Q&A With Gene Popa, Author of BRITISH INVASION ‘64
Q: So, why a book about the British Invasion?
A: My aim is to write the books that I want to read, but which aren’t out there. For being such a seminal cultural event, the British Invasion hasn’t really been given its historical due. When it is discussed, it is almost always as a component of the story of the Beatles. Or else it is a relatively brief segment of an all-encompassing study of rock during the Sixties. But the British Invasion was much more than just the Beatles, although obviously they were the spark that lit the fuse.
Q: Why limit it to the Invasion in 1964?
A: 1964 is really the catalyst for the entire arc of the Invasion, and what rock and roll was to become forever after. It was the year with the greatest impact, both on music, as well as on society, in terms of opening doors and changing perceptions. In America, everything from rock and roll to fashion to haircuts to advertising were very different at the end of 1964 than what they had been at the start of the year, thanks to the sudden and very unanticipated influence of the Brits.
And I should point out that in my book, “1964” doesn’t necessarily end with New Year’s Day of ’65. In fact, in a very real sense, ’64 continued until around mid- 1965. That’s because so much of the British music that dominated American airwaves in the first half of 1965 had been recorded the year before, so it was very much of that time and place. But what happens by the late spring and early summer of ’65 are two parallel developments: first, several ‘first wave’ British acts that had been scoring hits over the past year finally sputter out and disappear from the U.S. charts, such as the Searchers, Freddie and the Dreamers, and Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotas. Simultaneously, we have what is considered the first sustained ‘American counteroffensive’ against the initial flood of English groups, as the Byrds, Bob Dylan, and the Lovin’ Spoonful are at the forefront of the Folk Rock movement that would become a dominant musical force during the second half of that year and beyond. That is what really ended the first phase of the British Invasion, although of course many English bands, such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and others continued to be among the biggest hitmakers in the United States for some time to come. But by mid-1965, the British Invasion evolved from what it originally had been.
Q: Was rock ‘n roll really “dead” between Elvis Presley going into the Army in 1958 and the Beatles arriving in America in 1964?
A: We hear that a lot in rock scholarship, don’t we? And I can understand why. Early rock was often raw and exhilarating, with an edge of sexuality running through it. But by the late 1950s and into the early 60s, rock overall . . . at least what was being played on AM radio . . . had been largely tamed by the major corporate record labels, which were investing heavily by that point into the youth market, and they didn’t want to risk upsetting local censors and parental or religious groups by continuing to flaunt the likes of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis as their standard bearers. So, what we got was a veritable ‘whitewashing’ of rock and roll, with a major emphasis being placed on squeaky clean ‘teen idols’ like Frankie Avalon and Fabian.
But that said, during this same period you could turn on any Top 40 radio station and hear the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Dion, the Shirelles, Dick Dale, the Impressions, the Crystals, Peter, Paul & Mary, Motown, and countless other artists who made classic music. So that so-called “dead period” of rock and roll was actually something of a Golden Age.
Still, it was time for a change. It’s just that no one expected the agents of that change to hail from across the Atlantic Ocean.
Q: So, was the British Invasion inevitable?
A: No, just the opposite in fact. It succeeded in spite of many obstacles arrayed against it. For the longest time, there was a widespread sentiment that British rock and roll was a pale imitation of the American original, and that there was no place for it in the American market. The result of that believe it or not was that the Beatles had the hardest time simply getting a decent break in America throughout all of 1963, with no major record labels interested in them despite their massive success in Britain and Western Europe, and it was really a series of circumstances, some planned, others totally random, that finally opened the door for them in early ’64. And once they had kicked open that door, there were many other British acts anxious to follow them through it. But it was touch and go in a lot of respects in those first few months, and at one point the British Invasion was very nearly ground to a halt, but for the efforts of a man largely overlooked by history.
Q: Now this is intriguing! Who was this mystery man?
A: One of the things I’m proudest about with this book is that I’m able to place a spotlight on people who deserve to be remembered for their crucial contributions to the success of the British Invasion. One is the gentleman I just spoke of. Herman Kenin was the President of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) in 1964, and at the time, there was an agreement between the AFM and the British Musicians Union (BMU) that sharply restricted the number of musical acts which could perform live in each other’s country. This arrangement was demanded by the BMU, which had long sought to prevent most American musicians from touring in the United Kingdom, because they viewed that as Yanks taking paying performance jobs away from British musicians. Kenin had tried several years earlier to have that agreement revoked, but to no avail. So, there was an impasse, which threatened to put a stop to summer U.S. tours by the Beatles and all the other English acts. But that’s when Herman Kenin put into action an audacious plan that required him, at first, to present himself as a villain to the youth of America, the mean man who was keeping their beloved Brits from them. But while the teens vilified him, he was secretly setting into motion his strategy to use that very anger aimed at him to break the agreement with the BMU, thus allowing all British groups to come to America. He kept the details of his plan a closely guarded secret, and one of his unwitting agents was no less than the President of the United States! I won’t go into all the details here (but rest assured they’re detailed in the book), but I will say that when all is said and done, I think Herman Kenin proved to be one of the greatest heroes of the British Invasion.
Another hero in my eyes is a woman named Kappy Ditson. Her contribution has been utterly lost to history until now, but I think it’s fair to say that she created the operational model for stadium show rock tours that exists to this day . . . and she did it with very little time to spare, with a huge amount of guess work, because nothing like that had been done before! Personally, I think Mrs. Ditson deserves to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for what she’s contributed to the industry.
Q: What was one of the most fun stories you learned while researching your book?
A: There are many, but I think what pleased me the most was learning in more detail just how the Beatles won America over when they arrived in February of ’64. We’ve all heard how they charmed everyone, but their success in that really resulted from the press conference they held at Kennedy Airport shortly after they first landed in New York. The reporters came there prepared, at best, to be indifferent to the band, and at worse, ridicule them as a silly fad with no lasting merit. What the press wasn’t prepared for was the cheeky humor of the four Beatles, and it was through their wit and intelligence that the band won over the reporters that day. The story was flipped from, “Look at these mop-headed clowns your daughters are going nuts over,” to, “These four lads are friendly, funny, and a breath of fresh air!” in just a few minutes’ time. And it helped that it happened to be a slow news weekend, so the press devoted an inordinate amount of attention to the Beatles for the next few days, adding the luster of respectability to them by virtue of the media treating them with serious respect.
Q: What do you think is the most lasting legacy of the British Invasion?
A: Beyond the music, I think the truest legacy is the impact of the Invasion overall. An entire book could probably be written just about the future stars of rock and roll who were inspired by watching the Beatles debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show” to start their own rock bands, some quite literally the following day, and in the months and years to come devote themselves to the goal of being successful musicians someday.
14 year old Billy Joel on Long Island . . . 13 year old Tom Petty in Florida . . . 14 year old Bruce Springsteen in New Jersey . . . 12 year old Ann Wilson and 9 year old Nancy Wilson in Washington state . . . 12 year old Chrissie Hynde in Ohio . . . they were all sitting in their living rooms in front of their tv sets on the night of February 9th, and they all cite that performance as the seminal event that led them to pursue careers in music.
But the impact of that moment wouldn’t have been as everlastingly profound, I believe, if it hadn’t been followed up by the tremendous success of so many other British artists. The Beatles took the beachhead, but it took an army behind them to win the battle.