Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Music History: How Criticism Corrupts

How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll by Elijah Wald

As an historian myself, it is fascinating to see how things have changed. For a long time writers of history concentrated on big ideas, important men, powerful countries, and how the inexorable march of time led to the inevitability of that history. Then things changed in the later part of the twentieth century, and history shifted in order to emphasize the plight of the nameless masses in books like A People’s History of the United States, or The Free and the Unfree. But now I’ve noticed a recent trend in modern histories that tries to unify the two approaches. In a new book on European history called The Inheritance of Rome, author Chris Wickham states that too many histories see the Middle Ages as the infancy of the nation-state or the embryonic form of everything modern, that it was a “bad” time, an embarrassing anti-intellectual period that Western Civilization had to work its way out of in order to be “good” again. That the Middle Ages led to specific things is undeniable, but what Wickham takes exception with are the characterizations of the period as being unformed or somehow lesser in stature that either the time that preceded it or the time that followed. “I am in favour of most of these final ends myself; but to me as a historian the storyline still seems ridiculous, for every period in history has its own identity and legitimacy, which must be seen without hindsight . . . to attribute values to it is a pointless operation.”

So it was with great fascination that I began to read Elijah Wald’s book on popular music in America with the provocative title How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll. The book, it turns out, is not about The Beatles but about how music criticism in the twentieth century has been mistaken for music history and has thereby distorted what the actual history really is. Criticism, which places an emphasis on value, is never going to give an accurate account of a particular musical style or an era any more than calling the Middle Ages “dark” is going to be enlightening. In the same way, music history has suffered from the “big innovations and important artists” impediment that has crippled many general histories.

          Music criticism demands studious, analytic listening, and the people who listen that way tend to
          value music that rewards careful attention and analysis over styles that are just fun, relaxing, or
          danceable--which, again, is perfectly reasonable but automatically separates them from most of
          the people buying and dancing to popular music. And in the same way, [music] historians tend
          to focus on unique, original musicians rather than typical, generic ones, even when they are
          supposedly studying trends and movements rather than exceptional achievements.

To make his point, Wald uses his introduction to compare The Beatles to Paul Whiteman, and he makes a fascinating case. In almost every history of jazz Whiteman is conveniently ignored or pointedly disparaged because he had the temerity to call himself the King of Jazz. But, as Wald points out, “Whiteman’s orchestra was not only the most popular band of the 1920s, but was also enormously influential in every field of music.” The fact is, Whiteman virtually defined dance music and big band arranging, as well as the kind of big band singing that became the template for every legitimate jazz band playing in the late 30s and 40s. The bandleader was also instrumental in “the struggle to have jazz recognized as art music, bringing it out of the saloons and dance halls and forcing ‘serious’ music fans to take notice of it as the sound of their time.” The parallels to sixties pop might not be obvious at first, but they are there. Singers like Pat Boone and Patti Page are typically discredited in rock ‘n’ roll histories because their either hijacked true rock music, in the case of Boone, or watered down its impact by flooding the airways with inane popular confections, like Page. But it was actually The Beatles, like Whiteman, who were “attempting to maintain older, European standards as the streamlining force of rhythm rolled over them.”

If one looks at jazz and rock as black inspired music, art forms created by and best played by blacks, then by the early sixties the music of Chuck Berry and Little Richard had already faded into the past. It was the Beatles whose “contributions were to resegregate the pop chart by distracting white kids from the innovations of the soul masters
. . . In other words, rather than being a high point of rock, the Beatles destroyed rock ‘n’ roll, turning it from a vibrant black (or integrated) dance music into a vehicle for white pap and pretension. That is how a lot of jazz fans over the years have categorized the Whiteman band.” The real difference, something Wald never actually gets into, is that while Whiteman faded into obscurity in the late 30s and 40s because of the ascendance of great black jazz bands, the Beatles fractured the music, or “resegregated” it as Wald would say. Black rhythm and blues from the late 40s and early 50s was co-opted by whites in the form of Elvis Presley and Bill Haley and called rock ‘n’ roll, but this never stopped great black artists like Chuck Berry and Fats Domino from plying their trade right along side them. And things were no different on the pop side of the dial in the late fifties, with singers like Andy Williams and Doris Day sharing the same airwaves with Nat ‘King’ Cole and Johnny Mathis. After the Beatles, however, things were different, and sixties popular music seemed far more divided along racial lines, with white groups playing rock ‘n’ roll and black groups playing “soul” music.

For Wald, the hips that shook the world in 1955 were not the signal of a new sea change in music, but the same kind of integration that reflected late fifties popular music in general. “That is the image of Elvis that dominates virtually all rock histories: the young revolutionary of ‘That’s All Right’ and ‘Hound Dog.’

          But if the stripped-down energy of the Sun recordings makes it easy to place Elvis in the comp-
          any of rockers like [Jerry Lee] Lewis, Berry, and [Carl] Perkins, his success--the way he grasped
          his moment--very quickly put him in the company of Pat Boone and Perry Como, who rank just
          behind him as the top hitmakers of the 1950s . . . When he left Sun for RCA, he quickly began
          to alternate the rock numbers with dreamy concoctions like “Love Me Tender” and “That’s When
          Your Heartaches Begin.”

In looking at the “great man” approach to history, Wald quotes Peter Guralnick, whose two volumes on the singer may be the definitive work on the subject, in saying that, “The world was not prepared for Elvis Presley . . . He hit like a Pan American flash, and the reverberations still linger from the shock of his arrival.” Nevertheless, history, as history, paints a different picture, in that as soon as he left behind his rockabilly sides at Sun, “The major label’s choruses and studio musicians helped him sound like the movie stars he had idolized back in Memphis, and he would pick ‘It’s Now or Never,’ based on Mario Lanza’s version of ‘O Sole Mio,’ as his own favorite among his recordings.”

Wald’s point is that isolating an entertainer from their time is what leads to the isolation of the music, and the confusing of the different purposes of criticism and history. “The critic’s job is to assign value and importance on an artistic level, which is necessarily a judgment about how the work stands up in the present. The historian’s is to sort out and explain what happened in the past, which means attempting to understand the tastes and environment of an earlier time.” This last part is what is most difficult for music historians to achieve. I can remember watching Ken Burns’ Jazz for the first time, and noting how little attention was paid to so-called “sweet” bands like those of Glen Miller and Tommy Dorsey, who were much more popular nationwide than the black jazz bands of the time. But even that documentary failed to mention the enormous popularity of dance bands like Guy Lombardo or Glen Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra, who even outsold Miller and Dorsey. For Wald, he actually sees the labels themselves as barriers to a true understanding of the music in its time. “The fact that the eras’ music symbolized the dreams and hopes of new generations gave the words “jazz” and “rock” a special weight [to music critics] . . . Because of that, they have inspired particular devotion and tend to be seen as not only separate from but also inimical to the pop music that preceded them and surrounded them in their youth.” As a result, the music history that focuses on genius and artistry, can’t help but give the reader an unrealistic picture of what was really going on at the time.

I’m almost exactly the same age as Elijah Wald, and yet my own experience with music in the sixties actually proves out his point. While he grew up listening to the Beatles, my only exposure to their music came during the Beatles cartoon show that aired on Saturday mornings, just one among any number of cartoon shows that I watched as a boy. My mother and father had attended high school in the fifties but both of them graduated in 1955, before the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. So around my house as a child, I was far more likely to hear the sounds of The Kingston Trio or Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass than any of the British invaders. In fact, were I to attempt to reconstruct my musical memories from that decade, songs like “A Walk in the Black Forest” and “A Swingin’ Safari,” or movie themes like “Around the World in 80 Days” and “Baby Elephant Walk” would be at the top of my list. The only albums I owned during the decade were soundtracks to the films my parents took me to see, everything from Mary Poppins in 1964 to Oliver! in 1969. And the only British invasion song I consciously remember from the time was “I’m Telling You Now,” by Freddie and the Dreamers, and that was only because I won the 45 at the school carnival record walk. In fact, if there is one musical sound that takes me back to that time in my life more than any other it’s Floyd Cramer, not the Beatles.

The problem for the music historian, then, is the surfeit of contemporary criticism focusing on artistic innovation and genius rather than popularity. “They drew strict boundaries between these artists and mainstream imitators . . . and completely ignored older, and unrocking singers.” All of which leaves a fairly large gap in the reporting of the day, especially when an historian is attempting to see the musical landscape in its entirety as a way of gaining an objective view of the era. “Were they really the idols of opposing camps? Or does that way of seeing them just reflect the fact that the few teenage music fanatics who went on to become rock critics had different tastes from the millions of teenagers who swooned over both?” The primary way that this whole artificial division between art and popularity skews history is in the area of influence. In an article discussing film, writer James Janis had this to say about the difference between a “great” film and an “important” film, or one that he sees as influential rather than simply artistic in its own right.

          When the American Film Institute trotted out its list of the century’s 100 Best American Films, it
          created quite a bit of controversy . . . Horror films were ignored, save for a few token titles allowed
          to sit in the back of the bus. This is ironic since where would the number one film on their list,
          Citizen Kane (1941), be if Orson Welles did not have Mad Love (1935) and Son of Frankenstein
          (1939) to steal from? . . . Perhaps the problem was inherent in the parameters of the list itself.
          Instead of “Best,” might it not have been better to use the category “Important?” . . . Ah, but there’s
          the rub. Compiling such a list would require a true knowledge of film history . . . A list of important
          films? Honestly? Citizen Kane cannot be on it.

In the “great work” theory of criticism, Citizen Kane is obviously at the top of the list. But in terms of how influential it was . . . it wasn’t. No one has made a film like that since. But take Universal’s Dracula from 1931. Hundreds, if not thousand of films have been influenced by Bela Lugosi’s vampire, whether copies, homages, or “great works” on their own. And the same effect can be seen in music if one goes back to Elvis. Despite Peter Guralnick’s assertion that “an egocentric genius like Jerry Lee Lewis may even have had a greater talent. Certainly Chuck Berry or Carl Perkins had a keener wit. But Elvis had the moment,” that was all he had. How many rock groups from the sixties decided to don white jump suits and sing show tunes? Yeah, I can’t think of any either. But in looking at who was really influential in the fifties--something Wald doesn’t address--it was Buddy Holly. The primary difference is that the groups like the Beatles, who were influenced by Holly, wrote and performed their own material. And in that respect, all of the performers mentioned by Guralnick were far more influential on sixties rock music than Elvis, who never wanted to write in the first place, or rock for that matter. “I had never sung anything but slow music and ballads in my life at that time,” Wald quotes the king as saying in an interview from 1955.

This is also the major difference between Paul Whiteman and the Beatles, as Wald admits. “The Beatles, unlike Whiteman, composed their own songs . . . But the differences in how they tend to be viewed by historians say more about the way jazz and rock history have been written than about the realities of their music and careers.

          If one accepts that the Beatles and their peers transformed teenage dance music into a mature
          art form, then it isn’t fair to deny Whiteman credit for doing much the same thing to jazz. And,
          conversely, if Whiteman is to be damned for attempting to turn jazz into white art music, why
          are the Beatles to be applauded for doing the same thing to rock?

The question is as close to a thesis statement as Wald gets because it points out the huge contradiction in attempting to tell the history of music from a critical perspective. Value judgments always get in the way, and even worse, they completely distort the true nature of the story that writers are trying to tell. The stated goal of his book, as he puts it, is “I am trying to write history, not criticism--that is, to look at some of the most influential movements and stars of the twentieth century and explore what links and divides them without worrying about . . . whether I personally enjoy their music or not.” This should be the goal of every music historian, and yet it is almost never the case. While Beatle historians pore over covers of Chuck Berry’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” or Little Richard’s “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” they give short shrift to “A Taste of Honey” or “Till There Was You.” In addressing this disparity, Wald makes one of the all-time great statements, not just about writing history but in appreciating art in general. “The most difficult thing about understanding the past is appreciating choices and tastes that seems strange or disagreeable and trying to confront them on their own terms.” The biggest hindrance to writing accurate music history, in his view, is that “because we have our own taste and must listen to the records that we are studying over and over, [we] pay more attention to records that excite us than to records that we find boring.” The problem with this is that, “it tempts us to think of those recordings as representative even when they are not.”

I must confess to falling into that trap for many years. As someone who was a devote of both jazz and rock, my prejudice was nearly complete. But it was actually Ken Burns’ Jazz, despite its faults and many detractors, that first made me aware of the connective tissue between all the different forms of jazz, and the enthusiasm of those on the screen who understood that connection was infectious. As someone who was almost exclusively interested in bebop and hard bop for years, my music collection expanded exponentially after that to include ragtime, traditional jazz, swing, jump jazz, soul jazz, and everything in between. In terms of rock, I had the greats from the fifties and sixties, but little else. It wasn’t until I began purchasing the nearly exhaustive series of late fifties and early sixties American pop music put out by the British company One Day Music that I branched out into doo-wop, rockabilly, folk music, gospel, country and a dozen other genres that coexisted with rock ‘n’ roll and that both influenced and were influenced by each other. In some respects How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll is an unfortunate title for Elijah Wald’s book, because it doesn’t really covey what an important work it is. There’s nothing else quite like it in the way that it looks at popular music in the twentieth century from the most objective way possible, and in the process, shows us a history of music that we never knew existed.

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