How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music
Reviewed by Margaret Moser, Fri., July 17, 2009
How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Musicby Elijah Wald
Oxford University Press, 336 pp., $24.95
How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll is arguably the most important book on popular music this decade. It's not simply a controversial title, nor a new notion – the suggestion that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band changed the course of rock & roll for the worse. What author Elijah Wald does differently is set up a counter-history of popular music from the point of view of everyman. It was the "journeyman dance bands, part-timers, amateurs, and dancers who kept the whole mass afloat." Further, "the segregation of American popular music that began with the British Invasion has hurt white music more than it hurt black." Wald's provocative approach works on the idea that history's written by the victors, and music history is written largely by white, middle-class critics who praise the underground while decrying the mainstream. This construct allows the author to avoid the popular and legitimate in favor of the forgotten or denigrated talents such as Paul Whiteman and Connie Francis. It also buys him freedom to avoid conventional wisdom about rock history. "The Beatles destroyed rock 'n' roll, turning it from a vibrant black (or integrated) dance music into a vehicle for white pap and pretension." Wald is canny in his structure, avoiding a book-length defense of the inflammatory title by not addressing the Beatles until a few pages from the end, like the analogy of the Earth's history set as a 24-hour period and man's appearance only in the last few seconds. By avoiding well-trod clichés, Wald throws a fresh, appealing light on rock history, bravely recasting producer Mitch Miller as a knowledgeable hardass rather than Columbia Records' boogeyman of rock & roll, for example. It was not the British Invasion of '64 that made the electric guitar ubiquitous; it was the surf/instrumental trend of the previous two years. Wald warns when he's avoiding well-documented territory and earns kudos for citing Texan Adolph Hofner. Wald, whose previous books include Narcocorrido: A Journey Into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas (see "Phases & Stages," Jan. 11, 2002) and Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (see "Sheet Music," May 28, 2004), sometimes slips into a professorial tone, but not in the overly scholarly, university press way. And the conclusion is grim. Can it really be that the Fab Four, however innocently, led audiences away from the dance floor and "separat[ed] rock from its rhythmic and cultural roots"? If that's true, Pat Boone was totally the shit.