No rock assault since the '60s British Invasion has beat The Beatles or even whipped Cream, despite a steady influx of UK talent that conquers charts at home.
Oasis spearheaded a '90s wave before washing out. U.S. fans also tuned in for Radiohead and, to a lesser degree, Blur, Elastica and The Verve. (Related story: Elbow your way into 12 others, for maximo effect)
Mellower fare fared better. Coldplay's piano-driven pop seduced the U.S. mainstream, and crooner James Blunt's current No. 2 album status marks another successful leap across the pond.In the growing sphere of rowdy, brainy rock, Franz Ferdinand made a sizable splash, and Kasabian and Kaiser Chiefs saw modest gains here.
Now a new rock incursion is rolling, led by the Arctic Monkeys, a frenetic foursome from the grim industrial town of Yorkshire in the North of England. Preceded by heaps of hype, the Monkeys seemed poised to endure the same rebuffs suffered by other hot bands who stumbled at the doormat on U.S. shores. But the authentically cool Arctic outfit found acceptance on the airwaves with catchy single I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor, and stateside fans seemed to connect to the youthful, smartly crafted rock tunes on Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. The album entered Billboard at No. 24 and has sold 98,000 copies. It's also No. 10 on Billboard's new "coolest garage albums" chart, annotated by Sirius' Underground Garage radio host Steven Van Zandt.
Two imports showing similar promise for U.S. success are Hard-Fi and The Subways, both already stars on their home turf.
One incentive kept The Subways on track. Woodshedding in the sterile London suburb of Welwyn Garden City, the trio honed its sunny, hook-laden rock with a single aim in mind: Get out of town.
"It's a very boring area," says singer/guitarist Billy Lunn, who's joined by brother Josh Morgan on drums and girlfriend Charlotte Cooper on bass. "The prospects, job-wise or socially, are limited, and I suppose we always had this fire in our belly to get out and have a voice. That's why we took to music. There was nothing else for people our age to do, apart from get drunk or watch TV or play football in the street. It's Stepford Wives territory, where everyone has a social front. We're the first to break away and say that everything's not really cool here."
The really cool appraisals went instead to The Subways' songs. After a slew of homemade demos and EPs, the band released Young for Eternity, a pop-punk blast of uncorked energy and confidence that drew raves in the UK last summer. The trio got an unexpected stateside profile boost when The O.C. cherry-picked Rock & Roll Queen for an episode last November. The song subsequently spent three months in the Modern Rock airplay top 40.
"We're underdogs here," says Lunn, 21. "We have to work for it."
To that end, The Subways are on a U.S. tour and, except for six weeks spent recording Eternity, haven't left the road since winning the unsigned-act competition at 2004's Glastonbury Festival. While they have escaped Welwyn, they aren't London-based, as a label bio states.
"We're based on our friends' couches and in our old rooms at our parents' houses," says Cooper, 19. "What we have in common is that our parents loved to travel, so touring comes natural to us. We're a band of gypsies."
Handy segue. While The Subways turned to such age-appropriate influences as The Pixies, The Jam and Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix also looms large in their tutelage.
"I had renegade parents," Lunn says. "Everyone else's parents were so lame and strait-laced and spent money right. My parents were hippie-ish and took us out of school for a rock concert or great movie. Their record collection was really important to me. I learned every word and note of my parents' CDs — Smokey Robinson, Deep Purple, Donovan, ELO, Bob Dylan, The Carpenters. It was very eclectic."
But it wasn't until Lunn got an earful of Oasis that he found a separate identity.
"My parents' music shaped me as a person, but Oasis felt like my band, a CD I could hand down to my kids," he says. "That's when I wanted to play guitar. I wanted a way to sculpt my thoughts, and with music I felt I could be articulate. It was the same with Josh, a frustrated soul who finally found his channel."
As young teens, Morgan, afflicted from childhood with the developmental disorder dyspraxia, and Lunn bashed out 30-minute "awful but colorful" Hendrix jams.
"I was an active little kid and I always listened to exciting music," says Morgan, 19. "My dad was into Hendrix. I was into T. Rex. My parents bought me a drum kit to make life a bit easier for themselves. It calmed me down and gave me a way to vent my aggression. I taught myself."
At first, Cooper idled nearby. One day, Lunn handed her a guitar and taught her Nirvana's About a Girl. A week later, the trio played in a local talent show.
"When Billy asked me to join, I was really excited about the challenge musically," she says. "I'd been playing flute and piano since I was quite young. I had only played classical music in orchestras, so it took me a while to get confident."
The band recorded demos in a kitchen with a borrowed mixer. In 2004, Lunn paid his dad 10 pounds a day to drive the band to 35 venues. The band built a fan base through non-stop touring and a website (thesubways.net, plus a MySpace page with 35,000 friends). A second album is half-finished, and The Subways foresee a long future, even as cynics wonder how they'll beat the curse of rock bands with brothers (The Kinks) or couples (Fleetwood Mac).
"I never thought it was a dangerous prospect until journalists brought it up," Lunn says. "It does get intense, because we know the maps of each others' heads, and we know where the self-destruct buttons are. But I feel more open with these guys. I can trust them. As for Charlotte, we have tunnel vision. We want to be together forever."
Morgan accepts volatile chemistry as a natural risk of family.
"I have mood swings like mad, and go from nice to horrible really easily," he says. "I like a little space where I can sit and read my books. Instead of throwing punches when Billy annoys me, I save it for the show and take it out on my drums. In this band, somehow the negative ends up positive."
Richard Archer held jobs as an airline caterer, photocopying temp and costumed Indian in a theme park. "Anything to bring in a few quid to buy records," he says.
Now he'd like to serve the music-loving public as a global rock star. As the singer for Hard-Fi, he's off to a fine start.
"We want to be successful," says Archer, 28. "We want to play places around the world. Forget the whole British indie-band mentality where it's uncool to say you want to do well. They're just scared to say that and fail and then hear people say, 'now where are you?' If you're like that, you'll never get anywhere. I've failed, and I can deal with it."
Looks like he won't have to. Q anointed Hard-Fi "the next major British band." The band's debut, Stars of CCTV, topped the chart in the UK, where it sold more than 500,000 copies and was named album of the year by NME. Released here last week, Stars "is that rare British import that lives up to the advance billing," states Billboard. Elton John declares it a keeper.
"It reminds me of The Killers' Hot Fuss," he says. "Every track is great."
Archer feels vindicated.
"We did this on our own terms," he says, calling from a tour bus during a 10-hour drive across Germany to a gig in Dresden. "We worked hard, and we're proud of it. Some people said, 'You're not good enough, it can't be done.' Now they're choking on it."
That negativity had dogged Archer after his earlier band, Contempo, folded. Archer returned to his bleak hometown of Staines, west of London, and formed Hard-Fi with guitarist Ross Phillips, bassist Kai Stephens and drummer Steve Kemp. They recorded a mini-album on a used computer in a rented taxi office for roughly $500 and pressed 1,000 copies to sell at live shows and via the Internet.
"Why succumb to being pushed around by a major label?" Archer says. "There are other ways of skinning this cat. People think a record deal is the be-all and end-all, that a label will spend loads of money. But it's not always in the right places. I've recorded in an expensive studio, and a lot of times the recordings I did at home had more character."
Home is where Archer honed his musical talent and philosophy, starting at age 5, when an older cousin let him pound on her keyboards and guitars. Never active in sports, he began seriously playing instruments at 8, writing songs at 12 and forming "awful rubbish" bands at 13. His older brother introduced him to vintage sounds, and he grew up on a varied sonic diet that included reggae, punk, disco, retro soul and rock, all of which later filtered into Hard-Fi.
"(The band would) listen to Happy Mondays and The Ramones next to The Streets, next to Run-DMC, Nirvana, Nina Simone and Freda Payne," Archer says. "As long as it's a good track, we didn't care what anyone else thought."
Seeking inspiration to pen new songs, he didn't find it on London's alt-rock stations.
"A lot of my contemporaries sounded like they were trying to be deep but didn't actually say anything," he recalls. "They were making music for style cliques in the city. It took Morrissey, who was knocking on 50, singing First of the Gang to Die, to get me thinking. I started writing about my surroundings."
That meant debt-sweating hit Cash Machine and propulsive tunes about bored and broke teens in dead-end jobs and blue-collar purgatory. "There are towns like Staines all over the world," Archer says. "When I heard Nebraska, I got what Bruce Springsteen was talking about."
Hard-Fi's self-financed disc sparked a bidding war, attracting offers from every UK label and several U.S. companies. The band settled on Atlantic and reissued Stars of CCTV with five additional songs. Swept up by the band's dub-charged dance-rock, critics coined the style "diska," a mash-up of disco and ska. Says Archer, "We like to call it hard-fi."
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