7/15/2009

NYT: Peter Keepnews reviews Elijah Wald's 'How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll'

You can read Keepnews' complete review of Wald's new book here. In the meantime, here's our 2 cents:
If you’re looking to be convinced that the Beatles destroyed rock ’n’ roll, then strangely enough, “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll” is not for you. The title is a come-on: the Beatles are among the many subjects Elijah Wald addresses in this cheerfully iconoclastic book, but they are not what it is about.
Oh, nice: a little bait and switch to sell books. That’s a good start.

While Wald never says in so many words that the Beatles destroyed rock ’n’ roll, he does take a stance several degrees removed from standard-issue Beatles worship. He suggests that their ambitious later work, widely hailed as a step forward for rock, instead helped turn it from a triumphantly mongrel dance music that smashed racial barriers into a rhythmically inert art music made mostly by and for white people. Whether you agree or disagree, you have to admit that’s a provocative assertion.
Not once you've heard/read this tired argument one too many times from the same people who despise anything with a more sophisticated chord progression than, say, the music of Bo Diddley, The Velvet Underground, or the Ramones. (You know, the ones who use the word “jazz” as an epithet.) Pass.

…he ends up taking aim, for example, at the notion that mainstream pop music in the early 1950s was mired in white-bread mediocrity, as embodied by the likes of Perry Como, until Elvis Presley and company came along to rescue it. He doesn’t deny that rock ’n’ roll delivered a new energy and a new attitude, but he maintains that Elvis and Perry had more than a little in common — and he notes that plenty of teenage rec­ord buyers liked them both.
That Como and Presley “had more than a little in common” and “plenty of teenage record buyers liked them both” does not dilute one iota the fact that “mainstream pop music in the early 1950s was mired in white-bread mediocrity”. So, what’s the point?

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