“Laid” by James just randomly played on my computer and my girlfriend demanded to know why I purchased that “stupid song from American Pie”. I told her I actually have 5 songs from James. To the US audience, much like Blur (who’s only stateside hit is “Song 2” aka “Woo hoo!”), James is considered a one-hit wonder. But in Britain they were part of the Manchester scene (the UK equivalent of the US’ musical 90s Mecca Seattle) and put out a total of 12 albums since 1986. Not bad for a band that is only known for “one song” in the US.
James and Blur aren’t the only bands to achieve commercial and artistic success in the UK, only to remain relatively unknown in the US. So here’s my list of 5 great British bands that Americans don’t pay enough attention to.
Another band from Manchester. Joy Division are perhaps best known for “Love Will Tear Us Apart” which came out after their lead singer Ian Curtis died. Joy Division are one of rock’s most important bands – they’re practically the inventors of post-punk. Joy Division were one of the first groups that took punk’s DIY ethics and lo-fi techniques and place the emphasis on mood and atmospherics rather than straight up aggression and anger.
Without a doubt, The Smiths were the most important alternative rock band of the 80s (with the exception of R.E.M.). Morrissey was a highly intellectual and literate lyricist whose lyrics are most often associated with loneliness and isolation, but he could also be a keen social critic as well (“Panic”, “The Queen is Dead”, and “Sweet and Tender Hooligan”). Johnny Marr is a widely underrated guitarist, and his ringing chords provided the backdrop for the Smith’s unique take on rock with a pop sensibility. Stateside, they are probably best known for “How Soon Is Now?” which is a great song, but not representative of their sound.
The Faces are probably best known at least in the US as “band that Rod Stewart used to sing with” or “that band that Ronnie Wood was in before he was in The Rolling Stones”. The Faces songs were sloppy, and dirty much like The Rolling Stones in a certain way. But while The Rolling Stones became the target of many punk bands for their overblown image, many punk bands often cited the Faces as a direct influence.
The Kinks are probably best remembered in the US for “You Really Got Me”. Although they normally get placed in with the “British Invasion” wave of the early 60s, The Kinks incorporated pop, country, R&B, folk and blues into their sound. The riff of The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” is almost a direct rip-off a Kinks song. The Kinks influence can be heard in the songs of the The Clash, The Ramones, the Jam, and Oasis.
To the US audience, the Clash are mostly known for “Should I Stay or I Should I Go?” or “Rock the Casbah”. But with the dynamic Joe Strummer at the helm, The Clash were one “the CNN of music”. They were political and intelligent. And they can could take on almost any musical style and make it their own as witnessed on 1979’s London Calling. If both Eddie Vedder and Bruce Springsteen cover your songs, that should say something about The Clash’s influence.