FTV: Big in the U.K.
When one thinks of bands from the United Kingdom, there are many that succeeded in conquering the American market. The Who, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and a host of other bands became household names on this side of the pond. As an avid reader of Classic Rock magazine, I am always fascinated when I scan the extensive ‘on tour’ segment the magazine publishes each month. There are so many U.K. bands with unfamiliar names (to me anyway) with a healthy touring schedule in Europe, but yet they remain enigmas in America. In Guitar World Vol. 44 No 5 (May 2023), Mark McStea examined the careers of four bands who were big in the U.K. yet never made as big a splash in North America as the bands listed above. There are many more that could be entered into this discussion, but for this article, McStea singled out, Sweet, Dr. Feelgood, Status Quo, and Slade.
Sweet were probably the one of these four bands who came the closest to attracting a lot of attention in the States. Their track Little Willy actually reached Number 3 on the U.S. charts in 1973, so they had a foot in the door, so to speak, According to the sole surviving original member, guitarist Andy Scott, “We were advised that if we did tour America, we’d forever be associated with that song, and it would probably limit our future opportunities.” They passed on a U.S. tour only to see their next release, Blockbuster, “Limp into the Top 10.” Even when their next single cracked the Top 10 (Ballroom Blitz), Sweet still turned down offers. They finally relented and toured the States in 1975.
Their American label, Capitol Records, dropped a revised version of their U.K. release (Desolation Boulevard) in this country and included another catchy tune called Fox on the Run. Though they toured America heavily in the mid-1970s, they were a band ahead of their time. Scott recalls, “When we were playing America in ‘75 and ‘76, we had quite a big stage show, with films projected behind us, a huge lighting show, a drum solo where Mick [Tucker] would play against himself on a projection screen. I think if we had taken this show out six or seven years later, things could have been quite different for us.” Sweet may not have taken mainstream America by storm, but they certainly got the attention of some future rock stars who caught their act and used them as a template to get noticed.
Nikki Sixx saw the light and in his mind, Sweet’s blond lead singer (Brian Connolly) supported by three black haired musicians was the model he used when forming Motley Crue. Scott had heard Sixx placed an ad for a lead singer that said, “Glam rock band in L.A. – Wanted: Lead singer – Brian Connolly, please.” With a push from the fledgling music channel MTV, the Crue took the American music scene by storm. Scott admits, “MTV would have been a game changer for us when you think about how visual we were, with Brian’s image and Steve’s outrageous visuals.” As previously mentioned, Sweet were ahead of their time in the pre-MTV music market.
Sweet’s modicum of success in the States was bittersweet. As they tried to build their American audience, their fan base back home began to erode. Connolly left the band in 1979 and they never really recovered. They tried to get it together a few times after that but with little success. Scott is still fronting a new Sweet lineup, but one can only wonder what might have been if the balancing act between breaking America and keeping their flame alive in the U.K. had been handled a little differently.
Before Wilko Johnson passed away in November of 2022, he spent some time with McStea talking about his band Dr. Feelgood. Johnson said, “When we signed with United Artists, our deal was for everywhere in the world except America. We were really making an impact and consequently we attracted a lot of attention from some American record labels.” Asked by Robert Plant to play a big industry party to celebrate the conclusion of Led Zeppelin’s five night stand at Earl’s Court, The Feelgoods found themselves performing for a lot of American label heavyweights like Atlantic’s Ahmet Ertegun. They generated enough excitement to make the decision to jump to the States a no brainer. They toured heavily and ran into many bands who professed to love what they were doing. They could count among their fans a young Stevie Ray Vaughn, the Ramones, and the Talking Heads.
Their 1976 live album Stupidity went straight to Number 1 in England, but their American label, CBS, wanted their next release to be done with an American producer, and thus, taylored more for the American audience. By then, interband problems were beginning to affect the whole operation. They were not big Kiss fans, but the Feelgoods were slated to open for them at a large stadium show in Alabama. Friction between their management and Kiss’s handlers got them booted from that opportunity. To the dismay of the suits at CBS, Dr. Feelgood’s inroads to America lost all traction. Johnson, their primary songwriter, was eventually ousted from his own band further decreasing their chances of cracking the American market or staying relevant in the U.K..
Status Quo were not unknown on these shores, but they had a reputation of being a one hit wonder pop band largely due to the success of a single released in January of 1968. Their ‘psychedelic pop look’ was crafted for their appearances on music shows like Top of the Pops. The band didn’t mind the record sales, but because they did not like their new direction, they ‘accidentally’ burned their glammy stage clothes and opted for the standard rock ‘n’ roll denim look as they cultivated a harder boogie/rock sound and image.
Guitarist/songwriter Francis Rossi noted that, “This mix of light psychedelia and pop were very much of that time, but bore little resemblance to our later blues and boogie approach.” They abandoned the look (see the above note on them burning their stage outfits), turned their amps up to ten, and abandoned all the pop elements. They would forge their reputation by rocking out with their own version of head down, pedal to the metal boogie. When Quo landed in Los Angeles, the Travel Lodge they stayed at in La Brea wasn’t exactly top notch, accomodation-wise, but it was still head and shoulders above what they were used to in the U.K. Rossi says, “Everything about America was so ‘wow’, you know?” They were so star-struck with California they kind of lost their way: “If we ‘d had someone based over there, working for us, he could have given us a shake-up and maybe said, ‘pull it together’, you know?”
Status Quo made two major errors. The first was not engaging an American agent to push them out there while also showing them the ropes. The second was not understanding the hoops they need to jump through to get played on the radio in the U.S. The idea of sweetening the deal with DJs by including a little recreational drug packet with records they wanted to get on the air was totally foreign to them. Rossi takes the blame for not engaging in a state-side management deal and in hindsight, he now recognizes it would have been a wise investment. Their 1972 album Piledriver left no doubt as to the direction the band was taking, but without a buffer to erase the Pictures of Matchstick Men phase, that is the image that remained burned into the American music buyer’s brains.
At least Rossi was aware that spending too much time in the States could put them in danger of losing their fans back home. Rossi recalls having a conversation with Noddy Holder from Slade when they shared some American dates: “I did think there was a danger of them [Slade] losing their core support if they spent too much time away from the U.K. We [Status Quo] had a discussion as a band that we were doing really well everywhere else in the world, making great money, that we thought what if we spend X years chasing that American dollar and we don’t break through, we could end up losing some of what we already had.” Quo’s last brush with fame in the U.S. came when they opened Live Aid in 1985. Ironically, they weren’t all that excited to do the show and figured it wouldn’t make much of a difference in raising their profile. As it turned out, clips of their opening slot were used extensively (a great unplanned PR move), but in the end, they really didn’t capitalize on the opportunity.
Ambrose Slade was a product of the tough U.K club circuit. Formed from the dregs of the N’Betweens and the Vendors, they released a few singles between 1966 and 1969 before signing with the Fontana label and adopting their new name. Their first album, Beginnings, was not a success and it took the arrival of a new manager, Chas Chandler (the former bassist of The Animals and the man credited with making Jimi Hendrix a star), to get them on the right track. Between 1971 and 1974, Chandler’s efforts to help them craft their own songs (instead of relying on covers of tunes by Frank Zappa and the Amboy Dukes featured on Beginnings), caused an explosion in their record sales. They outsold everyone from David Bowie to T. Rex and became the first band since The Beatles to score a No. 1 single entering the charts (a feat they repeated three times).
Bass player Jim Lea and singer Noddy Holder both provided the music and lyrics. Lea had a penchant for writing catchy tunes and phrases and Holder had a knack for interpreting them. In the rowdy world of the U.K. bar scene, they survived by getting the audience involved. Their habit of inviting the crowd to join in singing the chorus on many of their anthemic hits made them favorites from coast to coast. When they arrived in America, nobody else was doing anything remotely like Slade. Between their gaudy outfits to their sing along mentality, Holder now says, “Visually, I think we probably looked like four spacemen up there [laughs]. It was a very strange experience. Half the audience was out of it, just stoned out of their trees. We were an out-and-out rock ‘n’ roll band trying to the audience participation going, but the audience just didn’t have any energy.”
Lea echoed that thought: “The Americans didn’t get us at all. Instead of playing to a rabble-rousing crowd, all you could smell was pot. We were really big on getting the crowd involved live. We really made it a big part of our act from day one – maybe we even invented it, When we got to America, no one was doing that, really, pulling them in and getting them to be a part of the show, singing and stamping and clapping along, Nod was fantastic at that.”
As if to prove the point, the first metal band to have a chart topping album in the States were able to ride Slade’s shirt tails a few years later. Quiet Riot took two of Slade’s big numbers and made them the centerpiece of their live shows in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Quiet Riot landed a No 5 hit with Cum on Feel the Noize in 1978 and revisited the Slade catalog in 1984 with Mama Were All Crazee Now (which only made it to No 51 in the States but played well for them live). Quiet Riot were not the only ones who got Slade. Noddy added, “Gene Simmons and Nikki Six told us they’d seen us live when they were younger, Kiss were a perfect example of taking our thing to the nth degree – people were waiting for a change and that worked well for Kiss. Then there was the MTV thing, which didn’t exist before, We’d have been perfect MTV fodder.”
Apparently, Holder’s discussion with Rossi about spending too much time in the States didn’t sink in. Noddy says, “Our U.S. manager said we needed to spend more time touring the States, so we made that decision to spend two years of solid gigging in America. It improved us as a band because we had to work hard to win over U.S. audiences in some areas, but we were really the wrong sort of band for a lot of places. We were considered too heavy for AM radio, but FM was playing our album stuff, which was weird as we were considered a singles act.” Like the Feelgoods, Slade’s hard work failed to crack the American market but not because they didn’t work at it. It seemed to be more a matter of luck. Eventually, they went home.
What Slade found when they finally got back to the U.K. was a music scene that had changed. Holder says, “I don’t know if it was our absence, or just that things had changed so much in the U.K.. There was a whole disco explosion as well, which really wasn’t something that had anything to do with a band like Slade.” Lea again agreed with Noddy’s assessment: “I think that’s right, in a way. When there is musical uncertainty it always seems to turn to dance music. With a band you get a group of guys together with personalities, you know, but the dance/disco thing was very producer-oriented. Things weren’t noisy any more. The Bay City Rollers did really well (in the U.K. and the U.S.) and I suppose they kept a small bit of that glam spark going – but tastes did change.”
In the end, McStea pointed out that Sweet, Dr. Feelgood, Status Quo, and Slade were, “Arguably the four most important British bands to fail to really make an impact in America, but there are many more acts worthy of further investigation, including the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Wizzard, Cockney REbel, Mud, Japan, the Jam, Ian Drury and the Blockheads, the Stranglers, and the Specials, just to name a few.” I couldn’t agree more. Personally, I have known about Slade for many years as one of our listeners dropped a couple of Slade albums on me twenty or more years ago. Robin said, “You really need to play more Slade on WOAS,” so I compiled a ‘Best of’ cassette tape that we aired a lot. Having read McStea’s article, it is high time for me to dig it out again and perhaps convert it to CD.
Top Piece Video: Slade was still hanging around in 1984 – one can see why Quiet Riot liked the vibe – party on Noddy and the boys!!