The Not So Fab Four’s Legacy
In the comprehensive book “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll,” author Elijah Wald examines the history of popular American music by breaking down much of what the media, record companies, critics and music historians have led the masses to believe. Wald says that rock critics and historians have “typically sought to distinguish the music they love from the mediocre pap that surrounded it,” which in turn negatively affected the way musical styles developed.
Wald argues that by grouping together artists with different sounds and styles, music critics effectively caused the amalgamation of different styles that were previously pure and without influence.
The author traces the evolution of popular music by examining how various trends in culture and technology affected the many permutations of music throughout history. He cites the popularity of jukeboxes and the rise of radio and record players as inevitably affecting the necessity for live music. He blames the demise of the ballroom orchestra on the twist, which took over ballroom dancing and hence its music.
The premise of the book, however, is that The Beatles indirectly destroyed rock ’n’ roll. In chapter 17, “Say You Want a Revolution,” Wald focuses on popular music from its beginnings in the 1920s until the ’60s, when The Beatles arrived.
The Fab Four began by playing a version of pop music that was equally indebted to rockabilly artists such as Carl Perkins and blues musicians like Chuck Berry. Where there used to be separate charts for rockabilly music and blues, which essentially separated “white music” and “black music,” The Beatles’ arrival effectively distorted those distinctions, being a mix of pop and blues-inspired rock, finding black and white fans.
With the release of their 1965 album, “Rubber Soul,” The Beatles began experimenting and branched out a little from pure pop and rock. They found influences in Indian and psychedelic music. Their newer sound relied on studio production and had less of a live sound.
The results were albums such as “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “The White Album,” with its experimental instrumental centerpiece “Revolution #9,” which was both a critical and commercial success.
Soon other bands began to follow The Beatles into more musically challenging territory, and this is where Wald believes the greatest musical segregation of the 20th century happened. White musicians followed the lead of The Beatles, while black musicians followed the less experimental path. Wald writes that by the time Billboard revived its R’n’B chart, the separation was established, and it has effectively stayed that way ever since.
It is a debatable but interesting premise. Whether or not you agree with Wald’s hypothesis, the book’s strength lies not in its main argument, but in Wald’s storytelling.
Beginning with the first “professional” performers, like John Philip Sousa, to the arrival of social dances like the turkey trot, grizzly bear and the fox trot, to the swinging 1920s, “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll” leaves no significant music-related event uncovered.
“How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll” is a worthwhile read for anyone remotely interested in the evolution of music.