So, first thing about How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: forget the title. Elijah Wald's recent book is not about the Beatles, and only barely about rock 'n' roll. However, its subtitle, "An Alternative History of American Popular Music," is accurate. Having not read other comprehensive pop music histories, I'll take his word on the alternative part, but it does coincide with the conventional wisdom I've received since my teens.
The CW is roughly thus: American popular music has undergone a hundred-year metamorphosis from complex, melodic, European forms to simpler, rhythmic, African ones; or, less precisely, from white to black. Another aspect of the CW is this: the Beatles helped elevate raw and naive rock music to an art form, worthy of academic attention and celebration. This narrative is too simplistic, obviously, but the forces Wald traces that shaped pop music since the late-19th century are completely fascinating. I found myself reading aloud sections to loved ones and mentally reshuffling my index of musical influencers and their progeny.
Those forces are many. Wald begins with the most disruptive of all, the invention of recorded music. This led to the end of amateurism in music: fewer people learned to play instruments in the home, fewer songs circulated through sheet music, and more people began to listen to records and the radio or attend dances to learn the latest styles.
The importance of dancing is another force not often discussed. From our vantage point as recorded-music consumers, we forget that dance bands were the primary vehicles for most musicians and composers. The idea of attending a pop music concert merely to listen was an unthinkable and mostly male idea. The impact of women's tastes on what got played -- versus what got recorded -- is not often considered. Though we admire the influence of Louis Armstrong and other purveyors of hot jazz, sweet bands playing a more diluted, romantic form that was more listenable and danceable were more popular.
Also, though the jazz players of those days were often "hot" on records and in after-hours clubs, for their paying gigs they played foxtrots, waltzes, and whatever else the dancing crowds (and dance-hall managers) desired. In this way, Paul Whiteman's style of well-arranged dance band music led the way into the big-band swing era, and his followers from Guy Lombardo through Glenn Miller remained popular until after WWII and the emergence of smaller combos playing the newest styles.
Wald shows the parallels between Whiteman and the Beatles: both took an emergent, "wild" form (jazz, rock and roll) and diluted it with other, older influences to make it more palatable to a wider audience. This is how the Beatles "destroyed" rock, by in a sense stopping its progression and infusing it with older forms and pretension of serious art. This is overstated but effective: the title certainly gets your attention.
There is much of interest I've skipped in this short sketch. Wald details several transitions that helped us to get where we are today: the rise of solo performers like Frank Sinatra; the importance of a specific recording of a song (like Chuck Berry's "Maybelline") over "standards" that could be covered by anybody; the effect of the long-playing record on listening and purchasing habits and the creation of "mood music"; the desire for more authentic rural and ethnic forms, from country and blues to calypso and Latin forms; the resurgence of dancing (and girls' tastes) in the early '60s ("How the Twist Killed Couples Dancing" could have been a good title); and the subsequent cultural segregation of white forms from black forms that continues today: while the Beatles were creating long-form art projects like "Sgt. Pepper's," Motown was making timeless pop songs under three minutes long.
It's easy to divide a century's worth of music into periods and styles, discussing the orderly transition from ragtime to jazz to swing and the "sudden" disruption by rhythm and blues, country-western, and rock 'n' roll, but the truth is a lot more continuous, cross-pollinated, and meaningful than that. I think it's all terrific, and now I gotta go find out more about the much maligned Paul Whiteman, who commissioned George Gershwin to write "Rhapsody in Blue" (the "Sgt. Pepper's" of 1924), and of whom Duke Ellington wrote, "Paul Whiteman was known as the King of Jazz, and no one as yet has come near carrying that title with more certainty and dignity."