Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Elijah Wald: How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ’N’ Roll

In spite of its bomb-throwing title, How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ’N’ Roll: An Alternative History Of American Popular Music isn’t out to desecrate anyone. Instead, via careful research and his own insider’s view, L.A. musician and historian Elijah Wald seeks to even out the historical imbalances between what the pop eras from the 1890s through the 1960s are best remembered for—say, Duke Ellington in the late ’20s—and what was actually most popular during each period—say, Paul Whiteman in the late ’20s. It’s an ambitious project, but Wald’s casual narrative style and eye for a juicy quote give it a lightness that even a novice to pop, rock, or jazz history can appreciate.


That said, chances are that the book will be most useful to readers who already have some idea of the parameters of American music’s evolution in the age of mechanical reproduction. Wald emphasizes that, well into the 1940s, the phonograph record was seen mostly as revolving sheet music. He quotes a concert review from 1941 that scoffs at romantic baritone Vaughn Monroe for performing his recorded arrangements live, a practice that became an industry standard shortly thereafter. And Wald’s empathy for the musician’s life lets him extrapolate knowledgably about the day-to-day realities of players losing work during the Depression and regaining it with the end of Prohibition.

Wald accounts for the role of changing technology in musical development, from radio helping spread dance bands’ popularity to LPs suddenly opening up the record business to a previously ignored demographic: adults. (“Now, people could put a stack of albums on the hi-fi and enjoy a couple hours of uninterrupted music in the comfort of their living rooms.”) He also tracks important social-dancing trends from the foxtrot to the Twist, noting the kind of demands they made from new music, and in many cases earlier in the century, their longevity. (Even hot jazz bands had to play obligatory waltzes well into the swing era.) And he sheds light on major sellers who barely register anymore, such as Guy Lombardo (whose “swooning” saxophone arrangements influenced Louis Armstrong’s) and Whiteman, whose formal experiments with jazz set a continuing example of stretching the format. The title is appropriate: This is a provocative book, in all the right ways.