How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll
by Elijah Wald
Oxford University Press
Every generation claims that the pop music it heard when young was classic, and the stuff kids listen to nowadays is crap. Pure crankiness? Well, in the case of pop music of the last forty years, it may be true.
That’s a crude distillation of Elijah Wald’s book How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll, and the title would seem to be a dead giveaway. But the actual book is more complex than that, more rewarding and ultimately perhaps different than the author may have imagined it being. It’s a subtle polemic, one that is fundamentally broad-minded and seeks to educate the reader on the rich legacy and development of American popular music, the music that spawned the Beatles and from which that group departed, for better and worse.
At the heart of the book is a long, careful, and consistent narrative of commercial pop music. Starting with 19th century rags, marches, and popular classical pieces, through the beginnings of jazz and the rise of commercial big bands, Wald emphasizes several things that have been obscured by the more usual focus on the audio record of music: that commercial popular music was primarily dance music for many decades, and that audiences were more interested in dancing than in sitting, listening, and developing particular tastes for specific musicians and bands; that professional musicians, wanting to work, played the music that pleased these audiences, including waltzes and fox-trots; that what bands played for dancing audiences was very different from the kind of music we hear on records, which tended to either artificially confine styles or preserve ensembles that only existed in the studio; and that pop music originated as a mixture of African-American and European styles—although society was segregated, white and black bands were constantly playing the same mix of material and styles, learning from each other.
This last point is the crux of the book, and Wald comes back to it frequently. The dancing habits of audiences and the professional interest, skills, and pride of the musicians and bandleaders meant that the artists themselves were not only masters of a vast repertoire but also admirers of the work of their professional peers; it’s easy to understand why musicians admired Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson, but it will surprise many readers to discover that Armstrong was an admirer of Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians, and that Fletcher Henderson admired Paul Whiteman. Whiteman receives a full chapter in Wald’s book, and deserves one. It’s easy to mock his name and his legacy—but also wrong. Whiteman was enormously popular and also enormously important, making dance-band music sophisticated and acceptable across audiences in the concert hall, and paving the way for the great Bennie Goodman, himself embodying the moment when dance music became swing music, i.e. music that people wanted to hear, not dance to, a necessary step in “jass” becoming “Jazz.”
Whiteman and Goodman also represent the key points of Wald’s narrative, moments when musical style bifurcated for some mixture of social and technological reasons. Recordings and radio begat a new type of listening, which split swing from dance bands, followed by the jukebox and programs that showcased the hits, which began to split pop music into new and artificial categories (country and western, rhythm and blues), which further subdivided styles by singers rather than ensembles. (Wald’s book oddly leaves out bebop, which created the art-music branch of jazz.) Wald intriguingly states that the rise of the jukebox single led to the rise of the amateur in pop music, which went from requiring talented musicians who could capably handle a variety of styles to ones who could capably handle only one, their own. This is a striking reversal of the rise of professional specialization in every other area of economic life. It’s only in the last chapter, though, that we reach the sixties and the Beatles, and their musical apotheosis Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which created the studio-artifact, pop-music-as-art record, and made the final split between rock music and its living, contemporary roots in African-American popular styles.
Sergeant Pepper brought a musical movement to a close with the same finality that Le Sacre du Printemps brought to Romanticism. But pop music is a social art and classical music is abstract, so while the latter moved on to a kaleidoscope of new styles in the 20th century, pop, cut off from its roots, was left to solipsistic cannibalism, an almost atavistic ritual of ever-shortening cycles renewing previous styles. African-American pop music has continued to be innovative and pioneer not only new styles but new uses for technology, while rock gazes at its own navel, searching for meaning in the constant present, crippled by the loss of its own history. Not that no good rock music has been made in the last forty years, because it certainly has, some of it even of the art-pop variety (see: Radiohead). But one of the reasons Elvis Costello’s records continue to sound so fresh is that he frequently makes music as if the Beatles had never existed. He ignores the Sergeant Pepper cul-de-sac and brews an original mix of white and black music that is at least aware of the idea of dancing.
Wald is right on his history, facts, and interpretation. He avoids making value judgments, but discerns and explains qualities in music. The ears and the feet don’t lie; blues feel and particular beats and rhythms are apparent from one decade to the next, but after the late Beatle records and the death of Jimi Hendrix those qualities that used to be common in rock ’n’ roll have become rare. Contrived summit meetings like that between Howlin’ Wolf and Eric Clapton (The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions on Chess) mainly point out what the white musicians are lacking, while Sun Ra’s The Singles (Evidence) demonstrates that pop sensibilities—the desire to be liked and get people dancing—and radical innovation are the inherent Janus faces of African-American popular music. The latter record has a groove; the former just thuds along. This is a valuable argument for anyone who loves pop music and finds unselfconscious pleasure in it, and in this way Wald’s book is an ideal companion to Geoffrey O’Brien’s personal mediation, Sonata for Jukebox (Counterpoint, 2005). Wald could have gone even further—he brings his concluding argument about abruptly and without exploration or much discussion after the bulk of the book traces the fascinating story of the music itself. It’s a broad topic with a seemingly endless amount of detail, but Wald organizes his material exceptionally well and tells the story logically and transparently. He does it without much style, however, so, with his cursory discussion of the Beatles and the artificially pat final epilogue, one is left feeling a bit underfed. Wald’s emphasis of thought, tone, and structure is focused on the past, not the break with it, so the book ends up as a provocative elegy for a history the author makes vivid, rather than an explanation of how the Beatles did anything. It demands not so much a history of post–Fab Four pop but a discussion of pop music that, like Costello’s, has remained true to its origins. But to criticize the book in this way is only to emphasize how worthwhile it is.
GEORGE GRELLA is the publisher of the Big City Blog and writes frequently about music for the Rail, where he covers the Brooklyn Philharmonic beat.