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How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music Hardcover – June 1, 2009

3.8 out of 5 stars 82 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Bookmarks Magazine

Revisiting original sources to understand how music has been received over the past century, Wald neatly traces the evolution of popular music. As with many books that set out to prove sensational claims in the title (the Christian Science Monitor calls the book's tag "blatantly disingenuous"), Wald's work doesn't really deliver on its claim (or, in fact, pay it a great deal of attention). But look past the title, and readers will discover that even when he's not being provocative, Wald can be thought-provoking, as in his profiles of lesser-known musicians and their influence on subsequent generations of musicians. Those pieces complement more mainstream -- and, in Wald's hands, refreshingly honest -- discussions of superstars and issues of race and gender. The result, despite the Los Angeles Times's sharp criticism of the thesis, is both passionate and informative.


"I couldn't put it down. It nailed me to the wall, not bad for a grand sweeping in-depth exploration of American Music with not one mention of myself. Wald's book is suave, soulful, ebullient and will blow out your speakers."--Tom Waits

"Wald is a meticulous researcher, a graceful writer and a committed contrarian... an impressive accomplishment."--New York Times Book Review

"A complex, fascinating and long-overdue response to decades of industry-driven revisionism."--Jonny Whiteside, LA Weekly

"It's an ambitious project, but Wald's casual narrative style and eye for a juicy quote give it a lightness that even a novice to pop, rock, or jazz history can appreciate... The title is appropriate: This is a provocative book, in all the right ways."--The Onion AV Club

"Wald is a sharp, fair critic eager to right the record on popular music... deepens the appreciation of American popular music."--Boston Globe

"This is a debatable premise... you don't have to agree with it to admire this book... It is as an alternative, corrective history of American music that Wald's book is invaluable. It forces us to see that only by studying the good with the bad--and by seeing that the good and bad can't be pulled apart--can we truly grasp the greatness of our cultural legacy."-- Malcolm Jones, Newsweek

"A serious treatise on the history of recorded music, sifted through his filter as musician, scholar, and fan... It's a brave and original work that certainly delivers."-Christian Science Monitor

"A smart, inclusive celebration of mainstream stars, such as 1920s bandleader Paul Whiteman and the Fab Four, who introduced jazz, blues, and other roughhewn musical forms to mass audiences."--AARP Magazine

"A powerfully provocative look at popular music and its impact on America."--Dallas Morning News

"Elijah Wald is a treasure... There is far too much in these 300 pages to even summarize here. Wald is an economical and lucid writer with an amazing grasp of his subject. I know quite a lot of musical history, and I did not find a single clinker in this symphony of renewal and re-examination."--Winston-Salem Journal

"As catchy and compelling as a great pop single, this revisionist retelling is provocative, profound and utterly necessary... Clearly the product of years of passionate research, it's so rife with references and surprising anecdotes that it's potentially overwhelming, but Wald makes a superlative tour guide-- frank, funny and generous but judicious with his inclusions-- and his book is a beguiling, blasphemous breeze."--Philadelphia City Paper

"Elijah Wald's provocative, meticulously researched new book, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music, turns the stock rock-and-roll narratives on their head."--Very Short List

"Brilliant and provocative... the most challenging and head-clearing history of American popular music to be published in decades."--The Buffalo News

"Wald explains musical and recording techniques and sociological phenomena in an engaging style accessible to a wide range of readers. Throughout, he makes a compelling case for why the figures most historians have disregarded or footnoted need to be considered in order to understand the totality of American popular music. This is an ideal companion to the plethora of standard histories available. Highly recommended." --Library Journal starred review

"Wald's arguments are as nuanced as his scope is wide, which makes this a fascinating and useful volume--required reading for any fan of pop music."--Memphis Flyer

"Fascinating... It's hard to imagine any American music buff coming away from this book without a fresh perspective and an overwhelming desire to seek out Paul Whiteman CDs. Highly recommended."--San Jose Mercury News

"Wald's book may be the literary equivalent of revisionist Civil War histories which tell the war through the eyes of soldiers rather than the generals, for he highlights how consumers actually heard and experienced music over the years, whether as screaming teeny-boppers watching Dick Clark's Bandstand or swing afficionados dancing to Glenn Miller at the Roseland."--HistoryWire.com

"A subtle polemic, one that is fundamentally broad-minded and seeks to educate the reader on the rich legacy and development of American popular music, the music that spawned the Beatles and from which that group departed, for better and worse."--Brooklyn Rail

"Walds eminently readable book is a scholarly, provocative and opinionated account of the history of pop music from Sousa to the Stones, from genteel parlor piano recitals to arena rock spectacles."--Kansas City Star

"A bracing, inclusive look at the dramatic transformation in the way music was produced and listened to during the 20th century... One of those rare books that aims to upend received wisdom and actually succeeds."--Kirkus Reviews

"Some of the smartest historiography I've ever read. The examples and turns of phrase sometimes make me laugh out loud, and nearly every page overturns another outmoded assumption. Wald just calls it like he sees it and transforms everything as a result."--Susan McClary, MacArthur Fellow and author of Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality

"This is a ground-breaking book, a muscular revisionist account that will get people thinking quite differently about the history of pop music. I've learned much from it and admire the writing style that is so light on its feet, lucid and elegant."--Bernard Gendron, author of Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant Garde

"Meticulously researched."--Bookforum.com

"A fascinating and scrupulous piece of pop scholarship...Tantalizing." --Paste Magazine

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (June 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195341546
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195341546
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 1.3 x 6.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (82 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #477,457 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By R. M. Peterson TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 20, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
As I understand it, Wald's principal thesis, which is reflected in the somewhat provocative main title, is the following: As rock/pop performers -- of which the Beatles were the most conspicuous example -- began to see themselves more as "artists", they consciously aspired to create "high" or "serious" art and in the process divorced themselves and their music from entertainment and, especially, from dancing. At the same time, in part because it is easier to write about "art" than "entertainment," the media pushed the notion that these self-conscious, auteur-ish, studio products were indeed "art", something to be taken and discussed seriously. The two impulses fed and reinforced one another, pushing white rock/pop music further and further away from entertainment, dancing, and (for the first time in 20th-Century popular music) black music. By 1969, "[r]ock had become a white genre."

Whether or not you agree with that thesis (and Wald does marshal enough points and arguments in support of it that I come away willing to accord it some measure of validity), HOW THE BEATLES DESTROYED ROCK 'N' ROLL is still quite valuable as a history of American popular music in the 20th Century (or, ragtime through disco). Especially interesting to me were the discussions of how technological changes -- including recording itself, then advances in recording and developments in the methods of "delivery", such as radio, television, and LPs -- affected popular music. Other influences were economic in nature (the Depression) or political (Prohibition, World War II). I also appreciated the profiles, many of which are several pages in length, of key figures of American pop music, such as Paul Whiteman, Guy Lombardo, Benny Goodman, Mitch Miller, Frank Sinatra, and Harry Belafonte.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Accusing one of the greatest bands in history of destroying rock and roll is a bold statement. However this book doesn't really focus on that notion at all. How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll focuses more on the history of music with greater attention focused on lesser known bands that Wald felt were relevant to music. The book has heavy emphasis on Jazz and ragtime so if that isn't your cup of tea then this book is not really for you.

The book reads like Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States but from a music perspective. Wald throws out popular notions of who was relevant to the formation of modern day music and explores the lesser known bands. This makes for a pretty interesting historical perspective on something we all know and love but it wasn't what I was expecting from the book. In fact the Beatles are rarely mentioned at all in it.

To make a long story short if you're a fan of music historiography then you'll enjoy How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll. If you're looking for an book that focuses on the darker side of the fab four however, you're out of luck.
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Format: Hardcover
I figure I'll get my complaints out of the way first, starting with the terrible title. Yes, the media has pretty much reduced popular music history to (pick one) The Beatles, Elvis Presley, and Frank Sinatra, so it may be that, to get readers, an author has to name-drop one of those three. Imagine if the title had mentioned Earl Fuller, Paul Whiteman, Billy Murray, or Lawrence Welk--the volume might be gathering dust in a Big Lots bin as we speak. Still, "How the Beatles...." is so very misleading as to be a shame. Then again, if it succeeds in grabbing attention, more power to it.

My second major gripe--Wald's assertion that mood music "would have made little sense without long-playing discs" (i.e., prior to 1948), since its main function was "to create a lingering, romantic ambiance." Well, no. Mood music originated as material for silent movies, the musical stage, and early radio, and it proliferated on disc--examples by Paul Whiteman, Erno Rapee, Domenico Savino, and Andre Kostelanetz are common items on eBay. Many of the staples of mood music are 19th and early-20th-century light works that were also staples of early sound recordings--"Narcissus," "To a Wild Rose," "Old Folks at Home," "In a Clock Store," etc.

Finally, I can't help thinking that Wald has exaggerated the gap between early sound recordings and what was happening, performance-wise, outside of the recording studio. Granted, sound recordings provide a limited document, given the particulars of the medium (length, sonic limitations, the use of studio musicians, the recording process' lack of portability, etc.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I found this book to be quite interesting as a history of popular music, but disappointing with regard to its thesis of demonstrating the effects of the Beatles on the history of rock and roll music. The book is well annotated, thoroughly researched, and written in a very sophisticated, academic style. It contains a wealth of information that cannot be found in other books about popular music, and it effectively debunks a host of myths about popular music.

But in the end, if one judges by the title, it is supposed to be a book about the Beatles, or at least a book focusing on the Beatles' effect on rock and roll music. So, after being "hooked" in the introduction by the author's childhood experiences with Beatles' recordings, the reader is disappointed to read over 200 pages of small-typeface text which, despite the exquisite level of detail mentioned above, say virutally nothing about the Beatles. Discussion of the Fab Four is limited largely to the final chapter and an afterword, and these pages have a decidedly unexpected, anti-climactic effect on the reader. I read the final two chapters multiple times to see if perhaps I was missing some nuance, some tidbit of information which would make the trip seem worthwhile, and I continually came up empty. Granted, the extensive detail in most of the book is required to fully explore and "set up" the reader for a consideration of the Beatles, but when it comes time finally sit down and eat the big meal, the reader/diner is in many respects left hungry, wanting for more. It's like listening patiently to a long joke, and never hearing the punch line.
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