Zoilus by Carl Wilson

Book ‘Em, Ringo

July 6th, 2009


Why did rock change from a music with both black and white stars to one full of white boys plus Lenny Kravitz? Why was the biggest star of the early days of jazz an orchestra leader named Paul Whiteman instead of Louis Armstrong? Why does indie rock suck (if it does)? All those issues are addressed (the last one just implicitly) in Elijah Wald’s How the Beatles Destroyed Rock’n'Roll and my review in The Globe and Mail this weekend explains why…. while adding the pointed question: “Wait! What about Michael Jackson?”

In many ways I see Wald’s book as very much a kissin’ cousin to my own, sharing the project of revisiting the popular-music canon and asking whose perspectives and what sorts of music have been systematically excluded or condemned and why (we both discuss “schmaltz” for example). But his is a broader excursion into pop history, and less of a polemic or meditation. Plus it has the best goddamn title, even if the misdirection - the Liverpudlians don’t really show up until very late in the book’s story, which begins in the late 19th century - might piss off some readers who think they’re buying a Beatles book. (And some good chapter titles too: I want to make “Twisting Girls Change the World” into a song.)

If anyone is up for more discussion of its thesis etc. after reading the review, hie thee to the Comments. Sample topic: If someone 20 years from now were to write a book called, “How ________ Destroyed Hip-Hop,” whose prominent, respected name would fill in the blank? (Justify your answer with Wald-style demographic, sales and stylistic analysis.) I have a couple of theories.

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  2. Steve says:

    Before I click over to read the review, I wanted to chime on the “How ________ Destroyed Hip-Hop” question first.

    I would nominate NWA. Their emphasis on image i.e. we are/live the message in the music, has had the most long-lasting impact that I can see on commercial hip hop. NWA’s success, and the subsequent success of its errant members, led to the West Coast commercial dominance in hip hop for several years, which spawned the Biggie/Diddy/Jay-Z East Coast counter-gangster-movement. Think about the biggest sellers in hip hop, so many names flow from what NWA created: Eminem, Snoop, Dre, Ice Cube, Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Puff Daddy, 50 Cent.

    I don’t have a detailed sales/demographic analysis, but that shift toward angry suburban whiteboys as the core audience of mainstream hip hop seems most likely to have started with NWA (I’d guess even more than the Beastie Boys). The early 90s Gangsta/G-Funk thing was really the first time it seemed most apparent that white guys in baggy trousers comprised most of the audience at hip hop shows. I’m guessing gangsta stuff was the best way to legitimize their grade school support for Vanilla Ice.

    Off to read that review.

  3. How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll « Scrawled in Wax says:

    [...] Wilson reviews the book in the Globe with some good counterpoints, but perhaps the more interesting bit is on his blog, where he asks what “How _______ Destroyed Hip-Hop” book will be written in 20 years. [...]

  4. J says:

    The book’s title is great, but when I first saw it I thought it might be another book about downtown NYC punk. It’s the sort of battle cry you see in Please Kill Me, folks declaring that everything from Revolver on is garbage. As late as 2001’s “Who Will Save Rock and Roll,” The Dictators were singing, “I wish Sgt. Pepper had never taught the band to play!”

    And regressive punk is regarded as Young White Male territory, has occasionally been accused of racism. But there’s room enough for everyone to hate the Beatles.

  5. john s. says:

    White rock acts ignored black influence after the Beatles got arty? Huh?

    Has Mr. Wald (whose work I have read elsewhere and always esteemed very much) not heard of this little British Invasion combo (born in Australia) named the Bee Gees?

    I mean, wow.

    Forget indie rock, listen to adult contemporary. Hip hop’s influence is pervasive on current rock acts, including the much-loathed Jack Johnson and Dave Matthews Band.

    Practically the first book of rock history that people still read, “Rock from the Beginning” by Nik Cohn, advances the same thesis that Wald does, along with your emendation, Carl. He says that Dylan and the Beatles ruined rock and roll — or, more specifically, the kind he loved, the noisy lusty beat-oriented kind. By making it arty.

    Buddy Rich story is great though. Stanley Dance said the same thing about bop. Square.

  6. zoilus says:

    Wald acknowledges that the anti-Beatles thing is a cliche in certain circles, actually, just that it’s not the canonical story, the VH1 story…

    Your other points are well taken, but it’s certainly true that a lot of disco-era rock explicitly positioned itself against disco in a way I don’t think sixties-era rock explicitly opposed soul (they just began to neglect it).

    Another thing Wald ignores is post-punk and New Wave, where disco-rock/R&B-rock/funk-punk blends were very common, from the Talking Heads to the Eurythmics to the Gang of Four. And even in a sense Madonna! But *more* 80s bands certainly took their black influences from blues and Motown, especially as the decade wore on - Huey Lewis, Dire Straits, Phil Collins etc.

    And then there were the R&B acts with rock influences, such as Michael Jackson and Prince.

    And then hip-hop went mainstream and things split again…. But yeah, it’s way more complicated than Wald suggests.

    But that problem with the thesis really, really doesn’t downgrade the rest of the book.

  7. john s. says:

    And: The pervasiveness of reggae influence on white rock acts throughout the ’70s and beyond, from Eric Clapton to the Clash and the Police, and then the (related but not identical) ska revival, and on and on. It’s funny to think of Eric Clapton and the Clash and PiL drawing from the same well.

    Cohn’s book is an anomaly — widely regarded as the first great rock book, and no influence.

  8. andrew says:

    Regarding MJ:

    I was listening to Off the Wall recently (who hasn’t been?), and dammit if “Girlfriend” doesn’t start all Talking Heads and end up all Mariah. So: “black music” inspired by rock inspired by black music, turning into the beginning of a whole style of r’n'b. No wonder he’ll be so missed.

  9. Neal says:

    Nice piece Carl.

    What gets ignored a lot by people is that it took a long time for rock music to become the best selling music in the country. The top selling albums for much of the 50’s and 60’s were soundtracks to musicals and the sheer volumes of those pressings are ubiquitous until today. It wasn’t until around 1968 that rock and roll as we’ve come to know it became a dominant purchased genre in the states and arguably not until the 70’s where rock artists became the most successful game in pop music (something which would fluctuate in the 80’s and 90’s).

    Usually a top flight band or act (Elvis, Beatles, Hendrix) would chart some of the best selling records but would get edged out by the broad-based and older demographics for something like West Side Story or Herb Alpert. Bob Dylan was quick to point out to an interviewer recently that he views many of his records as underground affairs since he began in a field where Sinatra and his ilk were the dominant force in music.

  10. zoilus says:

    Neal, you’ve just given a precis of, approx., chapters 12, 14 and 15 of Wald’s book.

  11. john s. says:

    Rock dominated the singles market by the ’60s; Elvis was far and away the best-selling singles artist in the 2nd half of the ’50s; Fats Domino was Top 5. I don’t know how one would evaluate singles v. album sales. Lots of huge rock stars have never been much of a force in the singles market. Top 10 ’90s singles artists, in order:
    Boyz II Men
    R. Kelly
    Puff Daddy
    Michael Bolton

    Singles don’t tell the whole story, obviously; but rock historians seem to have wanted singles to tell the story of the ’50s and ’60s, which seems to be part of Wald’s point. With the exceptions of Janet and Madonna (and maybe Puff?), a landslide of rock critics disdained everybody on that list back in the day.

    (Source: Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, 1955 to 2000, bought for a quarter at a yard sale.)

  12. john s. says:

    Listening to some James P. Johnson this morning, it occurred to me that Wald’s thesis parallels complaints to this day that swing ruined jazz, by making it smooth (though still dance-oriented), and arty, with the soloist being featured. Of course, bop subsequently ruined jazz again (according to swing fundamentalists), and then free jazz did yet again (according to bop fundamentalists), as did fusion. It wouldn’t surprise me if Wald talks about all of this. I will track down his book. Thanks.

  13. Voyno says:

    How Nickelback destroyed CanCon or possibly How CanCon destroyed Canadian Radio muisc, is a book that WILL be written soon enough.

  14. Matt Collins says:


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