On the seventh of August 1965, Herman’s Hermits had a Billboard number-one hit with ‘I’m Henry VIII I Am.’ It is a profoundly lazy, minimum-viable-product of a song. The freeze-dried remains of a once-vibrant musical style, the music-hall charm of Harry Champion’s 1911 recording is stripped back to nothing but the chorus—
I’m ’Enerey the eighth I am
’Enerey the eighth I am, I am
I got married to the widow next door
She’s been married seven times before
And every one was an ’Enerey (’Enerey!)
She wouldn’t have a Willy or a Sam (no Sam!)
I’m her eighth old man, I’m ’Enerey
’Enerey the eighth I am!
—sung in Peter Noone’s mockney squawk. The most affecting moment, that smug proclamation of “Second verse, same as the first!” is an open admission of creative lethargy; three choruses, a cheerleader spelling-out of H-E-N-R-Y, a few perfunctory guitar licks, and that’s your lot. One minute and fifty seconds. That’ll be four dollars, please.
And I do mean dollars. Because ‘I’m Henry VIII I Am’ is the kind of superficial crap that British artists have been selling to Americans for decades now. The tourist-friendly historical allusion, the pre-modern comedy subject (the lusty widow archetype is far older than Henry VIII), but above all Noone’s cartoon Londoner delivery, all bouncy diction and dropped aitches. He’s not quite as bad as Dick Van Dyke in the previous year’s Mary Poppins, but he’s still not fooling anyone who’s ever spoken to an actual Londoner for longer than it takes to ask the way to Big Ben.
It’s worth reflecting on the ersatz Londoner as the face of British cultural exports. Just as, colloquially, a ‘British accent’ usually means received pronunciation, i.e., an upper class southern English accent, a phoney version of the London proletariat appears in the American imagination as an easy shorthand for the loveable British everyman. The regional and class identities of several nations are collapsed into a caricature of the Greater London upper classes and a caricature of the Greater London working classes. And this framework can be exploited even if, like Noone, you’re actually from Manchester. It’s so easy, tempting even, to write the song off as a piece of UK kitsch; the sort of plastic tat I constantly brushed past on my commute through King’s Cross Station; a snowglobe Buckingham Palace full of whiteness and carcinogens.
But to do so is to ignore some important context.
This sort of transatlantic pandering was genuinely new at the time. Herman’s Hermits were among the most commercially successful of the British Invasion bands of the mid-1960s. (Indeed, substantially more successful than better-remembered acts like The Who and The Rolling Stones—at least at first.) Prior to 1964, British artists had scored precisely four US number ones, ever. (And two of them were instrumentals, meaning no room for those all-important accents.) Between 1964 and 1966, there were thirty-one, beginning with the hat-trick of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand,’ ‘She Loves You,’ and ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ in early 1964. Most of those number ones went to The Beatles, of course, but Herman’s Hermits had both ‘Henry VIII’ and ‘Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter’ in 1965, part of a straight run of US top-five hits. Herman’s Hermits were not just cynically exploiting American Anglophilia; they were also helping to create it.
Another reason not to denigrate ‘I’m Henry VIII I Am’ as a British record cynically sold abroad is more straightforward: it isn’t one. The song was never released as a single in the UK.
In the 1960s, Herman’s Hermits lived a transatlantic double life. As music historian Andrew Hickey points out, “Half their US hits were never released as singles in the UK, and vice versa.” Perhaps it was this very split that first attracted me to them. As someone who spent five years maintaining a career in London and a fiancé in Rhode Island while waiting for immigration papers, I can sympathise with the act of consciously playing to two very different audiences. I can even forgive the accent, at a push; I have been asked to ‘say something British’ multiple times in my life, and there is always a palpable sense of disappointment that I don’t actually sound like Dick Van Dyke. Perhaps I shouldn’t blame Peter Noone for giving people what they want.
Listening to the two sets of songs, there’s a slight but noticeable difference. The better of the British singles display a touch more ambition, a smidge more emotional complexity, a moderate grounding in post-war reality. The rather lovely ‘No Milk Today’ also invokes royalist imagery, but here it’s the melancholic scene of an empty house after a breakup:
No milk today, it seems a common sight
But people passing by don’t know the reason why.
How could they know just what this message means?
The end of my hopes, the end of all my dreams.
How could they know a palace there had been
Behind the door where my love reigned as queen?
This is not the antique bouncy castle of ‘I’m Henry VIII I Am’—the house itself is a “place dark and lonely,” the working-class terrace of a “mean street, back of town.” Noone’s performance is more subdued, imbuing his lines with an unhurried wistfulness, and by the final chorus he sounds downright sincere. If Herman’s Hermits deserve to be a part of music history (and they do, just about), it’s on the strength of records like this. A snapshot of a now-vanished urban environment, where notes for the milkman are both recognisable enough to work as a metaphor for heartbreak, and common enough to be ignored. Certainly in all the years I lived in London I never saw any kind of milk delivery or doorstep notice, poignant or otherwise. ‘No Milk Today’ arguably works better as an epitaph for 1960s Britain now than it did as a heartfelt breakup letter then.
The US singles, on the other hand, are wall-to-wall marketable Englishness. Ed Ward of NPR describes Herman’s Hermits’ other US number one, ‘Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,’ as sounding “like nothing else on the radio,” solely because Noone sings it in a Manchester accent. Other US hits include the 1930s showtune ‘Leaning on the Lamp Post’ (long on ‘little ladies’ and cockney ruffianism) and the wan universal love ditty ‘Listen People.’ But more interesting than the differences between these songs is the simple fact that there is a difference: that record producers in 1965 were so absolutely confident that what would sell to Brits would not sell to Americans.
It’s not like Herman’s Hermits had a problem selling to Americans generally. Speaking to Vanity Fair in 2002, Peter Noone reflected on the British Invasion’s legacy:
The bit that people are missing about the British Invasion is that it really was a much bigger deal than people think it was. Even though the newspapers keep going, “Twiggy!,” “Bobbies on Bicycles!,” and all that. Because, before it, England was this quaint little country. It wasn’t considered a haven of brilliant musicians. Can you imagine what it’s done for the British economy? That all these songwriters are bringing all this money back into the economy? Britain is a new place—a new place.
He’s quite right, of course. Noone is talking about the commodification of Britain—the packaging of Liverpool beat groups and London fashion models and Home Counties manifestations of the carceral state as an image that could be sold. And boy, did it sell. But he’s also right that Britain was fundamentally changed by this act of packaging. The same article contains a sixties anecdote where Noone is asked by a journalist what he thinks of American girls. The reply: “They make me wish we still owned the colonies.” It’s always nice, as a post-colonial critic, when your subjects do the heavy lifting for you. By 1965, it was clear that Britain had been displaced from its former position as the global hegemon. Herman’s Hermits were vanguards in the transition to its current role as a global merchandiser of itself.
Consider the mop top. Since the breakup of The Beatles, which British cultural artefacts have had the biggest and most enduring successes in the United States? An obvious list springs to mind: Monty Python. Queen. Andrew Lloyd Webber. The Spice Girls. Oasis. Bridget Jones. Harry Potter. Ed Sheeran.
An incomplete picture, to be sure, but what can we make out? Well, like any group of the commercially successful, it self-selects for ruthlessness. When Queen’s label refused to release ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ the band leaked it to DJs themselves. Bridget Jones co-screenwriter Richard Curtis took the idea for his feeble Beatles musical Yesterday from a struggling American writer before freezing him out of the production. Ed Sheeran is reportedly obsessed with gaming the singles chart, engineering himself number-one hit after number-one hit.
There’s also a certain ridiculousness to each of them. For Monty Python, this is deliberate, exposing the surreal hypocrisy of British society, albeit with more racist caricatures than the sanitised history of the troupe often acknowledges. Andrew Lloyd Webber is similarly out there; it takes a certain kind of deluded self-confidence to mortgage your house on the strength of ‘T.S. Eliot’s Blackface Cat Poems: The Musical.’ Ditto Oasis declaring themselves heirs to The Beatles based solely on being loud as fuck and unwilling to move on from the popular music of 1966.
But these days, it’s hard to escape the one factor that truly unites so many of these figures: reactionary politics. John Cleese stated in 2019 that “London was not really an English city any more” (and more recently announced he was joining right wing propaganda channel GB News). In 2015, Andrew Lloyd Webber (sorry, Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber) flew into London for the express purpose of voting to slash benefits. Scary Spice famously prompted the immortal words of Eric Andre: “Do you think [Margaret Thatcher] effectively utilised girl power by funnelling money into illegal paramilitary death squads in Northern Ireland?” And J.K. Rowling…
Cards on the table: I loved Harry Potter as a child. I also loved Thomas the Tank Engine, but the Reverend W. Awdry has yet to become the figurehead of an international hate movement. Since Rowling’s emergence as a powerful force in transphobic backlash, it has become de rigueur to excavate the nastiness of the Harry Potter series. It’s certainly there to be excavated—from the race of ‘natural slaves’ who speak in broken English and are horrified at being set free, to the unwillingness to explicitly state that the protagonist’s mentor is gay, to the novels’ basic roots in the boarding-school story tradition. Harry Potter is predicated on sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, and a sea of other inexcusable bigotries. In other words, it is a thoroughly British work of art.
And yet, some of the more recent critiques feel overblown. Certainly the arguments that the novels’ bigotries were an obvious precursor to Rowling’s transphobic activism are hard to credit. Harry Potter is vile in many ways, yes, but it is no better or worse than many other classics of British children’s literature. Compared to the works of Richmal Crompton, Charles Hamilton, and (especially) Roald Dahl, it feels positively tame. The difference is that Crompton, Hamilton, and Dahl have the common decency to be dead, and not hanging around on Twitter sharing hateful bile.
There is a concept in international relations known as soft power. Coined by the American political scientist Joseph Nye in 1990, it refers to activities by nation states and other political actors which “influence others by ideas and attraction… or [get] them to want what you want.” To apply the concept to Britain, the popularity of cultural objects such as Harry Potter in the USA is thought to increase favourable perceptions of Britain among the American population. The goodwill this culture creates, Nye and others argue, indirectly helps make the USA more amenable to British interests on the international stage. Now, let’s get a bit more concrete. When J.K. Rowling publishes an essay “Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues” and that essay is then quoted by a Republican senator who votes against equalities legislation, that is soft power. When that same essay accuses the trans rights movement of “offering cover to predators like few before it,” and a couple of years later the American far right starts foaming at the mouth with spurious accusations of LGBT people “grooming” children, that is soft power. And when drag queen story hours have to be cancelled because Nazis keep showing up, that, too, is soft power. Although somewhere along this road, as you may have noticed, the notion of softness has fallen away entirely.
None of this is to accuse J.K. Rowling of direct physical violence. Merely of being a symbol, a rallying point, a thought leader. Of having her words and ideas packaged and sold, consciously or not, to Americans. And boy, are they selling. Herman warned us that you cannot repackage your own culture without fundamentally changing it—and the popular references to the UK as ‘TERF Island’ would seem to bear him out—but he neglected to mention that you cannot undertake this kind of packaging without also fundamentally changing yourself. And so Rowling stands, a once-beloved children’s entertainer, now permanently tarnished by her willing association with organised hate.
On the eighth of September 2022, Queen Elizabeth II died. Hold the front page. Missus Windsor: she dead. That the country immediately descended into a ritualistic orgy of sentiment and self-abuse was expected. Had, in fact, been carefully planned for years in advance, and even given a trial run the previous year in the overbearing mawkishness of Prince Philip’s commemoration. For me, it was a moment of ambivalence; it was the first Major Event in British History that I was out of the country for. A sign that, however many people tell me they like my accent and ask my opinions on Rishi Sunak, I’m a bit less British than I was before. That however much I might miss London, Sheffield, Monmouth, or Oxford, I am an American now. (Or at least I will be when all the paperwork clears. I give it five years, minimum.)
There’s no point denying it. That sadness is real. But quite honestly—who cares? Who cares that a pack of inbred gangsters that presided over the British Empire and the decline and fall of Herman’s Hermits now finds itself down one member? An institution that drove a black woman out of its own ranks, protected a sweat-drenched alleged paedophile, exempted itself from racial equality legislation, promotes quack remedies, and blithely helps itself to the mortal remains of anyone who has the misfortune to die in Cornwall deserves nothing but the most vicious contempt. That I felt bad about this event for even a second is an abject failure on my part, an infantile self-indulgence that should shame any reasonable adult. John Lydon can disavow this statement all he likes, but he had it right the first time: God save the queen, the fascist regime.
Anyway, my sense of melancholy was soon eclipsed by a more profound disappointment: the litany of writers who ought to know better queueing up to embarrass themselves. “A promise made and kept for life—that was your gift,” simpered Simon Armitage. “It used to be said that millions of people had dreams in which they had tea with the Queen,” drivelled Frank Cottrell-Boyce. “To be honest, she looked adorable,” wittered Bernardine Evaristo. This is the face Britain seems determined to present to the world. A bunch of grown adults willingly prostrating themselves to childish dreams of imperial majesty, a festival of quiet masturbation sandwiched between the inauguration of Liz Truss and a pound-crashing ‘mini budget’ that demonstrated precisely what this kind of class politics actually means.
If there’s anything worth celebrating about British culture, it’s not the Royal Family. It’s not James Bond. It’s not Sherlock Holmes, Paddington Bear, The Great British Bake Off, or James fucking Corden. It’s none of this smirking, self-indulgent, sycophantic shit.
It’s a pair of unemployed Northamptonshire musicians scoring a number-one hit with a lashed-together remix of a kids’ TV theme. It’s an angry Jewish Marxist screaming, “If you go round New Delhi at closing time, the streets are full of millions of pissed Indians throwing up steak and kidney pies!” It’s a South Norwood rapper standing in front of the Bank of England and saying, “Fuck the government and fuck Boris.” It’s a Derbyshire novelist returning from the wilderness with a proclamation: “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.” It’s a bunch of rowdy desi comedians getting tanked up on lassis and “going for an English.” It’s a middle-class doctor writing a satirical wank fantasy about Ronald Reagan and replying, “Of course it was obscene,” when questioned about it. It’s a working-class actor staring into his Instagram camera and intoning with Shakespearean intensity, “What you’ve done to Heaton Park is disgusting. And I hope the planet turns round, and shits on you.” It’s a depressed media studies lecturer standing on stage in a Hackney working men’s club and endlessly repeating, “These days, if you say you’re English, you get arrested and thrown in jail…”
It is all things counter, original, spare, strange. It is everything rejected by the Royalist spectacle, that endless succession of diamond-encrusted dullards. Cut off one head and another shall take its place. There can be no change, no evolution, no revolution, no respite. Just a deathless, tyrannical continuity, handing down power and privilege and fragments of empire through the bloodstained ether of history. A jewelled, hand-crafted shoe stamping on a smiling face—for ever.
Second verse, same as the first.
On the twenty-eighth of January 2017, Ed Sheeran had a Billboard number-one hit with ‘Shape of You.’ It is a profoundly lazy, minimum-viable-product of a song. The freeze-dried remains of a once-vibrant musical style, the dancehall energy of 2016 hits ‘Work’ and ‘Cheap Thrills’ is stripped back to a tedious beat over the chorus—
I’m in love with the shape of you
Push and pull like a magnet (do)
Although my heart is falling too
I’m in love with your body
Last night you were in my room
And now my bedsheets smell like you
Every day discovering something brand new
I’m in love with your body
—sung in Ed Sheeran’s softboy squeak. The most affecting moment, that pathetic cry of “eeeeeeeee” at the song’s climax, is an open admission of creative lethargy. Three choruses, three verses, a few perfunctory chants, and that’s your lot. Three minutes and fifty-four seconds. That’ll be—well, nobody pays for music any more, but you get the idea.
If ‘I’m Henry VIII I Am’ was conspicuous in its absence from the UK singles chart, there was no such luck with Sheeran’s effort. ‘Shape of You’ spent fourteen weeks at number one in the UK, and the rest of the album, ÷, spent several weeks draped decadently across the entire top twenty. If you wanted to listen to British pop music in quarter one 2017, Ed Sheeran wasn’t just the top dog; he was the seventeen other dogs below it as well. The “Sheerageddon,” as it was known, was emblematic of many things: the flaws of the old chart system in an age of streaming; the overwhelming dominance of Sheeran’s star power; the homogenising effect of algorithms on musical styles. Set against the story of Herman’s Hermits, another narrative emerges—that Brits will now happily buy the same pop culture that was once sent abroad. It’s a subtle shift in the transatlantic pop-culture exchange, but it’s an instructive one.
None of this is to argue that things were better in the Good Old Days. It’s not to say that anyone who likes Ed Sheeran is a brainwashed sheep. It’s not even to denigrate the act of producing cynical pop trash. (If I’ve discovered one thing in writing this essay, it’s that I quite like Herman’s Hermits; their discography is more varied and interesting than the Plastic Englishman singles imply.) It’s just to say that the requirements for popular success in the UK and US have converged. That there is no longer a need for British artists to have parallel careers in these two parts of the English-speaking world. That the unified transatlantic audience has become just another niche in the global entertainment market.
And, perhaps, that something has been lost in this transition. The giants of British culture suddenly find themselves with nowhere to hide. In the harsh glare of the American spotlight, their nastiest elements erupt into view. And Henry VIII’s wife turns to her husband and says:
I want a divorce.