How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n 'Roll

Martin James discusses how the Fab Four played their part in the loss of rock's dancefloor vitality

October 22, 2009

Given the fact that his earlier book, Escaping the Delta (2004), found Elijah Wald challenging Robert Johnson's central position in the story of the blues, it should come as no surprise that this musician-turned-historian has now set his sights on rock's most sacred of cows, the Beatles.

But fear not, those of you who treasure all things John, Paul, George and Ringo - this book's iconoclastic title is somewhat misleading, to say the least. Indeed, apart from the author's introductory references to being bought the Fab Four's debut album by a Danish au pair, the Beatles don't actually make an appearance until the final chapter.

That this book has been published at a time when interest in the Beatles is at a new high is not without irony. The BBC Four Beatles evenings and the fever-pitch hyperbole issuing from the printed and online media has had less to do with the reissue of their back catalogue than the fact that you can now "play" their music on the console game Rock Band. Arguably, this kind of gaming separates the listening experience from the music, creating in the process a division in perceptions surrounding the work. Put simply, we now have to ask if the Beatles' music is "good game".

Wald's central argument surrounding the Beatles is also about separation. Here, he argues that in their move from live performance to being an albums band, they shifted popular music away from its simultaneously black and white dancefloor roots and towards a white, European, art-inspired form of rock. In so doing, Wald says, they recast black music as "the roots of rock'n'roll rather than as part of its evolving present".

Increasingly, throughout the late Sixties and beyond, album-focused white rock music was presented as the sound of the anti-commerce auteur, while black hit-friendly dance music was characterised as insincere pop fodder (which is paradoxical, as Wald observes in noting that the former approach promised far greater commercial rewards for the artist). In so doing, the question of whether music is for dancing or listening became a question about musical forms as racial markers.

On its own, of course, this would be something of a simplistic and naive claim: however, Wald's argument is built through 16 chapters of well-researched and brilliantly argued historical contextualising.

Essentially, then, the majority of this book is in fact the prequel to the Beatles' part in the destruction of rock'n'roll; a prequel in which Wald deconstructs a story dominated by notions of the canon and relocates it squarely in the terrain of the popular consumption of popular music - the dancefloor, sheet music, the radio, etc.

Through this focus, he shifts arguments away from the aesthetic responses of the critic and provides a foundation through which many assumptions about race, gender and the marketplace are turned on their heads.

His investigation opens at the start of the 20th century, where he chronicles the emergence of recorded music and subsequently radio, which would soon replace the dominance of pianos and sheet music as the main form of music consumption.

This revolution occurred in parallel with the development of jazz, which saw a sudden shift from the dancefloor owing to radio's demand for singers. As a result, vocalists such as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra were taken from their position as purveyors of mid-song novelty and propelled into the limelight.

Through this tale of the focal shifts in jazz, Wald highlights the story of bandleader Paul Whiteman, an oft-overlooked figure in the genre's history, but a man who was in radio's earliest times billed as the "King of Jazz". Whiteman's story reveals radio's willingness to promote a sanitised and somewhat anodyne version of the jazz being played in clubs.

Whiteman, Wald claims, took the raw rhythms of African-American jazz and placed them in an orchestrated setting. In the process, he turned the music into a radio-friendly listening experience, removing it entirely from the dancefloor style that inspired it.

Of course, the Beatles echoed this achievement years later. However, it has oft been argued that the Fab Four were moving rock'n'roll forward into a new era, whereas Whiteman - who commissioned George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (1924) - has enjoyed a less positive critical assessment.

The author cites so many inconsistencies and contradictions in the story of popular music that it becomes hard not to agree with his overarching theory that the rock music of the late 1960s was less the start of a brave new era than the end of a significantly braver one.

Throughout the book, one question arises again and again: is music for dancing or listening? With the release of the Beatles' Rock Band incarnation, however, this argument may well have to evolve to ask whether music is for dancing, listening or gaming. Does this new question override the earlier queries? I can't wait to read Wald's assessment of the Beatles and their virtual part in the destruction of rock, too.

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

By Elijah Wald

Oxford University Press 336pp, £13.99

ISBN 9780195341546

Published August 2009

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