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?