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How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll

A catchy title for an alternative history of American popular music.

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First, the author deserves a rap on the knuckles with a ruler for this preposterous title, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll. Not only is it a shameless ploy to hook all of us Fab Four lovers into a street fight – “Hey, take it back!” – but it’s blatantly disingenuous. He doesn’t really mean it.

But a more apt title like, “How the Primal Power of Early Jazz and Rock was Diffused by the Pursuit of Artistry and the Vagaries of Gender, Race, and the Demands of the Marketplace,” might have had a tough time making the bestseller list, not to mention fitting on the spine.

Despite its incendiary title, Elijah Wald’s book is a serious treatise on the history of recorded music, sifted through his filter as musician, scholar, and fan. In the introduction, Wald lays out his premise: Though he was a Beatles fan from the instant he heard their first American LP “Meet the Beatles,” with its danceable, infectious songs blasting from the family’s hi-fi, the Beatles’s rapid development as “recording artists” (as opposed to a live rock ’n’ roll band), left him feeling somewhat abandoned.

“My much older half-brother gave my parents Sgt. Pepper. I could tell it was a masterpiece – but it was not really my music. It was adult music.... I played it occasionally, but nowhere near as often as the band’s early records. It simply wasn’t as much fun.”

From there we learn that the declarative book title stems not from the author’s own opinion, but from that of Beatle bashers “within the small world of music nuts” who fervently believe that they did, indeed, destroy rock ’n’ roll, “turning it from a vibrant black (or integrated) dance music into a vehicle for white pap and pretension.” Again and again throughout this book, Wald returns to debate the question, “Is music for dancing, or listening?” (And I keep thinking ... what’s wrong with both?)

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