For sheer attention-getting impact in the field of book publishing, it’s hard to imagine a punchier title than that of Elijah Wald’s 2009 entry, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll – the real point of the work, however, is in the subheading: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. Fab fans looking for a fight needn’t get worked up, but devoted listeners of many styles should be prepared for some serious rethinking about their favorite and least favorite discs.
Wald’s thesis doesn’t much concern the Beatles, in fact. Instead he considers the evolution of the medium through jazz, swing, rock and soul to discover just what the mass audience was really enjoying: carefully examining sales figures, contemporary press coverage, and a lot of anecdotal recollections, he shows that most music in the Twentieth Century falls outside the approved definitions of artistic significance or individual talent retrospectively curated by scholars. As much as historians might venerate the inspirations of Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, or Miles Davis, it was really a lot of anonymous journeymen or forgotten footnotes (like the onetime “King of Jazz,” Paul Whiteman) who were entertaining the vast portion of the public. Why? “[A]lthough women and girls were the primary consumers of popular styles,” Wald writes, “the critics were consistently male – and, more specifically…they tended to be the sort of men who collected and discussed music rather than dancing to it.”
Aside from distinguishing the self-defined expertise of reviewers from the instinctive tastes of ordinary people who just knew what they liked, Wald also reminds readers of the absolute volume of music played, recorded, and broadcast over the decades. Not all of it was brilliant, to be sure; but then again, it was all available in a quantity that precluded neat divisions of genre or genius. In hindsight we sneer at Pat Boone and extol Little Richard, whereas the industry that produced the two, and the market that received them, had plenty of room for both. At any one time, the most popular musicians in North America were one-hit wonders, studio or dance band jobbers, or dependably middle-of-the-road crowd pleasers who could deliver in a variety of commercial formats: pop, show tunes, folk, or even the milder forms of rock ‘n’ roll. Other writers have focused exclusively on the breakthroughs and the colorful biographies, but Wald looks at the rank and file. He offers a revealing quote from Paul Simon, pointing out that mainstream success, disparaged as it often is, still represents something that bad-boy notoriety doesn’t: “Permit me my arrogance, but…I was always aware that [Simon & Garfunkel] was a much bigger phenomenon in general, to the general public, than the Rolling Stones.”
As for Wald’s title, the Beatles didn’t destroy rock ‘n’ roll, but they accelerated the progress of turning the music into capital-A Art recorded by celebrities, rather than the utilitarian dance accompaniment played live by craftsmen (and women), which older generations expected. Even before the Beatles, “The fact that single, unique recordings were replacing multiple performances of songs [in the 1950s] meant that record companies were becoming more interested in quirky, one-off records and less dependent on reliable studio performers – which is to say it encouraged the deprofessionalization of pop music…Popular music would come to be seen less as a trade than a lottery in which young aspirants either got lucky or went into a more solid business.”
In scrupulously recounting how typical listeners really heard what typical musicians were really playing, instead of the usual method of charting what diehard fans thought of uniquely original acts, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll is a welcome break from the trainspotting and trivia that dominate a lot of pop criticism. It isn’t a lament for lost standards, but it makes a strong case that, whatever we give ear to nowadays, music truly isn’t what it used to be.