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How the Beatles Destroyed Rock

Book Review

Jun. 3, 2009
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The title of this book is meant to grab readers, especially Baby Boomers, by the collar. Music writer Elijah Wald, in How the Beatles Destroyed Rock'n'Roll (Oxford University Press), isn't actually saying the most heralded rock band ever was bad. Rather, Wald's thesis is that the Beatles not only pushed the focus away from live music to the craft of the recording studio, but inadvertently caused a musical split between black and white that has never really been bridged.


A Late Boomer grown up in an era that distrusted all-inclusive, grand narratives, Wald admits exceptions to his theory at many steps along his journey through 20th century Anglo-American music. His book's title is more attention getter than plot synopsis in another respect: for him, the Beatles were only the climax of a longer history.


The unlikely central figure in Wald's narrative isn't Paul McCartney but Paul Whiteman, a provocative choice considering how thoroughly marginalized he has been by music historians of all stripes and forgotten by the public. But in his day, the 1920s, Whiteman was crowned as the "King of Jazz," and his reign over concert halls, record sales and the imagination of musicians white and black extended throughout the decade dubbed the "Jazz Age." The backlash that began in the 1930s swing era, when his orchestra was already deemed old fashioned, has never abated. Whiteman was indicted for all the crimes Elvis was later charged with, including stealing the black man's music and watering it down into bland pudding.


And yet he commissioned George Gershwin's epochal Rhapsody in Blue, gave Bing Crosby his start and-in a process similar to the Beatles with rock'n'roll-elevated jazz from the bawdy streets to respectable society. What Sgt. Pepper was to rock in the '60s, Rhapsody in Blue was to jazz in the '20s. Whiteman was even prescient about this, predicting in the mid-'50s that rock musicians will "get tired of that one-or two-guitar sound, and eventually they'll add fiddles and saxes and brass, like we did when we started the big-band business." Like the Beatles, Whiteman made a vernacular music of low caste origins conscious of itself as art.


How the Beatles Destroyed Rock'n'Roll is a guided tour through many of the less explored byways of popular music history. Although most everyone credits New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz, Wald finds that the facts are less certain. He reminds us that early sound recordings are a doubtful way of reconstructing the sound of the era's music, owing to their primitive, sonically restrictive technology, and that the rise of the recording industry made individually distinct performance styles important. Once, people bought songs. Soon enough they wanted to hear Billie Holiday-or Frank Sinatra or some other favorite interpreter-sing them.


The Grateful Dead have been criticized for their endless noodling, but, Wald has found, the dance bands of the early 20th century sometimes riffed on the same number for 15 minutes and up-as long as the rhythm held the dancers feet to the floor. Concision was spurred by the time limits of early recordings. Wald gives more serious attention to the importance of dance to popular music than most historians, noting that after the Beatles, rock became concert music (or sounds to be enjoyed within the privacy of one's head), and lost the communal experience of dance. That function was left to R&B. Ironically, as the '60s Civil Rights movement leveled many barriers, African-American music became resegregated after enjoying a decade of virtual integration during the early years of rock'n'roll. Shorn of fruitful interchange with musicians of greater melodic aspiration, dance music descended into the metronome mechanics of disco.


Wald adds that black musical auteurs existed, notably Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Prince, but that the socio-economics of the record industry cut them little slack. "They were expected to sell a lot more records than Dylan did or the cash flow disappeared," he writes, stating a truth few critics have examined.


How the Beatles Destroyed Rock'n'Roll is like that-an attempt to cut through decades of historiography to relive popular music as it was experienced in the moments of its creation.


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