Author: Elijah Wald
Title: How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘N’ Roll
Publication Info: New York : Oxford University Press, 2009.
Someone in the marketing department goofed by letting a book with such and incendiary title out on the market because a) it’s not really true that the Beatles destroyed rock ‘n’ roll (not exactly) and b) that’s not what this book was about. I probably would not have picked this book up if I hadn’t previously read Wald’s excellent study of the myth and reality of blues music Escaping the Delta. Wald’s premise for this book is to reevaluate the history of popular music in the 20th century in the United States from how music was enjoyed at the time not from looking backward.
Wald believes the music history is written by the critics and their tastes are widely divergent from the tastes of the general public. What the critics think was good music may not be necessarily what people were listening to at the time (actually look at any old Billboard top 40 list and this is readily apparent). Even what has come down on records is not always what people were listening to as in the early days of recording it was more likely to record the unusual pieces while the popular music was heard in dancehalls and on the radio.
Wald takes us back to the 1890’s when most music was made in the home and the sheet music industry was king. This paradigm remained well into the recorded music era and when people went to hear music performed they wanted to hear the songs the loved and the band playing them was immaterial. They certainly had no interest in hearing songs just like the ones on the band’s record. A good band had to know all the latest songs and even genres were irrelevant so they’d better be ready to play ragtime, blues, marching songs, jazz, pop, folk, hillbilly music or ethnic songs. Even classical orchestras padded out their performances with popular songs of the day. I imagine that in our great-grandparents time that the typical band was more like a wedding band or a pops orchestra. As late as the 1960’s a popular song would be immediately covered by any artist who wished to remain current and successful.
The most important thing to popular audiences is that they they could dance. Wald comments that while most of the critics who wrote the history of popular music were men, the driving force behind music that actually was popular was women who wanted to dance. In addition to the man-woman dynamic, Wald traces the side-by-side evolution of black & white music. When the two intertwine as when black & white artists play each other’s songs the greatest innovations occured and this usually happened when the artists were trying to make people dance.
One of Wald’s frequently cited examples of this division is the Paul Whiteman Orchestra was one of the top bands of the 1920’s. Retroactively panned as schmaltzy by the critics, Paul Whiteman was actually looked on as a influence by the likes of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and set the standard for his time. Whiteman even commissioned George Gershwin to compose “Rhapsody In Blue” and performed it with his orchestra, getting accolades for raising Jazz to art music.
And thus this how the Beatles “destroyed” rock ‘n’ roll. By becoming a studio band and recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band they made rock into art music. Wald shows that in the mid-60s black & white styles were merging, but after the Beatles, Rock went off into the album-based arty styles while black music was the still-danceable soul, funk & r&b (try to think of the last time you danced to rock music). The book ends in the 1970’s and since that time Wald believes that there’s been little innovation in popular music even if there has been some good music produced.
I really enjoyed this book and was fascinated by the changes in music wrought by technology, demographic shifts, and various trendsetters. It also explained why so many of the old-time crooners and pop singers covered rock ‘n’ roll songs even though it sounds embarrassing to listen to them. I thought Wald overstated the woman/man and black/white divides at time, but mostly had a good perspective on the “popular” versus “art” views on music. I do wonder what he thinks of the increasing globalization of music in the past 30 or so years. People around the world are listening to American music and world music is influencing American popular songs with some of the best work in recent decades coming from this fusion. Perhaps we need to look beyond America and the black & white music styles we have here to see where music is heading next.
“Far more of us dance than go to watch professional dancers, especially when we’re young, and very few of us, even when we are taking lessongs, give any thought to becoming professionals ourselves.
Playing music used to be like that. People sang as children and often learned to play an instrument, and many continued to play at least occasionally throughout their lives. What made a song popular was not that a concert artist was using it to wow sedentary crowds, but that hundreds of thousands of people were playing and singing it.” – p. 18
“Between records and radio, by the 1930s the whole idea of a dance orchestra had changed. The results would be what is generally known as the Big Band era, but this was less a shift in the bands’ music or their function than a matter of the public becoming aware of them as individual entities. Dance, restaurant, and theater orchestras had always provided the country’s popular music, but, like cooks or set designers they had remained largely in the background. People went to dances to dance, to restaurants to eat, and to theaters to see acts with strong visual appeal, and the musicians were just employees who provided accompaniments.” – p. 96
Recommended books: Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues by Elijah Wald