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COVER STORY : House of the Setting Sun : Roll over, McCartney, tell Mick Jagger the news: Even encased in wax, the Beatles, the Stones and their generation may still be the best their country has to offer, as the British record industry ponders the decline of an empire that once produced the top-selling acts in all of rock

September 26, 1993|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

LONDON — Given all the years of disdain here for American rock, it's easy to assume that the teen-ager at the checkout counter of the massive Tower Records store at Piccadilly Circus is a tourist.

He's wearing a Nirvana T-shirt and buying cassettes by two other American bands--Alice in Chains and Soul Asylum.

But the 18-year-old's Cockney accent tells you that he's not an American visitor.

"I love American bands," he says when asked about his musical tastes--and he goes on to name several other U.S. groups as favorites, from Guns N' Roses to Smashing Pumpkins.

What about British bands?

The teen, who stocks merchandise at a West End clothing store, points across the traffic circle to Rock Circus, a museum where 600,000 customers a year pay $10 each to see wax reproductions of such fabled British rockers as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who.

"If you want to find any good British bands," he says, "you have to go over there."

The wisecrack echoes the greatest fear of British record executives, who remember all the years when England dominated the world's rock market but now acknowledge that the sun has set on the British rock empire.

In interviews with executives here, the most optimistic view was that the dramatic lack of new international bestsellers from Britain is simply cyclical and that there will eventually be a turnaround.

The darker--and more common--view is that years of shortsightedness and greed have led record companies to make fundamental mistakes in judgment in the bands that were signed and the degree of financial commitment to them.

Disenchanted with the domestic product, British fans have turned to new American rock acts with a passion unseen since Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry won their hearts in the '50s.

"We've made some big errors as an industry over the last few years," says one British executive, who asked not to be identified because he believes some of the errors were made by his company.

"All of a sudden the British music industry was no longer producing viable rock bands. I think we realized our mistakes, but a lot of money, time and opportunity was wasted."

An American record executive cuts to the chase.

"When it comes to rock 'n' roll," declares Al Teller, the Los Angeles-based chairman of MCA Music Entertainment Group, "the British record industry is on a life-support system."

You can tell a lot about the endangered state of British rock just by looking at the window display at the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street.

In hopes of tempting young buyers with the latest rock sounds, the store offers a discount on what is billed as today's "50 Essential Albums." Forty-eight of them are by American artists.

Inside the store, there's another display with an eye-catching promotion: a six-foot stack of CDs and cassettes all with colorful American flags on the cover. Titled "Greetings From Uncle Sam," the album is a compilation of new American bands, including the Lemonheads, Soundgarden, Sugar and Dinosaur Jr.

The album's liner notes acknowledge the longstanding British snobbery in rock:

"OK, so (the Americans) coined (rock) and commercialized it, but we certainly tidied it up and had some fun with it in the '60s and, hey, without our punk explosion, U.S. rock would still sound like Boston and Foreigner.

"But the last couple of years has seen a marked turnaround in attitude toward Uncle Sam's music. . . . Thanks to Nirvana's consolidation of an entire disenfranchised Western youth's Angst . . . (it is suddenly) cool to be an American."

Like millions of other Americans, Kip Krones, managing director of Columbia Records in the United Kingdom, grew up in the '60s enthralled with British rock. He was delighted in 1980 when his job with Concerts West, the talent promotion and management firm, enabled him to move to London.

But, Krones says, he decided in 1991 to return to the States because the British music scene was no longer fun.

"The problem is that fashion and style is more important than content in the music business here--and what happens when that fashion changes weekly is that you don't have time to develop acts," he says, sitting in the Sony offices in Soho Square. "You are trying to capture a moment that can be gone in seven days."

Krones was lured back to England by Columbia this year as part of an aggressive campaign by the company to focus on developing British acts with longevity. (Columbia released the "Greetings" sampler.)

"I think classic values of songwriting will come back," he says. "The answer is simple: You get artists who can play good, sing good and write good songs. We are not going to try to chase the charts and the fashion. We are going after the real talent."

But what if the problem is deeper?

What if, as some here believe, Britain has stopped producing world-class rock bands because of a fundamental shift in musical tastes among British youth in the era of the computer and home synthesizer?

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