Saturday, August 8, 2009

How The Beatles Played Rock 'n' Roll

First of all, let me get something out of the way: I haven't read the book How The Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll by Elijah Wald. I've only read the LA Times review of it. So this is technically a rebuttal to the review of the book.

So don't wag your finger at me, 'cause I openly admit it.

It has often been said that history is made by subjective historians, who pick and choose what's important and what's not. I believe that in most cases there is a justification for that, because we can't really say what it is that's important in an era until after the fact. It's been my observation that a lot of important things happen without the public knowing about it. Case in point: my mother has told me that I know infinitely more about The Beatles than anybody could have possibly known in the Sixties, when they were still together.

It has also been said that people become more famous and/or important after they die. This includes Van Gogh, Galileo, and even Jesus.

So the only real value of knowing what people thought was important THEN is knowing the time period's context and state of mind. But in the end, it is the people that made a real impact on culture that matter, and I couldn't really care less what the squares thought or liked. Name a rock band that takes inspiration from Pat Boone. Instead, you'll find a lot more bands taking inspiration from- who else?- The Beatles.

(Although I'll admit that there's probably some neo-lounge act that likes Pat Boone, so if any smart-aleck comes along and points out a band like that, I'm anticipating it.)

If there is one lesson that I've learned, it's that the squares who listen to safe, declawed white bread music are as consequential as the used records you find in antique stores. No matter how well they sold in the pop charts. So this brings us to one of the primary goals of How The Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: what was really happening on the pop charts? What did people really listen to? What was it that really sold?

And you know what? I'm okay with that goal. I agree that it's a bad idea to assume that everybody listened to the bands that are considered the Gods of Rock. After all, more people listened to disco than punk. (But have you noticed that everyone gives disco a bad rap nowadays?)

My problem here is primarily the title of the book. When I first saw in a bookstore, I thought, "What could possibly make THIS title excusable?" I read the back, the inner flap, and skimmed the pages. The title certainly caught my attention, like it certainly was meant to. I mean, c'mon! With a title like that, you MUST be begging for attention- it's pure sensationalism. I hope he's happy that he got the reaction he wanted: defensive anger. How dare he question the almighty power of The Beatles?

I became curious as to what he was trying to do with the book. I sought to answer three questions: what did he mean by "Destroy", what did he mean by "Rock 'n' Roll", and what did he mean by "Beatles"? How did he define these things? Was he just trying to cause trouble? I didn't want to buy the book in case I hated it, so I relied on a review of it to get some understanding.

I'm okay with defending musicians who made a commercial impact and have been ignored since then. After all, there was a reason for their popularity, and they may have some untapped relevance today. But there's only one problem: no matter how popular you once where, commercial success means nothing when nobody cares. Commercial success does NOT equal importance. That's a lesson everyone should learn, I think.

That is what primarily disappoints me about Wald's approach: he should know that you should never place value on anything based on commercial success alone. After all, where would The Beatles be without the obscure B-sides they so often covered? Also, if The Beatles didn't influence a million different groups, they wouldn't matter so much.

But I should get to my main point: Wald claims that The Beatles created a division between black music and white music.

First of all, there was already a divide between black and white people, especially outside of music. Within music, we saw that white people were supposedly playing "rock 'n' roll", while black people were playing "rhythm 'n' blues". (Mind you, I heard Little Richard say this...) In the beginning, these were essentially the same thing, but rock 'n' roll tended to be a bit more twangy, especially rockabilly. Even before The Beatles came along, you used to have white people doing their own thing with what black people were doing. The way I see it, black people then felt it necessary to distinguish themselves from white, and so went on to something different. Whites are pretty much jealous of black music, and we all know how we love to imitate them. Throughout the 20th century, we see black people inventing something new, and white people copying it and changing it to suit our tastes. This was already happening before The Beatles came along.

Second, why lay all the blame on The Beatles? They weren't alone in what they were doing. Not every band copied The Beatles when they became popular. In many ways, The Beatles' contemporaries were thinking along the same lines- they were part of a movement.

Wald gets a little specific about what he calls the schism they created. Supposedly, The Beatles "abandoned" their black roots in favor of more pretentious music. O noes! They evolved! They developed new tastes! They had more influences than just black musicians! They *gasp* listened to music that wasn't rock 'n' roll!!

Seriously? Is it a crime that they went on to incorporate other musical elements in their songs besides rock 'n' roll? A rock band doesn't HAVE to only play rock. That gets boring. Tell me, Mr. Wald: why aren't The Beatles allowed to create music that takes inspiration from Indian music, avant garde, folk, and classical, hmm? You forget that there are no rules in music.

It's also absurd- and quite frankly, woefully ignorant- to say that they abandoned their black roots altogether. Take these songs from their later years:

"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"- This isn't really anything more than a rock song with some brass instruments thrown in. I think if Jimi Hendrix liked it enough to cover it, it's plenty black.

"Good Morning, Good Morning"- This may have some odd meters, but it's essentially a boogie song, what with Sounds Incorporated's fat brass (who played for Little Richard, mind you) and McCartney's bluesy solo.

"Flying"- Behind all the sound effects and psychedelia, this is at heart a twelve-bar blues.

"Lady Madonna"- Another boogie. This one, unfortunately, is only sort of "black", because it's been said that the piano riff is inspired by Humphrey Lyttelton's "Bad Penny Blues", who was a white man. But it seems to me that boogie woogie piano was perfected by black players, anyway, so... And on top of that, Paul himself has said that the vocal is inspired by Fats Domino.

"Back in the USSR"- This is directly inspired by Chuck Berry's "Back in the USA".

"Why Don't We Do it in the Road?"- How can you say that this isn't a lot like Little Richard?

"Birthday"- Paul wrote this after watching The Girl Can't Help It on TV. It's based around a twelve-bar again.

"Yer Blues"- Although this is specifically a send-up of the British blues rock scene, such stuff is directly rooted in black music. Blues-fanatics Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Mitch Mitchell played this with John as The Dirty Mac.

"Revolution 1"- This one's your basic rocker.

And of course about a third of the Let It Be sessions were covers of rock 'n' roll numbers from their early days. Half of the sessions were performed with Billy Preston, for Christ's sake.

"Come Together" resembled Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me" so closely that the folks who published the song successfully sued for copyright infringement, and made him record a version of the latter song.

"Oh! Darling"- This one shows Paul's Little Richard influences quite blatantly, although there are probably people like Wilson Pickett thrown in, too. It's a soul/pop song through and through.

Of course, as nostalgia set in, The Beatles went on to do plenty of rockers and covers of songs by black musicians in their solo careers, such as John's Rock 'n' Roll album and Paul's Снова в СССР and Run Devil Run. I'm beginning to think that Wald is only thinking of the recordings they made in 1967 when he says that they abandoned their roots...

And why would he say that rock 'n' roll died when they did such experiments? Their sentimental or folksy stuff may have opened the doors to softer groups who focused on ballads or whatever, but there were so many bands who were still playing blues and rock 'n' roll that it isn't funny. What about Jimi Hendrix? Canned Heat? Cream? The Rolling Stones? Big Brother and the Holding Company? The Who? Led Zeppelin? Oh, sure, they went on their share of acid trips of grandeur and sophistication, but at heart they played rock 'n' roll and blues.

And who was influenced by The Beatles experimental music? At first, it was largely psychedelic pop groups, such as The Lemon Pipers and The Mojo Men. Soon after, progressive rock bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer expanded upon the classical and avant garde aspects of The Beatles music, and made it their own. From the late '60s to the mid-'70s, there were three main branches of rock music: pop balladeers, blues, rock and folk revivalists, and progressive rockers. You can't tell me that AC/DC or Led Zeppelin didn't play rock 'n' roll. And what about glam rock? Did their love of the '50s not count? Does any sort of revivalism not count?

If rock 'n' roll died when Sgt. Pepper came out, what on earth would you call the rock music that came after it? How many times have I heard a pounding, danceable rhythm, a solo based on the minor pentatonic scale, and the I, IV, and V chords from AFTER '67? Too often to count. Are you going to discredit anything resembling rock 'n' roll that came out after '67 as something else entirely?

And if you, Wald, are going to say that rock remained something pretentious and posh, I wonder if you know anything at all about punk music. Punk rock, and all the garage and '50s-inspired movements surrounding it, was a reaction to the increasingly intimidating sophistication of highly technical and cerebral progressive rock and virtuosic classic metal. The purpose was to strip rock music back down to its raw, danceable, and simplistic roots (even though a lot of the '60s garage bands that inspired them were a step away from the '50s and largely hippie stoners). If you want to get picky, you can include the neo-rockabilly of The Cramps and The Stray Cats, or the blues rock of George Thorogood and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

In an attempt to whine and moan about how The Beatles stopped writing three-minute catchy singles- which, as you know, is all holy- and allowed people to evolve and progress popular music in the same way classical music did, it would seem Elijah Wald disregarded anything by your favorite rock bands as something snooty. Are you playing a song influenced by Magical Mystery Tour but with a pop punk beat? Too bad! It isn't rock 'n' roll.

In many ways, I hope I'm wrong and am jumping to conclusions. Can I help it if my musical definitions are looser and I know more about music than some hack that managed to publish a contrary, sensationalist book? Can I help it if I want to stroke my ego?


  1. For what it's worth:
    First off, I've had some good reviews, some bad reviews, and some mediocre reviews of my new book--pretty much par for the course--but the LA Times review is the only one that flat-out lied about the book. Despite its admittedly sensational title, it does not contain any anti-Beatles diatribe, and the lines about them turning rock into arty pap and pretension are taken from a paragraph in the introduction in which I characterize a position that is not exactly my own. (In fact, it is the position that was at the heart of much of the punk rock movement, which, at least among the punks I knew, was largely about hating the Beatles and post-Beatles as rich, arty posers.) (On the other hand, the Ramones did name themselves after Paul McCartney...)

    On the separation of white and black music, obviously the US was segregated before the Beatles, but I've just watched the Woodstock movie, and the dazzling whiteness of that entire crowd is certainly a striking change from the crowds that went to the Alan Freed shows. There are lots of reasons for that, but one clear one is the fact that just as James Brown and Motown were kicking American dance rhythms in a new direction, rock was dominated by a wave of British bands that, although they had many positive virtues, had universally weak rhythm sections. And that created a basic split that has lasted ever since, in which "dance music" is a separate category from rock.

    Despite what the LA Times says, though, I don't consider that comment a value judgment. Classing rock with be-bop or Bach--also non-dance styles--is not an attack, it is just a description.

    Anyway, no need to go on...if you want to know what I think, I wrote a book about it. And if you don't, fair enough... As you made clear at the outset, you were arguing with the review, not with me.

    All the best,

  2. Hmm... well, if that's the case, I wouldn't have chosen that title.

    First of all, rock music is still danced to. Sure, it's a different kind of dancing, such as moshing or headbanging, but it's still dancing. There's even a certain African feel to heavy metal, despite its often deliberate deviation from the blues, because of its use of polyrhythms. It seems to me that rock music need only have a consistent pulse to be danceable.
    I'm of the opinion that black people divided themselves from white because they wanted to feel different. Perhaps The Beatles had a hand in alienating blacks from rock concerts, but I still wouldn't lay all the blame on them.

    I of course find it offensive that you should say that British bands universally had bad rhythm sections. I've felt plenty of urges to dance to these bands, despite not being the dancing type. I'm sure thousands of people dance to such bands. It seems to me that white people merely have different approach to rhythm, which is rooted in the folk music of Europe, from what I can tell. Saying that late-'60s British bands had poor rhythm sections is an opinion, not a fact. And I have mine.

    It is perhaps controversial to say this, but I think it's primarily the fault of black people that they divided themselves in the world of music. Our abuse of them prior to and during the Civil Rights Movement is certainly a contributing factor, but when the dust cleared, I've observed a general unwillingness to embrace white music culture. The term "blue-eyed soul" and the tendency to say that white people don't have soul, can't sing the blues, or can't sing rap music is a result of lingering resentment and a desire to be unique.

    Personally, I find it sad that black people are unwilling to reunite the two races in the music world again, because there's nothing really stopping them. We've apologized for not giving them credit- what else do they want? When I myself try to emulate my black musician heroes like so many white people do, I mean it as a compliment. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
    Whites can't get enough of black music. My question is why blacks don't seem to like ours... it's very rare for me to find a rock group with black people in it. The most I know about are the metal band Living Colours and the afro-punk genre.

    It's simply unfair to say that The Beatles caused a schism, no matter how you view their music, because they didn't mean to. Rock music was advancing like classical music did, and I see no crime in that. I applaud punks for returning rock to its previous rawness, but I think they were mostly intimidated. It certainly would sadden John, Paul, and George (I'm not so sure about Ringo) if you told them that they sucked the blackness out of rock music, because racial division was certainly not their intention when they said "Love is all you need".

    I tire very much of the insistence that music is not all created equal. I dream of the day when people don't separate themselves into different music camps and say this or that about what makes a certain style of music lacking in the quality that made such-and-such a genre great. If there was indeed cause for alienation in the music of late-'60s rock bands, that was the decision of those who listened to it, not the creators of the music.

  3. The Beatles influence comes full circle really with the proto-techno "Tomorrow Never Knows" with it's beat, looped effects and sampling that are now common staples in hip-hop.

    In 1966-1967 the Beatles songs with rock and roll influences are drastically altered with avant and electronic influences like in "Flying", classical "Sgt Pepper" the title track and the various meters in "Good Morning". It's like the Beatles devoloped a new musical language honestly within pop music. I don't think it was bad thing at all.

  4. I totally agree. I don't know how often hip-hop and techno artists listen to The Beatles, but I firmly believe that music as we know it today wouldn't exist without the revolutions of the 60's, especially The Beatles. Who cares how un-bluesy it is, anyway? Music is music.

    Also, what has more in common with African music?: the tribal polyrhythms of Ginger Baker of Cream, or the repetitive four-on-the-floor thud of disco and techno? Ginger Baker went to Africa to study its rhythms, for crying out loud!
    If we were to regard the RHYTHM as the standard, then I would say black music has become LESS African, because the beat has become simpler- while the more technically accomplished and virtuosic white groups have far more complex rhythms. Punk, because of its inherent simplicity of rhythm (sans hardcore), doesn't count here, but still...

  5. The Beatles were pretty much a paradigm shift for rock music of any kind... before them it was pretty much the exception rather than the rule that rock musicians who wrote and played all their own songs for example.

    I would say the Beatles influence on music right now dwarfs Elvis and Chuck Berry. The Beatles songwriting, albums as a collective unit, using the studio as an instrument, and experimentation with things like feedback, loops, and sampling are now common in both pop and rock music