September 13, 2008 / 12:37 AM / 12 years ago

UK performers still keen to conquer U.S. charts

LONDON (Billboard) - The legendary moment in April 1964 when the Beatles claimed the top five places on the U.S. singles chart — with “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Twist and Shout,” “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Please Please Me” — was not the first transatlantic victory for a UK act. But it was the one by which all future chart contenders — of any nationality — would be judged.

The four and a half decades since contain countless tales of British chart conquests — not to mention frequent failures — in the up-and-down acceptance of UK music and culture by American listeners. But one thing remains unchanged: the sheer thrill for a UK act of conquering the world’s most celebrated singles survey.

“It felt like a dream,” says Rod Argent of the Zombies, whose “She’s Not There” vaulted to No. 2 at the end of 1964. “I remember being hugely excited when I first became aware it had entered the Hot 100.”

Two decades later, the Hot 100 — which bowed in 1958 — was still the promised land of international success, Level 42 frontman Mark King says. The UK pop band made the grade in 1986, when “Something About You” climbed to No. 7.

“It did feel like finding the Holy Grail,” King says. “For British bands, making the Billboard top 10 was affirmation that you were serious contenders, particularly to the record companies and publishers.”

Beatlemania and the British invasion supercharged the Hot 100 through the mid-1960s, but almost two full years earlier, in May 1962, clarinetist Acker Bilk became the first UK artist to lead the Hot 100 rankings.

Bilk’s romantic instrumental “Stranger on the Shore” succeeded where many early British rock ‘n’ rollers and domestic chart champs had failed. But, as a preview of the pitfalls of the American market for chart visitors from across the Atlantic, Bilk never again reached the top half of the Billboard chart.

ON A ROLL

The Beatles had no such problem, of course, with 20 No. 1 singles in just six years. No. 1 billing for the likes of Peter & Gordon, the Animals, Manfred Mann and Petula Clark soon followed.

In spring 1965, three acts in a row from Manchester, England, topped the chart: Freddie & the Dreamers, Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders and Herman’s Hermits. Before that year was out, the Rolling Stones and the Dave Clark 5 made it seem like Britain had a permanent home on the top of the Hot 100. But although the “second British invasion” during the first half of the 1980s took Culture Club, Eurythmics and the Human League deep into the U.S. consciousness, a fallow period ensued.

“The styles of British music that followed in the ‘90s were so derivative of the guitar bands of the ‘60s,” King says, “that (U.S. audiences) weren’t buying into it at all.”

Indeed, Britain’s most recent song on the all-time Hot 100 — Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997”/“Something About the Way You Look Tonight” — dates back more than a decade.

In the 21st century, the once unthinkable — a Hot 100 being published without featuring a single British artist — has become a reality on more than one occasion, reflecting American radio’s shift toward home-grown R&B and hip-hop.

One of Britain’s few successes during recent years was R&B star Craig David. In 2001, he went to No. 15 on the chart with “Fill Me In” and to No. 10 with follow-up “7 Days.”

And in 2008, the achievements of Leona Lewis, Coldplay, Natasha Bedingfield, M.I.A. and others have given the Hot 100 a fresh British accent, while the artists watched their records climb a chart they’ve heard about all their lives.

“We eagerly scanned the U.S. charts every week as ‘She’s Not There’ began its magical journey,” Zombies lead singer Colin Blunstone says. “To have top 10 hits in the States, the home of rock ‘n’ roll, was truly beyond our wildest dreams.”

Reuters/Billboard

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