Despite its cliché, inappropriate, and misleading title, this book is a relatively well written, nicely researched and referenced history of popular music in America during the twentieth century from ragtime through disco. Its fundamental thesis boils down to this, for most of the history discussed here the dominant driver for popular music was live music played for revelers at night clubs and honkey tonks. It had several sources—much of them emerging from the African American community, others from the nation’s varieties of religious experience—and the interplay of these informs much of the narrative presented in How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Elijah Wald emphasizes that bands and singers have earned their bones making music for live audiences, often playing dance music. Emphasis on the recording of this music came later, and not until the rise of the rock and roll did it dominate the music business. Paul Whiteman, the earliest national leader in pop music, always emphasized the live performance. Glenn Miller certainly made hit records but remained committed to playing live music until his death in a plane crash in 1944. Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack was always admired for their live acts at Las Vegas. Technological changes altered that emphasis, and advances in recording and radio, television, and film appreciably changed the landscape. While this was seen early on, it came to dominate with such musicians as Elvis Presley and certainly with the Beatles. This leads Wald to ask the obvious question: what drives the music industry, revenues from live performances or revenues from the sales of recordings? Since the 1960s the emphasis on recordings has overtaken live music and probably not for the best.
A sense of disillusionment permeates this narrative, as Wald notes that the genres of popular music—ragtime, jazz, country, bluegrass, rock and roll, rap, disco, and the like—are largely marketing-driven. At some level one may read this book as a denunciation of the music industry and its market driven decisions about popular music and its evolution. There are, of course, truly innovative musicians who have made a significant impact on the course of pop music. But so much of it is derivative and far from cutting edge.
In the end, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll is not really about the Beatles, not really about rock and roll, and not really about destruction. What is it about is the interactions of music, ideas about music, popular tastes, and the role of technology in shaping and reacting to American society. Read in this way it is a useful discussion of an “alternative” approach to music in American life in the twentieth century.