Friday, June 12, 2009

A few thoughts on "How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'N' Roll"

Or at least its contrarian thesis. I haven't read the book, which will certainly inhibit my arguments. But there's enough in the title alone and the general thrust of its contention that seems worthy of comment (go here for a quick synopsis). First, I'm leery of Elijah Wald's suggestion that there's any blame to be assigned for something that one band couldn't have likely known it was doing (i.e. helping to segregate rock 'n' roll) and shouldn't have needed to care about too greatly anyway. The world of pop music doesn't operate like a republic. The Beatles are not elected representatives. They are not responsible, in any sort of moral terms, for how their music might have affected the artistic tastes of different racial groups, even if a regrettable splintering did occur. It's something that a single band couldn't control anyway. The Beatles' direction should have and did come from a devotion to cultivating, perfecting, and remaking their art. Leave the populism to unseemly politicians. Secondly, part of Wald's thesis strikes me as necessarily reactionary. The implication behind the notion that The Beatles "destroyed rock 'n' roll" is that they shouldn't have allowed their sound to evolve into the arty, more experimental material of their later albums. A static course, then, would have better suited Wald's vision of what form rock 'n' roll should have taken throughout the '60s. Ergo, eliminate a handful of the greatest albums of all time and a wealth of consequential music that other bands created in part because of the Fabs. Goodbye Rubber Soul and farewell (possibly) Pet Sounds. How dreary. And just to keep this relatively short, I'll make one final point. How can Wald stress that record sales (in other words, fan approval), as opposed to after-the-fact assessments by aloof critics and historians, are the best means of judging what music was truly valued (and thus important) while he also dismisses much of The Beatles' catalogue, which seemed to do alright for itself in terms of moving units. Maybe those sales were just too "white," thereby undoing Wald's utopian yesteryear when all rock 'n' roll fans, hand-in-hand, danced the night away to "Long Tall Sally."


elijah said...

Hi, this is Elijah Wald. I agree with most of what you've written, and would be interested to know what you think if you read my book. I was very grateful for the Newsweek review, but as you suggest at the beginning of your entry, it is not an accurate substitute.
All the best,

bpl said...

Thanks so much for your comment, Elijah. I am going to read your book because a) it would be unfair of me to make critical remarks and then not follow through by actually reading it and b) it sounds like an excellent primer on the early development of popular music, something I know little about. Anyway, good luck with your book and thanks again for the post.