As Independence Day nears, the history of this divide in musical outputs serves as a reminder of how the cultures of U.S. and its mother country have been distinct yet inextricably twined. The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin have always admitted that their music is a take on American rhythm and blues. Even The Beatles started out performing Chuck Berry covers. American bands, meanwhile, have often needed to make it in England before getting recognized back home, as was recently true of The White Stripes, The Strokes, and The Kings of Leon. (The greatest-selling album by a US band in the UK ever? The Scissor Sisters' debut. Yes, really.)
While U2 (not strictly British but signed to a British label with two members born in the UK) were shifting millions of records in the late '80s and '90s, there were arguably two American bands that could have achieved the same worldwide domination. Guns N' Roses and Nirvana both had the combination of anthemic songwriting and compelling stage presence needed to become a true world-beating act. Only one of these bands ever desired to be that big, and for very different reasons, neither was able to produce a sustained run of best-selling albums.
At the dawn of the modern music era, though, American solo artists led the way.
"For the first 10 years (1953-63) of rock and roll, there were no British musicians involved in recording and having a worldwide impact," says rock historian Barry Drake in an email. "The American '50s models were all solo performers--Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles."
Even when an ensemble did make it big during that era of American rock and roll, it would be named after the front man--Buddy Holly and The Crickets, Bill Haley and The Comets. The Beatles' name was inspired by Holly's "backing" band, but they broke out as a democratic group--maybe because there was no way of choosing a front man from Paul and John. Until the fab four blew up, Drake points out, even most British recording artists were solo performers like Cliff Richard, Helen Shapiro, and Billy Fury.
But when the band of four seemingly equal members did take over the world, appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th, 1964, they changed the rules forever--and created the intercontinental rock divide that persists till today.
While Motown Records' Berry Gordy realized the attraction of moving the spotlight onto a lead singer by renaming The Supremes "Diana Ross and...", the Beatles were being sold by Capitol as four boys with identical haircuts and matching gray collarless suits. While Michael Jackson was being groomed to leave the Jackson Five from the age of 13, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin were releasing million-selling albums without a single band member's image on the artwork.