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Book Review: Elijah Wald's How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll

Back in September, Jim Dandy gifted me this book, but due to my many distractions, it has taken me until now to finish it. Well, finish it I did, last night, on the couch in the piano room, with a pint of Guinness in easy reach.

One of the refreshing things about the book is that Wald doesn't lord over us readers; rather, he levels with us: about his prejudices, about his tastes and about his rhetorical strategies. Which is not to say that he doesn't bombard us with information and anecdotes; he does, but they go down well. The title would suggest a focus on the music of the sixties, but really the narrative spans the entire twentieth century, and the Beatles don't make their appearance until the last 30 pages or so. The first 220 pages painstakingly and lovingly trace the history of popular music, taking on ragtime, Paul Whiteman, prohibition, the radio, swing bands, Mitch Miller, dance fads, and records. One would expect the opposite: a cursory glance at the past and a detailed analysis of what happened in the sixties. I like Wald's evenly balanced chronological approach, which doesn't shortchange a single period.

Wald can turn a phrase. Here is one of many that caught my attention: "Just as the fervent singing styles and complex rhythms of Clyde McPhatter, Ray Charles, James Brown and the Motown stars were to a great extent adapted from gospel artists, steps that looked a lot like the mash potato and the pony had been commonplace for decades in the less sedate black churches, where congregants seized by the spirit kicked out in footwork that the go-go dancers of the sixties could only envy."

One small critique. Nobody, not even Wald, ever calls Dámaso Pérez Prado by his full name. He's always "Perez Prado," as if his first name were "Perez." He's even in the index as "Prado, Perez" instead of "Pérez Prado, Dámaso."

This is a revisionist history of rock 'n' roll and at the same time a hard look at the role of race in popular music. I suppose the thesis goes something like this: up until the British Invasion, popular music may have had its divisions (sweet vs. hot, balladeers vs. rockers, etc.), but beneath it was a certain commonality. Bands played live and played the music that people, women and girls too, wanted to hear. Bands played for dancers, whether they were dancing cheek-to-cheek, or doing the twist or the mashed potato. While blacks were more often than not the innovators, there was always cross-pollination. Paul Whiteman whitened black styles, but Duke Ellington dug Whiteman's charts and didn't hesitate to express his admiration or incorporate Whitemanesque sweetness. Elvis may have hit it big as a rock 'n' roller, but at heart he loved to sing a ballad or gospel. With the Beatles, oddly at the very time of the civil rights movement, segregation finally took hold in popular music. Rock 'n' roll ceased to be dance music and became art music. Now, there was always a high brow element to popular music, an assumption that the pop music should aspire to the supposed artistic heights of classical music, but with the Beatles it finally came to pass. With records like Rubber Soul, Revolver, and especially Sgt. Pepper, rock became art. Wald makes the point these recordings are akin to avant garde film in the way that they are so carefully crafted. This is music to listen to not to enjoy for the beat or because it's easy to dance to.

(parenthesis: I wonder if a study of Detroit rock 'n' roll would blur the line. I think of Bob Seger covering Tina Turner, quoting James Brown, and the "blackness" of Detroit rock in general.)

I don't think this book is an effort to disparage the greatness of the Beatles at all, but rather merely to point out something curious that happened on the way to the present. The Beatles more or less quit playing live, and certainly did not need to worry about pleasing dancers.

Since then, there have been seemingly two streams: a white rock stream epitomized by the Beatles, but including, you know, Pink Floyd and Bruce Springsteen, and a black soul or R&B stream, which includes such disparate elements as disco and hip hop. Artists like Sly and the Stone and Stevie Wonder have managed to straddle the divide, but they are exceptions to the norm.

I think what drove Wald to write this book is a wish that this divide would have never happened. At the end he says something very telling: "When Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, and the Ramones appeared, I was still into blues and didn't run out to buy their records, but I certainly thought of their music as a breath of fresh air, and considered them more interesting than Chic. So it is striking to me, listening to the music thirty years later, to find that those interesting white artists all sound as if in one or another way they were holding on to the past, while Chic sounds ahead of its time."

I think he's right.

Comments

Paperback Writer

Thank you for that forensically detailed report. Now I won't have to read my copy. Or maybe I can just skip to the last 30 pages. Either way, I hope it has expanded your view on the subject and gives you fuel for debate at some future collegiate cocktail party. And remember, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.
sledding

November 2017

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