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

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll by Elijah Wald
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's review
Aug 06, 2012

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bookshelves: non-fiction, musician-books, sociology, history, 2012
Read from July 13 to August 06, 2012

This book was a very interesting read, and I covered a lot of the topics that it mentioned through my status updates. Having finished the book, for those of you that are curious about the title and its premise (and want a more in depth explanation than I offer without reading the whole book) I'd recommend reading the last chapter and the epilogue, both sum up the explanation of the title rather well.

All of that having been said, it would be more accurate for the title and the subtitle to be switched. "An Alternative History of American Popular Music: How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll" or something similar. The book is indeed an alternative history of American popular music, and it covers eighty years of history ending in the 1970s.

The book reads a bit like a dissertation or a thesis paper, and I don't mean that in a negative way. Each chapter covers a very particular subject in history, and in the end it all seems to tie together pretty nicely. In the epilogue Elijah Wald does admit exceptions to his theory, and attempts to bring it all up to modern day.

The essence of his theory is that when the British Invasion happened the Beatles (and other such British bands) covered a great deal of rhythm and blues songs, and the American audience ate it up. The British Invasion solidified the fact that white musicians were dominating the rock world, which they continue to do today, and eliminated the musical integration that had happened previously.

Jazz, blues, pop, etc. all took lessons from the black community and traditions - the dance steps nearly all originated from the black gospel churches. The composers and musicians essentially all get filed under rhythm and blues and/or soul even if they write rock records (Ike and Tina Turner's River Deep - Mountain High was here mentioned) which unduly ruins their chances of climbing to the top of the charts.

While all of this I found interesting, I ultimately disagreed with the conclusion that he came to. While it might have been true in the context of the times this happened, I don't believe that it really extends into today. I can think of too many exceptions to the "certain genres are dominated by certain races" rule, and I don't believe the bulk of any population is prejudiced against any particular artist being any particular thing. Gay musicians make it to the top of the charts, as do artists of any race. Heck, looking at the last.fm records of any person can kind of guarantee that you're getting a huge mix.

Essentially, I'd recommend this book as a truly great history, but it hasn't changed my mind about the Beatles influence, impact, and legacy. Everyone does build off what has come before, but I think that they pretty well acknowledged their own influences, as I feel that Bob Dylan acknowledged his.
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Reading Progress

07/13/2012 page 19
07/20/2012 page 28
9.0% 4 comments
07/20/2012 page 73
23.0% "I've now learned about the history of ragtime and jazz music, and how fluidly the styles changed. It's fascinating learning about how music and dance styles changed over time. Strange thinking that once waltzing was viewed as scandalous! Also "From Dance Hall to White Slavery" was a popular book in the 1900s."
07/20/2012 page 81
25.0% "And now we're at Prohibition, where bigger problems occur... Will update again tomorrow more in depth as to how this is relevant to the title."
07/25/2012 page 88
27.0% 3 comments
08/02/2012 page 102
32.0% "Currently being discussed is the evolution of records from "recorded scores" to a more individualized commodity. Originally, recordings sold by song rather than the artist performing it..."
08/02/2012 page 103
32.0% "Apparently Louis Armstrong's "Ain't Misbehavin'" was originally categorized as "a fox-trot... with a vocal refrain.""
08/02/2012 page 124
38.0% "A deep discussion about how there was "hot" music (i.e. a lot of improvisation in the jazz) and "sweet" music (i.e. what you could dance to). Still don't know how the Beatles destroyed rock.."
08/03/2012 page 136
42.0% "As the music got more and more intricate, the fakes becoming longer, the bands being listened to more on the radio, etc. music halls became a place to watch the musicians play rather than dance.."
08/03/2012 page 151
47.0% "This chapter primarily discussed the battle between Decca and Columbia as well as the growing concern over records becoming more popular than live performances. Good news, we're now in the 1940s time wise."
08/03/2012 page 163
50.0% "Television has been invented! Hooray! The size of bands is changing, as is the music played... it's nearing rock n' roll time, my friends. MAYBE THEN THEY'LL MENTION THE BEATLES."
08/04/2012 page 197
61.0% "Here we go. Bill Haley and Elvis! Rock has taken over, and it's amateur hour now that singles are happening. It's the 1950s and anything goes..."
08/04/2012 page 212
66.0% "At this point, LPs are selling better than singles in America.. though I do not believe that trend was the same in the UK. We're gearing up for the 60s, people, and the Calypso fad is ending. People value rhythm and blues for its "honesty"."
08/06/2012 page 243
75.0% "The advent of the twist lead the way to SOLO dancing rather than couples dancing. Surf music emphasized electric guitar, and women were the primary buyers of records. I'm wondering how much surf music affected the electric bass.. Anyway, it's interesting to see women leading the way, as that didn't happen in England."
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