How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll
A catchy title for an alternative history of American popular music.
First, the author deserves a rap on the knuckles with a ruler for this preposterous title, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll. Not only is it a shameless ploy to hook all of us Fab Four lovers into a street fight – “Hey, take it back!” – but it’s blatantly disingenuous. He doesn’t really mean it.Skip to next paragraph
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But a more apt title like, “How the Primal Power of Early Jazz and Rock was Diffused by the Pursuit of Artistry and the Vagaries of Gender, Race, and the Demands of the Marketplace,” might have had a tough time making the bestseller list, not to mention fitting on the spine.
Despite its incendiary title, Elijah Wald’s book is a serious treatise on the history of recorded music, sifted through his filter as musician, scholar, and fan. In the introduction, Wald lays out his premise: Though he was a Beatles fan from the instant he heard their first American LP “Meet the Beatles,” with its danceable, infectious songs blasting from the family’s hi-fi, the Beatles’s rapid development as “recording artists” (as opposed to a live rock ’n’ roll band), left him feeling somewhat abandoned.
“My much older half-brother gave my parents Sgt. Pepper. I could tell it was a masterpiece – but it was not really my music. It was adult music.... I played it occasionally, but nowhere near as often as the band’s early records. It simply wasn’t as much fun.”
From there we learn that the declarative book title stems not from the author’s own opinion, but from that of Beatle bashers “within the small world of music nuts” who fervently believe that they did, indeed, destroy rock ’n’ roll, “turning it from a vibrant black (or integrated) dance music into a vehicle for white pap and pretension.” Again and again throughout this book, Wald returns to debate the question, “Is music for dancing, or listening?” (And I keep thinking ... what’s wrong with both?)
Beginning at the turn of the 20th century, Wald chronicles the parallel development of jazz, radio, and music recording, as sheet music and a piano in every parlor gradually gave way to armoir-sized radios and the gramophone. (No shortage of piano movers in the ’20s and ’30s, apparently.) Soon the denizens of dance halls weren’t the only ones able to enjoy the popular songs and bands of the day, as listening to music at home became as much an American pastime as dancing to it.
No working band of the time could possibly crisscross the country via train enough times in a career to equal the reach of one coast-to-coast NBC radio broadcast. Radio also changed the music that dance bands played, creating a sudden demand for singers. “Instead of having to project their voices with lung power and technique (to be heard over the large orchestras), the radio crooners were murmuring to listeners in living rooms.”
Formerly only a novelty vehicle to deliver a verse or chorus in the middle of an long instrumental arrangement, band singers like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby now found themselves literally standard-bearers, indelibly linked to the songs they crooned to millions of enraptured listeners, night after night, on the radio.
A few of the most popular “jazz” artists of the early radio days, Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians, and the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, get a belated turn in the spotlight to illustrate the book’s salient themes. Whiteman, a savvy musician/composer/arranger from Denver, springboarded off the popularity of early African-American jazz by incorporating its chord changes, melodies, and syncopation in a sophisticated dance orchestra setting, including a string section – and radio embraced his smooth and full-bodied sound in the 1920s. An astute judge of talent, Whiteman discovered and mentored many gifted musicians and singers during his reign as “America’s Jazz King,” including Jack Teagarden, Bix Beiderbecke, and a young Bing Crosby.