Sunday, July 12, 2009

“How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll”: Elijah Wald

Book review from today's New York Times. Sounds intriguing. Here are some pithy excerpts:

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...

While Wald never says in so many words that the Beatles destroyed rock ’n’ roll, he does take a stance several degrees removed from standard-issue Beatles worship. He suggests that their ambitious later work, widely hailed as a step forward for rock, instead helped turn it from a triumphantly mongrel dance music that smashed racial barriers into a rhythmically inert art music made mostly by and for white people...

[Wald] has set himself a deceptively simple task: to write about the popular music of the last century by concentrating on what was actually popular, and to figure out why people — not critics or historians but the people who bought the sheet music and the records, listened to the songs on the radio and went to the ­dances — liked it.In doing so he ends up taking aim, for example, at the notion that mainstream pop music in the early 1950s was mired in white-bread mediocrity, as embodied by the likes of Perry Como, until Elvis Presley and company came along to rescue it...

He also makes a case for the importance, and the lasting influence, of artists like Paul Whiteman, a bandleader who was phenomenally successful in the 1920s and ’30s but has rarely received anything more than grudging respect from music historians, and has more often been either attacked or ignored.

In his heyday the appropriately named Whiteman was billed as the King of Jazz, which in artistic terms he clearly wasn’t; Wald acknowledges that his often syrupy music is less interesting than Fletcher Henderson’s or Duke Ellington’s. But he also says that no matter how corny it may sound to contemporary ears, it deserves to be taken seriously — not least because Whiteman’s admirers included, among many others, Henderson and Ellington. (While white musicians have long drawn inspiration from black musicians, he points out, the inspiration has sometimes flowed in the other direction as well.)

And he finds parallels between Whiteman — who commissioned “Rhapsody in Blue” and whose quasi-­symphonic approach was said, in the unfortunate terminology of the time, to have made an honest woman out of jazz — and the Beatles. Whiteman, he explains, took a music that had been seen as rough and uncouth and made it respectable to a wide audience; the Beatles did the same thing with the string-quartet elegance of “Yesterday” and the operatic grandiosity of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

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