Notes from an Anglophile: British Pop Stars Who Should Have Been American Idols, Too

A lifelong musical Anglophile, I’ve tossed and turned, spent many deep sleepless nights wondering why some of my favorite British artists never made it big on the left side of the pond.

Well, not really. I’ve got more pressing matters keeping me up at night. But seriously, why? Why only one Top 40 hit for a singer as awesome as Alison Moyet (“Invisible,” No. 31, 1985). Why does Tori Amos have six platinum albums in the U.S., and the woman who probably inspired her most, Kate Bush, have none. What did Sweet — whom I adore and who sneaked a string of singles into the U.S. Top 10 in the ’70s, including the immortal “Ballroom Blitz” (No. 5, 1973) — have that Roxy Music didn’t? The legendary Bryan Ferry-led band managed only a single trip into the U.S. Top 40, with “Love Is the Drug” (No. 30, 1975).

At least all of the above-mentioned acts had their one moment, a platinum album here or there and/or one single that managed to claw its way into the lower reaches of the U.S. Top 40. But the annals of pop history are filled with superstar British acts who barely made a ripple crossing the Atlantic. I was reminded of just how much the U.S. has missed out on the other day when I was watching Must Be the Music, a U.K. American Idol-style show that originally aired in 2010 and is only now being shown on Bangkok TV. Dizzee Rascal, Sharleen Spiteri from the band Texas and Jamie Cullum were the three judges.

The competition was fierce, and surprisingly good, but it was the performances of Rascal and Spiteri, two artists I’ve loved for years who have never had a hit in the U.S., that got me thinking about how much great British music mainstream U.S.A. has missed out on over the years.

Here are six other greats that America slept on.

Massive Attack
Sure they do have a rather sizable underground following in the States and could probably sell out Roseland Ballroom in New York City, but they’ve never had a chart single, nor a hit album, in the U.S. (Blue Lines, MA’s landmark 1991 debut, didn’t even chart in the U.S.!) As producer/musician-led acts featuring rotating singers on their singles go, I’ll never understand why David Guetta gets to go gold and platinum, and Massive Attack doesn’t. That goes for Chemical Brothers and Basement Jaxx, also under-sung in the U.S., too.

Saint Etienne
Perhaps the trio’s sound was simply too confusing: a pastiche of the ’60s and indie pop and underground dance music, with little bit of kitsch on the side. It was accessible and catchy, yet unlike anything of its time (the early ’90s) — or any other time. And any act who can take a Neil Young classic (“Only Love Can Break Your Heart”) and turn it into one of the greatest dance singles of the ’90s deserves all the multi-platinum love they can get, which, sadly, in St. Etienne’s case, was none.

Sugababes
They had beauty, big hits and internal drama that at times threatened to overshadow the music (yet somehow never did). I’m not talking about Destiny’s Child in the U.S. I’m talking about Sugababes in the UK. The trio, in its original incarnation, visited the Teen People offices once when I was an editor there, and I was absolutely certain they’d make it at least as big in the States as Bananarama did in the ’80s. Despite scoring six No. 1 singles in their native UK and a string of platinum albums, not once did they ever chart in the U.S. Their loss — and America’s.

Rachel Stevens
Okay, I’ll admit it. I never really expected the former S Club 7 member to make it big in the U.S. I mean, look where she came from: a kiddie-pop band who made A-Teens look kind of cool. (Though S Club 7 did score one U.S. hit, “Never Had a Dream Come True,” which reached No. 10 in 2000.) Her solo success in the UK would be short-lived (two solid albums, 2003’s Funky Dory and 2005’s Come and Get It, mid-’00s Britpop at its best), but Stevens, who hasn’t released any new music in seven years, deserves all of the commercial rewards that Cheryl Cole has reaped in the UK for not even being the standout in Girls Aloud.

Shara Nelson
A sweet soul sister and the sort of UK flipside to former Brand New Heavies frontwoman N’Dea Davenport, equally underrated, whose urgent, yearning vocals made “Unfinished Sympathy” the aforementioned Massive Attack’s crowning musical achievement. Interest in her solo work was middling in her native UK, and aside from sporadic guest stints on other people’s dance singles, she hasn’t released new music since 1995’s stunning Friendly Fire. Hers is the pop comeback I’m praying for most.

Robbie Williams
America has never really embraced camp in music, which might be why the U.S. mainstream resisted acts like Mika and Scissor Sisters. Williams was even more confusing because his camp came in such a masculine package. For a moment, in the early ’00s, it looked like he was finally about to get his U.S. close-up, but the camera shifted to Ricky Martin, and never again pointed in Williams’ direction. At least he’s got all the millions he’s pulled in from international superstardom, both solo and with Take That, to keep him warm at night.

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Filed under Alison Moyet, Dizzee Rascal, Kate Bush, Massive Attack, Rachel Stevens, Robbie Williams, Roxy Music, Saint Etienne, Shara Nelson, Sharleen Spiteri, Sugababes, Sweet, Texas, Tori Amos

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