Ebony vs. Ivory? Blame It on the Beatles

Would you like to know how John, Paul, George, and Ringo destroyed
rock’n’roll? Me too, which is why I read all the way to the end of Elijah
Wald’s How the Beatles Destroyed Rock’n’Roll, even as I became
increasingly doubtful that the book would justify its title.

It sure doesn’t. In fact, the Beatles feature only in the introduction,
epilogue, and final chapter (out of 17). The narrative runs from around 1890
to 1970, and spends relatively little time with the Fab Four. Paul Whiteman,
an early-20th-century big-band leader, gets much more ink than Paul
McCartney.

In many ways, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock’n’Roll is not a bad book. But
it doesn’t deliver on its title, which is a bait-and-switch tease, or even
its subtitle: An Alternative History of American Popular History.

Alternative to what? To rock cultists who celebrate only the most obscure,
least commercial examples of the genre, apparently. But such people aren’t
all that common — they couldn’t be, or the music they prize wouldn’t be
obscure. And most of us cultists don’t deny the appeal of mainstream pop. I
like Future of the Left, but am aware that Taylor Swift sells significantly
better.

While surveying pre-Let It Be pop in some detail, Wald advances two
theses, which are not entirely compatible. The first is that all (or nearly
all) innovation in American popular music comes from African-Americans. The
second is that white and black U.S. musicians were influencing each other
long before the 1950s.

Anyone who’s been paying attention already knows the latter. It’s convenient
to suppose that 1954, the year of Elvis Presley’s debut and Brown vs. the
Board of Education
, was a bolt of lightning that demolished cultural
barriers and freed white teenagers to dance to “That’s All Right, Mama.” But
the endless argument over the “first rock’n’roll record” keeps pushing the
genre’s origins back to performers, both black and white, who significantly
predate Elvis.

Wald is aware of that. In his research, he found that Ella Fitzgerald was
singing about “rock and roll” with a ballroom orchestra in 1937. And she
surely wasn’t the first person to use the phrase.

If such revelations are less than startling, Wald’s book does offer some
entertaining minutiae. I was charmed to learn, for example, about DJ shows
in the early days of TV that illustrated the music with abstract or random
imagery: Detroit’s Pat’n’Johnny Show displayed “parakeets, canaries,
hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs, tropical fish and other animals while
records spin.”

I have some quibbles, a few of them related to my hometown, Washington, D.C. To illustrate the importance of brass bands in the earliest days of the
recording industry, Wald notes that Columbia Records’s first catalogue,
published in 1890, listed 50 cylinders by the U.S. Marine Band, then under
the direction of popular march composer John Philip Sousa. But he doesn’t
mention that Columbia, Sousa, and the Marine Band were all based in D.C. If
Columbia had been founded in New Orleans or Kansas City, its repertoire
would have been rather different. (He also misses the importance to Al
Jolson of a childhood spent in ethnically and racially mixed southwest D.C.,
and Washington’s role in “hillbilly” music after World War II.)

To Wald’s credit, much of the material to rebut his arguments is right there
in his own book. He charts an 80-year process in which “hot”
African-American rhythms gradually overwhelmed “sweet” Euro-American
melodies and arrangements. Yet he concedes that plenty of black musicians
emulated white ones, and not just during the big-band era. In the 1950s,
when Presley and other rockabilly types were getting raucous, the
top-selling black performers included Nat King Cole and Johnny Mathis.

#How the Beatles Destroyed Rock’n’Roll# seeks to elevate commercial
judgments over artistic ones. It wants to know which performers innovated,
but is more interested in which ones attracted a crowd. Yet these two things
can’t be balanced exactly — as every rock writer knows. While Wald travels
further back in time than many rock chroniclers, the art-versus-commerce
contradictions he encounters won’t surprise thoughtful observers.

The book starts to get in real trouble around 1959, when Joan Baez signs to
the liberal-minded folk label Vanguard, rather than Columbia, the domain of
eclectic (and omnivorous) producer Mitch Miller. The new generation of “pop”
musicians who cared more about their idea of authenticity than about
pop-chart success challenges the author’s simplistic analysis. Something
happened in the 1960s, and Wald doesn’t know what it was.

He continues to assume that pop music is validated foremost by commercial
triumph. So he shortchanges Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, despite their
enormous influence, because their records didn’t sell all that well. And he
treats the free agents of the rock era like the journeymen of an earlier
age: He writes that “Atlantic used Eric Clapton and Duane Allman on
recordings by [Aretha] Franklin and [Wilson] Pickett,” as if 1970s
rock-guitar gods were 1930s session players dependent on producers for a
gig.

Wald’s essential gripe is that art-rock separated white music from its black
cousin, and he thinks rock has suffered from that breach. Despite its title,
however, the book spends very little time explaining how everything went
wrong.

It seems to all come down to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,
certainly not one of funkiest records of its time. Wald even credits the
Beatles’s psychedelic-music-hall period for “opening the way for the Velvet
Underground.” Yet the bulk of Velvets’s first album was recorded in April
1966, when the Beatles’s latest single was “Nowhere Man.” #Sgt. Pepper’s#
was only 14 months away, but those 14 months would be very eventful.

And the Beatles’s acid-washed experiments didn’t last long. By 1968, Lennon
would be writing blues-based stompers; in 1969, McCartney would instruct his
own band to “get back to where you once belonged.” If the Beatles destroyed
rock’n’roll, they quickly turned to reviving it.

Wald’s book reads like a very long introduction to a history that’s yet to
be written. He discusses only a few of the myriad influences that led to
psychedelic rock and its various successors, and ends a tale that chronicles
immense diversity and complex interaction by trying to pin late-’60s rock
entirely on a single band. Also, because he’s so laden with pop history,
Wald can’t hear what’s new in post-Beatles music that recasts ’50s and ’60s
rock.

If the Beatles forever separated white artiness from black earthiness, what
explains the Pop Group’s punk-jazz, Talking Heads’s Afro-punk, Prince’s
new-waved soul, DJ Spooky’s art-school hip-hop, or the Dirty Projectors’s
high-life guitars? Or the rappers who sampled Kraftwerk, Led Zeppelin, and
the Police?

What really happened to rock in the ’60s and ’70s was not that it split in
two, but that it splintered into thousands of pieces. A history that
stitched together those fragments would be more useful than How the Beatles Destroyed Rock’n’Roll, which simply hangs new details on a long-established historical framework.

The gap between black and white American music from 1890-1970 isn’t that
hard to explain: The country was racially segregated. That a sort of musical
segregation continues — although it’s not so straightforward as Wald
imagines — is a much more interesting topic. It calls for someone to wr
ite
a history, but not an “alternative” one, and not one that attempts to fit
the sprawling jumble that is popular culture into rigid ideological
template.

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