Billy Lunn, What does it mean to “break America”?
On the plane journey over to JFK Airport for our first American tour in something like eight years, I couldn’t help thinking what it was like when we first arrived stateside to appear on a popular TV programme of the time: The OC. Like anything then, we took it all in our stride. On departing from LAX following the recording of our successful performance, I remarked to our manager, who was ushering us through customs: “I think we’ll be back here again soon. At least, I hope we’re back here again soon.” There was something about America that deeply affected my young, ambitious, twenty-two year-old self, which probably happened to most of the young British rock bands when the grandiosity of The New World appeared before our tiny eyes, and was then suddenly made to disappear as we headed back East. The prospect of “breaking America” with which we were all culturally imbued was on the tip of the tongue a taster.
However, when The Beatles (yes, that lot again but they were the first real large-scale British musical export) famously stepped off the plane at JFK Airport in ’64, America for them had effectively already been “broken”, and their worldwide success in the eyes of the British music press was only further qualified in their capturing the moment in print and picture. A month before The Beatles arrived in America, ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ had already sold one and a half million copies, and the demand for the Fab Four was intensely widespread across the States to say the least. Tours in stadiums were pre-booked, TV appearances alongside the world’s biggest names were scheduled in advance, and a precedent was set in place for the rest of the century to come. What I mean is that since then, any band worth their salt from these lands had only really been properly tested once they’d crossed the Atlantic and given the US of A a good old go. But is that really still the case?
Back in 2005, before we hopped aboard the plane for our first adventure in the US, one of our managers sat us round a table with some mugs of tea and gave us the lowdown on how the music biz works out there. As part of this mini-lecture, past examples of British expeditions were laid bare: The Kinks, Depeche Mode, Oasis, Franz Ferdinand…these were all fascinating examples of what to do and what not to do once you step on to American soil. It was explained that The Kinks royally fucked up when Ray Davies took to the stage and decided that, rather than endearing the US press audiences to his great band and repertoire of cracking tunes, he’d air his pent up frustration from too many months on the road in a strange new land by 1) ranting down the microphone, 2) playing set-long jams of ‘You Really Got Me’, and 3) getting into fist fights with his own band mates, which resulted in a four-year ban by the musicians’ union from giving the band VISA status. Davies later referred to this “ridiculous ban” in his memoir, suggesting that it affected the growth and development of the band’s career not just in America but worldwide this is testament to the importance of “breaking America” in many minds, even if they don’t know it.
But something about the language of “breaking America” has always frayed my fibres. “Why do we have to ‘break America?”, I would ask our interviewers on the press junkets that would make a Hollywood PR rep blush, “why can’t we ‘cuddle America’ instead…?” I’m not sure they were used to such integrative language, having proposed themselves the notion that we were there to “break” their country. It was like a challenge set for us Brit rockers from the pages of tradition to venture to The New Land and to plant our flag in the sand, to conquer and suppress into submission the fans and publications of this massive country so it’s with a gentle pleasure that I’ve seen this notion soften both in the press and the minds of fans on both sides of the sea since then. I struggle to think of the last band that the music press made a hot fuss over their impending “breaking” of America. Coldplay? Franz Ferdinand? Arctic Monkeys?
Arctic Monkeys are an interesting prospect, along with Franz Ferdinand. I can remember a stoned Snoop Dogg singing the lyrics to ‘Take Me Out’ to the camera on the TRL sofa in New York, and this for me was huge. I also remember the spreads dedicated to Franz Ferdinand and The Futureheads in NME when they set off on a double-header tour to take the USA by storm, and The Independent afterwards used FF’s success as an indicator for Kaiser Chiefs’ attempt to “break” it too. I believe they also had a list at the bottom displaying bands that had previously tried and failed. This was the extent of my supposition of what it meant to conquer America – the British press getting all hot under the collar. But then there was a video of Matt Helders and James Ford (Monkeys’ producer) at P Diddy’s house helping him prep for one of his famous mansion parties shortly after the release of their second album. Saying this, Arctic Monkeys have only recently been considered to have broken America with their Madison Square Garden performance in 2014 – nearly ten years following the release of their debut album. If you’d have asked anyone in the UK circa 2008 whether Arctic Monkeys had broken America or not, they probably would have shrugged and said “well yeah, of course”, but even the Monkeys admitted that the MSG gig “felt like some sort of victory” after the long years of touring over there. A million miles away from The Beatles selling out stadiums before they’d even set foot on the continent, then. But I’m always going to feel like comparing any contemporary band with The Beatles is utterly pointless there’s simply no one like them, and there never will be.
Coming back to our adventure, once we’d landed back in the UK following our first tour in North America for eight years, there was a moment when we all looked at each other and said “that was a really good, solid step to actually doing something over in America”. None of us used the aggressive language such as “breaking” or “conquering” that we’d all got used to and then dismissed, but we all knew what we meant by coming close to saying something of the kind. So who knows the language might not be the same, but the importance of being part of the American Dream remains the same.