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

Elijah Wald

(Oxford University Press; US: Jun 2009)

Do not be drawn in by the title. Elijah Wald, the author of several books including a fine study of Robert Johnson and the blues, tells us that when he was a child he loved Meet the Beatles, but from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, on had no interest in their music. Turns out this book is not at all about the Beatles, who are mentioned in the introduction and then barely again for over 200 pages.


Wald’s one-line thesis is that the Beatles were great while they were playing songs you could dance to, songs that drew upon and paid tribute to black artists such as Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, and Chubby Checker, but that they lost him when they turned rock into art and experimentation, and created a new musical aesthetic.

The transformation is worth exploring, but Wald is not up to the task. Doing so would require a thorough investigation of the ‘60s, a meditation on generational shifts, and, most of all, an investigation into drug culture and the great metamorphosis of rock ‘n’ roll.


Wald provides none of this. Instead he surveys the history of popular music and its various genres and sub genres: swing, jive, jazz, boogie-woogie, R&B, rock, folk, country, western, pop, rockabilly and on and on and on. If the world is divided into lumpers and splitters, those who see forests and those who see trees, Wald is in love with every branch of the ramifying bush that is popular music.


This is not a bad thing, and readers will certainly learn a great deal about artists and songs popular in their day but of which little trace remains. Exhibit number one for Wald is Paul Whiteman, the “Jazz King” of the ‘20s whose career stretched into the ‘50s. In a sense, Wald yearns for Whiteman to be as venerated as Duke Ellington or Benny Goodman if for no other reason than because he was more popular at one time.


“Listening with modern ears,” Wald observes, “it is virtually impossible to hear how fresh and exciting the Whiteman band must have sounded in the early 1920s.” Wald laments the loss, but he does not analyze how jazz came to be seen predominantly as an African American tradition to modern ears.


Wald does raise important questions about how taste changes. His scatter-shot history discusses such topics as recording technologies, the locations where fans heard live music and danced to it, the role of radio and then television, female audiences, and the relationship between rock and race.


He is especially animated on this last issue. Although he does not discuss such important work as Craig Werner’s A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America,  Wald moves away from the standard line that sees early rock ‘n’ roll as the appropriation of black music, the “black roots/white fruits” thesis. With Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins, Wald notes, “it ceased to be possible to describe the scene simply in terms of black originators and white imitators.” 


And yet he sees rock’s turn toward experimentation and art as a repudiation of dance beats and a break from black performers who, according to Wald, “were thinking in different terms from the new rock groups.” That assertion may come as news to Isaac Hayes, Arthur Lee, Stevie Wonder, and Jimi Hendrix, among others, who served with many white counterparts as originators. The question of race and rock is essential, but it is an issue that requires much closer analysis than Wald provides.


The lack of depth is related to the excessive detail and repetition that plagues the book, and Wald seems to sense it. “By now some readers are probably rolling their eyes,” he asserts at one point. It certainly is challenging when, on a single page, the following names appear: Bill Anderson, Skeeter Davis, Marty Robbins, Jimmy Dean, Lorne Greene, the Beach Boys, Acker Bilk, David Rose, Lawrence Welk, the Trashmen, the Rip Chords, Jan and Dean, the Ventures, Dick Dale, and Duane Eddy.


It’s unfortunate that Wald stopped listening to the Beatles once they shifted artistic gears. It’s like readers who only bought Herman Melville’s south sea romances, or movie-goers who only saw Woody Allen’s slapstick comedies. And then there are those fans who abandoned Bob Dylan once he grabbed an electric guitar.


If, as Bruce Springsteen suggested, Elvis freed our bodies and Dylan freed our minds, then the Beatles did both and in the process took aim at our souls. It was Dylan who first introduced the Fab Four to marijuana, and it was the drug culture of the ‘60s more than any other single factor that forever changed what we heard and how we listened.


In 2004, Brian Burton, also known as Danger Mouse, remixed Jay-Z’s The Black Album with the Beatles White Album to create The Grey Album. The Beatles thereby became part of a new groove which in turn allowed us to hear the group in fresh ways. Come to think of it, in their time they sampled and rapped and experimented with rhythms and sounds. This gives me an idea for a book. Think I’ll call it How the Beatles Invented Hip Hop.

Rating:

Louis P. Masur chairs the American Studies program at Trinity College (CT) and is the author of Runaway Dream: Born to Run and Bruce Springsteen


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