Blogs > HNN > Richard Canedo: Review of Elijah Wald’s “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music” (Oxford, 2009)

Mar 28, 2010 11:00 pm

Richard Canedo: Review of Elijah Wald’s “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music” (Oxford, 2009)

[Richard Canedo teaches history at Lincoln School in Providence, RI, performs occasionally in community theater, and wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on American vaudeville.]

This is, without question, the best book with the worst title I have ever read. Generally, though, I put more stock in books than in their titles — and this is a terrific book. Wald has a great deal to say, and most of it is exceptionally perceptive.

I suspect that the folks in marketing had something to do with the book’s title: 95% of the book is not about the Beatles, and Elijah Wald’s claim is not that they “destroyed” rock ‘n’ roll, so much as they shifted the course of all American popular music — and not for the better. (More on that later.) The book’s subtitle, “an alternative history,” is a better guide to the book’s contents, which trace the course of popular music from the 1890s to about the early 1970s. But a title like Exploding Myths and Tracing Musical Interactions in Twentieth Century Popular Music probably would not have sold very well.

Still, an “alternative history” it is: hardly a page goes by without Wald refining, redefining, challenging, and often overturning some minor or major piece of received wisdom, especially as found in jazz and rock histories, about the evolution of American popular music since the advent of recorded sound.

The book holds special interest for academic and public historians, history teachers, and anyone else interested in how we come to know, write about, and understand our past. The greatest compliment I can pay to Wald is that he knows how to think historically. Without any specialized training in history as a discipline — he was first a professional musician and music critic before he began writing music history — Wald writes with greater sensitivity to social context and to the complexity of change over time than many professional historians. Less surprisingly, since he often writes for a popular audience, Wald’s writing is more lively and accessible than that of most academics.

Although he never uses the term, Wald’s goal is in part to write social history. He thinks that too much music history has been written from a critic’s point of view: writers have decided what was “best” in a past era and told those stories, while ignoring or denigrating the rest of a period’s popular music. (The fact that it was female fans who drove many musical changes, while most music critics have been male, has only sharpened the denigration.) Wald seeks to understand what people at the time made popular and, more importantly, why they made it popular. In doing so, Wald captures not only the tastes of people in the past, but the social world in which they encountered music, and how that world, in turn, influenced what became popular. Particularly in the first half of the book, Wald is brilliant in recreating (in Peter Laslett’s phrase) “the world we have lost” of late nineteenth and early twentieth century popular music. Wald recreates that world in which music was created, disseminated, heard, and experienced in ways that were quite unfamiliar: dance halls and church socials, vaudeville houses and musical theater, home parlors and saloons, and even music lessons and teachers (who were ubiquitous and influential) figure into his story.

History teachers, students, and budding historians of all stripes should read the Introduction and first chapters of the book (at least) for a model of how context matters in understanding the past. For instance, until the full impact was felt of radio and the jukebox, people thought (and consumed) of music in terms of songs, rather than in terms of particular performances of songs. Music publishers thus allowed multiple versions of the same song to be recorded, and the various versions fought for sales. It was only after the mid-‘30s that unique performances began to sell, and not until the ‘60s that the performer-song link came to be the dominant norm. This helps to explain the nomenclature (which had always eluded me before) of distinguishing “standards” from “oldies.” The former are songs, but not any particular performance of them. People usually refer to standards by composer: an “Irving Berlin song.” Oldies refer to particular performances preserved as recordings: mention almost any popular song from the ‘50s onward, and people tend to think of a recording of it. With rare exceptions (like Bob Dylan), songs are identified as Elvis Presley songs or Madonna songs, but rarely does anyone know the composer or identify any other performer with the song.

Like any good historian, Wald is careful with how he regards the primary sources from which all our history comes and, in this case, part of that record is actual recordings. We think that, once we allow for the early technical limitations of recordings (scratches, hissing, “tinny” sound, etc.), that we are hearing the music as it actually was. In a wonderful analogy, however, he notes that “old records bear the same relationship to vanished bands that fossils and skeletons bear to extinct animals.” We can get a sense of the structure and size of a peacock from its skeleton, but we miss the things we care most about in live peacocks: the spreading tail and iridescent feathers. “That may seem obvious, but a lot of popular music history is written as if the skeletons were peacocks.” (p. 84) Wald thus sets out myriad ways that even recordings can mislead us. For example, 78-rpm records were limited to three minutes of recording time, so bands often recorded particular songs at much faster tempos than they ever performed them live. Further, the limits of recording technology into the mid-1920s meant that percussion and bass would distort the overall sound, so rhythm sections of bands were dropped from recording sessions. Finally, market demands led musical groups to record what was unusual or distinctive in their repertoire, so that both for individual performers and for music in general, what got recorded was not necessarily what was typical or heard most widely — the tunes people heard played most commonly by every dance band usually did not get preserved on records.

Numerous broad themes emerge as Wald takes us through the decades. The larger ones include the interaction between “white” and “black” musical styles (which flowed in both directions, in complicated ways), the central role of dance music in encouraging the exchange and spread of musical influences, the role of female musical fans (ignored, as noted above, by predominantly male critics and historians), the role of technology and media (records, radio, jukeboxes, LPs, television) on musical evolution, and the versatility (or lack of specialization) among most musical outfits (from erstwhile jazz ensembles to big bands to rock groups).

Above all, Wald highlights two themes. First are the continuities and links across time and musical genres from the turn of the century to the 1960s. Whether it means noting that the musical structures of most ragtime, jazz, swing, and rock pieces were generally similar, or that the Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller bands were among the most popular “swing” (or “hot”) bands of their era and among the most popular “sweet” bands, or that many fans listened to and enjoyed Perry Como and Elvis Presley, Wald is at pains to explode myths and expose common ground in popular music. To cite one example, Presley may be called “The King of Rock and Roll,” and songs like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” and “Jailhouse Rock” help support that claim. That title ignores, however, his appeal as a balladeer (“Can’t Help Falling in Love”) or his own love of and talent for gospel music. The title also obscures the deep roots (and wide appeal) of some of Presley’s songs: “Are You Lonesome To-night?” was written (and had been a hit) in 1927, and “Love Me Tender” was based on the song “Aura Lee,” from 1861.

Wald’s second theme, and one of his main continuities, is the interaction between dance music and “listening” music. Wald argues that most music early in the century was dance music, composed for live performers playing before live audiences. All bands thus had to be able to play, and did play, a wide variety of types of music: musicians who preferred jazz had to play classic foxtrots and waltzes too, and more conservative “sweet” bands had to be able to “swing” if the dancers demanded it. Wald argues that this cross-fertilization of bands — having to keep up with the times while still knowing the older songs, and having to learn one another’s styles and repertoire — enriched all popular music. This was especially true of the interaction between black and white musicians. The emergence of recorded music did little, he writes, to change this dynamic, although the advent of radio and the jukebox (on the importance of the latter Wald provides keen insights) as well as television did shape certain types of music.

His revisions regarding particular artists and periods involve rehabilitating the reputation of bandleader Paul Whiteman in the 1920s and, to a lesser extent, record producer Mitch Miller in the 1940s and ‘50s. Wald finds more interesting developments than most pop music historians have allowed for in the decade from the mid-‘40s to the mid-‘50s (the rising influence of the record producer, intense “fusion” among various subgenres, the emergence of commercial country music) and in the early ‘60s (the rise of “girl groups,” black performers selling directly to white record buyers, greater prominence of Latin and gospel music and, in a major departure, a wave of non-touch, non-partnered dancing, led by the twist).

Oddly, the least satisfying and convincing part of the book is at the end, the chapter referred to in the title. The Beatles began as a live band playing rock ’n’ roll for audiences that danced to the music. As time went on, they abandoned rock for ballads, pastiche songs, and more serious, “artsy” music – thus “killing” rock ‘n’ roll in its original form. They also stopped playing live shows and “performed” only on their recordings made in studios. Wald argues that their influence was so great that other groups followed their lead: success as a popular musician came to be defined as giving up live performance and making music that was meant to be listened to, not danced to. This led to a resegregation of pop music, with black performers continuing to create danceable beat-based tunes, and white groups making records with increasingly artistic soundscapes and poetic self-expression: music to be listened to, seriously. White and black music were sealed off from one another, and the music of the last forty years has been poorer for it.

The problem with this conclusion to the book is that it betrays Wald’s own explanations of historical change. First, in a book that emphasizes continuity, it is the music of Wald’s youth alone that represents the one massive break in pop musical history. In a book that prizes context, Wald’s claim of musical decline since the ‘60s is, ironically, an aesthetic judgment: throughout the book he looks at what was popular and why, like a historian; at the very end he tries to explain why music got worse, like a critic. The sky had fallen many times before (for my parents’ generation, it was the death of the big bands), but pop music had always somehow soldiered on, as Wald shows, in interesting ways. Second, in a book sensitive to the way technology did and did not shape music, Wald ignores the role of FM radio in changing the media from broadcasting (small numbers of widely-listened-to AM stations) to “narrowcasting” (large numbers of niche format FM stations) – that is, in segregating the audience (and, thus, many artists) into narrow genres whose fans did not listen to one another’s music. Third, and most important, it ignores too many of the developments of the last forty years that continue to fit Wald’s model of musical interaction. Madonna would be surprised to hear that black performers monopolize dance music, Prince amazed that dance music and artistic ambition run on separate tracks (especially racially), the Grateful Dead startled that careers based on live performance are a thing of the past, and Eminem absolutely astonished that white performers are insulated from black musical influence. The decline (some say collapse) of the record industry in the last decade from the inroads of digital downloads and exposure through YouTube has also led to the rebirth of the singles market and a boon for struggling bands whose appeal is in their live performances.

There are other smaller problems too, most of which emerge from Wald’s pushing certain revisionary ideas too far, rather than making illegitimate points. For example, a key to his thesis is the primacy of dance music as popular music, which is a good corrective to many critic-centered histories. Still, plenty of music was heard, enjoyed, and simply listened to in vaudeville and musical theaters, in cafes, coffeehouses, and cabarets, and in people’s parlors and living rooms. Cole Porter did not spend all that time and effort writing effervescent plays on words and clever internal rhymes for people interested solely in dancing to the tunes. Lyrics matter too, musically and historically, and they are mostly absent from Wald’s account. In a related vein, none of the many books by some key authors on popular music, like Charles Hamm, Philip Furia, David Jasen, and Nicholas Tawa, are listed in Wald’s otherwise admirable bibliography. This may be due to these authors’ emphasis on musical structure and lyrics of songs, while, again, Wald highlights dance music and social context for performance — but the absence of their works is an odd omission.

One small warning: anyone interested in 20th century American history will read this book profitably and pleasurably, as I have indicated. The ideal reader for this book, however, is someone who already knows (or, perhaps more importantly, has heard) something of 20th century American popular music and its history. If a reader has no idea at all, though, what the difference is between the sound of a “sweet” band and a “swing” band, or between the sound of Little Richard and Pat Boone’s versions of “Tutti Frutti,” then the observation (attributed variously) may apply that “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

Such minor flaws aside, this is a wonderful book. Wald had taken on a sprawling and complicated subject, and his success cannot be questioned in provoking thought, clarifying assumptions, and helping us to see much more clearly the relationship between popular music and its times.

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Raul A Garcia - 6/7/2010

As an American Hisory teacher in middle school, this subject and historiography is most interesting. This is a great way to enjoin many students in history and use primary sources-in this case recordings- to do interpretative history. Thank you for bringing this to our collective attention!