Rock Ampersand Roll

Elijah Wald's alternative history turns out to be the best rock book of the year

Rock Ampersand Roll

It’s been a while since a book lingered long after I’d shut its cover, but Elijah Wald’s How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music (Oxford University Press) really got under my skin and became my best book of 2010.

Even with its annoying use of “n” in “Rock 'n' Roll” instead of the less annoying ampersand (as in rock & roll, because then you don’t have to worry about how Word inverts the apostrophe and why do you need that many bloody apostrophes anyway?), it was such a compelling read, I’ve re-read it three times this year, each time taking away something new, even after reviewing it.

First time around I was fascinated among many about his contention that the trend to play electric guitars was in full bloom by the time the Beatles got here. That the Fab Four’s intrusion onto the scene heightened the electric guitar’s already booming popularity, inspired by the trend of instrumentals such as “Sleepwalk” and popular soundtrack hits. This last time, I was taken by his positing of how shows such as The TAMI Show from 1964, featured such a vibrant mix of black and white acts yet how only three black acts performed five years later at Woodstock.

Wald is a well-respected writer and his previous forays into between-the-lines and more arcane and cultish subjects (Narcocorrido: A Journey Into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues) served him well in this book, though I’d bet the inflammatory title was the publisher’s idea. It was unnerving to have my long-accepted belief of how rock & roll developed and the Beatles changed everything up-ended by Wald without so much as a yeah yeah yeah.

It took a while for me to fully grok the idea that the Beatles led audiences away from the dance floor, separating “rock from its rhythmic and cultural roots” by turning the dynamic of music from the stage to the studio. I thought long and hard: How easy is it to get it wrong? Watching Beatles 3000 recently made me realize the answer: Very easy. The four-minute clips neatly parody rock critics and commercial history programs wickedly, hilariously suggesting the Beatles also invented Mickey Mouse and played in the Super Bowl. I laugh every time I watch it.

And do I need a good laugh at the end of this year. 2009 just needs to close its cover like a book I’m done with and not anxious to read again.

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