By Jim Sullivan
Sunday, June 28, 2009
You'd be hard-pressed to find a book with a more confrontational
title than the one Elijah Wald chose for his latest: "How the Beatles
Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of Popular Music."
Attack the Beatles and you're attacking rock royalty.
"Please write that I do not hate the Beatles," said Cambridge native
Wald. "I grant you 'destroy' is a provocative word. The title is an
attempt to make people pick up the book. But if Paul McCartney picked
it up, I don't think he'd disagree. He is truly conscious that the
music he loved (as a kid) was gone by the late '60s and the Beatles
were largely responsible for that."
Of course, rock 'n' roll rages on. "Obviously, in some way the title
is inaccurate," said Wald, 50, a blues guitarist and author who
recently finished a stint in Los Angeles teaching at UCLA. "Because
in some form, rock 'n' roll is still around. But there were a couple
of points I was trying to make. One was any shift in music produces
winners and losers, but some stories always get told the same way.
The Beatles story always gets told as them starting as a fun band and
developing into this greater, artistically more-mature thing. I don't
disagree with that, but there's an equal way of telling it. They
started out playing mainstream pop and simply abandoned what had been
their core constituency."
Up to the British invasion, Wald maintains, black and white audiences
often enjoyed the same music, and that music was often dance music.
"The Beatles took a huge part of the huge white rock world with them,
particularly with the release of 'Sgt. Pepper,' " Wald said. "That's
at the core of my argument. We created a split between white and
black music. The way music history has been told over and over is you
hear 'the Beatles introduced Americans to black music,' which sure
would have been news to kids dancing to Motown."
Wald also notes that James Brown's seminal 1962 album, "Live at the
Apollo," was a massive pre-Beatlemania hit in 1963, reaching No. 2.
The Beatles are a hook for the book, which Wald will discuss Tuesday
at Cambridge's Porter Square Books, where he'll also pick a little
guitar. But the Fab Four are by no means its focal point. Wald's
"Alternative History" covers the 20th century of music, "from ragtime
to rap," as he puts it.
He says critics and historians, mostly male, have stressed certain
values - harmonic, melodic and lyrical development - over rhythm.
Audiences, women in particular, respond to rhythm, he argues. If
critics valued innovation and progression, the mainstream favored the
beat. Wald sees his book as a corrective.
Singer-songwriter Tom Waits, to name one notable admirer, praises
Wald's take. "It nailed me to the wall," he said. "Not bad for a
grand, sweeping, in-depth exploration of American music with not one
mention of myself. Wald's book is suave, soulful, ebullient and will
blow out your speakers."
Wald says he was just trying to set the record straight.
"It's a strange position to be considered a contrarian for standing
up for the majority," he said. "I've tried to write a serious,
enjoyable book that's easy to read, but is not a dumbing-down."