three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
42-Sept-Oct-2009
By: 
Elijah Wald
user_rating: 
0

An Alternative History of American Popular Music

A-How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n RollElijah Wald is a musician and a veteran music writer whose books include Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues and Global Minstrels: Voices of World Music. How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll, a history of popular music, is Wald's most far-reaching book to date.

The Topic: Technology, Elijah Wald posits, has done as much to influence the way we listen to music as the changing fads and preferences of the listening audience. Meant to be performed live, music has become a manufactured product devoid of spontaneity and the visceral passion that characterized early jazz and blues. With the introduction of new topics and means of expression-this is where the Beatles come in-"black and white popular music," which up to then had evolved in tandem, diverged in the 1960s. Did the Beatles really destroy rock 'n' roll? Of course not. But they irrevocably altered its course, and that's the author's point. "There are no definitive histories," Wald writes in an admission that musical taste will always be open to interpretation, "because the past keeps looking different as the present changes."
Oxford University Press. 323 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 9780195341546

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Elijah Wald is a sharp, fair critic eager to right the record on popular music and the idolatry that often shields it from clear analysis. ... Wald deepens the appreciation of American popular music by broadening its context and erasing the canonical lines that have made many boy geniuses specialists in the niche approach to criticism." Carlo Wolff

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"Did the Beatles destroy rock 'n' roll? ... Even if that isn't exactly true, [Wald's] book provides a powerfully provocative look at popular music and its impact on America." Michael E. Young

Kansas City Star 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Warning: Despite the title, Elijah Wald's How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'N' Roll is not an exposé of the foibles of those lovable Liverpudlians. ... Wald's eminently readable book is a scholarly, provocative and opinionated account of the history of pop music from Sousa to the Stones, from genteel parlor piano recitals to arena rock spectacles." James Brinsfield

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll contains some arguments that will have you slapping your forehead and exclaiming 'Of course!' and some that will have you scratching your head and saying 'Huh?'... [The book] has given me plenty to think about-and for a book that devotes so much attention to so many people who have never been on my personal hit parade, that's an impressive accomplishment." Peter Keepnews

Christian Science Monitor 3 of 5 Stars
"[Wald's book is] a brave and original work ... though the author seems at times as conflicted about the value of certain artists and forms of music as were the timid radio programmers and record company executives back in the day. ... I often felt myself wanting to put the book down so I could just enjoy some music without thinking about it." John Kehe

Los Angeles Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"[Wald's] mission in How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll is to help you forget all that you've learned about popular music, to 'strip away layers of past opinion' and view musical history through the framework of the mainstream of given eras than by focusing solely on the stars canonized after the fact. ... Wald tries to have his cake and eat it, and it comes out tasting bitter, without a smidgen of real credibility." Erik Himmelsbach

Critical Summary

Revisiting original sources to understand how music has been received over the past century, Wald neatly traces the evolution of popular music. As with many books that set out to prove sensational claims in the title (the Christian Science Monitor calls the book's tag "blatantly disingenuous"), Wald's work doesn't really deliver on its claim (or, in fact, pay it a great deal of attention). But look past the title, and readers will discover that even when he's not being provocative, Wald can be thought-provoking, as in his profiles of lesser-known musicians and their influence on subsequent generations of musicians. Those pieces complement more mainstream-and, in Wald's hands, refreshingly honest-discussions of superstars and issues of race and gender. The result, despite the Los Angeles Times's sharp criticism of the thesis, is both passionate and informative.