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How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll

A catchy title for an alternative history of American popular music.

(Page 2 of 2)

Whiteman’s legacy, in a nutshell, is the same as that of the Beatles, according to Wald. Whiteman adopted a primal, rhythmic African-American style of music, then developed his own, tamer, smoother version – which voided much of what made the source material appealing in the first place – thus alienating music critics, even as he attracted legions of happy fans.

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(Although considered one of the greatest jazz innovators of all time, as well as being a fine composer and arranger, a progenitor of the WWII-era swing bands to follow, and an inspirational leader to impeachable legends like Duke Ellington, Whiteman rarely makes an appearance on any list of jazz greats, nor have many of his records been converted to CDs for modern-day fans. The man who commissioned Gershwin to compose “Rhapsody in Blue” for his orchestra is, today, hardly a blip on the radar.)

Wald points out that for every genuine talent that appeared on the scene like Elvis Presley, a batch of wholesome, less threatening surrogates were trotted out like Pat Boone, Ricky Nelson, and Fabian – all selling millions of records. Perry Como and Connie Francis were huge recording and TV stars at a time when Little Richard, Ray Charles, and Dinah Washington were redefining American music styles, yet the black stars could not get their records played on mainstream radio.

Wald follows the segregation of white and black musicians through the 20th century, noting that the band of swing clarinetist Benny Goodman  was the first major act to integrate in 1935. “Goodman’s breakthrough led to a new level of acclaim for black players and bands, just as Elvis Presley’s success would do wonders for the careers of Chuck Berry and Little Richard, but white artists and aggregations that sounded sufficiently black could almost always get better jobs and more money than their African-American counterparts.”

Race is a consistent theme throughout this book, weaving its way through the decades and musical styles. Of course, its influence cannot be separated from any serious discussion of American history, especially music. As the split between music for dancing and music for listening grew, notes the author, it further divided and defined black and white musical styles. “The segregation of American popular music that began with the British Invasion has hurt white music more than it hurt black.... [M]eanwhile black dance music of the 70s led into hip-hop and rap, which have inspired and transformed popular styles around the world.”

The subtitle of Wald’s book is “An Alternative History of American Popular Music.” It’s a brave and original work that certainly delivers on that promise, though the author seems at times as conflicted about the value of certain artists and forms of music as were the timid radio programmers and record company executives back in the day.

In my view, music, like any art form, is best experienced without preconception. The guileless reaction of the listener would seem vital to the efficacy of the musical expression. Wald’s attempts to explain every nuance of how we react to music sometimes comes off like the diagramming of a joke. After a while, it’s just not funny anymore. I often felt myself wanting to put the book down so I could just enjoy some music without thinking about it.

Oh, and about that title.... As it turns out, Wald really loves the Beatles. But he hates them for selling out to arty pretension. He just wishes they had never progressed. On the other hand....

John Kehe is the Monitor’s design director, occasional music critic, and resident Beatles fanatic.


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