Saturday, February 2, 2013

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll by Elijah Wald

I just finished "How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll" by Elijah Wald.  I have already written about this book while reading it (here and here) but there is more to say now that I have actually finished it.  One of Wald's themes that I have yet to touch on is that of continuity.  Popular music is always changing but what people love to listen and dance to does not completely turn over when something new appears.  I think he is right; new things may appear suddenly, but old things rarely go away suddenly.

Even if some competitor we can't conceive of yet managed to push rap off of the radio and the front page of the iTunes Store can you imagine people ceasing to record and buy it?  Maybe they would buy less, but rap isn't going anywhere.  Nothing popular is going anywhere.  Heavy metal had some tough years in the 1990's (Google ""low point" popularity heavy metal") but it didn't "die."  Millions of people still enjoyed it and eventually it became more popular again, although in slightly different forms.

I think what Wald says about continuity also relates to something I have noticed about music held up as "great" or "the best" in rock.  It usually isn't straight forward rock and roll.  I think this extends to related genres as well.  I'll return to this idea later.

Wald talks a lot about Frank Sinatra and the other reading I have done about Sinatra supports Wald's version of events.  After a plunge in his popularity with youth around 1950-1952 Sinatra regained his footing and had a very successful (and loooong) career with a more serious and adult image.  Note the dates.  This had nothing to do with rock and roll.  His career crisis was over before Elvis Presley ever met Sam Philips[1].  Sinatra was back on his feet, never to leave them again, before rock and roll started fighting traditional pop and R&B for slots on the pop charts.

Americans never stopped loving traditional pop music, be it the crooner tradition Sinatra is associated with or its other flavors.  Rock came along and complicated everything, giving consumers more choices than ever, but artists like Sinatra and Dean Martin continued to have pop hits through the 1960's[2].  The same is true on the country side of pop with Patti Page, who did even better in the 1960's and 70's[3].

Wald also writes a lot about pop music orchestras.  These were staples of "going out to dance" for youth and adults throughout the first half of the 20th century.  They played various ragtime, dixieland, swing, polka and other music explicitly and specifically for dancing.  As jazz for listening became more popular some bands shifted their focus away from playing the right beat and tempo for dancing and emphasized the improvised solos many of us associate with the genre name, "jazz," today.

But that isn't the whole story.  Wald points out something I had noticed but never really understood before.  Some of James Brown's bands look a lot like jazz big bands, with lots of saxes and horns.  But that isn't what he's known for.  He's known for his driving drums and bass, putting heavy beats and throbbing bass-lines front and center in soul, R&B and by extension, rock and roll.  So what's with the orchestra?

I also remember seeing Queensryche play an awards show, probably around 1990.  They started with their normal band configuration, then the lead singer walked over to another part of the stage and the lights came up on an orchestra, with whom he sang their current hit ballad.

Barry Manilow, who is known for his voice, piano playing and pop songwriting is also a sucker for orchestras and expands his 7-10 piece band (a small orchestra?) to a full orchestra when he can.

Top shelf classic rock bands Pink Floyd, Yes, The Moody Blues, The Beatles and Led Zeppelin have all employed string sections and full orchestras.  So have their peers in pop-rock like Elton John, Billy Joel and Madonna.

To me these examples all raise the same question I asked about James Brown.

More specifically, why does a genre known to deliver clobbering musical force with one bass, one guitar and a small drum kit send its best and brightest running to enlist clarinetists?  In the same line of questioning, why are lists of the "best[4]" rock songs of all time packed with tracks like "Stairway to Heaven" and "Hey Jude," that deviate so dramatically from the rock and roll formula, often including strings, horns and other band or orchestral instruments[5]?

I'm no musical purist, of any type.  I see The Rules of any musical discipline or genre as general guide to be used or ignored as needed.  But when you look at The Rules of rock and roll you quickly see that they have hardly ever been obeyed by anybody.  Rock and roll has been embracing and incorporating what it is supposedly a rebellion against from day one.  We are used to thinking about blues, country, bluegrass, R&B, (southern and black) gospel and folk figuring heavily in rock and pop-rock.  Those are where all the early artists got their musical training.  But crooner-pop, all manner of jazz and classical music have been just as important.  Where else could those Beatles and Pink Floyd records have come from?

Once music is heard, and especially if it gets recorded, it does not go away.  We can't un-hear it or un-like it.  And why would we?  I once heard a musician respond to the classic "what are your influences?" question by saying "That's like asking me to list every meal I have ever eaten."  I think that is the best answer to that question I have ever heard, although I doubt the journalist asking the question saw it that way.

I think Wald's point about continuity answers all of these questions.  It is why Patti Page and Dean Martin kept selling records after they weren't "cool" anymore.  It explains the use of orchestras by Queensryche, Madonna and The Beatles.  It probably also explains Carole King's famous timpani performance on The Shirelles' "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," one of the most famous girl group records of all time.

Just as a comedian must become what he or she sets out to satirize, rock and roll is what it was preceded by, all of what it was preceded by.  Even though, like jazz, it was not immediately recognized as music by many when it first came on the scene, it contains every music that came before it.  This is the way both popular and serious music have always been.  Even the extreme avant garde of any era can't escape its own history.  As artists they can make a conscious decision to emphasize, include or exclude whatever elements they like, but they can't forget them.  If they have any commercial concerns they best not forget what their potential audience likes.

When artists do ignore established tastes they choose obscurity.  That's fine.  A lot of my favorite artists have done so selectively, at points in their career.  It doesn't pay the bills.  Had they done it consistently I may never have heard of them.

1. I don't know that Elvis Presley ever did meet the other Sam Phillips.
2. Dean Martin's last US top 10 single was in 1965 but he continued to chart with new material into the 1970's.
3. Page just passed away, age 85, January 2013.
4. This isn't in quotes because I disagree with such lists.  I just mean to make the point that "best" is subjective.
5. One of the signature sounds on "Stairway To Heaven" is layered recorders.  The recorder is a non-reed woodwind.  It is also, technically, a ducted, non-transverse flute.  Usually thought of more as a folk instrument, the role they play in Stairway still fits the pattern.

No comments: