Matt Bellamy’s dad started it.
Ever since George Bellamy (sadly, he was just called George, not Knight Templar Berserkotron of Minerva) strummed some riffs to The Tornadoes ‘Telstar’ and shot the UK band to the top of the US charts in 1962, anyone that’s picked up a guitar has dreamed of conquering North America.
Some have succeeded, others failed laughably. The Beatles, The Who, The Stones, The Kinks, Dusty and Donovan – the first so-called “British invasion” – famously captured Americans’ hearts and cashed in on the Yankee dollar. Duran Duran, Boy George, The Police, Gary Numan and the rest of the early eighties, MTV-abetted, “second invasion” also did something right across the Atlantic too.
And now this week, for the first time in 25 years, three UK acts held the top triumvirate on the Billboard 100. Adele (whose worldwide domination is starting to make the Crusades look a bit half-hearted) kept the top spot with sales of 168,000 while ex-Floetry singer Marsha Ambrosius flogged 96k to slot into Number Two, just above Mumford & Sons.
Just to put that quarter of a century gap in context, this is what music videos looked like when UK acts last held all three (Dire Straits, Sting, and Tears For Fears if you’re wondering).
While there’s been some sporadic successes since then (Muse, Radiohead, Dido, Coldplay) there’s been many more failures. Weller, Williams, The Libs and most Britpop bands are just a few that failed to make an impression. And even this week, Liam Gallagher’s Beady Eye flopped into the lower echelons, selling 13,000 copies of ‘Different Gear, Still Speeding’ to a nation of 300 million people and slotting in at Number 31. Still speeding in neutral then. Or speeding in top gear in a clown car.
Compared to Adele, Liam looks pathetic. “We break apart the US data-wise into eight regions” explains Billboard’s Associate Director of Charts & Retail Keith Caulfield. “When her album debuted, she was Number One in all eight regions. It did 352,000 in its first week, which is huge, especially considering no-one buys albums any more. ’21’ was top in New York, LA, Chicago, and even places in the middle, like Jackson, Missouri or Omaha, Nebraska in the Conservative heartland.”
So why have the US taken the likes of Adele and Mumford to their hearts? And why is it so seemingly hit and miss? In his seminal book Rip It Up And Start Again, Simon Reynolds argues that the first two “invasions” were a result of British artists soaking up American music (in particular the soul of black American artists) and repackaging it to sell back to the states. The popularity of Paul Young certainly supports this.
So maybe Adele’s love and blend of American R&B and gospel, spun with just a twist of British charm, is what endears people to her (while her choice of producers, from Ryan ‘Kelly Clarkson’ Tedder to Dan ‘Dixie Chicks’ Wilson, probably helped). And perhaps it’s Mumford’s gleeful appropriation of Appalachian folk – and their tight relationship with Bob Dylan – that makes them so appealing (even if they did score a spectacularly bad 2.1/10 on Pitchfork). Remember, this is a band so enamoured with American music they’re recording their new album in Nashville and are about to embark on a railroad tour inspired by The Band with US hero (and internet sensation) Edward Sharpe.
Obviously playing Letterman didn’t hurt either. In fact, there’s a relentless amount of promotion and dedication required to break America, and not every artist is prepared to put the time in (or find themselves signed to a label prepared to let them), at the expense of their interests across the world. No-one really wants to be the next Bush.
When I interviewed Plan B for the In The Studio issue of NME he admitted, “I worry about becoming successful in America, because I know how much hard work and touring it would be. I don’t know if I want to break the US to be honest. I might sell more records but then my films and the stuff I’m passionate about would suffer”.
While Keith doesn’t claim to know the secret to cracking the US, his formula is daunting (hit single + hard work + big song on TV commercials + chat shows + touring + a touch of British flair but not too much = pieces maybe falling into place).
Cracking the States is a big priority for many, and indeed there’s some 30 bands currently getting wankered on SoCo cocktails in Austin this week courtesy of the Arts Council England. But why do they give a shit?
“The US remains the biggest music market in the world” says Feargal Sharkey, former Undertones man and CEO of UK Music. “For that reason alone it’s massively important that UK artists and businesses have the support and investment to make the trip over the Atlantic.
“However, I think the concept of ‘breaking America’ has changed significantly. The last time we had three UK artists at number one in the album chart, back in the mid-80s, the focus was predominantly on MTV, radio play and serious touring. It was a well-trodden path.
These days artists are increasingly making their own path. They’re getting picked up early on blogs and gaining a foothold – something you can particularly see with electronic acts like James Blake and Mount Kimbie, both of whom are playing Austin this week, and also with a lot of urban artists. In fact, Sway is guesting on the Lupe Fiasco album currently at Number One. The internet has opened more avenues, although as important as digital is, it’s not a substitute for playing live or meeting with contacts face-to-face. That remains crucial, and it’s why events like SXSW are so important.”
Billboard’s Caulfield agrees “A viral can only take you so far. If you can’t build a story round that you’re just an act with a popular video. You need a bigger picture that compels people.”
He also argues that for some it’s just never going to happen – and not worth bothering with. “When Robbie Williams was at his peak, it never translated in America. He tried a number of times and it never happened. To a degree the same thing happened to Kylie Minogue. Cheryl Cole is only known through X Factor here. When you’re that huge and you have a decade long career behind you, do you even want to try and break America? You come here and you’re a new artist. Some acts might just prefer be anonymous.”
Just how long Adele and Mumford remain massive stateside remains to be seen, especially with Simon Cowell’s brutal X Factor juggernaut set to flatten everything in its wake from this autumn. Nevertheless, the Holy Grail will continue to flash tempting glimpses of success, encouraging hopeful Brit bands to spend inordinate amounts of time on the road, eating at Denny’s, and waiting for Jimmy Fallon to call.