Monday, February 8, 2010

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll (Oxford University Press, 2009).

Isn't that a great name for a book? I love the iconoclastic cheek of such a thing. That would be a terrific story, but this book isn't it. Instead, Elijah Wald tells the history of American popular music prior to 1964, arguing that rock 'n' roll was some... nebulous thing or other that no longer existed after Vee-Jay Records licensed the first Beatles LP after Parlophone.

I found the book interesting, but I also found it unbelievably dense and very easy to get lost. He makes a good point, starting chapter seven, that "old records bear the same relationship to vanished bands that fossils and skeletons bear to extinct animals," and I can get behind that conceptually, but what this means to readers is an impenetrable fortress of text, detailing everything from player pianos through Scott Joplin, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, country, Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin, and how the fashion of the music business evolved over sixty years. Paul Whiteman is a major figure in this accounting, as are dozens of artists not readily given their due by what Wald argues is revisionist history, written by rock critics uninterested in pre-1960 music.

If I understand correctly, Wald is arguing that the backbone of music over this time was sheet music, and that songs, as performed by dozens of artists, became hits by virtue of readily-available sheet music making its way to all the regional labels that once thrived. By the time Lennon and McCartney show up, about thirty pages from the end of the text, there's a new desire for what we might term "authenticity" from performers, and a "definitive" recording from one artist. Apparently, that no longer counts as rock 'n' roll. Albums of covers, such as A Bit of Liverpool by the Supremes, were throwbacks to this era.

It's never clear whether Wald views the evolution towards "definitive" recorded performances as a bad thing, despite the book's ostentatious title. He talks a good deal about the importance of live music being played at dances, and the interplay of white and black performers, but the suggestion of an "alternative" history of popular music never rings true. It's just a history of what was popular, even if it was not necessarily cool or praiseworthy. I think I was just fine knowing what little I knew of Lawrence Welk and player pianos before I bothered with this book. Not recommended.

1 comment:

James Elfers said...

I enjoyed this book enormously. You seem to have missed the point entirely. Before the Beatles music was local performance. Record companies and sheet music companies fossilized REGIONAL hits some of which became national or international sensations. Since the Beatles music has become a GLOBAL enterprise and the days of local music being played by local musicians for local audiences has virtually disappeared. The pap that permeates the airwaves today is largely the result of record companies looking for the next global hit.
Its not the Beatles fault but in a sense they really did destroy rock and roll.