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BOOK REVIEW

'How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'N' Roll' by Elijah Wald

This history of American popular music culminates with the splintering of music culture by the Fab Four.

June 11, 2009|Erik Himmelsbach

Elijah Wald doesn't want you to believe the hype. His mission in "How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll" is to help you forget all that you've learned about popular music, to "strip away layers of past opinion" and view musical history through the framework of the mainstream of given eras rather than by focusing solely on the stars canonized after the fact.

In doing so, Wald stands up loud and proud for artists who've been excised from the musical map. He champions those commercial comets who caught the fancy of the public at a given moment but whose work somehow hasn't passed muster with the big, bad elitist critics. For Pat Boone and Perry Como fans, it's time to dance in the streets. Vengeance shall be yours.

Wald's premise is simple: If an artist made a commercial impact, he or she deserves a second look, free of the biases of those who've ignored them. After all, millions of Connie Francis fans can't be wrong, right? As he touts forgotten tastemakers, the author simultaneously takes the critical community to the woodshed. How can the historical gatekeepers be trusted, he wonders, when they're so out of step with the masses?

Critiquing critics

"It is often said that history is written by the victors, but in the case of pop music, that is rarely true," Wald writes. "The victors tend to be out dancing, while the historians sit at their desks, assiduously chronicling music they cannot hear on mainstream radio." It's a valid conceit, yet it's hardly revolutionary. In fact, it was much more clearly articulated 30 years ago, when the sage philosopher David Lee Roth noted: "Rock critics like Elvis Costello because rock critics look like Elvis Costello." Besides, Roth probably had no quarrel with the Beatles. Unfortunately, the title of Wald's book is a thousand-pound gorilla hovering over every page of this "alternative" history of popular music.

The author of books on bluesman Robert Johnson and folkie Dave Van Ronk, Wald takes a mostly reasonable, if contrarian, approach to the nation's musical past. He highlights the push and pull, the market forces and popular trends and not-so-popular technological breakthroughs that forced pop music's evolution. Because the mythology of the rock era tends to suffocate all that came before it, Wald's backroads journey has real moments of enlightenment.

Can you dance to it?

Starting with ragtime, Wald recounts a nascent industry that was built around sheet music sales at a time when a piano was a common instrument in many homes. Eventually, ragtime gave way to jazz, swing and pop, along with advancements such as radio, records and jukeboxes, which musicians and the music business fought every step of the way (a reactionary behavior that still exists, given the music industry's reluctance now to embrace the digital marketplace).

For much of the century, Wald notes, live performance was ubiquitous, and sonic innovation took a back seat to the will of the dancing ticket buyers. "The geniuses and innovations are exciting, but if we want to understand how the music sounded in its time and how it changed over the years," Wald writes, "we need always to keep in mind the submerged mass of journeyman dance bands, part-timers, amateurs and dancers who kept the whole mass afloat."

Jazz was the first genre to embrace improvisation, and though it is regarded as the "blossoming of black culture," a white, Denver-born musician named Paul Whiteman was the biggest star during the genre's formative years. Still, it wasn't until the big band era, spearheaded by Benny Goodman in the mid-1930s, that the personality of the band became as important as the song. And even then, vocalists such as Frank Sinatra served as mere supporting characters within these big bands.

Wald explores the psychology and demographic shifts of musical audiences over the years, but in most cases, all music has shared a common thread: Underlying pop music's evolution, from ragtime on through hip-hop, has been the influence of black musicians. Black musicians usually give, Wald's book suggests, and white listeners are happy to take. That is, until the dreaded rock 'n' roll came along and cast aside African American influences like litter on the highway. And here's where things get ugly. Here's where the book's hyperbolic nuclear explosion of a title comes into play.

Black and white

Though the rock era is but a small part of the story, it's the payoff everyone's waiting for. Wald knows it. We know it. We've sifted hundreds of pages before the author blows everything to bits in just a few pages.

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