The special relationship that keeps on making sweet music
British bands used to excel at the absorption of American influences, but have US bands now begun to reverse the process? Andy Gill explores how these transatlantic exchanges continue to drive and define rock'n'roll
Friday 04 June 2010
If, as George Bernard Shaw famously observed, Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language, then something similar could be said about the two countries with respect to pop music.
Few would dispute the Anglophone claim to be the source of rock'n'roll, the language's cut and thrust apparently being essential to its effective creation. But the case is far less clear when it comes to the two countries' input regarding the musical sources of this most malleable of artforms. It's a given that rock'n'roll is essentially an American creation – the blues had a baby and they called it rock'n'roll, as the song claims – but in its worldwide reach, it's equally clear that the prime exporters have been British. Rock's ascendancy to a global culture coincided with the hegemony of Swinging England: for many around the world, pop and rock are still epitomised by The Beatles, the Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin and Queen. All borrowed a great many elements from American rock'n'roll, but none could be considered as other than quintessentially British.
So what's the difference between British and American rock? I think it's essentially a matter of stylistic contemplation. American rock flows so naturally from its homeland tributaries of blues, gospel and country music that it's usually played as if it were imbibed with mothers' milk. British rock is more a matter of added value: we're great at absorbing basic influences, poring over how they work and what they signify, and finding ways of selling them back to America in slightly altered forms, at a massive profit – whether it's The Beatles blending R&B pulse with complex chords and ringing three-part harmonies; the Stones and Yardbirds offering their slightly fey, Home Counties take on Mississippi and Chicago mores; or Cream and Led Zep strapping 10-league boots to Willie Dixon riffs.
It's also why we invented prog-rock, testing pop's boundaries with a miscegenate conservatoire alliance of classical, jazz and rock while fans were too stoned to realise what was happening. And glam-rock, enclosing pop within a carapace of stylistic and sexual semantics that would be anathema to rock'n'roll's progenitors down in the heartland of Memphis and Nashville. As for punk rock, America may have got there first by instinct, but it was the Brits who provided the theory and praxis, and how best to employ its nihilist charms.
Not that the pluckier of Americans haven't tried to emulate the British approach, as each wave we sent over splashed across the country. In the Sixties, American groups suddenly started passing themselves off as English, adopting Anglophile names such as The Beau Brummels, and began pumping out their version of that brittle British beat music. Tex-Mex pioneer Doug Sahm's group became The Sir Douglas Quintet, while over on the West Coast, a bunch of folk musicians started calling themselves The Beefeaters, before emulating The Beatles' bad spellyng and re-naming their group The Byrds. A few miles away, meanwhile, a young surf-music genius named Brian Wilson's mind was comprehensively blown by the exponential leaps in songcraft that came with each successive Beatles album.
Since the punk era, however, British pop and rock have had less influence over American music, save for the cross-border appeal of heavy metal, which exists as a kind of musical esperanto. No US bands attempted copying the likes of Wham!, Culture Club and Spandau Ballet in the Eighties, and despite their colossal Stateside success, Duran Duran inspired few American disciples. And neither Oasis nor Blur managed to export Britpop in a manner which persuaded transatlantic emulation. Indeed, were it not for the extraordinary success of Radiohead, British music would all but have slipped off the American cultural map during the Nineties and Noughties.
With so few British strains to copy, one might suppose that American rock and pop would have turned in on itself completely in recent years. But while there has certainly been a broad resurgence of interest in the music's Americana roots, what most surprises about current American pop is the extent to which younger artists have begun to draw on older British styles and sounds, reversing the Sixties trend by starting to sell our own heritage back to us in slightly modified form.
The most obvious pop success in recent years has been Scissor Sisters, whose apeing of ELO's and Elton John's Seventies prog-pop can't get them arrested in their homeland, but packs arenas over here. The young singer-songwriter Diane Birch also draws from Elton's songcraft, which she applies in a soulful manner with antecedents in the American success of Amy Winehouse and Duffy. Elsewhere, there is a strain of American roots music, generically dubbed wyrd-folk, which has unearthed a fertile stream of hitherto-untapped inspiration in the folk-rock of Sixties bands such as The Incredible String Band, Pentangle and Fairport Convention. Both Philadelphia-based group Espers and the acoustic duo Among the Oak & Ash draw on that era's mediaevalist folk leanings, while the scene's figurehead Devendra Banhart has taken on the pothead-pixie mantle of Marc Bolan, to the extent of following the bopping imp's adoption of electric guitars, having previously used acoustic guitar to sing about a menagerie of spiders, sexy pigs and psychedelic squid.
The most significant practitioners of this wyrd-folk are surely Texas combo Midlake, who presented their new Brit-folk-inspired approach to ecstatic UK audiences earlier this year, and whose current album The Courage of Others still equals any of this year's releases. When I met them, the guitarist Eric Pulido was learning how to play the Bert Jansch tune "M'Lady Nancy". "It's a source of wonder to me how he came up with something so strange and beautiful," he enthused, before confiding that the band had prepared for the previous night's show by watching footage of Fairport Convention and The Incredible String Band on the tour-bus DVD player. Before long, one imagines they will be taking the stage with a troupe of mummers. "A lot of times, we wear our influences on our sleeves," Pulido admits. "Whatever you're listening to will find its way into how you play; then add in Tim [Smith]'s lyrics, with their pastoral themes of nature, and it works together really well. The British folk stuff is a good example of us trying to evoke an emotion that is similar, rather than directly re-create the same thing."
Equally unusual, in their adoption of a peculiarly English musical form, are bands such as Interpol and The National, whose work revives the new-wave and Goth stylings which dominated UK indie music in the Eighties. Interpol offer a pale copy of Joy Division, minus the suicidal intensity, while The National recently filled the Royal Albert Hall with their more interesting blend of introvert music, pitched somewhere between The Cure, New Order, Bauhaus and Tindersticks, and lyrical flourishes which owe a debt to Morrissey. "The band I first really started falling in love with were The Smiths," admitted the singer/lyricist Matt Berninger a few years ago, adding that the band had been influenced by "everything from Goth to Americana". As for the comparisons between his singing style and Ian Curtis's, Berninger believed that was due to a similarity of range, a dark baritone built for brooding. The band's High Violet already sits high in the UK album chart, where it's sure to be joined this week by The Drums' self-titled debut album, on which the influences of The Smiths and New Order are brazenly noticeable, even when blended with subtler elements drawn from Fifties and Sixties pop.
The National and The Drums may be the most successful current examples of American bands foraging through British influences in search of a transatlantic identity, but it's a syndrome that seems to be gaining momentum, and in the most unforeseen places. The long-overlooked electropop of The Human League and Gary Numan has begun to find its American admirers, three decades on, and not just in the synth-pop spectacle of Lady Gaga: indie band Yeasayer have managed to ingeniously combine Eighties techno-pop sounds with something akin to the rococo new-wave stylings of XTC, to impressive effect on their latest album, Odd Blood.
And there are no signs of the transatlantic trend diminishing. This month, Minnesotan indie collective Gayngs, which includes members of Bon Iver, Megafaun and Rhymesayers, released Relayted, an album which leader/producer Ryan Olson claims was entirely inspired by "I'm Not In Love", the Seventies standard by British smart-alec popsters 10cc (it includes a cover of Godley & Creme's "Cry"). How this led them to such a collection of dubwise, soulful trip-hop is anybody's guess, but from what I'm hearing, it sounds as if Minneapolis twinned itself with Bristol. The next thing you know, there'll be Wurzels in Wisconsin.
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