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

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"There are no definitive histories," writes Elijah Wald, in this provocative reassessment of American popular music, "because the past keeps looking different as the present changes." Earlier musical styles sound different to us today because we hear them through the musical filter of other styles that came after them, all the way through funk and hip hop.

As its blasphemous title suggests, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll rejects the conventional pieties of mainstream jazz and rock history. Rather than concentrating on those traditionally favored styles, the book traces the evolution of popular music through developing tastes, trends and technologies–including the role of records, radio, jukeboxes and television –to give a fuller, more balanced account of the broad variety of music that captivated listeners over the course of the twentieth century. Wald revisits original sources–recordings, period articles, memoirs, and interviews–to highlight how music was actually heard and experienced over the years. And in a refreshing departure from more typical histories, he focuses on the world of working musicians and ordinary listeners rather than stars and specialists. He looks for example at the evolution of jazz as dance music, and rock 'n' roll through the eyes of the screaming, twisting teenage girls who made up the bulk of its early audience. Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and the Beatles are all here, but Wald also discusses less familiar names like Paul Whiteman, Guy Lombardo, Mitch Miller, Jo Stafford, Frankie Avalon, and the Shirelles, who in some cases were far more popular than those bright stars we all know today, and who more accurately represent the mainstream of their times.

Written with verve and style, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll shakes up our staid notions of music history and helps us hear American popular music with new ears.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (October 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 019975697X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199756971
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 1 x 6.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds

Customer Reviews

Ignore the main title and focus on the sub-title

63 people found this helpful.
 on June 20, 2009
By R. M. Peterson
As I understand it, Wald’s principal thesis, which is reflected in the somewhat provocative main title, is the following: As rock/pop performers — of which the Beatles were the most conspicuous example — began to see themselves more as “artists”, they consciously aspired to create “high” or “serious” art and in the process divorced themselves and their music from entertainment and, especially, from dancing. At the same time, in part because it is easier to write about “art” than “entertainment,” the media pushed the notion that these self-conscious, auteur-ish, studio products were indeed “art”, something to be taken and discussed seriously. The two impulses fed and reinforced one another, pushing white rock/pop music further and further away from entertainment, dancing, and (for the first time in 20th-Century popular music) black music. By 1969, “[r]ock had become a white genre.”

Misleading Title but a Good Music Book

70 people found this helpful.
 on June 15, 2009
By Mr. Bey
Accusing one of the greatest bands in history of destroying rock and roll is a bold statement. However this book doesn’t really focus on that notion at all. How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll focuses more on the history of music with greater attention focused on lesser known bands that Wald felt were relevant to music. The book has heavy emphasis on Jazz and ragtime so if that isn’t your cup of tea then this book is not really for you.

The Beatles? Who were they?

40 people found this helpful.
 on January 23, 2010
By Lee Hartsfeld
I figure I’ll get my complaints out of the way first, starting with the terrible title. Yes, the media has pretty much reduced popular music history to (pick one) The Beatles, Elvis Presley, and Frank Sinatra, so it may be that, to get readers, an author has to name-drop one of those three. Imagine if the title had mentioned Earl Fuller, Paul Whiteman, Billy Murray, or Lawrence Welk–the volume might be gathering dust in a Big Lots bin as we speak. Still, “How the Beatles….” is so very misleading as to be a shame. Then again, if it succeeds in grabbing attention, more power to it.

Well written history of early 20th century music

5 people found this helpful.
 on July 9, 2009
By Matt Hausig
As should be obvious from the other reviews, the title of this book is more than a little misleading. This is mainly a history of popular music stretching from the ragtime era up until the mid 60s. While claiming to be an alternative history its not always clear where the author is seeking to distinguish his view from that of the mainstream. This is not to say that this is an uninteresting book, just not as controversial as the title would make it seem.

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