Great Britain has given us The Beatles, The Who, Led Zeppelin and many other famous bands. This article features none of them. Instead, we’ll focus on lesser-known – but just as worthy – British musicians. Get out your ear plugs …
NOT SINGING THE BLUES
In the late 1960s, nearly every British rock band – Cream, the Stones, Led Zeppelin – was playing the blues. One, however, decided to look to its own country’s musical tradition for inspiration. The mighty Fairport Convention released a series of rock albums increasingly rooted in British folk, the best of which – 1969’s Liege & Leif – is an explosive mix of the two genres. Violinist Dave Swarbrick trades licks with virtuoso guitarist Richard Thompson on tracks like “Matty Groves” and “Tam Lin,” while singer Sandy Denny (who guests on Led Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore”) imbues the proceedings with a majestic grandeur. Sandy left soon afterward, followed by Richard Thompson and nearly every other original member. The band still survives, releasing pleasant but disposable folk rock, and is perhaps best known for supplying Jethro Tull with a ready supply of master musicians (bassist Dave Pegg, multi-instrumentalist Martin Allcock, drummer Dave Mattacks and more).
Richard Thompson went on to a successful career as a singer/songwriter, specializing in dark, brooding guitar workouts (“Shoot out the Lights”), gorgeous acoustic ballads (“Beeswing”), straight-ahead rock (“Cooksferry Queen”) and wonderful folk rock gems (“When I Get to the Border,” which mixes mandolins, crumhorns and searing electric guitar; “I Feel So Good,” a cheery tale of a psychopath featuring a catchy hurdy-gurdy refrain, and many others). He also produced a few of the late Sandy Denny’s albums, which are sad and lovely masterpieces, and played guitar on the Nick Drake’s gorgeous Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter. These last two are must-haves for the melancholy among you, while Pink Moon – his final album before his suicide/overdose – is recommended primarily for the seriously morose.
ROCKING WITH ROXY & ENO
Brian Eno is best known as U2’s producer, but he’s also a groundbreaking artist in his own right. The four albums he made in the 1970s – Here Come the Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World and Before and After Science – are wonderfully bizarre, with everything from bass-driven rockers (Third Uncle”) to ambient instrumentals (“The Big Ship”) to quirky pop gems (“Burning Airlines Give You So Much More”). The lyrics are mostly nonsensical, with a focus on sound rather than meaning, and the music is chock full of strange effects and experimental sounds (courtesy of prog rock luminaries like Robert Fripp, a pre-bland Phil Collins and others). If you’re sick of by-the-numbers rock, give any of these four albums – each a bubbly and squelchy sonic stew – a try.
Before going solo in 1973, Eno was a member of Roxy Music. This was not the Avalon-era band, churning out sophisticated ballads for tuxedo-wearing casanovas, but the Roxy Music that wore makeup, dressed in women’s clothes and wrote love songs to blow-up sex dolls (“In Every Dream Home a Heartache”). The two albums from this era – Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure – are truly original, mixing 50s-type rock with spacey keyboards, offbeat lyrics and Bryan Ferry’s distinctive vibrato. Two other Roxy-related albums are also worthy of mention: guitarist Phil Manzanera’s Diamond Head, which heavily features Eno, and the amazing 801 Live, which features Manzanera, Eno, John Wetton and some other guy.
DAMNED IF YOU DO
Who released the first punk rock single? If you answered “The Sex Pistols,” you’re dead wrong. It was The Damned, with their blistering 1976 single “New Rose.” Unlike their contemporaries, however, The Damned quickly moved from three-chord thrashers to more advanced musical terrain, with albums like 1982’s Strawberries brimming with harpsichords, trumpets, organs and hummable melodies. They reached the top of the UK charts in the mid-80s with goth- pop masterpiece Phantasmagoria, broke up a few years later, got back together, had a nasty fight with drummer Rat Scabies (featured in the “I.S.F.T.” video below) and are still going, Scabies-less. Their new album, So Who’s Paranoid, is a colorful psychedelic masterpiece that also rocks quite hard.
WITH ME LITTLE UKULELE IN ME ‘AND
No artist was more British than George Formby, a Northern entertainer who set the U.K. alight in the 1930s and beyond with hits such as “When I’m Cleaning Windows” and “With My Little Ukulele in My Hand” (surprisingly dirty for its time; not so surprisingly banned by the BBC). Formby strummed a “banjolele” (a ukulele/banjo combination), sang in a natural Lancashire accent and was so popular that the Queen requested a special performance. Unlike most old music hall-types, his music is still very amusing today: Tracks such as “It’s Turned out Nice Again” and “With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock” are immense fun and sure to raise a smile. Interestingly, the late George Harrison was a huge fan, even going so far as to take up the uke and attend the occasional George Formby convention. Other celebrity fans include angst-icon Morrissey and the aforementioned Richard Thompson, whose cover of Formby’s “Why Don’t Women Like Me?” can be found on 2006’s RT box set.
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Scott Miller wishes he could call his band “The Technicolour Gramophone” instead of “The Technicolor Gramophone,” but unfortunately they’re not British. Check out the video for their blistering new single, “I.S.F.T. (Fuzz Bass Freakout)” below.