The British Invasion refers to the period in the 1960s when the music world saw a huge rise in the popularity of British artists. In this article, I’m going to share with you my top picks for the best British Invasion songs of all time, which will hopefully introduce you to one or two awesome 60s jams you’ve never heard before!
Best British Invasion Songs You’ll Love
Let’s begin with a classic by The Beatles.
I Want to Hold Your Hand by The Beatles
Might as well begin with the song that started it all!
“I Want to Hold Your Hand”, which was released in 1963, was not actually The Beatles’ first hit. That honor had gone to “Love Me Do” the year prior, but it was their first hit in America, and it sold over a million copies in the UK in advance orders before it had even been released.
The Beatles were already hugely popular in their home country, but “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was the song that introduced Americans to their unique, raw sound. Prior to “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” most of The Beatle’s singles had a much more English, skiffle-influenced feel, but manager Brian Epstein urged them to develop something that sounded more American in order to compete with the increasingly popular surf rock genre coming out of West Coast, USA. The result was the fun, catchy “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which artfully blended rock n’ roll, rhythm and blues, English folk, and American surf rock into a single song.
The Beatles were loved not just for their music, but also for their boyish English charm, and their chemistry as a band can be heard in the strong harmonies of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and in the fact that they really sound like their having fun while performing it! “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was a group effort, and before his death in 1980, John Lennon recalled that it was one of the few songs he and Paul McCartney ever wrote completely collaboratively.
Lyrically, there’s a sweet innocence to the feelings of yearning expressed in the song. Lines like “And when I touch you / I feel happy inside,” and “And please say to me / You’ll let me hold your hand” suggest the moments of contentment and self-discovery that come with youthful infatuation.
Many people consider the Beatle’s 1964 performance of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on The Ed Sullivan Show to mark the start of both Beatlemania and the British Invasion. Throughout the course of their career, their sound would evolve a lot, and with it, the sound of popular music as a whole would change.
One of the things that made the Beatles and other British artists special was the fact that they wrote their own material, while most American artists at the time worked with non-performing composers and were tied to the demands of the industry. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” showed the world what the Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership could do, and it clued the American music industry into the untapped market of talent waiting on the other side of the Atlantic.
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(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones
If any band other band ever approached the massive popularity of the Beatles, it was the Rolling Stones, and in the 1960s, they were seen as the Beatle’s London counterpart, much more rugged and raw in both sound and personae. They also borrowed more heavily from the blues tradition, as their biggest hit, 1965’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” shows.
When it was first released, the song was instantly controversial due to its explicitly sexual nature (so much so, in fact, that few radio stations would even play it), but for the same reason it was loved by nearly everyone who heard it. Perhaps one of the things that makes the song so popular is how uninhibited it is.
There’s something irresistibly primal about Mick Jagger’s dynamic vocal performance and Keith Richards’s signature electric guitar riff (which he actually composed in his sleep), and as the title suggests, the lyrics don’t shy away from expressing frustration. The singer laments the rampant commercialism and daily grind of the modern world, but what he regrets most of all is how his busy life precludes him from finding true sexual satisfaction and human connection. In other words, he feels stripped of the things that make him truly human.
The Brits may be infamous for their supposed sexual repression, but the Rolling Stones resisted everything clean-cut, and that’s what made them so appealing. When they sang about feeling dissatisfied with a world that restricted them, they spoke for young people everywhere.
My Generation by The Who
Disaffected youth is a common theme of the music that came out of the British Invasion, and nowhere is this more apparent than in The Who’s “My Generation.”
The Who were famous not just for their music, but also for their theatrics and outrageous behavior (for instance, their habit of smashing all their instruments at the end of a performance, and Keith Moon’s love of blowing things up), and for audiences in both the US and UK, they represented rebellion.
A very early influence on the punk genre, “My Generation” takes the form of an angry rant on behalf of young people against older people. In particular, it rejects the criticisms that older people perennially level against youths. The message is clear: older people just don’t understand the world today. In many ways, it reflected a reality. The 1960s was a tumultuous decade.
With the impending threat of nuclear war and mounting social unrest, the world was changing rapidly, and generational gaps felt starker than ever, so it’s no wonder young people ran into conflicts with their elders. “My Generation” may have been a product of the 1960s, but its message resonates with everyone. Every generation of young people experiences a cycle of angst as they reckon with the world they are destined to inherit.
Perhaps the most memorable moment in the song is the iconic “I hope I die before I get old” line. The idea that the singer would rather die than age seems a bit dramatic, but it rings true for plenty of young people, who dread the day when they too will become like their parents. Sadly, two of the Who’s original members, Keith Moon and John Entwistle, never made it to old age, but Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey managed to stick around without losing the rock n’ roll spirit.
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House of the Rising Sun by The Animals
Shared musical traditions between the US and UK are nothing new. In fact, they date back centuries. Many of the American folk ballads that would go on to influence Western popular music have much older counterparts in the British Isles. The beauty of traditional folk music lies in its adaptability. Folk songs survive for centuries because they evolve to transcend both time and place. “House of the Rising Sun,” by The Animals, is a perfect example. It’s actually a cover of a nineteenth century American ballad song that became a hit for the British rock band in 1964.
“House of the Rising Sun” has the structure of a typical folk ballad, but The Animals brought it into the mid-20th century with powerful, bluesy rock instrumentation. Perhaps its most recognizable feature is the electric organ, which cries out its own bitter lament during the solo section. Meanwhile, front man Eric Burdon wails with such aching sincerity, it’s easy to forget he’s not really a gambler wasting away in New Orleans, as the song suggests.
The original ballad was about a woman stuck in a brothel, but The Animals adapted the lyrics slightly. Their version is a more universal, and the titular House of the Rising Sun could be a symbol for almost any vice. In other words, The Animals took a very old song and made it relatable for a modern audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.
Sunny Afternoon by The Kinks
While the Animals were heavily influenced by American folk and blues music, some other bands were looking inward at British musical tradition, and none more so than the Kinks.
Of all the British Invasion artists, The Kinks had the most English sound. This wasn’t entirely by choice. Their rowdy behavior during their 1965 US tour, which culminated in front man Ray Davies getting into a fight with a Dick Cavett Show crewmember, led to them being banned from America.
Their records still got airplay in the States, but they had to rely primarily on the English music scene during their most active period. This may not have done them any favors commercially, but it did allow them to develop a more distinct sound as they interrogated British culture more closely than any of their contemporaries. They were also more politically-minded than most of their peers, and many of their songs deal with issues germane to British society, including colonialism, capitalism, and monarchy.
Released in 1966, “Sunny Afternoon” is the quintessential The Kinks song. Musically, its pattering rhythm and prominent bassline borrow heavily from the Music Hall tradition that had been popular in Victorian London. It also takes on the acerbic, sarcastic tone associated with British humor. The lyrics refer to a measure enacted by the British Labor Party in the 1966 that heavily taxed the wealthy.
The Beatles criticized the measure that same year in their song “Tax Man,” but The Kinks were more sympathetic to the working class. In “Sunny Afternoon,” a very wealthy man complains about the heavy taxation while lounging in the sun at his “stately home” and sipping beer. It’s pretty hard to pity him, since his main concern is “I can’t sail my yacht” and he admits he’s still living a life of luxury.
In essence, “Sunny Afternoon” is a criticism of the rich and the petty complaints they make while the rest of society toils away beneath them. Its biting social commentary hiding beneath an infectious and theatrical musical score. Class conflict has been an issue in Britain since its feudal period, and it took a band as deeply immersed in British culture as The Kinks to confront it in their music.
Ferry Cross the Mersey by Gerry & Pacemakers
While The Animals were borrowing from American music and The Kinks were embracing British tradition, bands like Gerry & the Pacemakers were combing the two. Like the Beatles, Gerry & the Pacemakers had their roots in Merseybeat music, a genre originating in Liverpool (home of the Mersey River) which combined elements of rhythm and blues, skiffle, and rock n’ roll.
Their most popular song, 1964’s “Ferry Cross the Mersey,” was not composed in the Merseybeat style, but it did have an appealing sense of nostalgia to it as front man Gerry Marsden reflected upon his Merseybeat origins.
The lyrics deal with a man who feels lost and confused in a chaotic world, but he finds peace in his home along the Mersey River. At its heart, “Ferry Cross the Mersey” is a song about longing for home. The bridge, “People around every corner / They seem to smile and say / ‘We don’t care what your name is, boy / We’ll never turn you way!’” reflects the feelings of romanticism many of us have for our homes and the sense of belonging we find there.
“Ferry Cross the Mersey” took on very British subject matter lyrically, but musically, it’s sound came straight from the New World. In particular, it was influenced by Cuban cha-cha music, which had had a major impact on American popular music, especially among composers like Henry Mancini and Burt Bacharach. Gerry & the Pacemakers also got in on the trend, imbuing it with their youthful sensibilities. “Ferry Cross the Mersey” was loved by both young and old audiences for its touching lyrics and pleasant orchestral instrumentation!
Downtown by Petula Clark
Men weren’t the only ones cashing in on America’s newfound love of British talent. A few talented female artists, such as Lulu, Dusty Springfield, and Cilla Black, also emerged on the scene. Among them, Petula Clark had one of the biggest hit with her 1964 recording of “Downtown.” Clark was nearly a decade older than most of the other artists on this list, and her music had a much more mature and polished sound. She may not have been as raw as her fellow rockers, but she was no less compelling as a vocalist.
“Downtown” was composed by English musician Tony Hatch during a visit to New York City, and the Broadway influence is clear both musically and lyrically. Clark jubilantly extols the virtues of a big city’s downtown area, with its shimmering lights and excitement. “You can forget all your troubles / Forget your cares,” she sings.
“Downtown” is a very theatrical song, with a full orchestra backing up Petula’s triumphant vocals. It also presents a vivid picture of city life. It’s not always possible to get away to New York City to forget your troubles, but Clark’s song is a pretty good substitute! The song has endured the years and been covered by a number of other prominent artists, including Dolly Parton and Emma Bundon.
A World Without Love by Peter and Gordon
British pop duo Peter and Gordon were talented vocalists, but they had another advantage in their rise to prominence. Peter Asher’s sister was actress Jane Asher, the long-time girlfriend of Paul McCartney, who would become Peter’s roommate in 1963.
McCartney gave several of his earlier compositions to Peter and Gordon to perform, and among them was “A World Without Love,” which spent time at the top of the charts in five different countries in 1964. If it’s sentimental lyrics weren’t a dead giveaway that it came from McCartney’s musical mind, the gentle, elegant melody gives it the old-fashioned flavor for which he became famous.
It tells of a lonely, heartbroken man stranded in what seems to be “a world without love,” where “Birds sing out of tune / And rainclouds hide of moon.” Hopeless, the man decides to withdraw from the world. McCartney was only 16 when he originally wrote the song, and there is a naïve innocence to it that makes it endearing as it attempts to capture the feeling of a first heartbreak.
“A World Without Love” may have been too sappy for a rock band like the Beatles, but it was perfect for an acoustic pop duo like Peter and Gordon. They did justice to McCartney’s composition beautifully, with the tender, subtle harmonies a love song demands.
Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter by Herman’s Hermits
“Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” was composed by British actor and songwriter Trevor Peacock for a 1963 TV play, but it was Herman’s Hermits that took it to Number 1 in the United States.
With its bouncy, folksy guitar riff, “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” has a quaint English country feel to it, and vocalist Peter Noone doesn’t try to hide his heavy Lancashire accent. The song is sung from the point of view of a young man whose lover has left him. He addresses her mother, telling her how much he admired her daughter and how he will miss her. There is no hint of bitterness or resentment in the lyrics, only good-natured acceptance, and it’s hard to imagine that Mrs. Brown could feel anything but sympathy.
“Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” harkens back to the folk ballads of early British musical tradition, but while the verses are musically straightforward, the bridge involves a key change with chords that are remarkably complex for a pop song of the era. The song may appear simple, but Herman’s Hermits were certainly no amateurs.
For Your Love by the Yardbirds
The Yardbirds are most well-known for jumpstarting the careers of three of the greatest rock guitarists in history – Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page all played guitar for the group at one time or another – but the Yardbirds were also a talented group in their own right, as showcased by their first US hit “For Your Love.”
Prior to releasing “For Your Love,” the Yardbirds had largely blues-influenced output, but the 1965 single represented their first foray into a Beatle-esque pop sound. Eric Clapton objected to the change in direction and left the group as a result, but the rest of the world was much more approving, and the song made it to the top of the charts in the US, the UK, and Canada.
“For Your Love” is a song about desperation, and singer Keith Relf lists all the things he would give and do “for your love.” Clapton may have worried that the song would be too commercial and generic, but it’s actually one of the most experimental songs on this list, and perhaps even a very early example of progressive rock.
The electronic organ and unusual vocal harmonies give it a psychedelic feel, which transitions halfway through the track into a driving rockabilly tune before repeating the opening section. Throughout their career, the Yardbirds would continue to invite creativity and experimentation in their songwriting process, and the result was a wholly original body of work.
By the time the 1970s rolled around, the Beatles had broken up and British Invasion songs had fallen out of favor with the music industry, but much of the music that came out of this time is still beloved by audiences today. In fact, many of the artists mentioned on this list are still around in some form, and their popularity remains.
It lasted less than a decade, but the best British Invasion songs transcend generations and have continued success no matter the year. Hopefully, you had some fun reading this article and learned a little something too.
This article was written by Rachel and edited by Michael.