Merseybeat was the fad that changed the world. Or at least it changed the world this blog cares about. Of the 20 number ones after “How Do You Do It?”, fourteen were by Liverpool groups or singers, and a fifteenth was written by The Beatles. As for the old order? Elvis Presley had 9 #1s in the first three years of the decade, two in the rest of it. Cliff stuck around but his lock on the top three was broken. The teen balladeers of the early 60s? Kaput. And so on. By the time the Merseymania died down, leaving the Beatles legends and everybody else with a free pass on the revival circuit, pop’s cast was different.
What about pop’s sound, though? That shifted too, but not as quickly or completely – from 1963 to today, records get to No.1 which could credibly have been chart-toppers before Merseybeat. Wholesomeness, big sloppy ballads out of films, deference in the face of a string section – these things never went away. But nevertheless something is different in British pop after ’63. If I had to sum up what Merseybeat brought to the top of the charts I’d say it boils down to two things: voice and aggression.
I’ve mentioned British accents a lot on Popular because I think they’re important – British pop pendulums all the time between valuing transatlantic mimicry and valuing rougher regional voices: this is a legacy of Merseybeat. The early-60s vogue for exaggerated London voices was a kind of dry run for Merseybeat but the absurd Cockney stylings of “Poor Me” et al lacked a certain amount of conviction. The scouse voices on Merseybeat hits are always naturalistic.
And their naturalism is backed up by the aggressive playing. Merseybeat, like skiffle, was a small club music and even if technique was valuable it was rarely shown off: what counted was energy and pace. There had been aggressive music at the top of the British charts before (“Great Balls Of Fire”!) but generally played by Americans (and so not connected to a British experience of live music) or incorporating safer comic aspects (Lonnie Donegan – and the wider homebrewed skiffle movement was I suspect more or less by ignored by record companies).
Merseybeat had its own ways of defusing the aggression but crucially they aren’t so much part of the records. The well-kept and cheeky public image of most of the Liverpool groups may have been a put-on but it made their mass appeal less threatening. When I talk about ‘aggression’ of course it’s all relative – most Merseybeat records sound pretty cuddly now, but at the same time there’s generally more bite than in earlier pop – though often at the expense of subtlety: a change is not always an improvement.
I’ve talked about Merseybeat because it shouldn’t be reduced to The Beatles, even though they were its commercial motor. The Beatles are the sole cause, though, of another meta-effect: from this point on the well-known pop songs outnumber the lesser-known. British pop history doesn’t start with them, but they are its 1066 – the point at which the traditional curriculum really gets going. The language of pop before the Beatles is obscure in places – it’s hard to know what a Vera Lynn record might have meant to the people who bought it; it’s harder to work out how to take a Guy Mitchell song today. The Beatles’ records, and what came after, are still not often speaking the language I hear in the pop I love today, but they are intelligible. (If you want to push the linguistic metaphor, 60s pop and rock are like Latin – a dead language which still has vast taxonomic and institutional weight.)
Popular up to this point has been for me a trip through an unfamiliar region with occasional reassuring landmarks. That changes now: the roads are better trodden. The chances of me making a howling mistake are lower, the chances of me falling back on received wisdom higher. Self-indulgent asides aside, though, I’ve a song to deal with.
“From Me To You” is crisp, catchy and hip – more of that fashionable harmonica; throaty Everleys harmonies; a teasing lyric; a no-nonsense beat that accelerates thrillingly into the chorus; and shouting. It’s the shouting where a line is really drawn – that last “if there’s anything I CAN DO”, where the harmonies break and reform and the sense of mates playing this stuff in real time is most compelling.