What is Merseybeat?

A guide to the early rumblings of the British Invasion

A typical Merseybeat album
A typical Merseybeat album.

Merseybeat was the first flowering of British rock and roll -- based around the self-contained guitar-based rock band. In the Fifties, rock existed in Britain, but only in the teen idol sense: acts like Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele aped the Elvis Presley formula with varying degrees of success. Postwar youths, not being able to afford real instruments, instead made do with skiffle, a homemade mix of watered-down blues, music-hall pop, and traditional or "trad" jazz performed on household items like tea chests, washboards, pianos, and the occasional guitar.

As rock swept across the country, however, British bands began buying real instruments and forming rock groups based on their twin idols: Buddy Holly and the Crickets, who'd invented the rock band format, and Britain's own The Shadows, proto-surf instrumentalists who also followed the basic formula of bass, drums, and guitar. Adding a little old-fashioned pop songwriting sensibility caused the phenomenon to explode, first in Liverpool and then in neighboring Manchester. The Beatles were, of course, the biggest band to emerge from what was then known as the "beat music" genre. (Drums being a new concept in British rock groups, the term "beat music" was coined to separate the style from skiffle; later, the name of the Mersey river, which Liverpool is built around, was added for clarification.) Contrary to a popular misconception, however, the Beatles built their sound around the existing scene, and not the other way around.

Merseybeat came to America as the first wave of "British Invasion" music, but a second wave, built around hard blues and R&B, soon replaced it (The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Animals). Except for the Beatles, who stayed ahead of the curve, most Merseybeat bands went pure pop in response, then faded entirely as rock got more complex and serious in the late Sixties.

Also Known As: Beat Music, British Invasion

Examples:

"I Want To Hold Your Hand," The Beatles

The breakout song for the Beatles in America is also a sterling example of the genre, albeit an example of what happens when you "Americanize" the sound for mass consumption.

"Glad All Over," Dave Clark Five

Clark's stomping tribal drums were his signature, and along with their infectious energy, the Five were positioned to became the very next Merseybeat exports to the US.

"Hippy Hippy Shake," The Swinging Blue Jeans

Beatles soundalikes, of course, but the song itself was a staple on the Merseybeat scene, having been covered by everyone including the Beatles themselves.

"How Do You Do It?" Gerry and the Pacemakers

It was offered to the Fab Four, who hadn't quite learned their songwriting craft yet, but although they hated it, they dutifully recorded it anyway. Their fellow Mersey vets got the hit with it, however.

"Can't You Hear My Heartbeat," Herman's Hermits

The Hermits were often accused of being cartoonish, playing up their Britishness in the wake of the Invasion, but this single, while poppier than most Merseybeat, captures the feel of the scene.

"I'm Telling You Now," Freddie and the Dreamers

Likewise, these guys were mostly a gimmick, complete with their own dance, but their biggest American hit was pleasant enough.

"The Game Of Love," Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders

Appropriately bluesy, though they were actually from Manchester. Oh, well.

"I Can't Let Go," The Hollies

Adding a dash of blue-eyed soul was this sunny hit from the Brits with the greatest harmonies.

"Sugar And Spice," The Searchers

A very Buddy Holly type of number from one of the first bands on the Merseybeat scene, featuring those chiming guitars that made them heroes to their fellow countrymen.

"Bad To Me," Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas

They were supposed to be the true heirs to the Beatles' teenybop success, but that never materialized because they never got out of the Fab Four's shadow, covering this and two other Lennon-McCartney originals.