Matt's Music History Monday - Merseybeat and the Birth of the British Invasion
Matt Casaletto is an Account Manager at CEB in Chicago, Illinois.
August 29th, 2016 - 50 years ago today, the final notes of Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally clung to the balmy San Francisco air as four intrepid Liverpudlians waved farewell to their last paying audience. While the concert at Candlestick Park marked the end of touring for the Beatles, it also marked the start of their most innovative period with albums like Sgt. Pepper’s, the White Album and Abbey Road yet to be released. Most would agree that by 1966, buoyed by 11 number-one singles, the Beatles were the undisputed kings of the British Invasion. But while the term British Invasion is fairly well known, Merseybeat, the scene that gave us the Beatles and many others, is not. Despite being a somewhat obscure term, Merseybeat is one of the most important musical movements of the 20th century as it spawned the British Invasion, which helped construct the sound of modern popular music.
In Stockport, Greater Manchester, a confluence of the Rivers Tame and Goyt begins to flow west for 70 miles before discharging into the Atlantic Ocean. The body of water is called River Mersey and abutting it is Liverpool, also known as the World Capital City of Pop. Much like the river that inexorably flows into Liverpool Bay, the spread of Liverpool’s musical sound, in the early 60’s, seemed to steadily flow into every surrounding city in England. That sound combined unmistakable elements of rock ‘n’ roll, r&b and doo wop, but also included influences from skiffle music, as England experienced a skiffle revival in the 1950’s. One Liverpool skiffle band went by the name the Quarrymen and included John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. In 1960, their name was changed to the Beatles, in tribute to Buddy Holly and the Crickets, and they began strictly performing rock ‘n’ roll music akin to their contemporaries.
A major factor in the success of the Beatles and their peers is ascribed to a tabloid magazine called Mersey Beat, which was founded in 1961. Initially intended as a jazz publication, Mersey Beat would focus on rock ‘n’ roll as founders Bill and Virginia Harry became interested in the thriving local music scene. Liverpool was so saturated with rock ‘n’ roll acts that estimates claim there were as many as 350 active bands at any given moment between 1961-1964. Needless to say, Mersey Beat would not be lacking material for content. Even local musicians, like John Lennon, would contribute articles for publication.
The first pressing of Mersey Beat rapidly sold all 5,000 copies, and soon became the compass of Liverpool’s teenage milieu. The publication featured famous bands with legacies that still endure today, like the Beatles, Gerry & the Pacemakers and the Searchers, but every local band was touched on in some way by the magazine. In fact, Mersey Beat, in 1962, set out to definitively highlight the greatest band in the Merseyside area by holding a poll, which included the names of 300 plus musical groups. Would it be shocking to hear that the Beatles were voted the number one band? Eventually, the magazine would circulate around 75,000 copies every other week and would feature bands not only from Liverpool, but also from surrounding cities like Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle, where up-and-coming groups were taking influence from the Liverpool sound. A few of the famous bands that would emerge from these cities were the Hollies, the Moody Blues and the Animals, among many others. Sadly, the magazine would cease to exist in late 1964, but it had already played a major part in making British music an indomitable force on the charts.
The Merseybeat style of rock ‘n’ roll flourished for a period and generated wildly successful singles like She Loves You, Needles and Pins and Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying. Ultimately, the driving rock sound and alluring melodies of Merseybeat gave rise to what Walter Cronkite coined as the British Invasion of the American pop charts. Other English bands like the Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark Five and the Kinks followed suit and would go on to achieve major success in the United States and across the globe. Without the musical talent of Liverpool’s youth and the zeal of editors Bill and Virginia Harry, the British Invasion might never have happened and popular music would sound very different today. Next time you hear a rock/pop tune on the radio, remember the undeniable influence Liverpool’s cultural scene had on what we consider great pop music.