Our United States of America was formed on a July 4th when a bunch of longhairs thought about the ridiculousness of being ruled by an inbred British king and decided that if you want something done right – in this case, a government – your best bet is to do it yourself. Likewise, rock 'n' roll was born in the fifties in the same forget-that-let's-do-it-this-way spirit that drove founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. In their stead, the likes of Little Richard, Sam Phillips, and Chuck Berry declared: Let it rock. Rock 'n' roll thrived and the nation's youth went nuts in a good way.
In 1964, the Beatles came to America. We have since been repeatedly told that they "saved rock 'n' roll." (Saved it from what? Sam Cooke? Roy Orbison? James Brown?) The British Invasion followed. It was basically a bunch of Brits doing American music, worshipping at the altar of Chuck Berry and a bunch of bluesmen. Lots of it was pretty damn good. The American reaction was typically to fall on their knees and worship these exotic, stylish, King's-English-speaking dandies. Though in some cases, Americans resented a bunch of foreigners stealing their music and chicks and rose up in rebellion. This set off a nearly forty-year tradition of rock 'n' roll Brit-sniping that has been unexplored far too long. So here we go...
In 1965, noted American smartass Bob Dylan was quick to react to the British Invasion. Dropping his working-man/folksinger persona, he fused Chuck Berry beats with amphetamine-fueled lyrics and made smart-yet-trashy rock 'n' roll. To serve notice to the Beatles and Stones that he wasn't going to let our music get appropriated, he titled his first rock 'n' roll album Bringing It All Back Home.
Similarly, across the country American youngsters, to paraphrase Jeff Spicoli, realized "that if we don't get some cool tunes ourselves pronto, then we'll just be bogus too." They quickly formed bands in every city, in every neighborhood, from sea to shining sea. These garage bands served as a sort of musical Minutemen to the British Invasion, achieving greatness in one-hit wonders across the nation by often ripping off the same British bands who had been ripping off American music. They waged their guerilla warfare in two-and-a-half-minute songs where they tried hard not to show their inexperience with girls – usually by singing about how evil a certain girl was. Notable in their reactionary stance to the Brits were:
1) The awesomely-named Paul Revere and the Raiders, who wore Revolutionary War costumes and produced a run of hit singles that matched Brit output in quality and hard-rockingness.
2) The Sir Douglas Quintet, who were formed by a record producer in Texas along with the great Doug Sahm. The band was a ruse to cash in on Beatlemania; their name and appearance were crafted to come off as British. The band went ahead and generated great garage rock in the Tex-Mex mode and when American teens saw that some of the Quintet were Hispanics sporting moptops, they got suspicious.
3) The Barbarians, who had a tune called "Are You A Boy Or Are You A Girl" that mocked Brits sporting skin-tight pants and long blonde hair. Oddly enough, the Barbarians' drummer had one arm. And "Are You A Boy" sounds not unlike what British greats Mott the Hoople would sound like a few years later. Mott ended up being a huge influence on fellow Brits Def Leppard. And two decades after the Barbarians' song, Def Lep's drummer would lose an arm. Must have been an homage.
4) The Count Five, who like most American garage bands rightly idolized the almighty Yardbirds. The Five went so far in their admiration that in their tune "Psychotic Reaction," they directly ripped off the frantic guitar solo from the Yardbirds' version of Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man." But while the Yardbirds song went to #17 on the charts, the Count Five's topped it and went to #5. In your face, Jeff Beck!
Things chilled out by the late sixties and into the seventies. Everyone in rockdom realized that there was enough fans, money, drugs, and groupies to go around. Nobody caused a fuss over what country a band was from, there was too much business to be done. Though for a couple of years, the number one band in the country was Creedence Clearwater Revival, who could've cared less that the Beatles dropped acid and came up with Revolver. They recorded on an independent label, sounded like Sun Records, cared much more about Memphis than London, and while listening to them Britain never sounded more irrelevant.
There was one notable USA vs. UK flare-up in 1973. According to Dave Marsh's book The Heart of Rock and Soul, the Yankee members of Grand Funk were drinking one night with the Brit members of Humble Pie and were arguing over which country had the better rock 'n' roll. Grand Funk drummer Don Brewer finally stood up, loudly pointed out that the good ol' US of A had produced Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, and Elvis Presley. Then he proudly declared that "we're an American band." He later wrote a song using his affirmation as its chorus. Grand Funk took the tune to the glorious number-one spot.
Seventies punk brought the great British band the Clash, who sang "I'm So Bored With The USA." However, their American record company was even more bored with them and didn't release their first album here for a couple of more years. The Clash got the point and hired an American heavy metal producer for their second album. By their third album, they were Brits grandly sounding American in the tradition of the Rolling Stones and the Animals. They did rockabilly and sang about Montgomery Clift. It was their finest hour.
The British bands of the sixties and seventies, as Pete Townshend stated in The Kids Are Alright, came to America as English kings. With the UK producing numerous great bands during this era, the American public readily worshipped British rockers. But after seventies punk, Great Britain wasn't so great in the rock 'n' roll department. Duran Duran anyone? Haircut 100? Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark?? A long slump began.
In the eighties, some college-educated Americans decided that dancing would help cure the ills borne by Reaganomics. But instead of being patriots and turning to American R&B, they swore by unfunky and no-fun British dance mopes like New Order and the Pet Shop Boys. American jokesters the Dead Milkmen hit the head on the nail with their song "Instant Club Hit (You'll Dance to Anything)", in which they cruelly and accurately mocked Depece-Mode-lovin' Anglophile dorks who would "dance to anything by any bunch of stupid Europeans who come over here with their big hairdos and end up taking our money, instead of giving your cash where it belongs – to a decent American artist like myself."
The past many years have been pretty quiet. The Yanks don't volley many shots across the pond these days. Maybe it's due to lack of competition. A long string of British bands have landed on our shores overhyped and unable to capture our ears. Aside from the heyday of the underappreciated Def Leppard, only PJ Harvey has consistently made great music that lives up to the rep. Oasis had a handful of great singles, but was mostly hot air. The rest of 'em – Blur, Manic Street Preachers, Stone Roses, Jesus Jones, Suede, et. al. – never lasted here. Young American bands these days are used to being from a superior rock 'n' roll country that knows little of a foreign threat.
The past few years Smart People and Anglophiles have been wetting themselves over those precious Brits in Radiohead. Those of us who have heard Little Richard would like to adore Radiohead also – if only they had melodies, hooks, and humor. And we wonder: If Radiohead were American, would anyone give a damn? Gladly, Detroit's own Kid Rock has taken to dissing Thom Yorke and Co. In his tune "Lay It On Me", he throws out this couplet: "I got rich off of keeping it real / While you Radioheads are reinventing the wheel." Kid has also taken to dissing Radiohead in the media, most notably pointing out that nobody at one of his parties is going to get lucky whilst playing Radiohead, unless it's out of mercy. In concert, he has been known to cover Grand Funk's "We're An American Band." God bless you, Kid Rock; and God bless America. Because if Tommy Jefferson were here, he'd say one thing: It's about damn time somebody pointed out that the emperor has no clothes.