With Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee on our doorstep, we in the SupaJam office started thinking about the antics of British music culture in the past 60 years, and boy, hasn’t it come a long way! In this article, we’ll be celebrating each decade of music with a ‘Best of Britain’ theme running throughout.
Let’s start from the very beginning. The year is 1952, and Liz has now been appointed top dog. This decade marked the birth of the UK singles chart, first published by NME. Jazz artist John Kirby sadly died, but on a chirpier note, plenty of future music stars were born, including Stewart from The Police, David from Talking Heads and Randy from The Village People.
In the 1950s, Britain began to scratch the surface as one of the world’s leaders of popular music, although this takeover didn’t fully blossom until the mid-1960s. One of the fashionable genres at the time was orchestral pop. The UK music charts were littered with American musicians such as Perry Como regurgitating outdated ballads and the likes of Vera Lynn, Anne Shelton and other knackered wartime sweethearts somehow still clawing their way into the charts, like undead harpies wailing about cups of tea and shooting Jerry.*
We know, it’s not exactly the most soulful music ever made, but everybody knows that the sixties was when British music really got juicy.
*OK, not actually 100% on these facts. Sue me (don't).
Home to what America called the ‘British Invasion’, the UK music scene exploded in the swinging sixties with its own organic sound influenced by big American artists of the time such as Buddy Holly and The Crickets.
In London, music crazes became viral overnight, especially amongst the schoolgirls, with brit-rock bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and mod bands including The Kinks and The Who. Some artists went down the blues route as it crept its way back into fashion, influenced by American R&B of previous decades, but now with the additional use of electric guitars and electronic effects. The pioneers of British blues included Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac and, later on in the decade, Led Zeppelin. You may recognise the introduction of this next track from a certain music show on the telly.
Music that was released at the end of the decade and the start of the next was fueled mainly by the popularity of hallucinogens, ending with a lot of tracks strongly linked to substance-infused psychedelia including The Who’s slightly twisted rock opera musical album ‘Tommy’, released in 1969.
With the growing drug culture, socio-political issues and constantly changing fashion trends, dozens of rock sub-genres were created, including glitter/glam rock, folk rock, psychedelic rock and punk rock. The kings of folk music such as Simon & Garfunkel and England’s homegrown Cat Stevens played a massive role in the music of this era, with Stevens’ most popular tracks all featuring on the soundtrack of the American movie ‘Harold and Maude’, released in 1971. Political activism in music was thriving, with psychedelic rock bands like Pink Floyd addressing controversial issues regarding British politics.
After all the unprotected sex of the hippy decade, the 1970s marked the birth of glam rock, with artists such as Roxy Music, David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust days and *ehem* Gary Glitter.
The late 1970s marked the uprising of the punk movement, not only in music but in all-round lifestyle, thanks to its popularity amongst British youth, with bands like The Clash and The Sex Pistols leading the way by sticking their middle fingers up to topics such as politics and the establishment, this including Britain’s monarchy.
The mod revival was also booming in London at the time, with bands like Nine Below Zero and Eddie & the Hot Rods becoming massive. This revival was due to a revert in the British arts and culture, for example the 1979 film ‘Quadrophenia’, bringing the mod lifestyle back into culture almost ten years later.
Rock aside, other types of music that were big in the seventies were reggae and ska. Especially enjoyed by the mods and skinheads of Britain were bands such as The Specials, Madness and UB40. This trend was first introduced to Britain at the end of the 1960s and continued to grow alongside the global success of Bob Marley & The Wailers. Also, reggae bands such as Steel Pulse tied in political lyrics, a fashionable trend in 1970s music, appealing to the public whilst making a stand against the establishment.
From punk rock to post-punk and new romantic, the eighties housed yet more hybrids of preceding genres. Bands like Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran led the way with mainstream, fashionable elements added to their star-studded music.
Previously established members of seventies rock bands revamped themselves, centering themselves around electronic music, with the major example being Joy Division becoming New Order with popular tracks including Blue Monday. This fusion of music created new genres of electronic and dance music which also included artists such as Talk Talk and Pet Shop Boys. With a more pop edge, there were bands including Soft Cell, The Human League and Depeche Mode. Do you remember where you were when you first heard this next track? Or perhaps you’re young enough to remember the excerpt from the examination of GCSE Music in June 2009:
Another scene to emerge from punk rock was indie pop. Many well known bands were made famous by the Manchester nightclub The Haçienda, owned by Factory Records (the easiest way to revise this music era is by watching Steve Coogan in the 2002 film ‘24 Hour Party People’) and included bands such as The Smiths and Aztec Camera.
The nineties captures the real beginning of British electronic music: from jungle to drum and bass, house to trip-hop, and everything in between. The Haçienda continued being home to the best popular music of the UK, now moving from indie rock to acid house, and managing to harness every popular genre in between. The legacy of The Haçienda also helped to coin the term ‘Madchester’ music scene. Bands that were created during the ‘Madchester’ days included The Chemical Brothers, Verve and Oasis.
The British indie scene grew into britpop with bands such as Supergrass, Pulp, Suede and Blur. A nationalistic approach was undertaken, with a lot of the tracks talking solely about topics typical of Britain. Later on in the decade, this was overtaken by post-britpop bands such as Radiohead, Travis and Stereophonics. As these bands scrapped the patriotism of before, they managed to achieve a much wider success overseas.
Ignoring mainstream commercialist pop, the nineties marked the introduction of garage, the lovechild of UK jungle and American house music, and what would become the father of the next decade’s dubstep and grime. The trademark and percussive sound of garage, along with female vocalists such as Ms. Dynamite and Lisa Maffia often featuring on tracks, infiltrated Britain’s music scene, tying in smoothly with the jungle craze of the time.
Developed primarily in the eighties, occidental music started to take a few tips from more exotic climates. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the bhangra movement quickly escalated in the UK thanks to the Punjabi diaspora - first and second generation immigrants of Pakistan and India moving to the western world (thank you, Wikipedia). This sudden craze in music can be seen with the popularity of Panjabi MC’s track ‘Mundian To Bach Ke’ and, in the early 2000s, with films like ‘Bend It Like Beckham’, TV shows like ‘The Kumars at No. 42’ and that Peugeot advert:
2000s - Now
After the millennium, different strands of music continued to dissipate and merge to create a huge melting pot of musical diversity and ambiguity transcending the fixed genres. This overwhelming variety of British music now makes it almost impossible to classify each artist into a box. From bass-heavy trance to breakbeat, screamcore thrash to bubble pop and experimental jazz to minimal low-fi, there truly is everything a person could want to be found in British music.
What about you? Is there a crucial era in the UK’s music culture that we’ve missed? Back in 1995, where would you be heading to on a Friday night? Will you always stay true to the legendary roots of Britain’s mod lifestyle, or were you too busy sculpting your hair to a cassette of Wham!’s ‘Make It Big’? What are your all-time favourite tracks to have come out of Britain in the past 60 years?