Throughout its history, rock & roll has been inextricably linked with the English language – the first tongue, after all, of the nation of its birth, the United States.
The great majority of internationally distributed and acclaimed rock & roll has always been produced in English-speaking countries; the USA, Canada, and – especially starting with the British Invasion – the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.
Almost from the start, however, other countries (mostly in Europe) got in on rock & roll, and it remains a fairly obscure fact that the 60s produced much interesting rock from non-English-speaking countries.
There were already quite a few instrumental rock ensembles recording in Europe, especially in Scandinavia, whose Spotnicks (a Ventures-like outfit) had an international reputation; Danish guitarist Jorgen Ingmann had a number two US single with the instrumental Apache, which was a huge hit for British group The Shadows in most other countries.
Some prominent American and British bands actually boasted key members from the Continent, like The Easybeats (guitarist Harry Vanda, from Holland), The Standells (Tony Valentino, from Italy), the Velvet Underground (Nico, from Germany), and Manfred Mann(Klaus Voorman, a friend of The Beatles since their Hamburg days).
The Beatles and the British Invasion had just as immense an impact on most European countries as in the US, and numerous Continental groups launched a beat/R&B response of their own, along the same lines as the garage rock phenomenon in North America.
With rare exceptions, these groups sang in English, even managing the occasional crossover hit in the US; Holland’s Shocking Blue (Venus) and Spain’s Los Bravos (Black is Black) are two of the most famous examples.
It is a measure of just how immense American-Anglo culture had become (and remains) that these groups rarely sang in their native tongue. If they were seeking worldwide demographic audiences, this certainly made sense, English being the most widely understood language of entertainment in international commerce.
Yet given that most of these acts had a miniscule chance of denting international charts, it seems unlikely that they catered their material to international tastes. It’s more likely that they perceived the English language as an intrinsic element of rock & roll, and would feel foolish translating English songs, or writing rock & roll in a different language.
Given that they were not writing in their native languages, it’s impressive how much good original material emerged from some of these groups. In most cases you can hear their indigenous accents awkwardly penetrating their most willing attempts to sound American or English, although in the best groups’ cases, these traces are usually very slight.
Scandinavian groups usually exhibited the slightest accents and the greatest English proficiency, and it’s no surprise that many of the most competent bands emerged from this region, especially Sweden. The Tages, who recorded some excellent mod rock in the British Invasion style, may have been the best of the bunch, and actually lived and recorded in England for a while in an attempt to break through to a wider market.
Many acts recorded one or two fine records, and the best compilation of this vibrant scene is Searchin’ For Shakes : Swedish Beat 1965 – 1968.
Swedish groups, generally speaking, were the most able imitators of British Invasion styles, but the Dutch bands were more distinctive and idiosyncratic. The raw R&B rock of The Pretty Things and the Downliners Sect was a surprisingly huge influence on this scene. In fact, these two groups were bigger stars on the Continent than at home in the UK.
Holland, a small country, gave rise to an astonishing number of groups in the mid and late 60s, many of whom harboured a distinctively regional predilection toward morose R&B/Beat/Punk with lingering European folk influences.
The Outsiders (no relation to the American band of the same name), who recorded a wealth of first-rate original material (both Beat and Psychedelic) in this vein between 1965 and 1969, may have been the very best 60s group to emerge from a non-English speaking nation, although they remain unknown overseas to all but a small cult.
In general, both the musical quality and English competence drop the further south you travel in Europe when surveying 60s groups, as a function of cultural differences which found the youth of these countries less fluent in the language, and less exposed to rock culture in general.
French and Spanish rock acts, in fact, usually sang in their native language. Many of them were dreadful, but occasionally they were quite good; Los Cheyennes (from Barcelona) laid down some dynamic Kinks-style punk, and Ronnie Bird (from France) was a decent singer in the British mod style with a good band that sometimes featured American expatriate Mickey Baker (of Mickey & Sylvia fame).
Be aware that most 60s groups from the European countries where the Romance languages are spoken, particularly from Italy, hold latter-day interest mostly as novelty items. Not at all beat or garage, but definitely worth hearing, was the French chanteuse Françoise Hardy, who wrote and sang some delightful pop/rock (and straight pop), sometimes in a Spector-ish girl group or Marianne Faithfull vein.
Hardy became a star by singing in French, but made quite a few English recordings as the decade wore on; some were good (All Over The World even made the British Top 20 in 1965), but soon she moved to MOR pop, where she remained through the 80s.
Germany played quite a major role in 60s rock, but mostly as a training ground for British bands, particularly in Hamburg, where The Beatles and many others developed their chops in front of rowdy audiences. The home-grown German groups were generally no great shakes, often displaying an awkward martial sense of rhythm and vocal phrasing.
To some degree, this crops up in the recordings of the best German beat band, The Lords, who compensated for their shortcomings with a good sense of humour, an unusual reverbed guitar sound run through Lesley amps, and some good original material and remarkably inventive covers.
Go WAY down south, to South America, and you’ll find a couple of the best non-Anglo 60s bands. Los Shakers (from Uruguay), despite occasional blatant broken accents, were among the best early Beatles imitators; most of their material was original, and unlike most acts attempting to emulate the early Liverpool sound, they went for the gutsier aspects of Merseybeat, not the wimpier ones.
Los Mockers were to Los Shakers what The Rolling Stones were to The Beatles. These fellow Uruguayans, who wrote most of their own songs, aped the mid-60s Stones quite well, better in fact than many similarly inclined American garage bands. Surprisingly, material by both Los Mockers and Los Shakers is readily available on CD.
While the psychedelic era did not produce as many notable efforts from non-Anglo groups as the Beat Boom, some odds and ends stand out. Of particular interest were Holland’s Group 1850, a weird hybrid of Pink Floyd, the Mothers of Invention and their own mid-60s beat-punk roots. Savage Rose, from Denmark, were one of the few groups of this sort to earn international acclaim; many of their early records also saw release in the US, where they toured in the early 70s.
Featuring the wild range and child-like timbres of lead singer Anisette, they recorded an erratic but intriguing series of albums in the late 60s and early 70s that rank not only among the most interesting rock records from non-English-speaking countries, but among the most interesting late psychedelic/early progressive rock recordings from anywhere.
Continental rock would make a much bigger impact in the progressive rock era in the 70s, via acts such as Kraftwerk, Focus, Vangelis (who had started in late 60s Greek band Aphrodite’s Child) and PFM. There were also honest-to-goodness pop stars ABBA, featuring members that had honed their craft in 60s pop/rock bands.
The earlier generation of Continental and South American rock remains known only to hard-bitten collectors. For the international audience though, it’s much more accessible today than it was in its heyday, and has been anthologised in numerous Pebbles-like compilations (and occasionally in the Pebbles series itself), which catch up on the dozens of groups that only managed one or two notable songs.
For the 60s fanatic looking for new artists to collect, it’s an area ripe for exploration.