How The Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music

Overview

"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 hip hop.

As its blasphemous title suggests, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll rejects the conventional pieties of mainstream jazz and rock history. Rather than ...

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How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music

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Overview

"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 hip hop.

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 popular music 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. 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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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"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."—Tom Waits

"Wald is a meticulous researcher, a graceful writer and a committed contrarian... an impressive accomplishment."—New York Times Book Review

"A complex, fascinating and long-overdue response to decades of industry-driven revisionism."—Jonny Whiteside, LA Weekly

"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."—The Onion AV Club

"Wald is a sharp, fair critic eager to right the record on popular music... deepens the appreciation of American popular music."—Boston Globe

"This is a debatable premise... you don't have to agree with it to admire this book... It is as an alternative, corrective history of American music that 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."— Malcolm Jones, Newsweek

"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."-Christian Science Monitor

"A smart, inclusive celebration of mainstream stars, such as 1920s bandleader Paul Whiteman and the Fab Four, who introduced jazz, blues, and other roughhewn musical forms to mass audiences."—AARP Magazine

"A powerfully provocative look at popular music and its impact on America."—Dallas Morning News

"Elijah Wald is a treasure... There is far too much in these 300 pages to even summarize here. Wald is an economical and lucid writer with an amazing grasp of his subject. I know quite a lot of musical history, and I did not find a single clinker in this symphony of renewal and re-examination."—Winston-Salem Journal

"As catchy and compelling as a great pop single, this revisionist retelling is provocative, profound and utterly necessary... Clearly the product of years of passionate research, it's so rife with references and surprising anecdotes that it's potentially overwhelming, but Wald makes a superlative tour guide— frank, funny and generous but judicious with his inclusions— and his book is a beguiling, blasphemous breeze."—Philadelphia City Paper

"Elijah Wald's provocative, meticulously researched new book, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music, turns the stock rock-and-roll narratives on their head."—Very Short List

"Brilliant and provocative... the most challenging and head-clearing history of American popular music to be published in decades."—The Buffalo News

"Wald explains musical and recording techniques and sociological phenomena in an engaging style accessible to a wide range of readers. Throughout, he makes a compelling case for why the figures most historians have disregarded or footnoted need to be considered in order to understand the totality of American popular music. This is an ideal companion to the plethora of standard histories available. Highly recommended." —Library Journal starred review

"Wald's arguments are as nuanced as his scope is wide, which makes this a fascinating and useful volume—required reading for any fan of pop music."—Memphis Flyer

"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."—San Jose Mercury News

"Wald's book may be the literary equivalent of revisionist Civil War histories which tell the war through the eyes of soldiers rather than the generals, for he highlights how consumers actually heard and experienced music over the years, whether as screaming teeny-boppers watching Dick Clark's Bandstand or swing afficionados dancing to Glenn Miller at the Roseland."—HistoryWire.com

"A subtle polemic, one that is fundamentally broad-minded and seeks to educate the reader on the rich legacy and development of American popular music, the music that spawned the Beatles and from which that group departed, for better and worse."—Brooklyn Rail

"Walds 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."—Kansas City Star

"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."—Kirkus Reviews

"Some of the smartest historiography I've ever read. The examples and turns of phrase sometimes make me laugh out loud, and nearly every page overturns another outmoded assumption. Wald just calls it like he sees it and transforms everything as a result."—Susan McClary, MacArthur Fellow and author of Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality

"This is a ground-breaking book, a muscular revisionist account that will get people thinking quite differently about the history of pop music. I've learned much from it and admire the writing style that is so light on its feet, lucid and elegant."—Bernard Gendron, author of Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant Garde

"Meticulously researched."—Bookforum.com

"A fascinating and scrupulous piece of pop scholarship...Tantalizing." —Paste Magazine

Mark Athitakis
In How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll, Elijah Wald constructs a history of pop that challenges received wisdom. He resists the bomb-throwing tone of the title and, like many scholars, routinely qualifies his assertions. But his version of history is provocative in several ways.
—The Washington Post
Peter Keepnews
…cheerfully iconoclastic…if you're looking, as Wald's subtitle has it, for "an alternative history of American popular music"—specifically from the turn of the 20th century to roughly the mid-1970s—you've found it. And if you're up for some good arguments, you've found those too…Wald is a meticulous researcher, a graceful writer and a committed contrarian.
—The New York Times
Library Journal

Although the provocative title of Wald's latest suggested to this reviewer another "why the Rolling Stones were more important than the Beatles" tome, this, like Wald's Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, is an alternative view of history. Unlike most studies that include Tin Pan Alley, ragtime, jazz, blues, pop, country, rock, R&B, soul, disco, and other genres, Wald's history of American popular music from the late 19th century to the 1970s contains significant discussions of the likes of Paul Whiteman, Mitch Miller, Guy Lombardo, and others who, despite being well known and influential in their times, tend to be ignored today. Wald explains musical and recording techniques and sociological phenomena in an engaging style accessible to a wide range of readers. Throughout, he makes a compelling case for why the figures most historians have disregarded or footnoted need to be considered in order to understand the totality of American popular music. This is an ideal companion to the plethora of standard histories available. Highly recommended.
—James E. Perone

Kirkus Reviews
A bracing, inclusive look at the dramatic transformation in the way music was produced and listened to during the 20th century. It wasn't always something you heard at home or through an earpiece, writes music historian and journalist Wald (Riding with Strangers: A Hitchhiker's Journey, 2006, etc.). "Until recording, music did not exist without someone playing it, and as a result music listening was necessarily social." People went out to listen to bands, bought sheet music of the songs they liked and played it with family and friends. Even after the arrival of commercial phonograph recordings, people still went out, because they wanted to dance. Radio made professional music available at home and completed the change records had begun. Now musicians' names were associated with popular songs, and people used to hearing a particular version on the air wanted to hear it when they went dancing as well. Wald emphasizes the important role of technology, which had at least as much impact as changing musical styles. In fact, he argues, jazz and rock 'n' roll were not the apocalyptic breaks with the past depicted in conventional accounts. Female fans in particular tended to be receptive to new sounds, especially when embodied by a hot swing band or sexy, hip-swiveling Elvis, without feeling the need to throw out their Glenn Miller or Perry Como records. Wald rejects the purists' disdain for popularizers like Paul Whiteman and the Beatles, who polished rough-hewn art forms and made them palatable to the mainstream. He doesn't offer much truly new material, but he puts it together in fresh ways, with wonderful nuggets about the recording ban of the early 1940s and the impact of long-playing albums.It's a shame the narrative essentially stops in the early '70s, since Wald surely would have interesting insights about the fragmented, DIY world of MP3 players and musicians selling their product online. One of those rare books that aims to upend received wisdom and actually succeeds.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199756971
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 10/1/2011
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 709,008
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Elijah Wald is a musician, writer and historian, whose books include Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues; Narcocorrido, about the modern Mexican ballads of drug trafficking; The Mayor of MacDougal Street (with Dave Van Ronk), and Global Minstrels: Voices of World Music. He is currently teaching at UCLA, and contributing regular pieces to the Los Angeles Times. For more information, please visit www.elijahwald.com.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments Introduction
1. Amateurs and Executants
2. The Ragtime Life
3. Everybody's Doin' It
4. Alexander's Got a Jazz Band Now
5. Cake Eaters and Hooch Drinkers
6. The King of Jazz
7. The Record, the Song and the Radio
8. Sons of Whiteman
9. Swing that Music
10. Technology and Its Discontents
11. Walking Floors and Jumpin' Jive
12. Selling the American Ballad
13. Rock the Joint
14. Big Records for Adults
15. Teen Idyll
16. Twisting Girls Change the World
17. Say You Want a RevolutionEL Epilogue: The Rock Blot and the Disco Diagram Bibliography Index

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 21, 2012

    WHAT!!!!

    I want a fun book to read. So i found this and the tittle is disturbing to me. What do they mean by the beatles destroyed rock 'n roll? I am a true blue swadde shoe beatle fan and i wanna know what is going on.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2011

    Recommended

    I haven't actually read this book - I bought it as a gift for someone. It was highly recommended by a college professor of music.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 28, 2010

    Can't Put It Down

    Always a lover of all musical styles and genres, I had thought that there was one, true history of how American music came to be. With this very entertaining and informing book, I now realize that the lines are not clear and there is so much overlap and mixing between regions, styles and cultures and that our country is very lucky to have had it turn out this way. I especially enjoyed the early sections of the book where musical entertainment was up to players in homes and community gathering places (with sheet music) and how technology and changes in recording impacted the entire industry. I plan on giving this book to my musical friends as gifts throughout this year. Well done Mr. Wald!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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