Music Article

The British Evasion

U.K. bands without fans -- Theories on why British bands no longer rule American radiowaves

England is reeling.

The Brit press is crazy for a mopey band called Gene. Supergrass, a daffy trio from the spires of Oxford, ruled the rock scene all this summer. And in a battle reminiscent of the ancient joust between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Blur and Oasis are duking it out from Fleet Street to the British pop charts.

Wait a second. Blur? Supergrass? Gene? These days, a Yank stumbling into the Brit rock scene might think he's trapped in a parallel universe. Yes, England has its pop stars — its Green Days and Smashing Pumpkins — but you couldn't pick them out on a New York street corner.

Welcome to the British Evasion. Once upon a time, a quartet of exports — the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and Led Zeppelin — formed the Mount Rushmore of American radio. No longer. Rarely has the land of Shakespeare churned out such a surplus of talent — and met with such yawning indifference across the pond. Why? Some theories:

England is small; America is bigger than ever. Hype travels fast in the British Isles, but English buzz bands are daunted by a country with 50 states — and thousands of radio stations. ''It's huge here,'' gasps Supergrass singer Gaz Coombes. ''It takes ages to tour.'' Breaking through requires hard work — something anathema to many Brit rockers. It takes 400,000 fewer sales to go gold in the United Kingdom than the United States. ''They're not prepared to tour their asses off,'' says Tommy Udo, an editor at Britain's dominant rock magazine, NME. And while they're on foreign soil, Brits must fight for scraps of an American audience that's gone gaga lately for anything homegrown, from Lollapalooza's guitar rock to Mariah Carey's power ballads.

Today's English rockers aren't salesmen. The Beatles yearned to conquer the American market, but don't even blurt the word market to Thom Yorke of Radiohead, who had a modern-rock hit with ''Creep'' in 1993. Brit bands are even more leery of selling out than their Stateside counterparts. ''If someone starts talking markets at them, alarm bells ring,'' says Yorke. Radio plugs? Glad-handing? Autographs? Yorke calls it ''malarkey.''

English people talk funny. Awash in a sea of Yankee feedback, Brit pop doesn't sound hard enough: Cockney accents and fey ditties about clerks on the Underground tend to baffle the Beavis-and-Butthead milieu. ''We've been accused of being too English,'' says Martin Rossiter of Gene. Meanwhile, Bush, a Brit act that went platinum here, sounds like grade-A grunge. ''Bush,'' explains Epic promotion exec Stu Bergen, ''could be from Fort Wayne, Indiana.''

Which doesn't mean Brits are about to hang up their Union Jacks and scurry home. ''We're small fries in America,'' admits Rossiter. ''I hope that changes. I want to be up there with Mariah.'' —additional reporting by David Bourgeois

Originally posted Nov 17, 1995 Published in issue #301 Nov 17, 1995 Order article reprints
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