Elijah Wald – How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll
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In the early 1980s, Elijah began writing for the Boston Globe, and was in charge of the newspaper’s “world music” coverage for most of the 1990s, as well as contributing articles to various other newspapers and magazines. His books include Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, Josh White: Society Blues, Global Minstrels: Voices of World Music, Dave Van Ronk's memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street, River of Song: Music Along the Mississippi, which accompanied the PBS series of the same name, and Narcocorrido, a survey of the modern Mexican ballads of drug smuggling and social issues. His latest book is How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. He has won a Grammy Award for his album notes to The Arhoolie Records 40th Anniversary Box, for which he was also nominated as a producer, and his books have won many awards, including an ASCAP-Deems Taylor award and an honorable mention for the American Musicological Society’s Otto Kinkeldey award.
In the last few years, Elijah has been teaching off and on at the University of California Los Angeles, performing music when possible, and contributing occasional pieces to the Los Angeles Times, along with various other writing projects and speaking engagements.
How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll:
"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 hiphop.
Following the approach of his groundbreaking and controversial blues history, "Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues," Wald examines the expanse of mainstream popular music from ragtime to disco, trying to separate the realities of the music, dance and culture from a centuries' accumulation of familiar myths.
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 pop styles 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.
Rather than following his own tastes and trying to establish some alternate critical canon, 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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"I couldn't put it down. It nailed me to the wall, not bad for a grand sweeping in-depth exploration of American music with not one mention of myself. Wald's book is suave, soulful, ebullient and will blow out your speakers."
"Wald is a meticulous researcher, a graceful writer and a committed contrarian...an impressive accomplishment."
"Wald's book is invaluable. It forces us to see that only by studying the good with the bad—and by seeing that the good and bad can't be pulled apart—can we truly grasp the greatness of our cultural legacy."
"Brilliant and provocative... the most challenging, and head-clearing history of American popular music to be published in decades."
"A tour de force... deftly navigating the evolving complexities of American race relations and the social and economic upheavals of the last century."
"a jukebox version of the social histories of E. P. Thompson or Howard Zinn..."
"A complex, fascinating and long-overdue response to decades of industry-driven revisionism that's sure to outrage lemmings and invigorate lions."
"A bracing, inclusive look at the dramatic transformation in the way music was produced and listened to during the 20th century.... One of those rare books that aims to upend received wisdom and actually succeeds."
"It's an ambitious project, but Wald's casual narrative style and eye for a juicy quote give it a lightness that even a novice to pop, rock, or jazz history can appreciate... The title is appropriate: This is a provocative book, in all the right ways."
"A serious treatise on the history of recorded music, sifted through his filter as musician, scholar, and fan... It's a brave and original work that certainly delivers."
"As catchy and compelling as a great pop single, this revisionist retelling is provocative, profound and utterly necessary."
"Fascinating... It's hard to imagine any American music buff coming away from this book without a fresh perspective and an overwhelming desire to seek out Paul Whiteman CDs. Highly recommended."
This book surveys the evolution of almost a century of American popular music, from before the dawn of recording to the arrival of disco, so it seemed helpful to pull out a few themes that interviewers or reviewers might want to focus on as points of discussion.
Here are a few surprising ideas that might be explored:
1. That the Beatles’ success brought an unprecedented segregation of American music, which continues today.
2. That swing, rather than being a high point of American dance music, actually drove dancers off the floor and helped destroy the ballroom business.
3. That women (or girls) were almost always the main audience for popular music, and their tastes to a great extent have determined the course of pop history.
4. That records are lousy indicators of what musicians were playing in almost every era, and until the 1960s were consistently viewed as hurting musicians.
Here are some slightly more in-depth suggestions:
1. Most music histories concentrate on jazz or rock, and on artists the writer thinks are great, rather than on the most popular and influential stars (for example, we get Louis Armstrong rather than Paul Whiteman, and Buddy Holly rather than Pat Boone). These canons are fine as far as they go, but leave us with a warped sense of the world that produced all of those artists. Wald tries to leave his own tastes out of the picture and instead understand the tastes of mainstream dancers and listeners, and the changes in lifestyles and technologies that shaped the evolution of American popular music.
2. Wald puts dancing and dance music at the center of his history, arguing that shifting fashions in dance--for example, the appearance of public dance halls and, fifty years later, the appearance of record-driven discoteques--often had more to do with the ways music changed than any musician did.
3. Pop music is almost always driven by female tastes, but almost all the history has been written by men--and not just by men, but by the sort of men who collect records rather than going dancing, and consider most mainstream pop to be junk. This book puts women's tastes at the center of the story, from the flood of young female office and factory workers who sparked the dance crazes of the Jazz Age to the early 1960s when "twisting girls changed the world."
4. Another central story is the evolving technologies--records, radio, juke boxes, television, LPs--and how they affected both listeners and musicians. The recording strike of the 1940s is placed at the center of a larger story of live musicians being replaced by mechanical devices, and Mitch Miller is given his due as the man who realized that this could open the way for records that would be more than simply sound-pictures of live performances.
5. The Beatles' success marked a split between older rock 'n' roll and modern rock--and the moment when the interracial world of rock 'n' roll was divided into rock (white) and black (soul) styles. Wald argues that this ended a pattern of interracial give-and-take that had produced every previous major American pop style, from ragtime to rock 'n' roll.