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Monday, Dec. 15, 2008

Swinging England

When British rock conquered the world

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Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop Inside Out(Oxford University Press) offers Gordon Thompson's perspective on the important period of 1956 to 1968 in the U.K. recording industry, when postwar Britain comes into its own, first through the influence of American music and then secondarily through its own unique sound.

On Jan. 11, 1963, the New Musical Express, England's weekly musical trade publication, took note of a new recording titled "Please Please Me" by the Beatles. The author, a well-known contributor to the paper, Keith Fordyce, expressed dismay that the Beatles' management was promoting this single as "the record of the year." His disdainful comment was that the statement was going to "prove to be a teensy weensy exaggeration!"

He does note that there is something special about the record, however, in that it was performed by a "vocal and instrumental quartet," and adds, "It's different." He is referring to it as being stylistically unique, but more specifically that it is performed by those who wrote it. A year later, on Feb. 9, 1964, millions watched the Beatles on CBS's "The Ed Sullivan Show" and rock 'n' roll stopped being singularly an American art form.

In the United Kingdom, the famed Denmark Street (tantamount to America's Tin Pan Alley) commercial songwriting business was stopped dead in its tracks with this new group that wrote, recorded and performed its own material. One sees a "Denmark Street" sign in Bob Dylan's famed movie Don't Look Back, filmed in 1965, as though his originality was up against it (as well as Tin Pan Alley commercialism); moreover, the book appropriately makes much of the Beatles meeting Dylan and altering their own songwriting as a result.

As Dylan said to John Lennon, paraphrasing, "I get it, you don't want to be cute anymore." Please Please Me traces the complete history of how the Beatles came to utilize this "cuteness" as its own originality within an industry that either tagged along with American music or had leagues of writers penning songs for this or that person or group to sing solely for the charts, not from the hearts.

There is absolutely nothing revisionist about Thompson's book, for it duly gives credit, in amazingly historical detail, how important it was that "Lennon-McCartney" began to appear on records known to be from the group in which they performed. Of less importance to the book's theme, but certainly noted with authority, is that without the Beatles coming to America with "cute" songs, the American folk/blues revival may have hung on even longer in American popular music. Dylan went electric only after the Beatles reawakened Americans to the electric guitar. He may never have been able to do it without a rock-oriented cultural territory to prowl, a landscape owned by the Beatles.

Thankfully written by a musicologist and not a literary critic or a journalist-music fan, Please Please Me provides cultural as well as musical definitions to this rather unknown territory. Thompson reveals how '60s British pop, which began by imitating American rockabilly and R&B, wound up ripping American music into many pieces and reassembling it as composer/performer music.

Please Please Medefines British pop in ways sparklingly accurate and brilliantly insightful. The author gets it all in order with quality writing and an endless quantity of resource material. Thompson does more for this music than anyone has yet to achieve. His study is the best of history and theory combined. In fact, no other book on this subject comes close.