that broke the top 10.
Biggest US successes: One appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 – a feature spot on Shakira’s ‘Loca’, which reached number 32 in 2010.
What went wrong: Grime has never really found much of an audience in America, despite Drake’s attempts to break the genre stateside. Yes, Dizzee moved into mass-market pop, but, side-by-side with fellow Bow native Wiley, he also helped create grime – and his roots in the musical movement run deep, as last-year’s return to form ‘Raskit’ proved.
The quintessential ’60 example, perhaps, of a massive British band that just never caught on with the Americans. British invasion? Pah! Not for the Davies brothers.
Biggest UK successes: Three UK number one singles, five UK top 10 albums.
Biggest US successes: ‘You Really Got Me’ reached number seven in 1964, and ‘Lola’ climbed to number nine in 1970.
What went wrong: When Ray Davies was inducted into the American Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 2014, he remarked that it was “a big deal because it means that America has finally accepted the Kinks”. The Kinks were banned from touring America from 1965 to 1969 – in many ways, their heyday – because of their fearsome reputation for fighting at shows. Talking to the Irish radio station NewsTalk, Davies summed the situation up pretty well when he put the controversial ban down to “bad luck, bad management, bad behaviour”.
Damon and the lads embarked on an infamously disastrous American tour in 1992, a ill-fated trip characterised by infighting and empty venues. It was so relentless and grim that the band took to punching each other for fun to relieve the monotony.
Biggest UK successes: Two number one singles, six UK number one albums.
Biggest US successes: Three tracks broke the top 100 – ‘There’s No Other Way’ and ‘Girls & Boys’ scraped in at number 59 and 82 respectively. ‘Song 2’ made it all the way to number six on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart, leading the band to be considered, in certain circles, something of a one-hit wonder in America.
What went wrong: That experience in 1992 may have put them off the land of opportunity, as they never seemed to make any major attempt to crack the US afterwards. However, Gorillaz, Albarn’s band of cartoon misfits, who returned this year will stellar album ‘The Now Now’, have been more popular in America, sneaking into the Billboard Hot 100 top 20 with 2005 single ‘Feel Good Inc.’ The moral? Life is long and strange, and sometimes you succeed the most when you become a cartoon.
A band brazenly manufactured – on bloody television – for success! A prototype for One Direction! What could possible go wrong?
Biggest UK successes: Four UK number one singles, two UK number one albums.
Biggest US successes: Zip!
What went wrong: Why did Girl Aloud, one of the UK’s most fondly remembered pop groups, never make it Stateside? Perhaps they were too real – theirs was an early incarnation of reality pop, where the stars looked and, crucially, sounded like everyday Brits, with little showbiz razzle-dazzle. In fact, the band’s record label, Polydor, didn’t even release their albums in America until 2015. Girls Aloud split up in 2013.
Ah, the Pope of Stoke, the King of swing, the buccaneer from the end of the pier. Robbie always was, and remains, a peculiarly British phenomenon: part cabaret act (inspired by his dad, Pete), part Norman Wisdom (Google him, or ask your granny), part Freddie Mercury (yes! really!). Is anyone surprised that America, home of actual pop stars, wondered what the fuck we’d sent them?
Biggest UK successes: Seven number one singles, 12 number albums (that’s almost literally every album he’s ever released, including two greatest hits compilations; it’s only 2009’s ‘Reality Killed The Video Star’ that missed the top spot, coming in a number two).
Biggest US successes: Two tracks on the Billboard Hot 100: ‘Angels (number 53) and ‘Millennium’ (72), and both of those were re-releases.
What went wrong: His heart wasn’t in it, really. Pretty much the entirety of journalist Chris Heath’s 2004 biography Feel is concerned with Robbie’s conflicting feelings about America – should he try and crack the country, or enjoy his anonymity over there, given that his life in the UK had become a tabloid circus? In the end, he opted for the latter, refusing to commit to the kind of sprawling, gruelling extended tours that are required to become a household name in the US. Last year, Robbie told NME: “I made a decision in 2000 to not promote there, not work there, not do anything there and go and just live there. So I haven’t done anything to jeopardise that.”
The Stone Roses
The band headlined Coachella in 2013, which could be read as an indication that they’re massive in America – but, in fact, the show was surprisingly sparsely attended, with reports relaying the fact that “one could easily walk to the front of the nearly empty field”.
Biggest UK successes: Four albums in the UK top (including a greatest hits compilation and their debut, which charted no less than three times between 1989 and 2009).
Biggest US successes: Two albums that charted in low positions on the Billboard 200 – debut ‘The Stone Roses’ and follow-up ‘The Second Coming’ staggered in at number 86 and 47 respectively.
What went wrong: Self-sabotage, intentional or otherwise. Frontman Ian Brown insisted that “America doesn’t deserve us yet.” The band stipulated that they didn’t want to tour in America until they could fill the enormous Shea Stadium in New York, so didn’t tour the first album. Simon Spence, author of the book The Stone Roses: War and Peace, told vanyaland.com: “When ‘Second Coming’ came out, it had been five years; they went to L.A. and did promotion and it went badly. They liked to be loved in America but it was, ‘Fuck you if you don’t like us.’” That’s right: they wanted to be adored.
Initially, Justine Frischmann’s band achieved greater fame their her then-boyfriend Damon Albarn’s group, Blur. She told The Sunday Times last year: “I think it was hard for Damon when Elastica started getting some success in America, It’s funny because we both thought we were too evolved for classic gender roles, but looking back he thought his band more important because he was the guy. And on some level I did, too.” As we’ve seen, though, Damon finally wooed the Americans with his cartoon bands of misfits (and Gorillaz!).
Biggest UK successes: The band’s self-titled debut album went straight in at number one in 1995 and became one of the defining records of the Britpop era.
Biggest US successes: Two 1995 singles in the Billboard Hot 100. ‘Connection’ and ‘Stutter’ crawled to numbers 53 and 67 respectively.
What went wrong: Sort of like The Stone Roses, Elastica’s hearts weren’t really in it. There was was a five-year gap between their debut and 2000 follow-up ‘The Menace’, and the band split in 2001. Frischman has spoken of her apathy towards the music industry – she is now a visual artist based in New York – and last year told The Guardian: “I got to go all over the world and have a real snapshot of the planet in ’95, ’96, and I got to meet a lot of my heroes. One of the most valuable lessons was to realize that success isn’t necessarily enriching or enlivening. We live in a culture where there’s so much emphasis on celebrity and we all grow up feeling like being famous must be really great.”
Oi oi guvnor! Let’s stick on our nanny goats, head up the apple and pears, give the dog a bone and – look the point is that The Libertines are a bit mockney, okay?
Biggest UK successes: Two top 10 singles, one number one album – 2004’s ‘The Libertines’, the band’s second, sweat-slicked LP.
Biggest US successes: That same album was their biggest hit in America, too, though, in contrast, it limped in at 111 on the Billboard 200.
What went wrong? The received wisdom is that Pete had too much of a taste for crack to actually – ahem – crack America. The reality is probably a little more complex, given that much of The Libertines’ self-mythology is concerned with sailing ‘The Good Ship Albion’ – a poetic term for Britain – to ‘Arcadia’, a concept Pete has described as “the realm of the infinity … It’s not a cult or a religion – it’s an awareness of your surroundings; you’re not going to force yourself on anyone and, equally, no one’s going to force themselves on you.” Given that The Libertines were so steeped in British culture, it’s perhaps not so surprisingly that their music meant less to American music fans.
The quintessential British artists that made America go, ‘What’s this guy all about?’, Cliff was our version of Elvis Presley. So no wonder they weren’t arsed – they literally had Elvis Presley. Case closed! No, please, keep reading – we’re nearly done.
Biggest UK successes: Deep breath. In the red corner, weighing in at a fairly unremarkable 155 pounds according to an extremely dubious website I just checked, it’s the Peter Pan of pop, with a whopping 14 UK number one singles, 68 top 10 singles, seven number one albums and 44 that stormed straight into the top 10. No wonder he’s always on a summer holiday.
Biggest US successes: 19 tracks that entered the Billboard Hot 100; three that shimmied and shook their way into the top 10. Not bad by a mere mortal’s standard, but chicken feed in comparison to Cliff’s five-decade success in his own country.
What went wrong? Cliff had a minor American hit with ‘Living Doll’ in 1959 (it reached number 30 in the singles chart) and made a few dents in the top 40 between the 1950s and 1980s, but failed to truly set the US alight. When he first launched his career over there, Cliff adopted a rebellious, surly persona, but this softened over time; soon he was middle-of-the-road as a well-placed traffic cone.