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"There are no definitive histories," writes Elijah Wald, in this provocative reassessment of American popular music, "because the past keeps looking different as the present changes." Earlier musical styles sound different to us today because we hear them through the musical filter of other styles that came after them, all the way through funk and hip hop. As its blasphemo "There are no definitive histories," writes Elijah Wald, in this provocative reassessment of American popular music, "because the past keeps looking different as the present changes." Earlier musical styles sound different to us today because we hear them through the musical filter of other styles that came after them, all the way through funk and hip hop. As its blasphemous title suggests, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll rejects the conventional pieties of mainstream jazz and rock history. Rather than concentrating on those traditionally favored styles, the book traces the evolution of popular music through developing tastes, trends and technologies--including the role of records, radio, jukeboxes and television --to give a fuller, more balanced account of the broad variety of music that captivated listeners over the course of the twentieth century. Wald revisits original sources--recordings, period articles, memoirs, and interviews--to highlight how music was actually heard and experienced over the years. And in a refreshing departure from more typical histories, he focuses on the world of working musicians and ordinary listeners rather than stars and specialists. He looks for example at the evolution of jazz as dance music, and rock 'n' roll through the eyes of the screaming, twisting teenage girls who made up the bulk of its early audience. Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and the Beatles are all here, but Wald also discusses less familiar names like Paul Whiteman, Guy Lombardo, Mitch Miller, Jo Stafford, Frankie Avalon, and the Shirelles, who in some cases were far more popular than those bright stars we all know today, and who more accurately represent the mainstream of their times. Written with verve and style, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll shakes up our staid notions of music history and helps us hear American popular music with new ears.


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"There are no definitive histories," writes Elijah Wald, in this provocative reassessment of American popular music, "because the past keeps looking different as the present changes." Earlier musical styles sound different to us today because we hear them through the musical filter of other styles that came after them, all the way through funk and hip hop. As its blasphemo "There are no definitive histories," writes Elijah Wald, in this provocative reassessment of American popular music, "because the past keeps looking different as the present changes." Earlier musical styles sound different to us today because we hear them through the musical filter of other styles that came after them, all the way through funk and hip hop. As its blasphemous title suggests, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll rejects the conventional pieties of mainstream jazz and rock history. Rather than concentrating on those traditionally favored styles, the book traces the evolution of popular music through developing tastes, trends and technologies--including the role of records, radio, jukeboxes and television --to give a fuller, more balanced account of the broad variety of music that captivated listeners over the course of the twentieth century. Wald revisits original sources--recordings, period articles, memoirs, and interviews--to highlight how music was actually heard and experienced over the years. And in a refreshing departure from more typical histories, he focuses on the world of working musicians and ordinary listeners rather than stars and specialists. He looks for example at the evolution of jazz as dance music, and rock 'n' roll through the eyes of the screaming, twisting teenage girls who made up the bulk of its early audience. Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and the Beatles are all here, but Wald also discusses less familiar names like Paul Whiteman, Guy Lombardo, Mitch Miller, Jo Stafford, Frankie Avalon, and the Shirelles, who in some cases were far more popular than those bright stars we all know today, and who more accurately represent the mainstream of their times. Written with verve and style, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll shakes up our staid notions of music history and helps us hear American popular music with new ears.

30 review for How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music

  1. 5 out of 5

    Bill Kerwin

    Sure, the title is deliberately outrageous, something abrasive to catch the book-buyer's attention, but I hope the strategy works because this history of popular music in the United States deserves a wide readership. Wald begins with the self-evident assumption that such a history should consist of what is popular, not just what music buffs decide is artistically worthy and representative. He argues that it is women who drive popular taste in music because women fill clubs in order to dance, whi Sure, the title is deliberately outrageous, something abrasive to catch the book-buyer's attention, but I hope the strategy works because this history of popular music in the United States deserves a wide readership. Wald begins with the self-evident assumption that such a history should consist of what is popular, not just what music buffs decide is artistically worthy and representative. He argues that it is women who drive popular taste in music because women fill clubs in order to dance, while music historians (almost exclusively men) prefer to listen to records and argue about the merits of particular guitar or horn solos. Wald attempts to correct this imbalance by paying serious attention to many influential figures neglected in the typical history: John Philip Sousa, the dancers Vernon and Irene Castle, Paul Whiteman, Mitch Miller, Harry Belafonte, Ricky Nelson--to name just a few. He also pays attention to important events in the music business and the effects of technology--the the movement from sheet music to recording, the ASCAP ban and AFM boycott, the different audiences for LP's and 45's--and comes to many interesting and surprising conclusions. In addition, he is not at all concerned with artificial "music wars"--white music versus black music, jazz vs. rock, etc.--and this enables him to establish many unusual and illuminating connections. This is a wonderful book. I learned something new on almost every page, and I would heartily recommend it. Now--for those who have read this far--I will summarize the argument behind this book's provocative title. The Beatles transformed rock and roll from a business of hit singles designed for dancing to a business of artistically planned albums designed primarily for listening. In the process, they increased the gap between white music and its poor cousin black music (which, being less prosperous, was by necessity still yoked to the demands of dance) and the decrease of interaction between the two forms of music that inevitably resulted deprived both rock and roll and r & b of the racial cross-pollination that had been the hallmark of American popular music for the 50 plus years preceding "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

  2. 4 out of 5

    Paul Bryant

    It's a long time coming but finally you get what this catchpenny title actually means. Here we go... The rock revolution of the 60s, spearheaded by the Beatles, evolved rock & roll into rock and turned it into a form of art (as white musicians tried to do to jazz in the 20s). In so doing, and whilst at the same time it embraced older forms of black music (blues, country blues), rock distanced itself from contemporary black pop which was regarded as still based in teen-angst teen-dance forms (Moto It's a long time coming but finally you get what this catchpenny title actually means. Here we go... The rock revolution of the 60s, spearheaded by the Beatles, evolved rock & roll into rock and turned it into a form of art (as white musicians tried to do to jazz in the 20s). In so doing, and whilst at the same time it embraced older forms of black music (blues, country blues), rock distanced itself from contemporary black pop which was regarded as still based in teen-angst teen-dance forms (Motown). Up until the mid 60s the pop world (pre-rock) was less segregated with each passing year. But in 1966 the sonic experiments of the Beatles & psychedelic bands and the emphasised lyrics of Dylan and the folk rockers uncoupled white rock from black pop which then seemed mired in repetitive conservative teenage taste and unprogressive attitudes, exemplified by Motown and their Hit Factory conveyor belt Henry Ford approach to music. (Please, this is not me speaking! I heart Motown!) The white hippies thought the top 40 was irrelevant and dropping out was the goal. Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson thought the exact opposite. Here's a quote from a black member of the Fifth Dimension : "Drop out? Wow, man, what we got to drop out of anyway? You don't want your fancy house or your good job? Shit, let me have it, man, cause I've been trying to get something like that all my miserable life. (page 240) So as for the Beatles, "they were the catalysts for a divide between rock and soul that, rather than being mended in later years, would only grow wider with the emergence of disco and hip-hop." *** Undoubtedly this is one of the best and most careful histories of popular music in America (I don't think ANYONE has written in detail about American popular music in this way before, it is very good stuff), and when it's not a little too plodding (Elijah is no stylist, unlike his Biblical namesake), and not repeating some (good) points for the third and fourth time, it's crackling with great observations. Not only is it great music history (from the dawn of jazz to the end of the 60s) it asks what history is, what it's supposed to do, and where we get our received ideas from, so you could apply that to things other than Gene Krupa's haircut. I do have a beef about one of EW's arguments. EW points out that Paul Whiteman was the most popular artist of the 1920s, as Guy Lombardo and Pat Boone were in the 50s, and all of them are routinely written out of the histories by the music crits who hate their stuff whether or not they ever bother to listen to it. So we get a skewed understanding. Our version of the past is a fabrication in which Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong are towering figures, way more towering than they were in real life. Well, this is true, but Elijah, it's been going on in literature for centuries. It's called establishing the canon. In your courses on 19th century novelists do we find Sabine Baring-Gould, Mary Braddon or Catherine Gore? Not a chance, big sellers though they were. Whilst labouring this idea he makes many other good points, such as : both Whiteman and the Beatles took black forms of music and remade them into something a whole lot artier, a whole lot whiter, as it were. (Whiteman was the guy who premiered Rhapsody in Blue for instance.) But Whiteman is reviled and the Beatles are revered. Why would that be? Here's another one of his zingers : history, as we know , is written by the winners... yes? Yes. But MUSICAL history is written by the losers! How- uh - wha..? Wald explains this way : "The victors tend to be out dancing while the historians sit at their desks assiduously chronicling music they cannot hear on mainstream radio... the people who choose to write about music tend to be far from average consumers and partygoers and often despise the tastes of their more cheerful and numerous peers." So the losers - meaning the guys whose taste was in the minority, the scorned, the ignored, the whey-faced Billy-no-mates, they are the guys who create our canons of great 20th century music, they are the tastemakers of the fanboys of the future, they are the Velvet Underground and Nico, Astral Weeks and Trout Mask Replica fans. I think he's right. I see my own face in that mirror. As I got towards the end of this book, and he hadn't yet mentioned the Beatles, it was like walking down an alleyway expecting to be mugged. Finally there's a glint of metal and a rustle in the darkness: there is no good reason that we should consider the people who judged Rhapsody in Blue a greater work of art than Dipper Mouth Blues in the 1920s any more racist and shortsighted than those who considered Sgt Pepper a greater work than Papa's got a Brand New bag in the 1960s. [italics added] That's me then: racist. A forty minute work of melody and harmony and extraordinary new sounds is, I think, greater than an ultra-sharp three minute single which riffed on a single chord and pioneered a new kind of dance music. But : in conclusion : this is a GREAT argumentative, persuasive, beautiful book about pop music. I like it like that.

  3. 5 out of 5

    J.M. Hushour

    I picked this book up for two reasons: first, I think the Beatles suck and they should be blamed for everything we can possibly blame them for (teen shrieking, botulism, anal warts, anyone?); second, Tom Waits loves this book despite his own exclusion. Now, the alarmism that the title might engender is shifty, at best and the title misleading. Wald likes the Beatles and he isn't so much laying the blame for the collapse of a pretty interesting state of American music in the early-mid 1960s on the I picked this book up for two reasons: first, I think the Beatles suck and they should be blamed for everything we can possibly blame them for (teen shrieking, botulism, anal warts, anyone?); second, Tom Waits loves this book despite his own exclusion. Now, the alarmism that the title might engender is shifty, at best and the title misleading. Wald likes the Beatles and he isn't so much laying the blame for the collapse of a pretty interesting state of American music in the early-mid 1960s on the band itself as the phenomenon. This is a history of popular American music beginning with the dance hall era, the classical holdovers, the rise of Dixieland, jazz, blues, hillbilly music, "folk" music, "pop standards" as we call it now, and Elvis. Rock actually only rears its head in the last few chapters. This is more of a reassessment of the continuum of the development of lots of different kinds of music over the 20th century and the impact that technologies such as the phonograph, the jukebox, radio, and television had on people's listening habits, the weird change in dancing, etc. The main idea here is that, as Wald looks at what people were actually listening to and saying about the music they liked back then, there was a moment where black and white tastes and developments in music were, if still running parallel, were starting to mesh. The rise of the "hit" and the phenomenon of whiteboy bands like the Beatles basically led to a resegregation of music that set back cross-cultural stuff a few decades, at least until rap, probably. Wald's a fine writer and he loves the subject, something that doesn't usually shine through. Just don't let the title throw you off.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Alan

    You say you want a revolution Well, you know... —"Revolution," by The Beatles (1968) Despite that provocative main title—it certainly drew me in—How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll isn't at all about the Beatles. Elijah Wald just doesn't care that much about the Fab Four, whose arrival on American shores has to wait until this book's penultimate chapter. Most of Wald's efforts are dedicated to what his subtitle asserts is "An Alternative History of American Popular Music"—the kinds of music mad You say you want a revolution Well, you know... —"Revolution," by The Beatles (1968) Despite that provocative main title—it certainly drew me in—How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll isn't at all about the Beatles. Elijah Wald just doesn't care that much about the Fab Four, whose arrival on American shores has to wait until this book's penultimate chapter. Most of Wald's efforts are dedicated to what his subtitle asserts is "An Alternative History of American Popular Music"—the kinds of music made, and listened to, in the U.S.A. before the Beatles and the rest of the "British Invasion" bleached and bifurcated American rock'n'roll into divergent strands of black and white. Wald's interested in unearthing the unwritten history of American music, the ubiquitous tunes that were too commonly performed to immortalize on wax, vinyl or tape even after that became possible, the songs that sold millions while their contemporary critics, and those who followed, largely dismissed them as unimportant—often, too black—to write about. If I understood Wald's thesis correctly, the producers and audiences for these popular tunes, at least up through the first half of the Twentieth Century, were often a significant force for racial integration and cultural cross-fertilization in the U.S. Although that was never uniformly so, of course—as Wald also acknowledges,The fact that the Nazis were notorious for their racist ideology made the hypocrisy of American racism easier to confront and harder to defend, but that didn't keep the enemies of race-mixing from doing their damnedest. —p.145 Wald really means popular music, too:{...} while there are dozens of scholarly discussions of the Velvet Underground, there are virtually none of KC and the Sunshine band. —p.10This is exactly where Elijah Wald's coming from: he's fascinated by what Americans were actually listening to, the tunes they bought and played and imitated and sang along with on a daily basis, much more so than by the more rarefied and "significant" music that critics and reviewers were writing about. How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll does take awhile to get into, and that wasn't helped by its tiny print, which was harder to read for these older eyes even if it did make the book seem slimmer. The introductory material in the first couple of chapters—much of it, anyway—will seem familiar territory as well, if you've already read works like Listen to This by Alex Ross, or David Byrne's How Music Works. Even early on, though, Wald manages to slip in some telling insights: {In the 19th and up through the early 20th Century...} in any town big enough to have even a few people who aspired to middle-class status, black or white, the most numerous and in many ways the most influential professional musicians were teachers. —p.20 Wald also points out how profoundly Prohibition affected musicians, as so many venues closed or went underground... The problem of making a living in music got more serious in the 1920s with the arrival of Prohibition. The Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution made the sale and public consumption of alcohol illegal throughout the country as of January 16, 1920, and it was not repealed until the end of 1933. Obviously, this had a profound effect on nightlife of all kinds, and the American Federation of Musicians reported that it "resulted in some 56,000 men or two-fifths of the Federation's membership losing their jobs...in hotels, restaurants, resorts and beer gardens." Given this fact, it is startling how little attention has been paid to the effects of Prohibition on popular music. In histories of the period, jazz is routinely mentioned alongside speakeasies and bathtub gin, and it is easy to get the sense that everybody was partying like crazy, drinking more than ever and dancing up a storm. The reality was far more complicated, which is why repeal was greeted with widespread relief even by a lot of people who did not drink. —p.65Nuggets like these continue to appear throughout How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll. Wald did assemble a huge amount of detail (sometimes getting bogged down in those details, I think) to bolster his case for just how much worthwhile music went unrecorded and unremarked, even after individual performances could be preserved and listened to again and again. {...} the more we think we know about a time, the harder it can be to see it clearly. As someone once said, history may repeat itself, but historians repeat other historians. —p.60 How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll may not live up to its title—I wasn't entirely convinced of the Beatles' guilt myself, even after finishing—but Elijah Wald does contribute a substantial amount to the history of music in the United States, and he tries very hard throughout to give credit where due, to artists and audiences whose efforts have previously gone—heh—unsung. Speaking of credit where due, though... I'm dedicating this review to an online resource providing information about another group of creators who've been shortchanged by most music histories (including Wald's, I'm afraid): the Women in Rock Project, seen via Metafilter in June 2019.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Nick

    and I'm about halfway through it. I have to say that if you have any interest in popular music history, this book is an absolute must. Although it's written in an acadmic style, it's also very readible, well-documented, and pretty interesting. Essentially, the author's (Elijah Wald) position is that much of what we "know" about popular music is wrong, not so much in the sense of that it is an outright error but that the emphasis has been put in the wrong places. Part of this is due to the nature and I'm about halfway through it. I have to say that if you have any interest in popular music history, this book is an absolute must. Although it's written in an acadmic style, it's also very readible, well-documented, and pretty interesting. Essentially, the author's (Elijah Wald) position is that much of what we "know" about popular music is wrong, not so much in the sense of that it is an outright error but that the emphasis has been put in the wrong places. Part of this is due to the nature of music criticism, itself, but also the very nature of the way we listen to music now as opposed to the way music was actually listened to (and made) in the past. So, for instance, when you think of music in the 20's and early 30's, for example, you might think of, say, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong,or Bessie Smith, these folks were, whatever their perceived musical genius (in a later era), these were far outside the musical mainstream of the time. The mainstream of the time, the so-called "King of Jazz" was actually Paul Whiteman and, listening to him today (if you can stand it), it is difficult, if not impossible, to figure out how this was possible. But it is a fact. You'll also get to understand why bands like Guy Lombardo (who sold unbelievable quantities of records) and Lawrence Welk, etc not only managed to stick around so long but also to maintain their popularity. He also discusses the genesis of "how" popular taste is what it is (pretty interesting) and how and why it came to be that way (and, I suspect, it isn't all that different today) and his comments will, undoubtedly, hit home to some of us. I'm currently getting into the 40's and how technology began to change the way music was played, published, and recorded, the rise of ASCAP and BMI (and why), as well as the music unions. It's all placed in a musical context so you don't get bogged down in the politics. As I said, I haven't gotten to the title's assertion (which, I admit, got me to pay attention to the the book) but I am beginning to see the author laying the groundwork for it (if, in fact, that's what occurs) While it may not be for everybody (because there are a number of names that you may not be familiar with), if you have any interest in music history, this book is an absolute must-read.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Aaron Arnold

    First of all, kudos for the ballsy, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek title. I probably wouldn't have picked up this "alternative history of American popular music", as the slightly more accurate subtitle labels it, if the book had been called something else. There's a lot of very interesting discussion of trends in music composition, recording, consumption, and evolution in here, and although the book drags a bit in the middle when it's documenting a lot of obscure performers in obscure styles, its c First of all, kudos for the ballsy, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek title. I probably wouldn't have picked up this "alternative history of American popular music", as the slightly more accurate subtitle labels it, if the book had been called something else. There's a lot of very interesting discussion of trends in music composition, recording, consumption, and evolution in here, and although the book drags a bit in the middle when it's documenting a lot of obscure performers in obscure styles, its core thesis - that the watershed moment in the mid-Sixties when The Beatles and their contemporaries transformed the music industry had downsides as well as upsides - is well-argued and very thought-provoking. One of the things that Rolling Stone magazine does from time to time that's guaranteed to provoke smiles from younger readers is to compile a list of Top Fifty Whatevers (songs, guitarists, singers, etc.), that that is somehow mysteriously loaded with representatives from the era when Jann Wenner and everyone else who works there were young, i.e. the Sixties. There's a Tom the Dancing Bug strip that says something along the lines of "pop culture was best when you were a teeanger", and indeed most people retain a lasting and almost irrational affection for the music they heard when they were growing up due to the incredible power of nostalgia. However, when it comes to determining "the canon" of great works from the past, somehow we have an extremely selective memory; some very popular bands (e.g. The Monkees) get retroactively dismissed on the grounds of unseriousness or what have you, while bands that nobody cared about at the time are retrospectively lauded (e.g. The Velvet Underground). This isn't just a rock thing, this happens with all music styles as well, as seen by the lasting respect accorded Duke Ellington versus the almost total unperson-ness of his contemporary Paul Whiteman. Wald's explanation for this was something I'd vaguely considered before, but never thought to put quite this way: "It is often said that history is written by the victors, but in the case of pop music that is rarely true. The victors tend to be out dancing, while the historians sit at their desks, assiduously chronicling music they cannot hear on mainstream radio. And it is not just historians: The people who choose to write about popular music, even while it is happening, tend to be far from average consumers and partygoers and often despise the tastes and behavior of their more cheerful and numerous peers." That rang very true to me; every serious music fan I've ever spoken to has varying levels of contempt for pop, club, and dance music, even though it's all you hear when you go out. Far better the kind of avant-garde art music that you listen to at home, alone, in headphones, that invites serious attention and inspires rapturous multi-paragraph reviews. Music writers are overwhelmingly white, male, and nerdy, and this has had a big impact on how black, female, and more pop-oriented artists have been appraised over the years. As the majority of the book shows, while the division between high-brow and low-brow is certainly not unique to the rock age, a lot of technological, social, and musical changes happened to produce the peculiar musical culture we have today. Wald goes through the history of jazz, blues, ragtime, country & western, and other genres with an eye on the interplay of forces that both spurred innovation and slowed down change. In particular, his short discussion of the effects of the triple shock of Prohibition, the Great Depression, and World War II on musicians and their audiences left me wishing for more, but he also had a great analysis of how big of an effect the invention of recorded music had on fields as disparate as movie soundtracks and dance clubs, as well as its contribution to the essential disappearance of what's been called the "American songbook" of folk songs in favor of the creation of specific ties between a song and one particular artist. Bob Dylan is a good example of a transitional figure: whereas it was once the norm for songs to not be associated so much with one particular person, and Dylan in fact had several of his earlier songs become hits for other people first, the Sixties were really when the idea of a song "belonging" to the original artist became the norm. The title's relevance does not really come into its own until the very last chapter, after an at times almost interminable litany of artists working in one pre-Sixties genre or another. The thesis is that while segregation was much more harsh before The Beatles than after, the mid-Sixties marked an important dividing line in music between an era when white and black musicians played each other's music and engaged in a creative dialogue with each other; and an era when different groups stopped listening to each other. There are numerous objections you could raise to this idea (e.g. what about hip hop?), but I think Wald is onto something when he says that James Brown's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" is in its own way just as revolutionary as most of what The Beatles put out, and that the world has lost something when genres like funk, soul, R&B, and so forth are artistically segregated from whiter, artier genres. Whether you agree with him or not, though, he's got a lot of great material in this book, and his points about the artificiality of the canon are sadly all too true.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Bruce

    I fear this review may turn into a lengthy diatribe on copyright regime change and music industry business models, so I’ll begin with an abstract of what I’m thinking about before bloviating. First, Wald’s written a bang-up, fantastic, fascinating book that surveys the history and evolution of pop music from John Philip Sousa to 1967. He more or less stops with Sgt. Pepper, excusing himself on the grounds that “The time has come to turn off my computer, get up from my desk, and go out and play so I fear this review may turn into a lengthy diatribe on copyright regime change and music industry business models, so I’ll begin with an abstract of what I’m thinking about before bloviating. First, Wald’s written a bang-up, fantastic, fascinating book that surveys the history and evolution of pop music from John Philip Sousa to 1967. He more or less stops with Sgt. Pepper, excusing himself on the grounds that “The time has come to turn off my computer, get up from my desk, and go out and play some music.” (p. 254) I’m very much hoping that when he finishes playing, Wald comes back to his desk to bring his survey up to the present date. If so, this book will make a fine companion volume to Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise. Despite leaving the reader wanting more, Wald’s Alternative History of American Popular Music is still a great book for what it is, and I plan to comment in more detail below (along with some more extensive examples of Wald’s writing). Second, I react to a recent pair of NPR stories by advocating for compulsory licensing of digital media in exchange for strict enforcement of attribution transparency (original works’ and their authors must respectively be accurately labeled and identified), with royalty payments metered by usage to be paid out of a collective pool by collection services such as ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, and SoundExchange. The mechanism I describe eliminates piracy by moving the locus of payment from those end users who do not directly pay for streaming, downloading, and/or synch rights to regulated taxpayer- and commercially-funded royalty pools, on the basis of monthly aggregated data collection and reporting. While the extension of compulsory licensing sacrifices some artistic independence and control, I will argue that doing so both fulfills the intent of copyright to “promote the useful arts” and increase and diffuse knowledge while also acknowledging the reality that nonarbitrary, cost-effective enforcement is impractical (if not impossible) in the digital age. I will conclude by explaining why dreams for such a regime must remain futile if entrenched commercial interests (the RIAA and the major labels they represent along with their Pandoras, Rdios, and Spotifys, to say nothing of the MPAA and the big five media conglomerates) cannot be coopted to participate in adoption. Let’s start with the work under review, however. Wald’s thesis is that the late ‘60s marked a broad racial division in pop music between white acts pursuing various arts (of studio recording technique, virtuosity, musical structure, or lyrical invention) for benefit of concert audiences and stereophiles and black performers continually evolving along rhythm-centric lines for the benefit of club aficionados and social dancers, musical styles manifest first in disco, then rap, and ultimately hip-hop. However, in quitting with the Beatles’ Pepper album as the most visible starting point of this division, Wald admits to assuming rather than proving his thesis. At p. 252, Wald recants, ”The segregation of American popular music that began with the British Invasion... is a simplification, and if I were carrying this story forward rather than wrapping it up I would be drawing a far more complicated picture.” He then offers a tantalizing glimpse at what might have been over the next page and a half of counter-examples and second thoughts. Whence the segregation that split the commercial unity of rock ‘n’ roll into separate markets of “rock” and “soul?” Until the mid-1960s, white and black rock’n’roll styles had evolved more or less in tandem, whether it was Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, the Drifters and the Belmonts, Hank Ballard and Joey Dee, Ray Charles and Bobby Darin, or the Crystals and the Shangri-Las. The black artists may have pioneered more new styles than the white ones, and their share of the rewards was frequently incommensurate with their talents, but they were competing for the same radio and record audiences and appearing in a lot of the same clubs, concert packages, and TV showcases.... That blend of musical and racial integration had defined rock ‘n’ roll since [radio deejay, talent-finder, and ultimately “rock ‘n’ roll” namer and promoter] Alan Freed’s time, but the stream divided with the arrival of “folk rock” (or “rock folk,” as it was often called at first), which stressed poetic or socially conscious lyrics over dance rhythms, and the sonic explorations of the Beatles, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, and the San Francisco groups. (p. 239) One of the reasons I loved reading Wald’s book so much is that I agree with his argument that taxonomies of music which seek to separate art from commerce are arbitrary. You can talk about what you like to listen to and under what conditions. You can talk about the cultural context for a given piece, the influences on and of its authors, and the formal structure of its composition or arrangement, but you should not conflate stylistic differences with quality. There is as much densely-layered, sophisticated crapola as there is simple four-on-the-floor genius, and vice-versa. (Actually, there’s always far more bad music than good, for the simple reason that “good” is as hard to hit upon as it is to universalize and define.) Wald encapsulates this ethos perfectly. As for art, it seems to be a given that any music intended primarily for [mass social] dancing is, ipso facto, not accepted as serious art. By contrast, classical music -- even mediocre classical music -- is the quintessence of seriousness for most pop listeners, and by the fall of 1965 the number one song in the United States was “Yesterday,” featuring Paul McCartney accompanied by a string quartet.... [T]his did not excite the interest of many highbrow critics, but… with its romantically world-weary lyric, soothing melody, and mild variation of the conventional thirty-two bar song structure... [t]he song was quickly covered by every old-line orchestra leader and vocalist who dreamed of being more than a nostalgia act, and by August 1966 Billboard proclaimed it a modern standard, noting that there were already over 175 versions on the market, including recordings by Lawrence Welk, Xavier Cugat, and Mantovani, as well as by country singers, cabaret artists, and the Supremes.... That breadth of appeal was what set the Beatles apart from their contemporaries. (p. 233) So if you want to be taken seriously, you should get your showtune stylings arranged for strings, not because there’s actually something inherently serious about a quartet of musicians (the Beatles were already that), but because of the semiotics of a cello and viola coupled with two violins we’ve Pavloved from Franz Joseph Haydn. The author strikes a curiously defensive tone about his chosen outlook, however. One thing I want to stress is that I am trying to write history, not criticism -- that is, to look at some of the most influential movements and stars of the twentieth century and explore what links and divides them without worrying about whether they were marvelous or pernicious, geniuses or frauds, or whether I personally enjoy their work.... As it happens, that is how most histories of popular music are written: We tend to leave classical and symphonic styles out of the story, as if they existed in a separate world, just as historians of classical styles tend to give at best a glancing nod to pop trends. In a choice that seems odd to an outsider, the classical music historians also tend to regard most of the new, classically based orchestral compositions of the twentieth century -- radio, film, and television scores, easy listening and mood music, the orchestral sections of Sgt. Pepper -- as falling outside their field. And, equally oddly, the jazz and rock canons tend to mimic the classical canon in this respect, ...hav[ing] no more interest in Paul Weston, Nelson Riddle, and Henry Mancini than classical historians have, and only minimally more interest in Glenn Miller. And while there are dozens of scholarly discussions of the Velvet Underground, there are virtually none of KC and the Sunshine Band. (p. 10) Whoah, whoah, whoah. Easy there, big guy. Your ears have undertaken an experiential smorgasbord not borne by many a published music writer. There’s much more pride than shame in keeping an open, if not uncritical, mind. Wald’s title’s a cheat of course, made worse by a borrowed bourgeois distinction between “rock’n’roll” and “rock” a la Ellen Willis, that the author doesn’t really believe in. As with jazz, [rock ‘n’ roll] was not defined in musical terms. [Just as there were distinctions from piano ragtime, Dixieland, big band swing, bebop, and into later jazz styles, t]here were clear rhythmic differences between the way Haley’s Comets played “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and the way it was played by the black rhythm and blues veterans who backed Big Joe Turner’s version of the song, and I have no problem with historians who consider those differences a musical dividing line between R&B and rock ‘n’ roll. But that semantic distinction was not made in the 1950s.... In 1956, when “rock ‘n’ roll” had become a common phrase, it was also used for both artists, as well as for gospel-flavored vocal groups, hiccuping hillbilly singers, and airbrushed teen idols. (p. 170) However, one big difference between Wald and Willis is that Wald seems willing to baldly expose his own contradictions. The book’s title is unforgiveable. Had it not been for Bill Kerwin’s advocacy, it would have kept me from enjoying the author’s scholarship. So a big shout-out to Bill for helping me see through to the subtitle and thereafter to the book’s contents. While Wald impressively tracks and explains the evolution of 80 or so years of pop music, he falls far short of giving technology its influential due. The author mainly focuses on the shift from live performance to recordings and 78s to LPs: Indeed, jazz -- in our modern sense of the term -- had a special relationship to recording.... Unlike printed music, records made it possible to mass-produce a unique performance, and in that way they were not just different from sheet music but its exact opposite. The whole point of written music is to help a wide variety of performers to play the same thing, but records preserve what is different in the way a particular performer sounds. So, to the extent that we think of jazz as a music of improvisation and personal touch, it can survive only through recordings. Without recording... [Louis] Armstrong’s genius would exist only in legend. (p. 90) By extension, unless an aspiring musician has a transcription of a particular improvisatory solo, the only way to reproduce it is to listen to that recording closely and repeatedly. What’s more, Wald observes, audiences who become overly familiar with a particular performance are more likely to prefer it, and therefore to demand it be reproduced in live performance. However, this tends to undermine the very spontaneity that inspired the original production, inevitably rendering the live product in many respects inferior to the recording. It’s a vicious cycle. This is fascinating, but there’s so much more to the pop music technology story that Wald omits. For example, influences and changes to instrumentation -- electric guitar, amplification, distortion, synthesizer, computer loops and samples -- you won’t find much mention of Les Paul and none whatever of Robert Moog or any of the descendants of the mellotron (used to such great effect by the Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever) that have driven so many of the changes in the contemporary pop scene. Wald’s exposition of distribution technology is likewise telescoped to his pre-1970’s dissertation. He talks about how the emerging dominance of radio as a national platform for promulgating music in conjunction with increasing substitution of recordings whose over-the-air fidelity made them newly comptetitive with live performances created a temporary crisis in the music publishing (primarily sheet music) industry and a permanent problem for journeymen professional musicians. In response, the American Society for Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP, which represented most songwriters with works still under copyright) and the American Federation of Musicians (AFM, the musicians’ trade union) both sought higher royalties than broadcasters were prepared to pay. ASCAP demanded unprecedented fees, while AFM chose to withhold their talent from recording booths. However, each was a response geared to protect their institutional goals (maintaining the status quo) rather than repositioning/rethinking the endgame or negotiating on the basis of constituent needs (securing long-term, steady, and industry equitable revenue streams for composers and musicians based on changing market usage). Rather than go with the flow, they sought to hold back the tide (or at least divert it into known channels). The outcome was utterly predictable to any historian. “The networks responded by forming a parallel organization, Broadcast Music, Incorporated (BMI), and announcing that as of December 31, 1940, they would cease to use any ASCAP material.” Folks eventually settled (and formerly snubbed rural songwriters and small ensembles found new advocates and markets), but as Pete Townshend sang, “the sea refuses no river;” the new course of the industry, already charted, remained unchanged. The clear winners in the ASCAP fight were neither the Society nor the networks but BMI and the jukebox industry. BMI shortly became independent of the radio czars who had established it -- antimonopoly laws made that imperative -- and it has been ASCAP’s main competition ever since.... On the whole, though, the main thing the ban proved was that songwriting and publishing were not really threatened by new technologies; they just needed to iron out the fine points of royalty payments, then could continue business more or less as usual. (pp. 130-2) I think this bit of history has obvious parallels to the new normal that the internet imposed on a foolishly luddite recording industry in the first decade of the 21st century. So I’ll spin off from this quote into the tangent that forms my second main takeaway from reading Wald and like content at the intersection of art, technology, and seemingly outdated law. Since the 1998 infliction of the Sonny Bono copyright extension (life plus 70 years! but blame the Europeans for first adopting it, not Mickey’s corporate parents) and the Digital Millenium Copyright Act fiasco (imposing criminal penalties for technological circumvention of DRM, whether fair use or not!), copyright law has been well lambasted -- without effecting change -- by critics ranging from Matt Mason to the Electronic Frontier Foundation to Lawrence Lessig to Cory Doctorow to... pretty much everyone who cares about the dissemination and creation of new ideas (so, not the RIAA). The DMCA was partly a reaction to both Napster and the DeCSS movement. The former was an early peer-sharing site that encouraged online distribution of files (primarily unlicensed MP3s). The latter was a methodology for decrypting DVD content to enable discs bought in one geographic “Zone” (say, Sweden) to be playable in another (say, Japan). Both technologies enabled and promoted copyright infringement outside of the existing home recording exemption (which had basically re-legalized homemade mixtapes for personal use), by facilitating digital copying and distribution. Did the new laws make the technologies go away? No. They had the wholly predictable effect of pouring water on a nascent grease fire (accelerated by the RIAA’s and MPAA’s joint refusal to promote competing technologies that would facilitate legal, royalty-paying online exchanges of digital content). Instead of suppressing or outcompeting illegal uses, they simply pushed them less visibly underground and into myriad venues with less accountability or scruples. As I’ve noted, despite the widespread bellyaching, there’s no real push to reform the law itself, the principles of which remain sound, if unsoundly overstretched and applied. The king is dead, long live the king. That said, there’s something to be said for retaining the relevance of laws we keep on the books. While intellectual property law has not fallen to the constitutionally stupid level exemplified by Prohibition, the truism remains that unenforceable laws breed contempt for law. Thus has the entertainment industry perversely fostered the commonplace of piracy. My expounded solution to that is too extensive to be contained here and so has been published elsewhere. Rather than try to reproduce the argument in this space (it is in any case abstracted at the top of this review), I will close with a postscript taken from Wald: [The historian Charles] Rosen notes that one of the things that makes it hard for us to appreciate new and unfamiliar styles is that they demand that we accept not only sounds that are strange to us but also the absence of qualities that we consider necessary. One reason that the music of [Paul] Whiteman and the Beatles was so phenomenally popular was that it blended styles that older listeners found abrasive and unmusical with familiar elements, so those listeners could enjoy it without abandoning their previous standards and feel broadminded and modern without essentially changing their tastes. But as Rosen writes, ‘The appreciation of a new style is as much an effort of renunciation as of acceptance.’ And the same holds true for any idea, old or new, that is drastically different from our own.(p. 11) Hear, hear! Music to my ears.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Fox

    This book was a very interesting read, and I covered a lot of the topics that it mentioned through my status updates. Having finished the book, for those of you that are curious about the title and its premise (and want a more in depth explanation than I offer without reading the whole book) I'd recommend reading the last chapter and the epilogue, both sum up the explanation of the title rather well. All of that having been said, it would be more accurate for the title and the subtitle to be swit This book was a very interesting read, and I covered a lot of the topics that it mentioned through my status updates. Having finished the book, for those of you that are curious about the title and its premise (and want a more in depth explanation than I offer without reading the whole book) I'd recommend reading the last chapter and the epilogue, both sum up the explanation of the title rather well. All of that having been said, it would be more accurate for the title and the subtitle to be switched. "An Alternative History of American Popular Music: How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll" or something similar. The book is indeed an alternative history of American popular music, and it covers eighty years of history ending in the 1970s. The book reads a bit like a dissertation or a thesis paper, and I don't mean that in a negative way. Each chapter covers a very particular subject in history, and in the end it all seems to tie together pretty nicely. In the epilogue Elijah Wald does admit exceptions to his theory, and attempts to bring it all up to modern day. The essence of his theory is that when the British Invasion happened the Beatles (and other such British bands) covered a great deal of rhythm and blues songs, and the American audience ate it up. The British Invasion solidified the fact that white musicians were dominating the rock world, which they continue to do today, and eliminated the musical integration that had happened previously. Jazz, blues, pop, etc. all took lessons from the black community and traditions - the dance steps nearly all originated from the black gospel churches. The composers and musicians essentially all get filed under rhythm and blues and/or soul even if they write rock records (Ike and Tina Turner's River Deep - Mountain High was here mentioned) which unduly ruins their chances of climbing to the top of the charts. While all of this I found interesting, I ultimately disagreed with the conclusion that he came to. While it might have been true in the context of the times this happened, I don't believe that it really extends into today. I can think of too many exceptions to the "certain genres are dominated by certain races" rule, and I don't believe the bulk of any population is prejudiced against any particular artist being any particular thing. Gay musicians make it to the top of the charts, as do artists of any race. Heck, looking at the last.fm records of any person can kind of guarantee that you're getting a huge mix. Essentially, I'd recommend this book as a truly great history, but it hasn't changed my mind about the Beatles influence, impact, and legacy. Everyone does build off what has come before, but I think that they pretty well acknowledged their own influences, as I feel that Bob Dylan acknowledged his.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Neil White

    Blasphemy! How dare a rock critic speak ill of the Fab Four? Short answer: Calm down, he doesn't. Regardless of a title that's clearly manufactured controversy, he does have a point though. A long answer will involve reading the book, though. Basically, Wald contends that the Beatles and their contemporaries 'destroyed' rock and roll (as it was thought of in the early days) by turning it into an art form, much in the same way jazz was years after it's heyday as a popular form of dance music. He s Blasphemy! How dare a rock critic speak ill of the Fab Four? Short answer: Calm down, he doesn't. Regardless of a title that's clearly manufactured controversy, he does have a point though. A long answer will involve reading the book, though. Basically, Wald contends that the Beatles and their contemporaries 'destroyed' rock and roll (as it was thought of in the early days) by turning it into an art form, much in the same way jazz was years after it's heyday as a popular form of dance music. He spends the bulk of this book bringing the reader from the earliest forms of 20th century pop music - ragtime, jazz, dance-hall, Glenn Miller, big band orchestras, etc., and how these were viewed at the time, which is often extremely different from how we view them now. For instance, when I mention the word "jazz" now, it conjures up the imagine of serious artists - Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, etc. However, the most popular jazz artist of the day in terms of records sold was a man I'd never heard of named Paul Whiteman, the "King of Jazz" at the time. Point being, history isn't always what we think it is. Wald skillfully dissects and turns over a lot of assumptions, and pains a very different version of popular music than we're used to hearing, and while he spends most of his time talking about music that is decidedly NOT rock and roll (The Beatles are barely mentioned until the last chapter, in fact), the reader gets a sense of where he's going, and why exactly The Beatles "destroyed" rock and roll. Spoiler alert time: They didn't, really. But Wald's closing arguments are indeed that music itself, and rock and roll, were never really the same afterwards. By isolating themselves in the studio and creating "art" in album form, rather than creating singles to boost sales (Sgt. Peppers famously had no singles), they branched away from live music as well as 'dance music', both of which had been inextricably tied to what was popular in the given era. This split, as Wald demonstrates, had in some ways been on its way already, but the Fab Four and their peers, and those who followed after them, changed everything. So if you're a hater looking for an anti-Beatles manifesto, this is not the book for you.* But it is a well-written, well-researched and fascinating look at music in the 20th century, cramming a lot of eye-opening detail into a short 250-odd pages. *Also, you should be ashamed of yourself, really. Who doesn't like the Beatles, come on!

  10. 4 out of 5

    Sandra Ross

    This is probably the best big-picture book I've read on the history of American popular music in the 20th century. It's certainly written from an angle I've never seen in similar books, but it actually captures what I miss most now that regular radio has genre'd music to death and if you listen to a regular radio station because you have no other choice, all you hear is a very narrow definition of what whoever-decided-this believes fits into that genre and nothing else. Like everything else in so This is probably the best big-picture book I've read on the history of American popular music in the 20th century. It's certainly written from an angle I've never seen in similar books, but it actually captures what I miss most now that regular radio has genre'd music to death and if you listen to a regular radio station because you have no other choice, all you hear is a very narrow definition of what whoever-decided-this believes fits into that genre and nothing else. Like everything else in society, regular radio has specialized into tight niches that literally act as though nothing else exists outside of them. When we lose the big picture, we lose a lot. But most of all, we lose connections, we lose perspective, and we lose history. In other words, we become shallow and myopic, because we have no idea how this moment fits into all the other moments in time. Wald takes us on the fascinating journey of connecting the dots between the styles of music that developed during the 20th century. He shows the background between why they developed and then why they changed (there were things here that will make you take a look at your own life and perhaps make some changes - I will when I'm able). But he also shows all the influences that continued to coalesce to make the thread that ran through these various styles. He shows how what was going on historically, culturally, legally, economically, and personally led to the popularity of certain styles that would have remained regional and never seen the light of day had these factors not existed. Wald is a musician and music historian, so he brings that expertise to this book, giving it a depth and credibility that is often lacking in books like this. I highly recommend it.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Danny

    You can (and should) ignore the silly and sensationalist title. The Beatles only come into the picture towards the very end of the book, and more as a culmination of forces that had already been at play for decades rather than something new in of themselves. This book is far richer and more nuanced than the title lets on. It covers an astonishing range of musical artists and genres and comes closer to avoiding the condescension of posterity than just about any other musical history I've read. Wal You can (and should) ignore the silly and sensationalist title. The Beatles only come into the picture towards the very end of the book, and more as a culmination of forces that had already been at play for decades rather than something new in of themselves. This book is far richer and more nuanced than the title lets on. It covers an astonishing range of musical artists and genres and comes closer to avoiding the condescension of posterity than just about any other musical history I've read. Wald is happy to admit where his own artistic tastes lie but does an admirable job setting those aside to consider American popular music of different eras in its own terms. A short review can't do justice to the complexity of Wald's argument, so I'll just highlight two of his major themes: the massive impact that recording technology had on live performers and how received critical wisdom had largely been shaped by grown men who have been all too willing to dismiss the judgment of the teenage girls who were major consumers of pop music (in all its guises) throughout the twentieth century.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Sam

    History may repeat but historians repeat other historians, says Elijah Wald. The history of American pop music was written by music snobs, political ax-grinders, and wall-flowers, so Wald goes back & checks what people were really listening to in the various eras: a lot of crowd-pleasing dance music, it turns out. Having just read this book a third time I finally feel like I understand the big picture: prior to the triumph of recorded music and solo dancing (The Twist!) musicians had to play oft History may repeat but historians repeat other historians, says Elijah Wald. The history of American pop music was written by music snobs, political ax-grinders, and wall-flowers, so Wald goes back & checks what people were really listening to in the various eras: a lot of crowd-pleasing dance music, it turns out. Having just read this book a third time I finally feel like I understand the big picture: prior to the triumph of recorded music and solo dancing (The Twist!) musicians had to play often to earn a living, and they had to play a variety of songs from a variety of musical styles demanded by their audiences of dancers. The Beatles (who, despite the book's title, appear only briefly near the end) started out in this tradition, playing long hours of varied music (girl group, rockabilly, pop, etc.) in Hamburg, and ended up as makers of no-dancing, careful-listening recording studio productions -- a turning point. This is a must-read for those interested in the history of US pop music.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Tad Richards

    On my very small shelf of exceptional surveys of 20th Century music, next to Nelson George's The Death of Rhythm and Blues and everything by Arnold Shaw. Wald offers a genuinely revisionist and genuinely convincing history of popular music, and is always readable, I might have wished he'd given it a different title.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Sunil

    After having spent over a year immersing myself in decades of music I hadn't been exposed to growing up and then falling hard for a little-known band called the Beatles, I was mighty curious to hear how they DESTROYED ROCK 'N' ROLL. It's a provocative title that does Elijah Wald's pretty mindblowing book a disservice by making it sound like a hatchet job on a sacred cow. The subtitle, An Alternative History of American Popular Music, points to the true purpose of the book, which is to challenge After having spent over a year immersing myself in decades of music I hadn't been exposed to growing up and then falling hard for a little-known band called the Beatles, I was mighty curious to hear how they DESTROYED ROCK 'N' ROLL. It's a provocative title that does Elijah Wald's pretty mindblowing book a disservice by making it sound like a hatchet job on a sacred cow. The subtitle, An Alternative History of American Popular Music, points to the true purpose of the book, which is to challenge the traditional narrative of music by going straight to the source and exploring what music was actually popular at the time and how people talked about it then, rather than apply our own modern perspectives to craft a clean story. At the heart of the book—and the thesis that gives the book its title—is the interplay between black musicians and white musicians, which Wald describes as more of a back-and-forth than we might have thought, and how the evolution of music was somewhat desegregated until the Beatles blew it all apart and caused a permanent split. I want to write an in-depth review of this book but that would require, essentially, summarizing the whole thing and that would be exhausting. Suffice it to say this book is fucking fascinating and it gave me a whole new perspective on music and art and popular culture and race relations. Wald begins around the turn of the century to describe the birth of "popular music," which was at one point, like, music by John Philip Sousa. You know, the marching band guy. Then he seizes on ragtime and jazz as the origin of everything, and we're off the races, and I was already interested because it turns out jazz was, like, popular music before it became all artsy and highbrow. These are, of course, musical styles originated by black musicians, but Wald is determined to restore Paul Whiteman's place in jazz history. Paul Whiteman is, well, a white man, and in an amusing reversal, it's he who has been forgotten as the King of Jazz, at one point the most popular musician in the country and namechecked by Duke Ellington himself as an influence. At times, the book does feel like an excuse to give Paul Whiteman a tonguebath, but Wald is not a white man standing up for this poor forgotten white man, he's a musician and historian attempting to paint a more accurate picture. This is a dense fucking book, and I never knew how many of these names or songs I was actually supposed to be familiar with, and how many were people who had big hits but whose influence and place in music history has been forgotten. I often felt like there were paragraphs of nothing more than "Look at all this exhaustive research I did," but they were only ever paragraphs, not pages, which allowed me to follow the overarching narrative of how popular music evolved. Through dance, as that was the sole reason for music at all initially. Through technological innovations, as music had to adapt as the primary method of consumption changed from live bands to live radio to radio to jukeboxes to records to albums. Through a shifting perception of what constituted Art. Through an age gap. Through covers, through a mixing of styles, through movies, this is a dense fucking book. It spends the vast majority of its time getting to the fifties, and unfortunately kind of zooms through the fifties and sixties without the granular detail of previous decades, which doesn't entirely feel right as it doesn't properly set the stage for the musical scene and seismic shift of the Beatles. But by that time my brain was like a fried egg so I'm not sure how much more I could take, my whole conception of popular music had been blown apart. How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music provides a meticulously detailed yet rip-roaring history of American popular music. It's rare to read something that so thoroughly upends everything you thought you knew, but Elijah Wald did it in 254 pages.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Bob Garrett

    This book's title generates buzz but proves misleading. Author Wald gives us a history of American popular music - from roughly the beginning of the ragtime era (i.e., the late nineteenth century) to just after the 1960s British Invasion. The Beatles really don't figure into the narrative until the last chapter. This will undoubtedly annoy some Beatles fans taken in by false advertising, but readers who do know what they're getting here should be delighted. The book is quite good and surprisingl This book's title generates buzz but proves misleading. Author Wald gives us a history of American popular music - from roughly the beginning of the ragtime era (i.e., the late nineteenth century) to just after the 1960s British Invasion. The Beatles really don't figure into the narrative until the last chapter. This will undoubtedly annoy some Beatles fans taken in by false advertising, but readers who do know what they're getting here should be delighted. The book is quite good and surprisingly readable, and I learned a lot from it. Wald's premise is that most music histories focus on artists and recordings highly regarded by modern music scholars but don't properly convey how contemporary listeners actually experienced and reacted to the music of their respective eras. He attempts to do the latter here and his efforts do provide food for thought. He notes, for example, that early twentieth century music listeners wouldn't see any recording as a "definitive" performance of a song, as people do today and that the musicians themselves typically didn't see their recordings as a significant part of their income. He explains that people would go to see bands who would play what the audience wanted to hear, and no one, until much later in the twentieth century, expected an act to duplicate what listeners heard on a record. According to Wald, the earliest recordings were typically sorted in stores by the instruments heard on them rather than by artists. Wald tells us that singers weren't big stars in the early 1900s, as you typically couldn't hear them above the instruments, anyway. He notes that microphones made singers more prominent and that record producers eventually realized that a sole singer would be cheaper and easier to market - and manipulate - then a full orchestra with a band leader in charge (Thus explaining the death of the "big band era."). The book is chock full of "Did you know....?" type facts and anecdotes that could fuel party conversations for hours. Wald describes, for example, how the jukebox revolutionized the music industry - not only because it contributed to a greater focus on recorded music, but also because it put so many musicians out of work (Wald explains that establishments could actually MAKE MONEY on a jukebox rather than pay a band to draw customers.). Wald details the beginning of the l.p. and how it was initially marketed toward adults while youth continued to buy smaller singles for many years...and how artists wouldn't be expected to put singles hits on an l.p. Through Wald's history, we can also trace the career paths of certain artists - seeing, for example, how Frank Sinatra went from a heart throb who appealed primarily to 1940s teen girls to - a decade later - an artist who appealed more to adult men, thanks largely to his l.p. sales. Of course, none of Wald's facts invalidate other music histories or the long-term influence of certain artists and recordings, and Wald isn't out to do that, anyway. Rather, his book serves as a reminder that our view of history is often distorted through our filter of the present and that it's sometimes good to step back and try to view events in a wider context. As such, HOW THE BEATLES DESTROYED ROCK N' ROLL is a must read, I feel, for anyone with a strong interest in its topic. My score: 10/10

  16. 4 out of 5

    John Gillies

    The book's title is very misleading, since it's actually a fascinating history of how important dance music has been in the development of American popular music, from the time of ragtime (and even earlier). The author makes a strong case about how performing musicians, in order to earn a living, had to be aware of, and be able to play for customers, a range of musical styles, beyond the particular style the musician considered his or her focus (jazz, country, etc.). Among the interesting points The book's title is very misleading, since it's actually a fascinating history of how important dance music has been in the development of American popular music, from the time of ragtime (and even earlier). The author makes a strong case about how performing musicians, in order to earn a living, had to be aware of, and be able to play for customers, a range of musical styles, beyond the particular style the musician considered his or her focus (jazz, country, etc.). Among the interesting points he makes is that music historians, who tend to be predominantly male, tend to focus on "interesting" music, in other words, music that is interesting to them, and neglect music that was more generally popular than they acknowledge, particularly for female listeners. He notes that even into the 1960s, there were rarely clear lines between the types of music that people listened to. For example, many fans of Elvis were also fans of Perry Como. The title reflects his belief that, with the Beatles, music performers no longer had to focus on ensuring that they played music that people would dance to, resulting in a splintering of music into various factions where the intent is just to be listened to. The author does an excellent job of looking carefully at musical trends and putting together facts in a way that runs counter to much accepted criticism. His is a very refreshing look at American popular music.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Wileyacez

    Okaaaaay...doesn't the title say it all? Except, it turns out, the book is an EXCELLENT coverage of popular music in the U.S. for approximately 100 years through the early 1970's! The author does a great job of taking the reader back to the time and place (ex: the styles affected by his uncle and his father in the 1920's) using a very encompassing tone. My greatest take away? That music has always had an overlap in the various generations, and the dollars being spent were often the income of the Okaaaaay...doesn't the title say it all? Except, it turns out, the book is an EXCELLENT coverage of popular music in the U.S. for approximately 100 years through the early 1970's! The author does a great job of taking the reader back to the time and place (ex: the styles affected by his uncle and his father in the 1920's) using a very encompassing tone. My greatest take away? That music has always had an overlap in the various generations, and the dollars being spent were often the income of the "older" generation while the "younger" generation purportedly drove all sales. The book really made me think--some great liberal studies theses popped into my head. Of course, I'm not the younger generation anymore, and I've embraced a lot of different music styles that I would never have considered when I was. Music, for me, is not something I ever locked into. What I love at a given moment is not likely to be what I love in two or three years. There aren't a lot of songs that I revisit unless I'm listening to the radio (which is extremely rare in this day of digital/on demand music) or watching a movie. I guess there's just so much out there to discover, and genres that are not my "thing" may someday be very meaningful. Wald's book was great.

  18. 4 out of 5

    HT

    Don't be put off by the title. Wald only talks about the Beatles at the very end of the book. It's really a history of popular music in the 20th century from Ragtime to Disco that explores more broadly what music people were making to, listening to and purchasing. It's far more thorough in that regard and addresses the implicit bias among music critics who are overwhelmingly white and male (which results in music preferred by women in each era being dismissed as of lesser quality). No musical ge Don't be put off by the title. Wald only talks about the Beatles at the very end of the book. It's really a history of popular music in the 20th century from Ragtime to Disco that explores more broadly what music people were making to, listening to and purchasing. It's far more thorough in that regard and addresses the implicit bias among music critics who are overwhelmingly white and male (which results in music preferred by women in each era being dismissed as of lesser quality). No musical genre ever existed in a vacuum and most people listened and even played music in more than one category. This is a much needed book and worth the time of anyone wishing to understand the development of music in popular culture in the 20th century.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Brucie

    Although the Beatles do not enter the stream until page 240 of this 250 page review of USA popular music, the history is well-detailed with interesting characters. Major theme: Up to 1965, American popular music was originated and dominated by African-American writers and performers. Minor theme: The popularity of music, especially dance tunes, is determined by females. Another theme: popular music shifted from live performances to studio recordings after 1965. But the Beatles led the changes!

  20. 4 out of 5

    Kathryn

    This is really a book on the history of music, from people first making music in their homes through the recording industry. In detail, it follows the popularity of sheet music, live bands ( of all genres), radio, and recordings, and how history and finance affected them. I found it very interesting but quite detailed.

  21. 5 out of 5

    John O'Malley

    Takes a while to get on to the thrust of the main argument but this book is an pretty comprehensive history of the modern popular music.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Dennis Doucette

    Good history of music with lots of research and data.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    Haiku Review № 1: Misleading title aside, Wald's analysis is unparalleled.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Alexandra

    I liked it! I could relate to much of the writing angst and decisions about stepping away from the novel writing. Not sure I’d recommend it for non-writers though.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Todd Stockslager

    It took me a while to get past the misleading title--the Beatles do not show up until page 230 of this 255-page book--and realize that this book is really about its subtitle: an "alternative" history of American popular music. I seriously felt duped and somewhat put off by an author who wanted to sell books by putting an eye-catching but misleading title in bold black letters on the dust cover of his book. In the spirit of truth in titling and eye-catching hyperbole, Wald might have better title It took me a while to get past the misleading title--the Beatles do not show up until page 230 of this 255-page book--and realize that this book is really about its subtitle: an "alternative" history of American popular music. I seriously felt duped and somewhat put off by an author who wanted to sell books by putting an eye-catching but misleading title in bold black letters on the dust cover of his book. In the spirit of truth in titling and eye-catching hyperbole, Wald might have better titled this book "Play that funky music, White boy". The "White boy" part of the story is simple and well-known enough--Wald traces the interplay between black and white music through the 20th century (dating popular music as distinct from folk forms from around the beginning of that century), telling us again how black musicians innovated and were ignored and white musicians stole and sold. Wald, however, goes deeper and adds nuances that could easily be missed by that thumbnail statement. For example, ethnicity early in the century was more fragmented, with recent Jewish, Eastern European, and Italian immigrants constituting separate markets (and providing the basis for the sometimes seemingly arbitrary genre distinctions made in stores and sales charts). Moreover, while racism limited live performance dates by black performers, innovation flowed both ways and audiences of all races enjoyed performances by all types and races of performers. The "Play that funky music" part of my new and improved title for Wald's book really gets to the "alternative" meat of his subtitle: Wald spends a great deal of time documenting how much of popular music for most of its history was dance music, played live, and listened to as a secondary soundtrack to the main purpose of the event--the dance and its mating rituals. This interesting emphasis leads to a redefining of popular music criticism of those years--as Wald points out, today's historians and critics focus on recorded music, while contemporary criticisms and accounts focused on live music, and the two performances served different purposes, with different technologies, and often different songs, styles, instrumentation and even personnel, even when nominally performed by the same singer or band. Another aspect of this alternative history that Wald spends some time discussing are gender differences in the audience, and how the emphasis on musics as the soundtrack for date night dances changed the purchasing preferences of the listening public. As Wald says "American women dance because they want to dance, while American men dance because they want to be around women." This humorous synopsis has a serious effect: it places women at the center of purchasing power for popular music at a time when most historians ignore their influence. The rise of records was a technological shift that influenced markets, but much later--the 50s and even 60s--than we usually think. Wald spends some time talking about the genre explosion and confusion in the 50s and 60s as an outgrowth of this shift, then finally, as a historical culmination (or at least a checkpoint before the disco, punk, rap, and hip-hop eras) but almost as an afterthought, he talks about how the Beatles destroyed rock and roll. It is to his credit in telling the longer story before the Beatles and making us understand its relevance then and now that the influence of the Beatles (and Elvis and Dylan, the other music giants of his and my lifetimes) on the bigger story seems not as important as that misleading title suggests. And I forgive him for the title. Just play that funky music! PS. I have just read John McWhorter's Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care, a work which Wald should surely have footnoted or at least included in his bibliography. I can only do my part to correct his error by referencing it here. McWhorter, a linguist, talks about the decline in written English as reflected in public oratory, poetry, prose--and music in a chapter even conveniently titled "What Happened to Us? or Play That Funky Music, White Folks", where he unpacks the meaning of each word in that song title. McWhorter's analysis (from 2003) extends Wald's musical analysis into the linguistic realm, and also touches on some of the mechanism of how the Beatles were in fact a transitional form between a more structured ("written") form of music and a more "real" (oral) form--in essence the genetic marker of the mutation that, in Wald's title terms, destroyed Rock 'N' Roll".

  26. 4 out of 5

    J.S.

    In spite of a very provocative title, this book isn't a criticism of the Beatles. In fact, other than the introduction and the last chapter, there isn't much said about them, and even then it's pretty thin and not likely to ruffle the feathers of any fans. But then again, it's hard to imagine buyers selecting a book with a less interesting title like "An Alternative History of American Popular Music." Nonetheless, the title is bound to offend Beatle's fans and a lot of negative reviews will come In spite of a very provocative title, this book isn't a criticism of the Beatles. In fact, other than the introduction and the last chapter, there isn't much said about them, and even then it's pretty thin and not likely to ruffle the feathers of any fans. But then again, it's hard to imagine buyers selecting a book with a less interesting title like "An Alternative History of American Popular Music." Nonetheless, the title is bound to offend Beatle's fans and a lot of negative reviews will come from disgruntled reviewers who haven't fully read the book (like the review in the LA Times) if at all. Mr. Wald makes an important point that is central to his theme: "The people who choose to write about popular music, even while it is happening, tend to be far from average consumers and partygoers and often despise the tastes and behavior of their more cheerful and numerous peers (pg 97)." In other words, music critics and historians aren't often representative of what was really popular, and he cites many examples of musicians who were very popular in their time yet are usually ignored or denigrated today (Pat Boone and Paul Whiteman, among many others). He also emphasizes that we tend to see history through the lens of our own experiences since that time, and miss the context of the time when it was actually happening. This book attempts to go back and examine what was popular and why. Race factors in frequently, and "black" and "white" music and the influences and interactions between the two are put into a clearer perspective, especially as it relates to the musicians, as well as the differences between male and female listeners. Ragtime, jazz, big band, rhythm and blues, country/western, rock & roll - all are looked at as they influenced popular music, in addition to the changes in technology (radio, records), society (prohibition, the Depression, WWII), and the industry (genre labels, Billboard rankings, etc.). And it really helps to make sense of music history and answered a lot of questions I had wondered about - especially since it was all before my time (I kind of wish it had continued into the 80s or later). But the book is perhaps a little more detailed than many people will want, and the font is smaller than normally used. Mr. Wald frequently says something to the effect of "not to belabor the point, but...", and then goes on to belabor the point some more, but even then l usually found it very interesting and entertaining. I had to remove the dust jacket while carrying it around because of the provocative title (one lady in the Taco Bell was positively *miffed* that anything so blasphemous could be said about the Beatles), but I can still highly recommend it, especially to those interested in music history.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Burgoo

    Relax boomers – this isn’t the 300 page takedown of the Beatles that you’re ready to hate. What it is then, is a unique history of American popular music in the 20th century. A sequel, of sorts, to Wald’s “Escaping the Delta”. The argument in this case is that around 1965, music became more segregated, with black performers continuing the traditional interest in dance music, while white performers became more interested in art music designed for listening, not movement. His claim is that this was Relax boomers – this isn’t the 300 page takedown of the Beatles that you’re ready to hate. What it is then, is a unique history of American popular music in the 20th century. A sequel, of sorts, to Wald’s “Escaping the Delta”. The argument in this case is that around 1965, music became more segregated, with black performers continuing the traditional interest in dance music, while white performers became more interested in art music designed for listening, not movement. His claim is that this was to the detriment of both strands of music. Wald’s approach is somewhat unique. The usual approach is to construct a critical narrative. From a position of hindsight, various figures deemed important and/or influential are highlighted to provide some sense of progress. Wald views himself as a historian, rather than a critic. Using sales charts and radio playlists he constructs a vision of what people were actually listening to, rather than what they *should* have been listening to. The advantage of this approach is that it provides a more accurate reflection of what the times were actually like. Yes, apparently Doris Day & Perry Como really were that popular! And that leads to the downside of Wald’s approach. There are long passages devoted to performers such as Paul Whiteman who is of little to no interest to contemporary listeners. While Wald’s writing never falters, the fact that these performers are quite simply of lesser importance to modern ears makes these portions of the book drag. The discussion of the 1950s was of particular interest to me in light of the current state of the music industry. The split between albums and singles, both among audiences and performers, seems to mirror the emerging state of the recording industry. Perhaps in a few years we’ll again find ourselves in that same situation.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Grig O'

    If, like me, you're a fan of rock music and you ever wondered why there's so few non-white people in rock bands, this book is for you. Wald traces a fascinating "alternative history" of American pop music, from its beginnings to the 60s, to explain what changed in 1964 that more than ever segregated pop into black/dance and white/art musics. "When the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, it was the last time a live performance changed the course of American music, and when they became purely If, like me, you're a fan of rock music and you ever wondered why there's so few non-white people in rock bands, this book is for you. Wald traces a fascinating "alternative history" of American pop music, from its beginnings to the 60s, to explain what changed in 1964 that more than ever segregated pop into black/dance and white/art musics. "When the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, it was the last time a live performance changed the course of American music, and when they became purely a recording group, they pointed the way toward a future in which there would be no unifying styles, as bands can play what they like in the privacy of the studio, and we can choose which to listen to in the privacy of our clubs, our homes, or, finally, our heads." Well, maybe the battle isn't completely lost... "...in the greater scheme of things the pure rhythm of disco, the pure energy of punk, and the pure self-expression of the singer-songwriters were all less interesting than what might have evolved if musicians had continued to be forced to sacrifice their purity to satisfy audiences that wanted all three." I like to believe that right now we're closer to that potential evolution (or something like it) than ever. Maybe paradoxically, fixing the 1964 "mistake" involves the extinction of Wald's beloved music industry (which he credits for bringing different audiences together, although he does criticize some of its abuses as well) - in today's free for all, many artists are ticking the 3 boxes, and while they'll never be as big as the old model dinosaurs, that's probably a good thing. As far as making this direction clear to music fans and makers of all kinds, this book should be quite helpful, so do read at least the preface&epilogue if you get the chance!

  29. 4 out of 5

    Pep Bonet

    Very good and interesting book. It's my third book from Elijah Wald and it's always a pleasure to read him. He has an enormous knowledge of the music he presents, he shows great passion about the music he discusses and he is clear and not academic, even if the subject can become academic-like when names of singers and songs are given in certain amounts. I still prefer his Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas, maybe because I read it with lots of narcocorridos in Very good and interesting book. It's my third book from Elijah Wald and it's always a pleasure to read him. He has an enormous knowledge of the music he presents, he shows great passion about the music he discusses and he is clear and not academic, even if the subject can become academic-like when names of singers and songs are given in certain amounts. I still prefer his Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas, maybe because I read it with lots of narcocorridos in my head and because it had a wonderful selection of further listening to. But the history of music and rhythm in the 20th century is just fascinating. I will not insist on what other have said, that the title is meant to attract buyers and does not necessarily disclose the contents of the book, but Mr Wald explains in the intro quite clearly why the Beatles destroyed (metaphorically) rock & roll. Good reflection moments, good shaking of conventional wisdom, great reading. I can't finish without referring to the year he spent as a young boy in England and his delicious sentence: ...all I remeber of that year was finding a bomb shelter and a hibernating hedgehog, and my enduring perplexity about a word I heard as "lava tree". I laugh each time I tink of it.

  30. 5 out of 5

    bfred

    The music history books are written by critics, and as a result, the songs and artists that are collectively remembered as "important" from any given era are not necessarily representational of what was actually popular. Wald argues this idea with a compelling series of chapters that look at the evolution of music through the eyes of the masses. For example, he explains why the largely forgotten bandleader Paul Whiteman was actually "The King of Jazz" in the ’20s and ’30s, not a critical darling The music history books are written by critics, and as a result, the songs and artists that are collectively remembered as "important" from any given era are not necessarily representational of what was actually popular. Wald argues this idea with a compelling series of chapters that look at the evolution of music through the eyes of the masses. For example, he explains why the largely forgotten bandleader Paul Whiteman was actually "The King of Jazz" in the ’20s and ’30s, not a critical darling like Louis Armstrong. The bulk of the book details these kinds of forgotten pillars in the history of pop music throughout the first half of the 20th century. Wald takes great care to point out that historically, music was produced live and experienced live, which led to intermingling of genres and the presence of aesthetics that complemented that experience. He shows how these qualities suddenly crumbled when changing technology enabled The Beatles' generation to turn popular music into an isolated, headphone-experienced art where white music was completely segregated from black in a way that was unprecedented. Keep in mind that he spends little time discussing the Beatles, and that the book's title is a complete troll—this is broad cultural criticism, not the Fab Four ether it sounds like. The silly title frankly kind of undermines what is otherwise a smart, important "alternate history."

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