Friday, August 07, 2009

Question everything you know about rock and roll

I really want to read Elijah Wald's new book and you should, too. But if you're of a certain age or younger, you may find your mental universe exploding.


Wald challenged conventional wisdom about the blue in his highly recommended Escaping the Devil: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues,

Here's the title of the new book.

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music.
You can't get more provocative than that.

Here's the description from Wald's website

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll is a history of American popular music stripped of the familiar clich├ęs of jazz and rock history. Tracing the evolution of popular music through developing tastes, trends and technologies, rather than applying modern standards and genre categories, it gives a fuller, more balanced look at the broad variety of styles that captured listeners over the course of the twentieth century.

Wald goes back to original sources—recordings, period articles, memoirs and interviews—in an attempt to understand how music was heard and experienced over the years. He pays particular attention to the world of working musicians and ordinary listeners rather than to stars and specialists, looking at the evolution of jazz as dance music and of rock 'n' roll in terms of the teenage girls who made up the bulk of its early audience. There are plenty of famous names—Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, the Beatles—but they are placed alongside figures like Paul Whiteman, Guy Lombardo, Mitch Miller, Jo Stafford, Ricky Nelson and the Shirelles, who in some cases were far more popular and more accurately represent the mainstream of their times.

As the title suggests, this is not a hesitant or stolidly academic history, but neither is it heedlessly provocative. Wald’s intention was to explore the past with an open mind, asking some new questions and answering them as honestly and accurately as possible, and to make sense of times and people who often seem very foreign, though they are our own parents and grandparents. He has also tried to make that journey amusing and interesting, whatever we may think of ballroom orchestras, bobby-soxers, pop balladeers or British invaders.


I suspect that everything that won the Beatles praise from the likes of Leonard Bernstein and the cultural elite is regretted by Wald.

Erik Himmelsbach explains Wald's provocative thesis in a LA Times review:

Wald explains that the Beatles did in fact destroy rock 'n' roll by creating a schism between white and black music that's only grown farther apart in the decades since the dawn of Beatlemania (see: disco, soul, hip-hop). Like many early rock bands, the Beatles were rooted in the music of Chuck Berry and Little Richard. As the band found its creative voice, they abandoned their early influences. The results included "the effetely sentimental ballad" "Yesterday," a song that Wald claims "diffused" rock's energy and opened the door for milquetoasts such as Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Billy Joel, and Elton John. With the Sgt. Pepper album, the band draped their music "in a robe of arty mystification, opening the way for the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, Yes, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer."

"Rather than being a high point of rock," he continues, "the Beatles destroyed rock 'n' roll, turning it from a vibrant (or integrated) dance music into a vehicle for white pap and pretension." And what, again, was so revolutionary about Pat Boone?

UPDATE August 19 Be sure to read the comment from Elijah Wald.

I bought the book yesterday at Kramerbooks in DC. I've already read through the first six chapters. Essential reading for those interested in American popular culture.

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