How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music – A Review

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music

Elijah Wald, 336 pg.

The title is inflammatory and in many ways does the book a disservice because most of the book has little to do with the Beatles, or even Rock and Roll. The title after the colon is really what the book is about and for anyone interested in
American popular music from the late 1800’s to through the Jazz era and up to the birth of Rock and Roll the book is an excellent resource. Wald has done an amazing job at exploring the how American music developed and what the people at the time thought of the music, not what latter critics have said about the music.

One of his main themes is that popular music until quite recently was about dancing and that most musicians would have played dance music if not exclusively, then at many times during their career. The demand for dance music, therefore, kept music less segregated. Since people did not have ways to listen to music at home they would go out and would dance. And since the lack of music affected everyone, a broader range of people would go out to dance. The dancers, then, would be diverse and request from musicians not only current songs or dances, but older ones too. Even musicians whose primary music was not the dance hits of the day would know some dance songs. For example, when John Lomax recorded Muddy Waters in Mississippi he was not only playing his blues numbers, but hits like The Chattanooga Choo Choo. Nothing remains, though, of this music because when critics and writers discovered musicians they were looking for what set them apart from other musicians, not what made them similar. The need to create differences continues throughout the book so that many musicians such as Elvis rose to stardom on their differences, but were great fans of the popular music of the day even though they never performed it in public.

Wald continues to point out these connections throughout the book in part to make the case that the history of music has not been by those who listened to it, but those who wrote about it, namely the critics. The critics, according to Wald, are more focused on the artistic aspects of the music, and perhaps the historical, but not on what they meant for the listener. The result is often dismissive treatment of pop hits, which leads latter listeners who use the critics as a guide to older music to take misunderstand the role of the music the critics praise and what was popular. Jazz is particularly prone to this phenomena. For example, the Jazz that Louis Armstrong is most known for is the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, but those were groups formed only for the recordings which were limited to 3 minutes max, and what Armstrong was really playing had a wider range of influences, was dance-able, and had a slower tempo. Like Muddy Waters, none of the more audience oriented music survives.

Jazz is the strength of the book and he details how when Jazz began to sweep the country it wasn’t the improvisational centered music we know now, nor the Hot Fives and Sevens music either, but something people could dance to, and that was assumed to be new and free. However, most musicians could read music and often if they made up the work “faked it” they would play it over and over as it created.  Long solos and fast tempos did not work for those who came to the shows to dance. There were other opportunities for people like Duke Ellington later to break free of the dancers, because they were playing for professionals at the Cotton Club and were not quite as constrained. Wald also does not think the history of white musicians robbing blacks of ideas is exactly accurate. Racism prevented many musicians from succeeding like white musicians, but a figure like Paul Whiteman has is responsible some developments in Jazz that he is often not credited with, namely the introduction of the arrangement styles that latter grew into Swing. There were better arrangers, Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, but Whiteman was the most popular Jazz musician and Wald believes that even if his music is to sweet now, he is relevant.

All of this underlies Wald’s idea that what we claim is great now, is really transitory and as the music changes so does the interpretation of its relevance. This may be a novel insight in music criticism, but in other fields such as literature and film this isn’t exactly new. One gets the impression that he sees The Beatles loosing their throne; at this date I don’t see it. The title, which I have yet to explain, refers to how Rock and Roll which had been more dance oriented and coming out of a mix of country and rhythm and blues was change into a more pop sensibility that was made more for listening and less for dancing. It wouldn’t be until Disco that dance would really be part of a musical trend.

Ultimately, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll is a good history of American Popular music, but once it gets to the Rock and Roll era it begins to loose a little steam. His insistence that popular music is dance based muddies the story once Rock and Roll comes along. He is correct, though, in noting how American Popular music has gone from a more cross cultural and cross generational music to a very niche based music, much to its detriment.

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