LIKE A FOREST fire, the flames of the new wave roared across the British rock scene, leaving behind a charred and blackened landscape. A few mighty oaks, burnt and blackened, are still standing, and green shoots now show through the smouldering embers.
But the self-immolation of the punk revolution, while incinerating much dead and rotten wood, has left us vulnerable to attack. The strange fruits of nihilism and the quest for supreme anarchy where men revel in the joys of chaos rather than the symmetrical beauty of order will eventually prove bitter and unpalatable.
Already the British have lost their grip on world pop markets. Jamaican girls, bold Swedes and skilled Germans now dominate the airways. And where once British rock groups reigned supreme, there are a dozen indigenous groups fighting for a footing on their own territory.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in America. Only four years ago it would be hard to find an American band making headway in its own country. There has never been a shortage of great, original talent in American, the homeland of rock.
There has always been something cooking, whether the Mothers Of Invention, Steely Dan, the Tubes or downhome Southern boogie. But for many years British rock bands had the run of the States.
Our bands swamped the sports stadia, the colleges, the clubs, radio and televisions. From the initial conquest of the Beatles, 15 years ago, came seemingly endless waves. The bands we threw against America were stunningly varied, each with its own character, each armed with a battery of fresh ideas.
No sooner had the Americans recovered from the Stones than we sent them the Cream, Who, and Hendrix. Then came Ten Years After, Joe Cocker, Traffic, Pink Floyd, Elton John, Yes, ELP, the Faces, Jeff Beck, Kinks, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath Genesis, Peter Frampton, Average White Band, Jethro Tull, Roxy Music, Wings, Queen, David Bowie…the list is endless, and represents everything from heavy metal to the most sophisticated art-rock.
Now the supply has dried up, and although we are still sending the occasional heavily-touted new wonder, the Americans are increasingly rejecting our product with a big stamp that says “Not good enough.”
Only singer-songwriters have made much of their transatlantic crossing in recent years, like Elvis Costello and Al Stewart. There are some British groups who have spent a year bashing their heads against a brick wall, touring hopefully but not really making waves.
As for the new wave itself, the media has shown more interest than the vast mass of fans, and the proof of that statement lies in the fact that the American audiences are turning towards their own bands who are filling the gap left by the British super groups, who have either given up touring, been wasted by disaster or simply run out of steam after many years of sterling service.
It might be that the British media obsession with transient fashion has effectively stifled the growth of new talent, or it might be symptomatic of a general decline throughout the country, where radical, liberal and free thinking has been replaced by dull, witless ignorance on a scale unknown since the 13th century.
At least there are sparks on the home front glowing from the likes of Tom Robinson, Ian Dury and Jimmy Pursey. But until British youth restores its honesty and questing spirit, and ditches the destructive pose of cynicism and self-abuse, there is no chance of British rock ever regaining its self-respect, nor the respect of the rest of the world.
Maybe it doesn’t want to gain the respect of anybody, maybe British rock is quite happy to remain a ten-pound-a-gig schlapp around the Victorian pubs of the inner London suburbs. But if that is the case then we should not be surprised when the NEW new wave breaks over our heads, and this time it won’t be British, but American.
American audiences are already flocking to see the kinds of bands the critics love to hate. There are groups, virtually unknowing terms of media exposure in Britain, which are regularly churning out platinum albums in the States, selling out big venues and getting the air-play once reserved for the latest British group.
Bands like Boston, Kansas, R.E.O. Speedwagon, Aerosmith, and to a lesser extent, Angel, Star Castle and Styx (coming up) Rex. And from Canada, Mahogany Rush and Rush.
It’s true Aerosmith didn’t make much of an impression on British audiences. As they had been brought up on English groups like the Yardbirds (one of their major influences) Aerosmith seemed too much like a pale imitation.
But Steven Tyler and friends didn’t try too hard on their visits here. They had already fought their way to the top at home and didn’t have their hearts in another battle abroad.
Now, when American bands hit the road, they don’t specifically come to England; they regard us as a refuelling stop over on a European tour. Some already enjoy greater success in Germany than they do here. But the significant factor is that imported albums by the new US bands are selling despite the silent or hostile press reaction.
It’s a situation akin to the early days of the Underground, and inevitably there are fanzines which fill editorial gaps left in national coverage.
How big are the new American bands, some of which are not so new, and have been building their following from obscure origins, over a number of years, and what will be their effect on the British scene?
One man who has had first-hand experience of the rise of American rock is British manager and publicist Richard Ogden. While Ogden manages the Motors and has been or still is publicist to such US acts as Black Oak Arkansas, Ted Nugent, Aerosmith and Kansas, he speaks with sufficiently detached candour for us to have faith in his views.
As an observer who makes frequent visits to the States, he claims that the aforementioned bands have already taken over in terms of winning the mass audiences hungry for accessible, well-played rock with the right mix of showmanship and musical validity. The kind of stuff we used to do so well…
“The media are ignoring these bands over here – but not the people,” says Richard firmly. “Take a group like Rush, which I have NOTHING to do with. They have hardly been written about, but they came here for half-a-dozen dates and sold them all out, including Hammersmith Odeon.
“Most of the groups that are written about every week can’t do that kind of business. Doug Smith, who used to manage Hawkwind, is now involved in merchandising and does about £3,000 worth of business on every gig, selling tee shirts!! And that’s just for Rush. The kids are REAL fans of these bands.
“It’s like the new underground, with punk rock as the mainstream. The kids who go out and buy the albums like heavy metal. Take Judas Priest. They’re a very big group – critically maligned. There aren’t very many English heavy metal bands left. But those that remain are still very big.
“Look at heavy metal in America which, I suppose, encompasses every thing from Aerosmith to Kiss, and look at the album charts, and you’ll see Styx in the top ten. And all these bands like Nugent, Styx, Rush, Kansas and Aerosmith were selling 9,000 to 10,000 copies of each album BEFORE they came to Britain.
“Okay, 10,000 sounds insignificant. But some record companies spend £50,000 to sell 12,000 copies of an English album. The American groups are selling on IMPORT, at £6 a time, 10,000 copies or more. They’ve got a very strong following.
“As a musical form in America now, heavy metal is bigger than ever. And here fans are getting involved in these groups BEFORE the media. Ted Nugent had a very good crack in the press because he’s a very interesting character. But he sold out his British dates long before he had any media coverage.
“Now Nugent sells between 40,000 and 50,000 copies of each album he puts out. Rush are the same. And even Aerosmith, who had adverse press after they came to Britain, increased their sales from 6,000 to 20,000 per album.
“A lot of people here say ‘Urrgh – they’re just copies of Yes or Genesis.’ But they’re NOT. They’re American bands, some of whom mix progressive rock with heavy metal. Kansas have been going five or six years remember, and Styx have been going even longer! Angel and Starz have a more flashy image, but they’re not so big yet.
“A band can sell 50,000 albums in America, still not be very famous but make a very good living. Whereas in this country, you either hit the top of starve. And there’s no doubt about it, British rock music is NOT the force it once was.”
Ogden also claims that, apart from the lack of press coverage here, the American bands very rarely get English radio play. “They can sell 10,000 albums in this country without any air play at all. It’s astounding. Boston have had hits here, but you’re not going to hear music by Styx or Kansas unless Alan Freeman or Nicky Horne on Capital plays them. John Peel’s tastes don’t really extend to heavy bands, so Alan Freeman is your lad.
“He’s the only bloke who regularly plays heavy music or progressive rock. The only way these groups are going to get known here is by coming over and touring. I can’t see the music papers going bananas over Kansas because they’re playing an unfashionable style of music.
“But there is a huge audience for their kind of music which is not being catered for in this country. And I know at least one manager looking for a heavy rock band to put on the road simply because we have discovered, all of us who work in this particular area, that there is vacuum.
“These groups are selling a helluva lot on import but nobody really knows the figures. If you include imports and what the record companies officially put out, the American bands can sell 15,000 copies of their albums here without any promotion whatsoever.
“And you’ve got in your chart this week an album by a certain English group that has probably sold no more than that. In fact I know it hasn’t – it’s sold LESS than that. Extremely interesting – you see? And when the American bands actually come here, they quadruple their sales figures.”
But is it, in the final analysis, worth their while in coming here anyway?
“You have to look upon Europe as a territory. They don’t just come to Britain for a few dates. They do 30 dates through Europe. Kansas, who aren’t considered here, are actually a very big group in Germany.
“They’ve sold 40,000 copies of each album there. Their European tour is going to be of 20 dates duration, so obviously it is going to be wroth their while touring.”
Have any of these US bands achieved the heights in popularity and sales of giants like Zeppelin, Tull etc?
“I don’t know,” says Richard. “The business has changed, hasn’t it? Germany used to be massive for heavy rock and still is for Status Quo, but if you look at the figures for this year, it’s actually Smokie who are the biggest group in Germany!
“The business has changed and that is true the whole world over. In America there used to blanket coverage of heavy rock. You no longer get that. Kansas and Styx have only made it in America to their colossal heights, and we’re talking about three-and-a-half million sales on each album, because they both had hit singles.
“There’s always been a massive audience in Britain for good, heavy rock. There’s always been a dichotomy between what 15-year-old boys like and what 26-year-old journalists like!
“The whole music business would have said that punk rock and the new wave would flood what was left of the progressive rock market. But it is NOT true. You can’t get more heavy and progressive than Rush, who are very successful.
“How many new wave punk groups are playing a lot of big dates? The answer is not very many. Sham 69…are they doing three nights at Hammersmith Odeon? It seems to me you can be Ted Nugent, not very well-known, no plays on the radio, selling out three or four nights at the Odeon Hammersmith, and you can be the new wave darling of the media and be doing half as well.
“I mean, I manage the Motors, and we’ve had a couple of hits, some airplay, press coverage, but f— hell, I wouldn’t be putting them on at Hammersmith Odeon for two nights!
“You can be an unknown American band and do far more business than a lot of VERY well-known British bands. Mahogany Rush is a fantastic example. Canadian, they’re not big in the media anywhere, certainly not in America. They’re a second division group.
“But they came here, we did seven dates, Glasgow Apollo, Manchester Free Trade Hall, Liverpool Empire, Birmingham Odeon, blah blah, and we did 75 per cent business everywhere except two sell-outs at Birmingham and Sheffield. There were 3,500 at Odeon Hammersmith to see a group virtually UNHEARD of, and when they were heard of, critics were rude.”
Why did he think the press objected to them so much?
“This music does tend to get lumped under the glam-rock, pomp rock banners. But Kansas don’t use any dry ice. They just go and play two hours of intricate, complicated music, extremely well.
“They don’t have any sort of a show at all. They play huge instrumental pieces that last ten minutes each. Boston have hardly any stage show to speak of. Again they just rely on their music, which features fairly complicated arrangements. They play complex but heavy rock, and so do Kansas and Styx. It’s the new American music of the last two years – concept albums and progressive rock, which is frowned upon here.”
Surely that was because we had enjoyed or suffered all that (depending on your musical tastes) from our own groups these ten years past. Weren’t critics objections based on the fact the American bands were just playing British style progressive rock years behind the times?
“Are they? I don’t know if they are. They’re certainly taking over the scene. Kansas are coming here in March, Styx are coming in May, Blue Oyster Cult in April, Ted Nugent will be coming back, Rex too and REO Speedwagon. A group like Cheap Trick are a straight ahead, American hard rock band, with great material, great personalities and great music.
“The return to amateurism here has meant that a lot of English bands will be unable to make it in America, however hard they tour. I couldn’t claim that the Motors are happening in America. We went, we toured and we learnt that we have to improve.
“What British band can you think of in the last three years that has gone to America and made it?”
Deathly silence. Peter Frampton, Fleetwood Mac?
“They didn’t go to America to make it – they were in America already and stayed there.
“It’s possible that in three years time the scene will change again and groups like the Boomtown Rats, the Motors, Tom Robinson and Eddie and the Hot Rods will be very big all over the world. I think they will, but they will only become so because they will have learnt from and coped with the American situation.
“In America Graham Parker has made major inroads and so has Elvis Costello, who is the most successful British act in America for a long, long time, more so there than he is here. But he’s not headlining 10,000 seater halls yet.”
Which of the new American bands will make the most impact in Britain?
“It’s impossible to tell. Rex are a good group, but they won’t have the impact of Tex Nugent. Starz are all right, but they seem to be copyists. Cheap Trick are making it everywhere and they present their music in an original fashion.”
But with the rejection of big money, capitalist groups in Britain, would there be a welcome for a whole bunch of American, capitalist pig groups?
“There’s no speculation involved. We know there is. Not only do kids come out to see these groups, they buy their tee shirts as well! They want to see them and get involved with them. And the reason is the groups are very, very good at what they do.
“It’s as simple as that. Kansas get one of the best sounds I’ve ever heard. Their ‘live’ sound is fantastic – total clarity at very high volume. More and more people have stereos and hi-fi and want to play good records on them.
“Look at the MM Readers’ Poll. Every year they vote for ELP and Yes and Genesis, and soon they’ll be voting for Kansas and Styx.
“Our problem here is that we tend to think of America as part of Britain. We don’t think of it as a foreign country. But it is a foreign country. The people are completely different. Kansas sometimes do some spoken introductions that I think sound rather strange, about how wonderful it is to be here. And as a result are constantly accused by English writers of being cliched and boring.
“But that’s the way it’s done in America and that’s what they like. Americans are DIFFERENT. They have a veneer of politeness and friendliness, and to us it seems pseudo. But to them it’s real.
“I’ve heard Jim Dandy say things during interviews, and I’ve thought: ‘Oh God, shut up, Jim!’ But in America they all love it. So part of our problem has always been that we treat Americans as though they were English people being phoney.
“We don’t understand them, and that’s why American bands get clever criticism from English writers who say they look phoney or dated. American fashion is not ours. American kids wear jeans with baggy bottoms and cowboy boots and long hair and stetsons. American youths wear those sort of clothes and that’s why American groups look the way they do.
“Totally unstylish. In fact, one of Kansas is of English descent and he looks it. But it’s no longer good enough in the world of rock ‘n’ roll just to be British and quaint, as it used to be – five years ago.”
© Chris Welch, Melody Maker, 25 February 1978