How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music
“How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll is a superbly thoughtful, inclusive, and intellectually challenging look at American popular music and culture from the turn of the 20th century to the 1970s. . . . How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music by Elijah Wald appears to be a labor of love and dedication given its copious research and attention to detail. As such, it is a work that is at once popular and cerebral, and that every fan of American popular music—from the days of Edison to Clear Channel broadcasting—should definitely read.”
This book has a provocative “take me home” title that has nothing at all to do with its contents—a typical publicist’s ploy to get books off the shelves. Some have called the titling disingenuous, but that can be forgiven. How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll is a superbly thoughtful, inclusive, and intellectually challenging look at American popular music and culture from the turn of the 20th century to the 1970s.
Given the assiduous research and acute analysis of eras, genres, changing technology, performers, and shifts in popular culture, it would be a surprise if this work did not become a standard reference in a very short time.
Elijah Wald, author of Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, throws himself into every project wholeheartedly. In Johnson’s Mississippi of the 1920s and 1930s, Wald—ever the exacting researcher—offers a veritable “I was there” perspective—not only on Johnson’s life and music, but also about the hardscrabble sharecropper culture that produced him and the popular music of the time.
One insight gleaned from that book, which helps to de-deify Johnson the “brooding artist-genius,” is the fact that he was a performer, what was once called a “songster,” and he would play anything in any genre to entertain his audiences—particularly the white audiences he was frequently called upon to play for at dances and chicken fries in the Deep South of Mississippi and Arkansas.
In a subsequent book, author Wald was able to identify to such an extent with guitar virtuoso and folk-jazz great Dave Van Ronk that he is credited as co-author on The Mayor of Macdougal Street, Van Ronk’s autobiography, which Van Ronk began writing at the end of his life. Mr. Wald finished the book after Van Ronk passed away during its writing.
In any event, don’t anticipate a Beatles diatribe in How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. Instead, imagine it as a thought provoking, sweeping, and inclusive “alternative history” of American popular music and culture from the turn of the twentieth century through the 1970s or so.
Its inclusiveness is astounding. However, it does come with a price. One cannot read this book the way one might read, say, Nick Cohn on early rock and roll. This reader found himself slicing chapters into manageable blocks, so thick is the flow of information.
The Beatles have nothing to do with Mr. Wald’s central thesis—that popular music histories are written by intellectuals, and are therefore skewed to their tastes, leaving out movements—say, like Bubblegum or novelty songs—that were truly popular with the masses of American record buyers and fans.
Most histories, Mr. Wald alleges, do not reflect all that was truly popular among Americans at various points in music history. On that basis, Mr. Wald’s “alternative history” is most welcome, for it includes artists and songs that were strewn along the roadside by historians negating their value in the history of American musical and popular culture.
Concerning the Beatles, a resonant point is Mr. Wald’s hypothesis that the Beatles’ early music—much of it based on a retro take on American R&B—helped underscore Elvis’s and the black groups’ initial impact on pop music and helped break racial barriers.
Their later music, while almost universally critically hailed by white reviewers, Mr. Wald characterizes as “art music” made by and for white people. None of the later material was danceable, and hence was less popular with ordinary folks than their earlier music and that of their early “British invasion” contemporaries who maintained the Rock/R&B backbeat and so remained danceable and their records in dance party demand.
Mr. Wald makes a point to address numerous critically maligned or ignored performers throughout the book. These he deals with seriously if they were truly popular with record buyers if not with the mass of critics. Some of these very popular performers may not have even made a dent in the charts (reported by dee jays), but their records were purchased in volume by ordinary people whose purchases were never phoned in to the Billboard or Cashbox chartmakers.
There are few readers who will not be surprised at some of the arguments Wald puts forth, as some are clearly minority opinions; however, Mr. Wald is knowledgeable enough about technology and the engineering history of 20th century music to place popular music in the context of the technology—and culture—of its day.
Why were live performances (in person at dance clubs and hotel ballrooms, and later, on radio and TV) so much more important to artists than a recording contract for the first several decades of commercial pop music?
When did audiences start asking record stores for specific artists’ versions of songs rather than the songs themselves? (Hint: It wouldn’t be until the fifties; until then, a buyer would have asked for a copy of “Stompin’ At the Savoy,” and take any version offered. In one year, for example, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Chick Webb, and half a dozen others recorded the tune and all versions were purchased equally well.).
Record buyers wanted the danceable song and cared little for who performed it, thereby giving more weight to songwriters and arrangers’ gifts. To many contemporary readers, this is a surprising revelation, because modern-day criticism, while rightly lionizing performers from Artie Shaw to the Beatles and beyond, implies that an artist’s name sold records, but that was not the case until rock and roll took center stage.
In fact, until the middle of the last century, says Mr. Wald, it didn’t even occur to record buyers to follow a particular recording artist. Today, it would be unheard of for a CD buyer or e-purchaser of online music to seek out specific song titles and not care who recorded them. Mostly, the reverse is true. A buyer will track specific artists and buy or download their favorites among the artist’s repertoire.
Mr. Wald is astute observer and critic of all things musical, not just the “highlights” so common to many books on pop music history in the 20th century.
He astutely explains the many omissions of artists from pop histories, or their consignment to mere footnotes. He writes, “Music criticism demands studious, analytic listening, and the people who listen that way tend to value music that rewards careful attention and analysis over styles that are just fun . . . or danceable . . . but automatically separates them from the people buying and dancing to popular music.”
That’s why performers who have been categorized as “lightweight,” saccharine, superficial, or worse—like Henry Mancini, Nelson Riddle, Lawrence Welk, Guy Lombardo, and Mitch Miller—are not treated seriously—or at all—by most music historians. This, in comparison with artists whose work is deemed more valid or authentic or complex, like Duke Ellington, Elvis, or the Beatles. Mr. Wald underscores the point when he writes, “While there are dozens of scholarly discussions of The Velvet Underground, there are virtually none of KC and the Sunshine Band.”
Likewise, when discussing the Big Band era, to which he devotes much ink, he notes that Paul Whiteman—considered by most music historians and critics as a bandleader who delivered saccharine, superficial music, is notably absent from the histories except as a negative comparator or afterthought.
Whiteman, characterized as “The King of Jazz”—which he clearly wasn’t (that honorific belonged most likely to Louis Armstrong or black bandleader Lucky Millinder, or one of the other New Orleans geniuses like Sidney Bechet)—was one of the most popular and bestselling acts on record or in nightclubs and radio for nearly two decades. Mr. Wald uses Whiteman’s career extensively to underscore points concerning popularity, record sales, live show attendance, technological shifts, and other aspects of the evolving music business.
The exclusionary coverage of music history, notes the author, skews our perceptions down here in the early 21st century, and doesn’t offer a complete sense of the depth and range of American popular music in the whole of the 20th century.
Moreover, it doesn’t take into account the fact that the public didn’t care for musical analysis in any of the eras discussed—they just wanted to dance to music that had a beat or a rhythm in tune with theirs.
Mr. Wald is intent on educating his readers, not only about specific genres and artists like Paul Whiteman or Louis Armstrong, the Beatles, Little Richard, Ricky Nelson, the Kinks, or disco artists, but also about how technology has continued to alter American perceptions of popular music and how it is listened to, categorized, collected, preserved, and played.
Mr. Wald seeks to find out what really was popular with “regular folks” in each of the decades he covers, and not what was ballyhooed on radio, in the press or on the pop charts, or (during the fifties and beyond) on television. Ultimately, he gives us a fuller, more balanced look at the broad variety of musical styles and performers that captured listeners’ attention (and pocketbooks) over the course of the twentieth century.
Simultaneously, and as part of his overweening argument, Mr. Wald makes a case for how music’s popularity was advanced by each new technological development, from Edison’s music cylinders and 78 RPM records, to juke boxes, radio shows, TV dance shows, coast-to-coast radio networking, LPs, CDs and other modes of musical conveyance.
For example, in discussing the birth of commercial popular music, he writes, “The arrival of phonograph recording began an evolution from music made by amateurs in their homes to music bought from professional performers.” No longer were the neighbors content to listen to Jeb and Hoss playing their fiddles and guitars on the back porch. They wanted to buy “hep” commercial, multipiece musical creations that were both portable and endlessly playable in their homes.
Every chapter in this book is copiously annotated. That’s because Mr. Wald relies heavily on original sources to buttress his arguments. He notes and explicates various versions of a song, for example, and uses press clippings, radio and TV interviews, biographies, autobiographies, and other material to give contemporary readers a sense of how music’s popularity has evolved since the beginning of the 20th century.
As one reviewer has commented when discussing Mr. Wald’s global approach to his subject: “There are plenty of famous names—Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, the Beatles—but they are placed alongside figures like Paul Whiteman, Guy Lombardo, Mitch Miller, Jo Stafford, Ricky Nelson and the Shirelles, who in some cases were far more popular and more accurately represent the mainstream of their times [than did the marquee names].”
In addition to his superb annotations, Mr. Wald very thoughtfully includes an excellent index and complete bibliography.
How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music by Elijah Wald appears to be a labor of love and dedication given its copious research and attention to detail. As such, it is a work that is at once popular and cerebral, and that every fan of American popular music—from the days of Edison to Clear Channel broadcasting—should definitely read.