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

By Elijah Wald | Go to book overview

15
TEEN IDYLL

I like to sing ballads the way Eddie Fisher does and the way Perry Como does. But the way I’m
singing now is what makes the money. Would you change if you was me?

ELVIS PRESLEY, 1956

History is often written as a series of conflicts, whether the wars are between nations or artistic styles. Battles tend to be more exciting to read about than marketplaces, though cultures have met far more frequently in trade than in war and there are always more countries coexisting than fighting. In the 1950s, old-guard pop music fans recoiled in horror from the evils of rock ’n’ roll, and when rock ’n’ roll fans began writing their side of the story, they countered with equally vituperous condemnations of old-line pop. So it is easy to forget that a lot of listeners enjoyed both styles. Dick Clark regularly pointed out that more than half the audience for American Bandstand was over twenty-one, and polls of teenagers tended to show that plenty of them liked Doris Day and Perry Como.1 Likewise, although rock historians generally draw a sharp line between the teen idols of the 1950s, with Pat Boone a symbol of the insipid mainstream and Elvis Presley the standard-bearer for the revolution, most teenagers seem to have had no problem enjoying both, along with Day, Como, the Drifters, Harry Belafonte, and Connie Francis.

Presley is a particularly ambiguous example, because he was so many things to so many people. In some ways he typified the latest trends; in some ways he was unlike any other performer. One way in which he exemplified the modern scene was his initial focus on recording. All the artists I have covered up to now built their reputations by playing in clubs or at dances, or at least on live radio shows. Elvis did none of that until after his first record became a hit around Memphis. He would sing and play guitar for friends at parties and picnics and had auditioned unsuccessfully for the gospel quartet in his church, but his only gesture toward making a career in music was to haunt Sam Phillips’s Memphis Recording Service, the home of Sun Records. In a familiar story, he first went there in August 1953 to record a

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

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Amateurs and Executants 13
  • 2 - The Ragtime Life 25
  • 3 - Everybody’s Doin’ It 36
  • 4 - Alexander’s Got a Jazz Band Now 49
  • 5 - Cake Eaters and Hooch Drinkers 60
  • 6 - The King of Jazz 71
  • 7 - The Record, the Song, and the Radio 84
  • 8 - Sons of Whiteman 97
  • 9 - Swing That Music 111
  • 10 - Technology and Its DisContents 126
  • 11 - Walking Floors and Jumpin’ Jive 138
  • 12 - Selling the American Ballad 150
  • 13 - Rock the Joint 166
  • 14 - Big Records for Adults 184
  • 15 - Teen Idyll 199
  • 16 - Twisting Girls Change the World 213
  • 17 - Say You Want a Revolution… 230
  • Epilogue - The Rock Blot and the Disco Diagram 248
  • Notes 255
  • Bibliography 281
  • Index 291
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