The Beatles, the Stones and the Birth of British Rock n' Roll

England in the mid-1950's. The nation had emerged from the shadow of World War II, only to be faced with a new threat; American rock and roll. Post-war prosperity had provided British with a new sense of freedom, and a considerable passion for all things American. So, when this raucous, rebellious new music finally crossed the Atlantic, the reception it received made even the recent coronation of Queen Elizabeth II seem dull by comparison. This was not just music. It was the battle cry of a new generation.

As might be expected, the British music moguls tried to produce their own rock and roll stars. As far as they were concerned, rock and roll was just another dance craze, like the cha cha or the mambo. Anybody could do it. Some of these performers did become popular, but if they ever displayed any real feeling for rock and roll it was eventually tamed by an industry intent upon turning everything into wholesome family entertainment.

 

In the streets of London, however, and throughout the country, many kids turned to skiffle, a do-it-yourself style based on American folk music from the 20's and 30's. Several hits by former jazz man, Lonnie Donnegan kicked off a nation wide craze. All over Britain, young boys formed skiffle groups and discovered for the first time that they could make their own music.

 

The Beatles, Liverpool and the North

Things were changing, but very slowly. Britain was a small country, still bound by Victorian tradition and firmly divided into classes. A conservative atmosphere prevailed, in which children expected to do what their parents had done and to be the sort of people they were. So when skiffle died and Bill Haley went home, most kids resigned themselves to the kind of inoffensive pop music their parents had liked. Everything returned to normal. Or so it seemed.

 

The 200-mile distance from London to Liverpool might have been 2000 as far as Liverpudlians were concerned. Once England's busiest shipping port, Liverpool had become by 1960 a provincial outpost, economically depressed and quite devoid of any glamour or expectations. Yet while the rest of Britain returned to the safe sounds of Cliff Richard and Helen Shapiro, teenagers in Liverpool kept listening to American rock and roll.

 

Rock n' roll struck a responsive chord among Liverpool's tough, working-class youth. A seed had been planted, one that would soon bear unexpected fruit. As rock n' roll spread throughout Merseyside, young boys began trading in their skiffle kits for electric guitars and professional drum sets. They formed groups with names like Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, The Rocking Rhythm Coasters, and King Size Taylor and the Dominoes, and began to play this American music wherever they could.

 

A thriving club scene soon developed, one without precedent anywhere in the UK. By mid-1961, when somebody finally bothered to count, there were 273 groups in Liverpool and more than 300 clubs. But among these groups, few dreamt of fame beyond Liverpool, and even fewer of making a living playing this music, at least, not until one group caught the eye of a local record store owner.

 

Brian Epstein had high hopes for his new group, The Beatles, and he set about creating an image for them to equal those aspirations. Even so, he had a hard time convincing the London music establishment that anything exciting could come from Liverpool. Yet as The Beatles toured the English provinces, word began to spread and the excitement grew to undeniable proportions. Almost overnight, a phenomenon beyond anyone's imagination is born. The Beatles looked and sounded unlike anything that had come before them, and at last, British kids had a music all of their own.

 

The race was on. Within weeks of The Beatles success, record executives began rushing North to Liverpool, each determined to capture for his label the next big deal. First to be signed was Gerry and the Pacemakers. Producing hit after hit, the Pacemakers soon rivalled The Beatles as Britain's most popular group. As they too skyrocketed to national attention it became apparent that this music craze would not end with The Beatles. In fact, it was only the beginning. And with the rapid rise of groups like Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, The Hollies and many more, no one could say who would go to the top next. Any provincial kid could think, “It might be me.”

 

The Rolling Stones, London and the South

Not every British teenager was as taken by the Mersey Sound as it might have seemed. In and around London an entirely different scene had developed, one based on the raw sounds of traditional American blues. Unlike their Liverpool counterparts, these fans were University and Arts College students, young bohemians infatuated with this dark, obscure music.

 

Night after night, these R&B disciples flocked to the London suburb of Ealing, to a basement club run by Alexis Korner. There they could listen to performances by Korner's own group, Blues Inc., or to records by Chicago bluesmen such as Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters. Inspired by Korner's example, a number of young blues enthusiasts formed their own groups and began playing in small clubs around London.

 

The Rolling Stones struck fresh fear into homes of the conservative English. Rude, rebellious and cynical, they presented themselves as the radical alternative to The Beatles. While The Beatles could do tunes like, 'The Taste of Honey' and, 'Till There Was You,' the Stones would never have considered anything so sentimental. Yet it took a Lennon/McCartney song to put them in the Top 20. The Rolling Stones' version of 'I Wanna Be Your Man,' however, could hardly have been called an imitation. The rise of The Rolling Stones paved the way for other R&B groups, from the North, and from the South.

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