Tuesday, July 26, 2011

How It Looked from Over Here: Cool Britannia as Seen from American Shores (Part 1)

In 1993, my sister, a friend, and I had the pleasure of seeing the UK rock group Suede play at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. It was the band's first U.S. performance. While Suede were not as big in the United States as they were in their native Britain, the crowd's enthusiasm was certainly palpable. I remembered thinking how lucky we were to be Suede fans in the United States, since we could see this much-hyped group in a smaller, more intimate setting than their British fans likely were able to. Everyone in the crowd was stretching their arms out toward pretty-boy singer Brett Anderson, my 21 year-old self's arm included, and Anderson reached back, clutching hands with each and every one of us. We were worshipful. We were blessed. How lucky we were to be seeing the beginning of a new era in British pop here on American shores!

The tour would go on to become a disaster for the group. By its end, guitarist Bernard Butler and Anderson were barely on speaking terms. The second part of their travels through America saw The Cranberries as their opening act; that Irish group had achieved massive U.S. success with "Linger," "Dreams," and "Zombie," whereas Suede remained virtual unknowns. Thus, Suede suffered the humiliation of being upstaged by their opening act; they watched as venues emptied just as they took the stage. Nothing was ever quite so good for Suede again.

This was the era when British music magazines moaned about how the UK had "lost" America. In the early 1980s, we Americans sang along to Dexy's Midnight Runners, Thompson Twins, the Human League, and at least a dozen Duran Duran songs. In the mid-1980s, Britain's 70s rock dinosaurs successfully reinvented themselves: a Roger Water-less Pink Floyd enjoyed enormous U.S. success with A Momentary Lapse of Reason, Genesis's Invisible Touch lobbed five songs into the U.S. top five, and Robert Plant's solo album Now and Zen sold well.

The late 80s became less kind to "outsiders." America's music scene became more insular; we started to focus on rap, R&B, and metal. Although Def Leppard rode the U.S. metal wave with their massive album Hysteria, Britain's chart dominance had begun to fade.

The two countries' paths diverged further when Britain's 1988 acid house dance revolution made little to no impact in the United States (ironic considering that so much of the sound of that scene had been developed by underground dance music producers in the states). While teenagers on ecstasy danced all night in warehouse raves in the UK, the top albums during the summer of 1988 in the United States came by way of Van Halen (OU812), Def Leppard (Hysteria), Guns N' Roses (Appetite for Destruction), and Steve Winwood (Roll With It). Clearly, we had become a rock-obsessed nation. In the UK, by contrast, Now That's What I Call Music 12 spent five weeks roosting at number one, featuring a variety of tunes, including The Timelords' "Doctorin' the Tardis" (which also topped the UK singles charts in June), S-Express's acid house anthem "Theme from S-Express" (a number one UK single in April) and Morrissey's "Everyday is Like Sunday."

As the 1980s became the 1990s, Britain's best rock bands frequently were marketed as "alternative bands" in the United States. With America spending so much time listening to its own music scenes, to listen to any outside voices at all was a rebellious act. (Long gone were the days when Nena's German-language "99 Luftballoons" was a U.S. hit.) Happy Mondays, Charlatans, Blur, Ride; these groups wore the "alternative" label around their necks, which immediately offset them as something "weird" to the American record-buying public. (As for the still burgeoning UK dance scene, nobody in America seemed to know what to do with breakbeat techno groups like The Prodigy; I don't remember seeing the massive UK rave anthem "Charly" charting anywhere at all, though perhaps it sneaked onto a little-publicized U.S. dance chart somewhere.)

I spent a few months in the U.K. in the fall of 1992, and was dazzled by the energy of their pop music scene. Felix's "Don't You Want Me (Hooj Mix)" was blasted in the clubs (my right ear was a little dinged by that experience), the somewhat ridiculous Shamen tune "Ebeneezer Goode" was huge, and the Eurodance anthem "Rhythm is a Dancer" by Snap! ruled the dancefloor. On the other extreme, the indie UK sound was still alive and well, featuring introspective groups like Earwig and Moonshake. Of course, Nirvana was also popular. And the fall of 1992 saw the rebirth of ABBA's "Dancing Queen," which had been re-released as a single in anticipation of the ABBA Gold compilation. A good variety of ideas were battling it out in the U.K., and the U.S. scene seemed depressingly dull by comparison.

Suede were the new darlings of British music while I was over there. They had released two strong EPs ("The Drowners" and "Metal Mickey"). And that was the first time I heard firsthand British people whispering, "Can they break America?"

By 1994, America had broken Suede. An American lounge singer using the same name sued them, and so they reluctantly became "The London Suede" in the U.S. markets. Guitarist Bernard Butler left the group. The band would spend the next several years struggling to re-establish their identity while simultaneously competing with a rising flood of other British rock bands.

(To be continued)

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