COVER STORY : House of...

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Given all the years of disdain here for American rock, it's easy to assume that the teen-ager at the checkout counter of the massive Tower Records store at Piccadilly Circus is a tourist.

He's wearing a Nirvana T-shirt and buying cassettes by two other American bands--Alice in Chains and Soul Asylum.

But the 18-year-old's Cockney accent tells you that he's not an American visitor.

"I love American bands," he says when asked about his musical tastes--and he goes on to name several other U.S. groups as favorites, from Guns N' Roses to Smashing Pumpkins.

What about British bands?

The teen, who stocks merchandise at a West End clothing store, points across the traffic circle to Rock Circus, a museum where 600,000 customers a year pay $10 each to see wax reproductions of such fabled British rockers as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who.

"If you want to find any good British bands," he says, "you have to go over there."

The wisecrack echoes the greatest fear of British record executives, who remember all the years when England dominated the world's rock market but now acknowledge that the sun has set on the British rock empire.

In interviews with executives here, the most optimistic view was that the dramatic lack of new international bestsellers from Britain is simply cyclical and that there will eventually be a turnaround.

The darker--and more common--view is that years of shortsightedness and greed have led record companies to make fundamental mistakes in judgment in the bands that were signed and the degree of financial commitment to them.

Disenchanted with the domestic product, British fans have turned to new American rock acts with a passion unseen since Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry won their hearts in the '50s.

"We've made some big errors as an industry over the last few years," says one British executive, who asked not to be identified because he believes some of the errors were made by his company.

"All of a sudden the British music industry was no longer producing viable rock bands. I think we realized our mistakes, but a lot of money, time and opportunity was wasted."

An American record executive cuts to the chase.

"When it comes to rock 'n' roll," declares Al Teller, the Los Angeles-based chairman of MCA Music Entertainment Group, "the British record industry is on a life-support system."

You can tell a lot about the endangered state of British rock just by looking at the window display at the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street.

In hopes of tempting young buyers with the latest rock sounds, the store offers a discount on what is billed as today's "50 Essential Albums." Forty-eight of them are by American artists.

Inside the store, there's another display with an eye-catching promotion: a six-foot stack of CDs and cassettes all with colorful American flags on the cover. Titled "Greetings From Uncle Sam," the album is a compilation of new American bands, including the Lemonheads, Soundgarden, Sugar and Dinosaur Jr.

The album's liner notes acknowledge the longstanding British snobbery in rock:

"OK, so (the Americans) coined (rock) and commercialized it, but we certainly tidied it up and had some fun with it in the '60s and, hey, without our punk explosion, U.S. rock would still sound like Boston and Foreigner.

"But the last couple of years has seen a marked turnaround in attitude toward Uncle Sam's music. . . . Thanks to Nirvana's consolidation of an entire disenfranchised Western youth's Angst . . . (it is suddenly) cool to be an American."

Like millions of other Americans, Kip Krones, managing director of Columbia Records in the United Kingdom, grew up in the '60s enthralled with British rock. He was delighted in 1980 when his job with Concerts West, the talent promotion and management firm, enabled him to move to London.

But, Krones says, he decided in 1991 to return to the States because the British music scene was no longer fun.

"The problem is that fashion and style is more important than content in the music business here--and what happens when that fashion changes weekly is that you don't have time to develop acts," he says, sitting in the Sony offices in Soho Square. "You are trying to capture a moment that can be gone in seven days."

Krones was lured back to England by Columbia this year as part of an aggressive campaign by the company to focus on developing British acts with longevity. (Columbia released the "Greetings" sampler.)

"I think classic values of songwriting will come back," he says. "The answer is simple: You get artists who can play good, sing good and write good songs. We are not going to try to chase the charts and the fashion. We are going after the real talent."

But what if the problem is deeper?

What if, as some here believe, Britain has stopped producing world-class rock bands because of a fundamental shift in musical tastes among British youth in the era of the computer and home synthesizer?

There has been a sharp decrease in the number of clubs offering live rock, as the action has moved to dance clubs and "raves," where the dominant sounds are dance and techno music.

"What can we do to 'recapture what was' is the wrong way to look at it," says Stevo, a colorful English manager whose acts in the '80s included Soft Cell and now include dance-oriented Messiah and Bizzare Inc., both of whom have U.S. albums on the way. "Things have changed in a fundamental way, and you have to address the changes."

T he British Are Coming!

The British Are Coming!

Ever since the Beatles three decades ago, British bands have invaded the U.S. charts so consistently that many rock fans in America grew up with the idea that Britain was the citadel of the music.

Something British indeed always seemed to be coming, turning pop culture upside down with new ideas, hairstyles and clothing.

The Beatles were followed quickly in 1964 by all sorts of groups with equally odd-sounding names. Some of the bands would last, some would merely be trivia answers by the start of the '70s (see accompanying story, Page 66). They ranged from the Rolling Stones to Gerry & the Pacemakers.

The British influence was so dominant that some U.S. groups, including Texas' Sir Douglas Quintet, adopted names that might make record-buyers think they were English.

In the first half of the '70s alone, more than two dozen British acts broke into the U.S. Top 10 with albums, including Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, the Electric Light Orchestra, Jethro Tull, Yes and Paul McCartney's Wings. At the same time, British solo artists--notably Elton John, David Bowie and Rod Stewart--enjoyed similar impact and sales.

Things cooled off commercially for new arrivals in the second half of the '70s, but the Sex Pistols and the rest of the British punk movement planted the seeds for a new generation of stars in the '80s, including the Police and the Pretenders.

In the early '80s, MTV ushered in a new contingent of video-ready British popsters, including Duran Duran, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet and Billy Idol.

Then, British rock hit a wall. While such veteran British rockers as Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart continue to sell to older U.S. rock fans, new bands are having increasing trouble attracting young fans.

Some of the early-'80s British bands, including Depeche Mode and the Cure, made advances here, but only one British newcomer has reached the U.S. Top 20 album chart in the '90s: EMF. And no one is ever going to claim EMF is a band that is going to make a difference in rock.

A more discouraging statistic is that virtually every British band that got enough attention in America to enter the Top 100 with its debut album during the last three years lost ground with its follow-up record.

For instance, Jesus Jones' album "Doubt," which contained the hit single "Right Here, Right Now," reached No. 25 in 1991 and spent 52 weeks on the charts, but the band's "Perverse" only made it to No. 59 and dropped off the charts after just 10 weeks earlier this year.

The Charlatans U.K.'s "Some Friendly" reached No. 73 in 1990 and spent 27 weeks on the charts. Its follow-up, last year's "Between 10th & 11th," only made it to No. 173 and lasted only two weeks. The Sundays' "Reading, Writing and Arithmetic" reached No. 39 on the U.S. charts in 1990, but last year's "Blind" stalled at No. 103. And so on.

It's not that the Brits have stopped trying to export their bands. They keep serving groups up to American audiences with the regularity of baseballs from a pitching machine.

But they haven't connected.

One reason is that many of the "haircut" and fashion-conscious bands of the early '80s caused American fans to lose faith in British rock, observers on both sides of the Atlantic speculate.

Where exotic newcomers such as Suede, one of the hottest British bands of recent years, were once welcomed with open arms in America, they are now viewed with suspicion. Despite an enormous amount of advance promotion, the group's debut release has still not made the U.S. album chart after five months in release.

Al Teller, the MCA chief executive in Los Angeles, thinks it's going to take a lot of changes to turn things around.

"I think the industry in Britain has gotten too deeply into these throwaway, one-hit wonders that accomplish absolutely nothing. Too much of its A&R; and marketing resources are being applied in that direction. What you have at the end of the day is a fast-food dish rather than a nutritious meal."

There are new British acts with substance, including the heralded PJ Harvey, but they appeal chiefly to a college-alternative audience rather than the mainstream rock crowd. Island Records, however, has faith in the group, led by singer-songwriter Polly Jean Harvey, even though it may take two or three more albums to build a sizable following in the States.

That commitment to new acts is rare in Britain these days, many observers say.

"The industry here has gotten away from nurturing acts and has gone instead for the quick fix because record companies want quick, quarterly results," said Ian Flooks, whose talent booking agency has worked with U2, R.E.M. and Talking Heads.

Chris Blackwell, whose Island Records is cited by executives here as a model when it comes to long-range commitment to its acts, points to what he calls the "pressure-cooker effect" at work at most British labels.

"When I signed U2, I didn't sign them for a huge amount of money, so there wasn't pressure to deliver quickly. They had time to grow and develop their craft," he says backstage at Wembley Stadium, during U2's recent four-night engagement there.

"Nowadays, someone makes a million-dollar deal and the act better deliver or the A&R; man could lose his job. That's not healthy for anyone involved."

What went wrong?

The reasons for the endangered state of British rock are tied in part to unique conditions in the British record market.

Because radio airplay and touring are far more limited in Britain than in the United States, the weekly pop journals, such as NME and Melody Maker, exert a great influence on what records make the charts in England. Aware of this, record companies often sign bands as soon as they get written up in the weeklies, even though the acts sometimes haven't done more than a few showcase gigs or made more than a bedroom tape. The idea is to get onto the singles chart, which guarantees TV and radio exposure.

The lack of experience among British bands causes many to falter. They not only have trouble coming up with enough good songs to fill an album, but they also prove disappointing live. Companies then often lose faith in the groups and start hunting for other fresh faces.

"There was a feeding frenzy going on," says one participant in the hectic signings of the late '80s and early '90s. "Bands were getting signed for huge amounts of money, getting into the charts because of videos or general hype, and you were getting some sales out of it, though it didn't translate in America."

By contrast, American bands have often done 100 or more shows before they ever even get to England or a major label. By that time, they have honed their craft and have an ample supply of material for the album. The difference is usually obvious.

"I've seen it when bands come from America to play here," says Tony Powell, manager of MCA Records in the United Kingdom. "People are astonished how good they are as musicians. It's clear that these guys didn't just do a couple of gigs or a showcase and get signed. They had to go out there and grind at the clubs."

Roger Ames, chairman of PolyGram U.K., stresses the importance of giving young bands time to develop.

"The Americans have had an advantage in recent years because major record companies over there tended to ignore what we now refer to as 'alternative' but is no longer alternative--bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam," he says.

"They were ignoring that scene because they were selling lots and lots of records of Aerosmith and other mainstream bands. So the alternative bands were developing on their own--on little labels in local scenes, like Seattle, away from the media glare. When people finally started paying attention to them, they were ready."

The hope of many executives here is that young British musicians will be inspired by some of the American groups and start honing their craft.

The Stone Roses are often cited as a band that could have led another British invasion of America. The band's 1989 debut album was a massive hit in England and its single "Fool's Gold" that year represented a merger of the rock and dance scenes in Britain.

Though the group subsequently signed a big-bucks deal with Geffen Records in the United States, it has still not released a second album--and some feel the momentum may be lost.

Other bands cited as potential British contenders in America range from PJ Harvey (whose lineup is being revised by leader Polly Jean Harvey) and James, a veteran British band that toured the States recently as part of WOMAD, the touring World of Music, Arts and Dance Festival.

Tim Booth, the leader of James, whose new album was produced by Brian Eno, shakes his head at the trendy nature of the British scene.

"To me, a lot of the current confusion grows out of the 'New Romantics' movement, where the popularity of bands didn't have much to do with songs," he says.

"But I think there is also a certain feeling among a lot of people in Britain that they have heard it all before when it comes to rock. The rebel stance is a cliche by now; the intellectual stance is cliche. It's up to the bands to find something real to communicate."

In America, Al Jourgensen, the leader of Chicago-based Ministry, speaks of the British scene in almost identical terms.

"The problem over there seems partially the system and partly the bands," says Jourgensen, whose group stole the show on last year's "Lollapalooza" tour.

"There is so much pressure on signing bands quickly that it turns young musicians into very cynical, record-industry-savvy kids rather than artists. It's like they have to learn to play the game to get signed, and they then cave in to the pressure."

But Stevo and other dance-music proponents here warn against equating the current British dance-techno with the disco movement of the '70s. There's far more passion and street sensibility to this music, they say.

Some observers even draw a parallel between it and the rebellious, anyone-can-be-in-a-band spirit of the British punk movement--a reaction to the rock music of their parents.

"Look at the charts," Stevo says in his townhouse, across the street from the U.S. Embassy. "The evidence is right in front of you. The people who are buying the dance singles are basically young. The albums are appealing to older buyers. The challenge for the industry is to find a way to break house or techno into the album market. With the right artist and the right company, it will happen."

Ames of PolyGram Records also wonders if an era has passed.

"As a businessman, I wish we had 10 acts, all selling 10 million records for 10 years, so that we'd have real stability," he says. "That's good for business, but that's not the young music fan's problem.

"The only thing the fan has to worry about is what excites him, and if dance records or computer games are getting him off more than someone standing onstage at Wembley with a guitar, then I've got to figure out how to be as exciting as a computer game."

A 16-year-old rock fan from Sussex is one of the nearly 300,000 people who saw U2 during its four-night stand at Wembley, and he believes in the future of rock.

"I hate all this dance and techno music," he said, waiting for the band to go onstage. "The British music industry is all into fashion, and I hate that stuff. Look around here and tell me: If rock is dead, why is Wembley full?"

Ken Berry, chairman and CEO of the Virgin Music Group Worldwide agrees: "It's impossible to believe that the pool of talent has suddenly dried up in the U.K., but it has gotten a lot tougher for that talent to surface because of the lack of radio and touring opportunities. The key, in many ways, rests with the public. If they feel there is something missing in the music, they'll find another way of discovering it--like the alternative music market that grew so quickly in America."

Several observers believe that the future of British rock may rest in a band that takes the captivating pulse of techno music and combines it with the songwriting vision and craft of, say, Nirvana.

In the United States, Jimmy Iovine, co-head of Interscope Records, whose roster includes Nine Inch Nails and Dr. Dre, believes in that scenario: "You're going to find some kid who grows up on that hypnotic, trance-like stuff and then puts it in a rock band context--and bang, you're going to have another explosion."

Gary Gersh, the new president at Capitol Records, also has faith in the future of the British scene.

"There is too much of a tradition in Britain for it to just stop," he says. "You can feel something getting ready to happen."

In his Rough Trade Records office, Geoff Travis, one of the sharpest observers of talent in the United Kingdom, has been talking about the state of British rock for more than half an hour. The man who helped launch the Smiths and the Jesus and Mary Chain has examined the question from every angle.

He's in the middle of a theory about how punk took away some of the commercial ambition of British bands, leaving groups today without a plan for world domination.

"The bands in the '60s and '70s wanted to be the biggest in Britain and America," he says as the sound of passing street vendors leaks into his modest storefront office.

"But that has sort of disappeared a lot since the punk movement. Bands were more content with just having a cult following. It didn't seem as important to be huge everywhere."

Travis pauses, trying to find a way to cut to the chase himself.

"But you know, there is another possibility," he says. "Maybe there's something fundamental that's missing in rock 'n' roll in Britain. Or maybe Nirvana and Guns N' Roses are just better."


Beatles or Stones? Our pop staff selects the top British bands of all time. Page 66.

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