Were The Beatles pop’s first boy band?
- Credit: PA
As One Direction celebrate their tenth anniversary, we take a look at the rise of the boy band and ask the question: ‘Who was the very first boy band?’ the one that everyone else copied?
With One Direction – or 1D as they are affectionately known – celebrating their tenth anniversary this year, the focus of the music world has once again turned towards that staple of the industry: The Boy Band.
What is a boy band? Are they different from a rock band or a pop band? Is the boy band purely a modern phenomenon? Of course, not.
The idea of a boy band is as old as the notion of popular music. You could make an argument that even solo singers like Frank Sinatra or Johnny Ray that wowed bobbysoxers in post-war America were selling the same idea that boy bands could do more effectively as a team, namely selling sex and music as a potent cocktail to impressionable, hormonal teenage girls.
Whereas a solo singer like Elvis Presley or Bobby Darin could be incredibly successful and have a fanatical fanbase, the thinking in management circles was that if you had a band made up of three or four equally good-looking young men then they would be four times as successful because each member of the band would have their own following.
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Nowhere was this illustrated better than the phenomenal success of The Beatles. They even had boy band style a nickname The Fab Four and were frequently referred to as those lovable mop tops.
But, were The Beatles really a boy band? They had a reaction that resembles that of a modern boy band but they played instruments, wrote their own songs and more importantly formed themselves. They weren’t put together by a controlling impresario.
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One of the reasons that boy bands are looked down upon by the ‘serious’ music press is that they are seen as manufactured pieces of musical fluff. Human dolls to be dressed, styled and presented by marketing gurus to a sensation-hungry teenage audience.
The Beatles were not musical fluff. If we are looking at something manufactured then probably The Monkees would be a better example. Their formation by American entertainment agents was a direct result of the success of The Beatles. The music press were quick to spot what they considered their phoney credentials and immediately dubbed them ‘The Pre-Fab Four’. But, catchy songs and greater control of their career gave them a longer life than many predicted.
On the surface, the closest 1960s group to the modern boy band was probably The Beach Boys – clean-cut, good-looking young men with beautiful voices and thanks to the skills of Brian Wilson, great songs and a beautiful sound.
They were the Take That of their day, combining a great image with superior songs and had an influence that spanned decades. Paul McCartney credited The Beach Boys with being The Beatles main competition, particularly when it came to innovation in the recording studio.
He said: “Without Pet Sounds, The Beatles wouldn’t have recorded Sergeant Pepper,” referring to The Beach Boys landmark album from 1966.
However, with the dawn of the 1970s, boy bands really took off. In a few short years the charts were crammed packed with groups like The Jackson Five, put together by Berry Gordy at Motown, The Osmonds with their Crazy Horses and the tartan clad troubadours The Bay City Rollers.
With the exception of The Jackson Five, who morphed into The Jacksons once young Michael found he had a very successful solo career to take care of, neither The Osmonds nor The Bay City Rollers hung around for very long. Their fame burned brightly for a few years and then was gone – both are fondly remembered but didn’t have the cultural staying power that the boy bands of the 1980s enjoyed.
As the punk caterpillar swiftly transformed itself into a gaudy New Romantic butterfly suddenly there was a proliferation of boybands – acts like Duran Duran, ABC, Simple Minds, Spandau Ballet and, not forgetting, Bros.
Like The Beatles and the Beach Boys before them, Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet skirted the border territory between what the music press would consider real band and manufactured band. They wrote their own material and played their own instruments which gave them musical credibility, but they looked, acted and were prompted to a young female fanbase as boy bands.
As always, it was the strength of their self-written songs and their performances which gave them not only long careers but, again, an influence that lasted decades.
As the 1990s dawned, it became clear that not only were boy bands a major part of the music industry, there were here to stay. Also, the focus was starting to shift across the Atlantic to the city streets of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago with groups like New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys, Boyz II Men and NSYNC.
These American acts had huge success on the British charts and while the indie band scene featuring big names like Blur and Oasis tried to shift the focus away from manufactured pop, British pop labels were keen to share in the US boy band success and found themselves a promoting a powerful list of long-lived bands including Take That, Westlife, Five, Blue, East 17 and Boyzone.
These British bands had a much longer life than any of their predecessors stretching well into the 21st century and many of them, inspired by the resilience and song-writing success of Take That, still reform and play today.
The influence of the 1990s bands continues to be so strong that with the exception of One Direction, the 21st century hasn’t been terribly kind to British and American boy bands. The rise of Simon Cowell’s TV talent shows The X Factor, Pop Idol and Britain’s Got Talent perhaps has made the manufactured element far too ‘in your face’ to enjoy long-term success.
There is also TV’s need to keep finding and promoting ‘the next big thing’ which means that last year’s winners are always going to be yesterday’s heroes which does limit your development as a band.
Boy bands will always be with us but if you look at the really successful ones, the one thing that they all share is that they all wrote good songs and after a manufactured beginning took charge of their own image and their own destiny. In the end it was the music that mattered, not the marketing.