Overpaid and Overexposed? Not Here!

At the end of last year the American band Matchbox 20 were in London to play a "showcase", one of those record industry events where they don't sell tickets but parade a new act before an invited audience of music journalists who are then liberally plied with free drink in the cause of generating some favourable press.

Outside the 100 Club in Oxford Street, though, eager Americans tourists were recklessly outbidding each other with offers of Pounds 50 and upwards for a spare Matchbox 20 ticket. It seemed an astonishing phenomenon for a completely unknown act which at the time had not released a record in Britain. But across the Atlantic, Matchbox 20 are far from unknown. Their debut album, Yourself or Someone Like You , has sold more than four million copies, occupying the upper reaches of the Billboard chart for more than a year. It also saw them voted best new band in the influential Rolling Stone poll, leaving British dance champions the Prodigy trailing in third place. In the tiny 100 Club Matchbox 20 performed a dynamic set of guitar-driven rock full of songs that trace their lineage back to artists such as the Band. It wasn't cutting edge and there were no samples or digitalised beats; just a reliance on the traditional values of melodic songs, gutsy harmonies and robust guitars. It was a refreshing contrast to the increasingly grandiose and portentous efforts of the Verve, Radiohead and the other high-minded leaders of the current British scene.

The position of Matchbox 20, whose album has now been belatedly released in Britain, is far from unique. Over the summer the major labels are planning a promotional blitz in an attempt to break some of the big American acts who have so far failed to ignite here. Next month sees a fresh push behind the Dave Matthews Band, whose albums regularly sell three or four million copies in America but have made little impact in Britain, despite an appearance at the Glastonbury Festival in 1995. This time the record label hopes that the presence of Alanis Morissette on Don't Drink the Water , the first single from the forthcoming album, Before these Crowded Streets , may finally do the trick.

There will also be interest in whether the Wallflowers, led by the well-connected Jakob Dylan, can break through in Britain. The band has far outsold Dylan senior's recent comeback album in America, where their Bring Down the Horse is only now slipping down the charts after a stay of almost two years. Other than mild interest in Jakob's parentage, the Wallflowers have barely registered here.

Hootie and the Blowfish sold a mind-boggling 14 million American copies of their album Cracked Rear View , but the best they achieved in Britain was a single that charted for one week at No 75. A new album later this year will give them another crack.

There have always been obvious differences between British and American tastes - witness our longstanding resistance to the twangy guitars and nasal voices of country music. But it seems that the gulf has recently become a yawning chasm. Bands such as Matchbox 20, Hootie, Dave Matthews and the Wallflowers would once have been revered by British audiences. So what has happened?

Lee-Ellen Newman, who as head of press at EastWest Records has responsibility for breaking both Hootie and Matchbox 20, says that radio makes a crucial difference: "In America there are college and alternative stations creating a groundswell of support. You also get regional breakouts. For example Hootie started in the Midwest and there was a domino effect. That just doesn't happen here."

Jonathan King, still one of the sharpest trendspotters in the business, says: "On the surface the gulf has never been greater. But there's a huge market for these acts among people who are fed up with pop and not interested in rap and who think there hasn't been any intelligent rock music since the 1960s.

"But radio and television will not give any exposure to good American rock music. The Matchbox 20 album is a great example and the new Dave Matthews album is sensational - there won't be a better record this year."

Bob Harris, the former Old Grey Whistle Test presenter who now has a show on Radio 2, fears that the difference has been exacerbated by a British obsession with trends at the expense of traditional musical values. "I'm a huge Matchbox 20 fan and I play the album on the radio all the time," he says. "It's a very good time for American music, as strong as I can remember. There is a fabulous range of bands but two things account for our resistance. First, we are fashion-led and fashions change so fast. Secondly, these American acts remain very song-based and we are not. We seem to like our music deconstructed, a little off-centre and even disharmonic."

To some these are simply the views of old fogies who have not come to terms with the passing of the 1960s. Allan Jones, the former editor of Melody Maker and now editor of the monthly Uncut , says: "It is all impeccably arranged and beautifully played, but the music scene has changed post-rave culture. American audiences like something safe and predictable. To the British these bands sound old-fashioned and dated."

Newman sees no reason why Matchbox 20 should not succeed here, though. "They have all the elements of a great rock band," she says. "The songs are strong, they are great musicians and they are tremendous live."

And if they still don't make it? After a temporary dent to their pride, Matchbox 20, Dave Matthews and their compatriots will no doubt go back to their Midwestern heartlands and happily sell another ten million albums. And the loss will be entirely ours. -- Nigel Williamson