By PETER KEEPNEWS
Published: July 10, 2009
HOW THE BEATLES DESTROYED ROCK 'N' ROLL
An Alternative History of American Popular Music
By Elijah Wald
Illustrated. 323 pp. Oxford University Press. $24.95
If you're looking to be convinced that the Beatles destroyed rock 'n'
roll, then strangely enough, "How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n'
Roll" is not for you. The title is a come-on: the Beatles are among
the many subjects Elijah Wald addresses in this cheerfully
iconoclastic book, but they are not what it is about.
On the other hand, if you're looking, as Wald's subtitle has it, for
"an alternative history of American popular music" specifically
from the turn of the 20th century to roughly the mid-1970s you've
found it. And if you're up for some good arguments, you've found those too.
"How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll" contains some arguments
that will have you slapping your forehead and exclaiming "Of course!"
and some that will have you scratching your head and saying "Huh?"
The one that gives the book its name may have you doing both.
While Wald never says in so many words that the Beatles destroyed
rock 'n' roll, he does take a stance several degrees removed from
standard-issue Beatles worship. He suggests that their ambitious
later work, widely hailed as a step forward for rock, instead helped
turn it from a triumphantly mongrel dance music that smashed racial
barriers into a rhythmically inert art music made mostly by and for
white people. Whether you agree or disagree, you have to admit that's
a provocative assertion.
This book is full of similarly provocative claims, always supported
by copious evidence even when the conclusions are debatable. Wald is
a meticulous researcher, a graceful writer and a committed
contrarian. He is best known as the author of "Escaping the Delta,"
which was basically (I exaggerate only a little) a book-length
attempt to deflate the exalted reputation of the bluesman Robert
Johnson. In his new book he once again challenges the conventional
wisdom, this time on a much broader scale.
He has set himself a deceptively simple task: to write about the
popular music of the last century by concentrating on what was
actually popular, and to figure out why people not critics or
historians but the people who bought the sheet music and the records,
listened to the songs on the radio and went to the dances liked it.
In doing so he ends up taking aim, for example, at the notion that
mainstream pop music in the early 1950s was mired in white-bread
mediocrity, as embodied by the likes of Perry Como, until Elvis
Presley and company came along to rescue it. He doesn't deny that
rock 'n' roll delivered a new energy and a new attitude, but he
maintains that Elvis and Perry had more than a little in common and
he notes that plenty of teenage record buyers liked them both.
He also makes a case for the importance, and the lasting influence,
of artists like Paul Whiteman, a bandleader who was phenomenally
successful in the 1920s and '30s but has rarely received anything
more than grudging respect from music historians, and has more often
been either attacked or ignored.
In his heyday the appropriately named Whiteman was billed as the King
of Jazz, which in artistic terms he clearly wasn't; Wald acknowledges
that his often syrupy music is less interesting than Fletcher
Henderson's or Duke Ellington's. But he also says that no matter how
corny it may sound to contemporary ears, it deserves to be taken
seriously not least because Whiteman's admirers included, among
many others, Henderson and Ellington. (While white musicians have
long drawn inspiration from black musicians, he points out, the
inspiration has sometimes flowed in the other direction as well.)
And he finds parallels between Whiteman who commissioned "Rhapsody
in Blue" and whose quasi-symphonic approach was said, in the
unfortunate terminology of the time, to have made an honest woman out
of jazz and the Beatles. Whiteman, he explains, took a music that
had been seen as rough and uncouth and made it respectable to a wide
audience; the Beatles did the same thing with the string-quartet
elegance of "Yesterday" and the operatic grandiosity of "Sgt.
Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."
Wald admits that the analogy is far from perfect, which saves me the
trouble of saying so myself. But it works well enough to allow him to
ask an uncomfortable question: Why is it that the Beatles and others
who "built on the work of black precursors but took the music in new
directions" in the 1960s have been routinely praised for
accomplishing this feat, while Whiteman has been roundly condemned
for doing essentially the same thing 40 years earlier?
I don't have a good answer to that question. I also don't have a
sudden urge to trade my copy of "Revolver" for a Paul Whiteman
reissue. But on this and other subjects, "How the Beatles Destroyed
Rock 'n' Roll" has given me plenty to think about and for a book
that devotes so much attention to so many people who have never been
on my personal hit parade, that's an impressive accomplishment.
Peter Keepnews is a staff editor at The Times.