In How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll, musician and writer Elijah Wald looks past the world’s most famous musicians to explore the significance of those who were simply popular in their own time. Title aside, Wald does it without slamming the Fab Four. He spoke with TIME about the origins of rock ‘n’ roll’s racial divide, the way technology is changing the way we listen, and the future of music.
The title of your book is provocative. But you admit to having owned plenty of Beatles records growing up and wearing shaggy hair like theirs. So you weren’t particularly anti-Beatle.
No, I’m not anti-Beatles at all. My point was that there are two sides to any revolution. We never hear about all the people for whom the Beatles were a real problem.
How were they a problem
The Beatles were the first superstar pop group to simply cease to exist except on record. As late as the 1940s, pop music was what bands played when people went out dancing. The records were just what you listened to at home. The Beatles were the first group to realize that pop had become records, and that they never needed to step on a stage again in their lives. That’s a huge shift, and [although] I think it would have happened without them, they were the catalysts.
The thing I’m not at all sure would have happened without them is the racial split. American pop music has always been an interaction between black and white musicians and it’s often oversimplified into black musicians creating and white musicians stealing. But black musicians always kept up with what the white musicians were doing just the way that white musicians tried to keep up with what the black musicians were doing. By 1963, the pop charts really were intensely integrated. Billboard magazine stopped having a separate pop and R&B chart because the two charts were virtually identical. And the Beatles single-handedly re-segregated those charts. The Beatles hit white America like the biggest thing to happen maybe ever, and they hardly hit black America at all.
Why do you think they never appealed to black Americans in the same way
It’s about rhythm. In all of pop music up to the arrival of The Beatles, whenever we talk about a hot new trend from ragtime to jazz to swing to R&B to rock ‘n’ roll what we’re talking about is new dance rhythm coming in. The British bands were modern in their harmonies and songwriting, their song forms were very interesting and they did new things with instruments. But their rhythms were steadily old-fashioned.
You talk a lot about the contrast between the fans and the critics: the people listening to popular music are the masses out on the dance floor, while the critics are often holed up in their rooms writing. With the rise of music blogs and amateur reviews, do you think a truly comprehensive music history will be easier to write in the future
For the first time in history, nobody has the faintest idea of who is listening to what. There’s so much illegal downloading. Radio has almost disappeared. Most people are just listening to playlists on their iPods that they’ve made themselves. Everybody is now writing down what kind of music they like and what they like about it, and if it was possible to collate all of that, it’s very possible that for the first time we could actually get what pop music looks like from the point of view of the people listening to it. But my guess is that if you look at all the bloggers, you would find that they are still disproportionately white and middle-class.
Often you distinguish between the people who are best remembered maybe because they were the exceptions, the most creative and the people who were most popular at the time. What appealed to you about that approach
I suppose it’s a way of [avoiding] the great man or woman theory of history and [instead] looking at what was the norm. It’s important to distinguish between what we like and what was important to people listening to music in the moment. When you think about the French paintings in the late 19th century, we all think about Impressionism. We all know that Van Gogh was ignored, that he only sold three paintings in his lifetime. But he’s the person we learn about. Nobody cared about Van Gogh. In pop music you see that all the time. In romance novels or movies you see people in the 1920s going out dancing, and it’s a hot black band. That wasn’t very common in white areas. It ends up being like [explaining] the history of Germany in the 20th century and leaving out Hitler because you don’t like what he did.
Your book ends with the 1960s. Where do you think music is headed in the future
I don’t know where it is now and neither does anybody else. Somebody just told me that he had been to a record store here in Boston where they have a section of music records from video games. The way you find Aerosmith is by playing Rock Band. If that’s the world we’re living in right now, none of us can guess what’s going to happen next.
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