Thursday, December 27, 2012

Book: How The Beatles Destroyed Rock 'N Roll by Elijah Wald

I just started How The Beatles Destroyed Rock 'N Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music by Elijah Wald.  His premise is that most popular/rock music history and criticism badly de-contextualize the music in question.  By focussing on innovation, extremes, best-of-breed examples and other things that remain intriguing decades later, writers ignore much of what people were listening to at the time and therefore misunderstand or misrepresent the historical musical environment.

One example Wald uses is the fact that so much more serious analysis has been written about The Velvet Underground than KC and The Sunshine Band.  Clearly, the influence The Velvet Underground had on later artists justifies about as much attention as we can collectively muster.  On the other hand, understanding KC and the Sunshine Band is just as prudent.  Their music and why it was so tremendously popular tells us more about the environment The Velvet Underground existed in (and therefore how they came to be and what they meant at the time) than anything The Velvets did themselves.[1]

Wald also addresses gender and race issues in slightly different ways than other music writers.  Interestingly, his mother is prominent biologist and feminist Ruth Hubbard.

Perhaps I'll have more to say about this book after I have finished it.  In the mean time I advise anybody interested in rock, pop or other 20th century music history to pick it up.  It looks to me like Wald really did his homework.

1.  KC and The Sunshine Band formed the year The Velvet Underground disbanded, so you could argue that they aren't really contemporaries.  I think Wald's point holds up anyway.  They are both acts associated with the 1970's, one taken very seriously and the other dismissed as dumb pop music, in inverse relation to their commercial success while active.

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