(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN DECEMBER 2009)While the provocative thesis of How The Beatles Destroyed Rock 'N' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music is obvious from its title, fans of the Fab Four will be relieved to known that author Elijah Wald does not make that claim in apocalyptic terms, but rather as a statement of fact in his fascinating chronicle of how one genre superseded another -- ever building on what came before and laying the groundwork for what came next -- in the incredibly rich tapestry of 20th century American music.
Like Wald, I knew that the musical world had changed forever when I put on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band for the first time and snuggled up with my summer love of 1967 on her parents' rec room couch. (Boy was it ever not make-out music!)
What I didn't know then but have learned since because of a voracious appetite for music and books about music, is that just as the Beatles knocked rock 'n' roll heroes like Chuck Berry and James Brown off their pedestals, those stars had delivered a similar coup de grace to balladeers, balladeers to Dixieland, Dixieland to swing, and so on and so forth all the way back to the dawn of the 20th century when ragtime was ascendant.
Wald recounts that history in an iconoclastic and spare 254-pages (plus copious footnotes) with a depth, wit and contrariness that would send many music critics -- virtually all white, male and stodgy beyond their years, as he accurately notes -- howling for the exits. In fact, reviews of How the Beatles have been decidedly mixed with some critics complaining that Wald's entire approach is disingenuous.
How wrong those critics are because Wald argues convincingly that while the Beatles' ambitious later work, including Sgt. Pepper, was hailed as revolutionary it helped turn rock into art music for white people, leaving Berry, Brown and their rowdy, mostly black peers in a sort of oldies purgatory from which they never escaped:
"If early rock was already the sound of the past, then what interest could we possibly have in the popular styles that preceded it?" writes Wald. "The idea that we might have tossed a Glenn Miller record on the turntable was ridiculous: That music was already thirty years old! So it feels very odd to me when I ask my twelve-year-old nephew what he and his friends dance to at parties and the first band he names is the Beatles. He also listens to the Black Eyed Peas and other present-day groups, of course. But kids, at parties, are putting on forty-year-old records! Much as I love a lot of older music, I find that incomprehensibly strange. After all, if kids in the 1960s had been dancing to the most popular band of forty years earlier, they would have been dancing to . . . Paul Whiteman."
One of the biggest kicks of How the Beatles is the way it twisted and stretched my musical brain.
I happen to have listened to Whiteman, a hugely popular big band leader for three decades beginning in the 1920s, who did or did not play real jazz according to one's bias, because George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," which Whiteman had commissioned, was part of a box set that I bought with paper route money in the late 1950s when I was in my early teens.
Wald points out that Whiteman was a much bigger star than Louis Armstrong, who most definitely played real jazz, but is disparaged today as being "commercial" by purists although he was dubbed as the "King of Jazz" in his heyday.
Wald discards terms like "jazz" and "rock" that tend to lock listeners and critics into musical straitjackets, while discrediting the notion that the progression from ragtime to rock to rap occurred in a straight line.
"If one accepts that continuum, then the Whiteman orchestra and the Beatles played very similar roles; not as innovators but as rearguard holding actions, attempting to maintain older, European standards as the streamlining force of rhythm rolled over them. Within the small world of music nuts, there have always been some who regard the Beatles in just this way. . . . By the time the Beatles hit, still playing the rhythms of Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins, that style was already archaic and their contributions were to resegregate the pop charts by distracting white kids from the innovations of the soul masters, to diffuse rock's energy with effetely sentimental ballads like "Yesterday" -- paving the way for Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Elton John, and Billy Joel -- and then to drape it in a robe of arty mystification, opening the way for the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, Yes, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. In other words, rather than being a high point of rock, the Beatles destroyed rock 'n' roll, turning it from a vibrant black (or integrated) dance music into a vehicle for white pap and pretension."
Provocative, but hard to argue with because Wald backs up his assertions with copious research. Oh, and he happens to be a pretty good musician in his own right.
Wald also wades into the socioeconomic trends that underpinned musical trends. This includes factoids such as that while the U.S. population grew at a robust 43 percent from 1910 to 1940, the number of professional musicians, singers and music teachers fell by 7 percent. This was because of Prohibition and a bunch of technological trends over the course of the century that included the player piano, studio recording breakthroughs, radio, sound motion pictures, the jukebox, LPs, downloading, burning and file sharing, and, of course, television, notably the Beatles appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, which is the most famous performance by a band in history.
But notes Wald:
"[I]t was the last time that a live performance changed the course of American music, and when [the Beatles] became a purely recording group, they pointed the way toward a future in which there need be no unifying styles, as bands can play what they like in the privacy of the studio, and we can choose which to listen to in the privacy of our clubs, our homes, or finally, our heads. Whether that was liberating or limiting is a matter of opinion and perception, but the whole idea of popular music had changed."
Wald is not a lamenter, but he shares my concern over the shrinking number of live music venues, which is where many a musician toiled four or five hours a night six or seven nights a week in getting the education necessary to become accomplished, let alone great. As it is, I know far too many young musicians who can't be bothered with learning the fundamentals of music, let alone going on the road.
At the end of the day, Wald is not likely to change many minds. After all, those music nuts are hard to crack. But How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'N' Roll certainly opened mine.
PHOTOGRAPHS (From top to bottom): Chuck Berry, James Brown, Glenn Miller, Black-Eyed Peas, Paul Whiteman, George Gershwin, Louis Armstrong, Carl Perkins, American Bandstand (1960), Simon and Garfunkel, Velvet Underground with Nico, The Beatles and Ed Sullivan.