British Beat

mersey beat

Beat music, British beat, or Merseybeat (for bands from Liverpool beside the River Mersey) is a pop and rock music genre that developed in the United Kingdom in the early 1960s. Beat music is a fusion of rock and roll, doo wop, skiffle, R&B and soul. The beat movement provided most of the bands responsible for the British invasion of the American pop charts in the period after 1964, and provided the model for many important developments in pop and rock music, including the format of the rock group around lead, rhythm and bass guitars with drums.

The exact origins of the terms Beat music and Merseybeat are uncertain. Beat music seems to have had little to do with the Beat Generation literary movement of the 1950s, and more to do with driving rhythms, which the bands had adopted from their rock and roll, rhythm and blues and soul music influences. As the initial wave of rock and roll declined in the later 1950s ‘big beat’ music, later shortened to ‘beat,’ became a live dance alternative to the balladeers like Tommy Steele who was dominating the charts.

The term Mersey Beat was used for a Liverpool magazine of that name found in 1961 by Bill Harry. Harry claims to have coined the term ‘based on a policeman’s beat and not that of the music.’ The band the Pacifics were re-named the Mersey Beats in 1962 by Bob Wooler, MC at the Cavern Club. The equivalent scenes in Birmingham and London would be described as Brum beat and the Tottenham Sound respectively.

Beat groups usually had simple guitar-dominated line-ups, with vocal harmonies and catchy tunes. The most common instrumentation of beat groups featured lead, rhythm and bass guitars plus drums, as popularized by The Beatles, The Searchers, Gerry & The Pacemakers and others. Beat groups—even those with a separate lead singer—often sang both verses and choruses in close harmony, resembling doo wop, with nonsense syllables in the backing vocals. The most distinctive characteristic of the music was the strong beat, using the backbeat common to rock and roll and rhythm and blues, but often with a driving emphasis on all the beats of 4/4 bar.

In the late 1950s, a flourishing culture of groups began to emerge, often out of the declining skiffle scene, in major urban centers in the UK like Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and London. This was particularly true in Liverpool, where it has been estimated that there were around 350 different bands active, often playing ballrooms, concert halls and clubs. Liverpool was perhaps uniquely placed within Britain to be the point of origin of a new form of music. Commentators have pointed to a combination of local solidarity, industrial decline, social deprivation, and the existence of a large population of Irish origin, the influence of which has been detected in Beat music. It was also a major port with links to America, which made for much greater access to American records and instruments like guitars, which could not easily be imported due to trade restrictions. As a result Beat bands were heavily influenced by American groups of the era, such as Buddy Holly and the Crickets (from which group The Beatles gained the model for their name, combining it with a pun on the beat in their music), and to a lesser extent by British rock and roll groups such as The Shadows.

After the national success of The Beatles in Britain from 1962, a number of Liverpool performers were able to follow them into the charts, including Gerry & The Pacemakers, The Searchers, and Cilla Black. The first act who were not from Liverpool or managed by Brian Epstein to break through in the UK were Freddie and the Dreamers, who were based in Manchester, as were Herman’s Hermits and The Hollies.

Outside of Liverpool many local scenes were less influenced by rock and roll and more by the rhythm and blues and later directly by the blues. These included bands from Birmingham who were often grouped with the beat movement, the most successful being The Spencer Davis Group and The Moody Blues. Similar blues influenced bands who broke out from local scenes to national prominence were The Animals from Newcastle and Them from Belfast. From London, the term Tottenham Sound was largely based around The Dave Clark Five, but other London-based British rhythm and blues bands who benefited from the beat boom of this era included The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and The Yardbirds.

The term British Invasion was coined by T.V. reporter Walter Cronkite to describe the Beatles’ arrival in the United States and the outbreak of Beatlemania in 1964. Their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show soon after led to chart success. During the next two years, Peter and Gordon, The Animals, Manfred Mann, Petula Clark, Freddie and the Dreamers, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, Herman’s Hermits, the Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark Five, The Troggs, and Donovan would have one or more number one singles in America.

By 1966 beat music was beginning to sound out of date, particularly compared with the ‘harder edged’ blues rock that was beginning to emerge. Most of the groups that had not already disbanded moved, like The Beatles, into different forms of rock music and pop music, including psychedelic rock and eventually progressive rock. Beat was a major influence on the American garage rock and folk rock movements, and would be a source of inspiration for subsequent rock music sub-genres, including Britpop in the 1990s.

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