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A look back at 1983: The year of the second British Invasion

In 1983, no other single artist had a more spectacular year than Michael Jackson, who without question ruled the music charts. With the release of his blockbuster album "Thriller" in November 1982, Jackson scored seven Top 10 hits the following year, including three No. 1 songs. Along with his show-stopping performance on the "Motown 25" TV special and his iconic music videos for "Billie Jean" and "Beat It," Jackson became an unavoidable pop culture phenomenon; he would later snag eight Grammy Awards in 1984.

But if you take Jackson out of the equation for a moment, the many British pop artists at the time could arguably stake a claim of dominance on the American music charts in 1983. That year, a slew of those acts came over to the States with their synthesizer-driven/R&B-inspired music, charisma and stylish fashion sensibilities. For a young person somewhere in America who was lucky to have MTV in the early '80s, it must have been both shocking and fascinating to see these audacious-looking groups invade their television screens.

"I don't know why that was," singer Martin Fry of the British band ABC told of the then-new movement in music known as New Pop. "It was kind of an explosion that came out after punk rock swung through Britain -- a whole generation that was kind of interested in making music that was more polished. That obviously led to a golden age with Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, the Human League, ABC, Depeche Mode, many bands like that. We were all a little bit flamboyant."

These U.K. acts' brief dominance of the American pop charts 30 years ago was described as a Second British Invasion reminiscent of the first one back in the 1960s led by the Beatles. At the apex of this new music's popularity, Rolling Stone magazine devoted an entire issue to the trend in November 1983 with the headline: "England Swings: Great Britain invades America's music and style." It referenced the week of July 16 of that year when seven acts who were British-based occupied the Billboard Top 10 singles charts: Duran Duran, Culture Club, the Police, Kajagoogoo, Eddy Grant, Madness, and the Kinks -- a band from the first British Invasion.

"I must say that at the time, I had no sense of being part of any invasion: second, British or otherwise," said singer/keyboardist Tom Bailey of the Thompson Twins, who had its first U.S. Top 40 hit in 1983 with "Lies." "We were doing our work, which certainly focused on delivering success in the charts for new synth pop, but had no real sense of how important the U.S. market was and how central to our story it was to become."

Most of the then-new British pop acts who broke into America in the early '80s emerged after the mid- to late '70s punk explosion in Britain. Their origins can be traced to the New Romantic movement -- a hybrid of retro, glam and futurism in the music and fashion through early '70s, pioneered by acts David Bowie and Roxy Music. New Pop was a cross between punk and disco -- and the message was more upbeat than political or nihilistic that characterized punk.

Culture Club members Mikey Craig, left, Boy George, second from left, Roy Hay and Jon Moss, right, hold a news conference, Saturday, March 31, 1984, Montreal, Canada. AP Photo/Bill Brimshaw

"It was a turning away from the negativism of punk and the doubt and despair and political guilt of so much postpunk," said Simon Reynolds, author of the book "Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1981-1984." "It was time for something lighter -- a return to fun, positivity. The idea that the point of pop might be escapism and that this was okay started to circulate. So it was like the dialectical next stage in the British music scene's development. It wasn't the complete reversal or repudiation of punk/postpunk. It was more like, 'We tried this, it led to a certain deadlock, now we'll try this new direction.'"

"I think we're a progression from that rather than a reaction," Duran Duran drummer Roger Taylor told in 2012. "I remember sitting in [Duran Duran bassist] John [Taylor's] bedroom at the age of 18 or 19 and we would play a Sex Pistols record, then we would play a Chic record...and then maybe a Kraftwerk record. Our idea was to blend all this different music into one band. If you hear a Duran Duran record on the radio, it's made up of all these different elements, but it's unmistakably our sound."

America had a taste of the new sounds from Britain in the late '70s and early '80s from acts such as the Police, the Pretenders, Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello. But the New Pop bands were different in terms of musicianship. While the guitar was still in use, the main instrument by these new acts was the synthesizer, which was portable and gave the music a more modern-sounding feel.

"Prior to the New Wave/synthpop revolution, music was becoming very stagnant," said singer Pete Byrne of the British synth duo Naked Eyes, who had two big hits in 1983 with "Always Something There to Remind Me" and "Promises, Promises." "The punk thing had come and gone and there was still some really great bands around. But there wasn't a lot happening. People suddenly [were] starting to use synthesizers in a different way. We were just in the right place at the right time with everything."

Synthpop made inroads in America starting in the late '70s with songs like "Pop Muzik" by M, "Video Killed the Radio Star," by the Buggles, and "Cars" by Gary Numan. But it was the Human League's electro-driven pop single "Don't You Want Me" -- which hit No. 1 in 1982 -- that really ushered in the era of new British music, according to Rolling Stone's Parke Puterbaugh. After the success of that song and Soft Cell's "Tainted Love," British acts were making frequent appearances on the American singles charts, especially in 1983. Among them were Kajagoogoo ("Too Shy"), A Flock of Seagulls ("Space Age Love Song"), Big Country ("In a Big Country") and Eurythmics ("Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This))."

And it wasn't just danceable, electronic pop coming from Britain -- others songs by ABC, Dexys Midnight Runners and Spandau Ballet mined traditional soul music and also became hits in the U.S. In his book, "Like Punk Never Happened: Culture Club and the New Pop," Dave Rimmer, wrote: "At the same time, breaking America was what everyone...wanted to do. Not just for the money, though that was most of it, but also because if you made it in America then you...made it."

Undoubtedly, the two British bands that had the most success in the States were Duran Duran and Culture Club, who together had a combined eight Top 10 hits in 1983, and created teenage fan hysteria reminiscent of the Beatles. In his recent memoir, "In the Pleasure Groove," Duran Duran member John Taylor recalled a moment when his band performed in Seattle in 1984 to 18,000 screaming and crying teenage fans: "It was like somebody had given the entire audience drugs. We couldn't hear the monitors. We couldn't hear ourselves play." And in his 1995 autobiography, "Take it Like a Man," Culture Club's charismatic singer Boy George wrote of that period in time when the band traveled on the Concorde to play some American shows: "The clones were out in full force: 'Boy mania' had hit the States in a big way. Dreadlocked fans filled the front rows of every gig and lobbies of every hotel."

Besides the music, a huge factor to these British groups' appeal was their appearance with the big hairstyles (A Flock of Seagulls singer Mike Score's coiffed hair comes to mind) and sleek outfits. In some cases, the look bordered on androgyny--who could forget Boy George's dreadlocks and makeup, or Eurythmics vocalist Annie Lennox's fiery orange buzzcut hair? "I remember Adam Ant and Duran Duran coming to the MTV studio within a matter of a month or two and me thinking, "My Lord, what do they put in the water over there?" said Nina Blackwood, one of the original MTV personalities from the early '80s. "The guys were so beautiful. Not handsome in the classic "movie star" way, but actually pretty -- lush lips, cheekbones a mile-high, porcelain skin -- and they all knew how to apply make-up better than most women I knew."

However, both the music and look by these new British bands might have been completely ignored in America had it not been for MTV. Debuting in August 1981, the still relatively-new 24-hour music channel became a such an important outlet for this deluge of new British music compared to traditional American radio, whose playlists were more conservative and didn't take chances when it came to new music.

"It was crucial," said Byrne of the channel's importance. "We weren't touring and MTV got us into everybody's living room. We were lucky -- we got some really great people to work with, so our videos were still pretty good. So we got lucky there. And MTV was huge."

Reynolds said that MTV provided the nationwide reach that the new British bands needed to make a dent into America. "And then once MTV had made these bands successful and caused a drastic spike in record sales for the new music," he said, "then radio as a whole followed. Record sales had been flat for several years, but suddenly you had young kids rushing to the record stores to buy Culture Club and the Go-Go's and so on."

"I have always thought that the arrival of MTV just as we were stumbling onto our style was extremely fortuitous," Bailey said. "It gave us a foot in the door. But it was also to become our biggest problem in the sense that, before long, the power of the video on MTV overwhelmed the importance of the music. As a musician, I prefer to spend more time and resources making music and less on promotional stuff like videos, but it soon became the other way round."

After an amazing 1983, it would have seemed that the British were poised to gain a further foothold in American pop music for another couple of years. The trend continued onto 1984 with acts like Howard Jones, Talk Talk, Wham! and Frankie Goes to Hollywood scoring hits in the U.S. Top 40. But shortly afterwards, New Pop entered a period of declining popularity, reflecting a backlash from those who felt that synthpop music was less credible and the antithesis of rock and roll. Two of the most popular British acts went through a transitional period in the mid '80s that signaled the movement's decline: Duran Duran had splintered into two side projects, the Power Station and Arcadia, according to Reynolds; and Boy George ran into legal entanglements regarding drugs, and Culture Club broke up. Meanwhile, American artists such as Prince, Cyndi Lauper and Bruce Springsteen started to rack up platinum hits. By the end of the '80s, hair metal, dance and hip-hop became the popular musical trends in America.

"I think most of those groups, as so often happens, started to make worse records and accompanied them with really bloated, absurd and pompous videos," said Reynolds. "It was the combination of success and touring and astronomical demands on your time affecting your creativity, but also success bloating egos and destroying any sense of perspective. The Americans by that point had cottoned on to video and making more catchy, singles-oriented, danceable stuff. They were beating the British at their own game. Even old '70s rockers like ZZ Top were making sharper singles and more entertaining videos."

"The whole music scene changes every 15 milliseconds," said Fry. "The reality was that Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson did it better, bigger and more global than a lot of British acts."

While the era of British New Pop has long since faded, it still remains special for a particular generation of people now in their late 30s and 40s. The music by those acts is still played on the radio -- Sirius XM even has its own channel devoted to the decade. Meanwhile, some of those New Pop acts like Duran Duran, Howard Jones and the Fixx continue to make new music. And there's also the "Here and Now" and "Regeneration" tours that are like Lollapalooza for '80s nostalgists.

"Today's audience is definitely a combination of different generations," said Fry, who still tours with ABC. "That's the wonderful thing about YouTube and Facebook. There's a younger generation that is kind of interested in the whole flamboyance of the 1980s -- there's a whole generation of people that want to hear "The Look of Love" [and] "Poison Arrow" and remember a time when they didn't have a mortgage or debts."

As far as influence, today's pop and alternative rock artists have borrowed at least something from the early '80s whether it's in the form of the music, the fashions or both -- among them Lady Gaga, No Doubt, Katy Perry and the Killers. "I think I was in a store and they played a couple of songs," said Byrne, "and I thought, 'Jeez, they were really like early synthpop records.' When you think about it, the best period of pop music of course is the '60s. And then after that -- and I might be biased -- but I think that period from '81 to '84 was the next best period in pop music."

"We don't dwell on nostalgia very much," said Taylor, speaking for Duran Duran. "We talk about the early days very fondly, but I think we're quite careful not to live in nostalgia. We like to live in the here and now and we like to think of ourselves as contemporary. But we got great memories of that period."

Latter musical trends from Britain never really caught on in the States compared to what happened 30 years ago, such as '90s "Cool Britannia" that included Oasis, Blur and the Spice Girls. Presently a few British artists have flourished on the American charts, including Adele, Mumford & Sons, and Florence and the Machine. "The big British successes in America of recent decades," said Reynolds, "have been individual bands and artists, who generally don't have the same kind of ideological or concepts or awareness about presentation and visuals that New Pop had."

"I think that the old paradigm of cultural pendulum swings between U.S. and Europe can never be so simple again," said Bailey. "The world has changed because of the Internet. Information finds its own routes these days and can't be so easily manipulated. In fact, the avoidance of information overload has become part of everyone's life, it seems. So perhaps we're all less likely to be invaded, but share common cultural exchanges, which express themselves locally with varying emphases."

Sources: Are We Not New Wave? by Theo Cateforis; I Want My MTV by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum; "Anglomania: America surrenders to the Brits -- but who really wins?" (Rolling Stone) by Parke Puterbaugh; Rip It Up and Start Again by Simon Reynolds; Like Punk Never Happened by Dave Rimmer; The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits by Joel Whitburn

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