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

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

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

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


"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.


You do not have to love a work of art or a style in order to criticize it, but you need to under
stand its attraction for someone who does… . Criticism has no significance and no impor
tance if it is not accompanied by understanding—and that implies the comprehension of at
least the possibility of love.


The first record I ever owned was side two of Meet the Beatles. It was a birthday present from a Danish au pair, who had given side one to my younger sister. My sister’s birthday is three days before mine, and in between the au pair neatly rewrapped the album, then gave me side two. It was 1965, and I was turning six.

I suppose I should have been aware of the Beatles before that, as my family had spent the previous year in England, but all I remember of that year was finding a bomb shelter and a hibernating hedgehog, and my enduring perplexity about a word I heard as “lava tree.” And once, on a drive to London, noticing a person with long hair and a beard and being confused about whether it was a man or a woman.

In any case, I loved Meet the Beatles, and my sister and I would dance around the living room, singing along—I tended to skip over “This Boy” and “Till There Was You,” which were sappy, but all the other songs were great. Within the next year or so, another au pair took us to see Help! and it instantly became my favorite movie. I saw Help! every year for the rest of my childhood. I also got the soundtrack album, along with Beatles ’65, Beatles VI, and the first two Monkees albums.

Sometime in 1967, or maybe it was 1968, my much older half-brother gave my parents Sgt. Pepper. He didn’t just hand them the album; he sat the whole family down and we listened to it from beginning to end. I could tell it was a masterpiece—my father, who was an amateur cellist, loved it—but it was not really my music. It was adult music, like Louis Armstrong or Pablo Casals. I played it occasionally, but nowhere near as often as the band’s early records. It simply wasn’t as much fun. Same with Abbey Road and Magical Mystery Tour, both of which I vaguely remember hearing when my parents bought them for us, but neither of which I can ever recall playing again. When Yellow Submarine came out, my mother took a group of . . .

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