What Was Really Hot

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'N' Roll

An Alternative History of American Popular Music

by Elijah Wald (Oxford, 2009)

For reasons that only the good people at Pandora could work out, I grew up loving not the music popular with people my own age but the music that people my parents' age liked when they were young. My mother had a small suitcase full of 78s; I was forbidden to play them, but I didn't let that get in my way. I fell in love with Tommy Dorsey's crooning trombone, in "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You," and I was crazy about Eddie Duchin's cover of "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea." When I was a little older, I bought a Fred Astaire album that the dancer recorded on the side, featuring songs from his movies that, in some cases, Ginger Rogers sang onscreen. Even so: very cool to my ears. From my aunt and uncle, I received, one Christmas, a collection of Lee Wylie sides. How sophisticated they must have thought me to be, it seemed for years until, discovering that neither one of them seemed to have the faintest idea of who Lee Wylie was, I came to suspect that frantic, last-minute gift recycling explained my good luck. And then, in my last year at college, I discovered the studio recordings of songs from The King of Jazz, Paul Whiteman's 1929 musical revue. (I wouldn't know, until I saw the movie decades later, how frightfully primitive it was, as a very early talkie in color.) I adored the Rhythm Boys' numbers (Bing Crosby was one of the Rhythm Boys), but the song that I loved the most was "Ragamuffin Romeo," sung by a kewpie doll called Jeannie Lang. I must have found great comfort, during that most uncertain time in my life leaving school felt like walking off a cliff in Whiteman's nursery-inflected jazz, because I played the song hundreds of times (literally).

This music was not only not popular with my peers but it was not highly regarded by people who looked down their noses at rock 'n' roll the jazz aficionados for whom Miles Davis austere eminence. There was nothing austere about Paul Whiteman. With his kazoos and his chimes, he could be very corny. A passing resemblance to Oliver Hardy made it easy for me to imagine the portly bandleader pushing a slip of a girl across the floor, and then thanking her afterward with a silly flap of his necktie. But I loved it. I discovered "Whispering" long before August Darnell wove it into the fabric of his disco hit, "Cherchez la Femme." Perhaps if I'd have known Mr Darnell, I'd have had someone to talk to about my taste in popular music, which was more genuinely expansive than my interest in classical music for, truth to tell, in those days, I found Brahms rather brown and dreary.

Perhaps it was all for the best that I didn't find a sympathetic account of this music until just the other day, when I opened Elijah Wald's "alternative" history. "Alternative" in what way? The short answer appears on the ninth page of the book. Noting that Ellen Willis, alone of all the serious rock critics working in 1970 or so, confesses to having had a taste "less discriminating than it could have been but often discriminating in the wrong way," Mr Wald continues,

And I do not think it is coincidental that a female critic was the lone admitted Boonian or at least recovering Boonian in the 1960s rock fold. Reading through the histories of both jazz and rock, I am struck again and again by the fact that although women and girls were the primary consumers of popular styles, the critics were consistently male and, more specifically, that they tended to be the sort of men who collected and discussed music rather than dancing to it.

Mr Wald has, above all, set out to write a history, not a critical appraisal. He wants to tell us about the music that was really popular. He wants to recognize Guy Lombardo, Mitch Miller, and Lawrence Welk as the huge successes that they were, and to try to understand why. (Even I have trouble following him there.) As for the long answer to my "alternative how?" question, it actually takes fewer words to state concisely.

So I can imagine a broad and accurate history of modern art that would treat museums and academies as serving an elite and largely irrelevant taste and recognize Van Gogh for having designed a fabulously popular and influential poster of sunflowers.

At first, this sounds staunchly anti-Arnoldian: Mr Wald's history does not revere the best that has been said and thought in the world. Such reverence, however, is the province of the critic who is primarily concerned with the course of the avant-garde. But it is out of place in history, which can never be sufficiency comprehensive, and which therefore must locate, as a matter of disciplinary conscience, the average, the center, the "popular." A history of the band music of the 1920s, for example, must set out to capture the perspective of the listeners of the day. What it must not do is serve up a list of classic recordings that have stood the test of time. Such lists belong to the history of Right Now.

Happily, Mr Wald is an extremely able historian. His grasp of contingency equals that of any political or diplomatic historian that I have ever read. He not only tells us what happened, but (probably) why it happened when it did, and why it couldn't have happened at any other time. As an example of his dexterity with the interplay of current and crosscurrent, I turn to the middle of the book, where we find Al Dexter's song, "Pistol Packin' Mama," climbing the charts. The song appeared in 1943, in the middle of a interesting strike that Mr Wald discusses in the previous chapter. I didn't know Dexter's version of the song, but I did know about the strike. Thanks to my thirst for old popular music, which obliged me to buy any LP that answered that description that appeared in the college bookstore, I had learned about it from liner notes.

Frank Sinatra was never a favorite of mine. I associated him with the kind of music that my father had come to like in the late Fifties, and it would be a long time before I developed a taste for Nelson Riddle's charts, which to my younger ears had none of the gloss of even the most ordinary night-club orchestra in the movies. And even when I did come to admire Riddle (hugely), Sinatra was not the singer that I wanted to hear in front of him. Rosemary Clooney (with whom Riddle had a long-time affair) would be more like it. My real problem with the classic Sinatra sound, however, was that I had come to prefer the way he sang when he was starting out. Before all the amatory upsets, he was the singer with a beautiful voice who sang pop music as though it were lieder, not a "serving suggestion." And I owed my discovery of the young Sinatra to the fact that there were no other records to buy that week. It was the second of two Columbia re-releases, I believe, featuring sides that Sinatra recorded during the War.

On most of the songs, as I recall, Sinatra was supported by a corny pick-up orchestra, but several were a cappella, with small choirs of close-harmony singers in the background and no instrumentalists at all. The liner notes explained these arrangements, which didn't really sound odd to me in the 1960s, probably because the close harmony was as saliently "Forties" as Betty Grable's hairdos, but as it happened the motivation was far from "artistic." The strike that I mentioned, which began in 1942, banned the use of instrumentalists any instrumentalists in the making of commercial recordings. Never mind why; it made sense at the time, expecially to the head of the musicians' union, James Petrillo.

Sinatra's success presented Columbia with a problem. They had the country's hottest new vocalist under contract, but they could not maintain his sales momentum by mining old Harry James recordings especially since, in February of 1943, he had taken over as the main singer on Your Hit Parade and could be heard every Saturday evening performing the top current material. Their solution was to rush him into the studio with a series of choirs singers were not musicians by AFM standards to cut a cappella versions of his Hit Parade winners: "You'll Never Know," "Sunday, Monday, or Always," and a pair of songs from the new Broadway smash, Oklahoma!: "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" and "People Will Say We're in Love."

The song that I loved "I Couldn't Sleep a Wink Last Night."

Now, back to Al Dexter, and how he had a big hit with "Pistol Packin' Mama." 

In normal times, Dexter's record might never have reached beyond the Southern audience that typically pitched its nickels to play hillbilly tracks, as it would have been competing with a stronger field of mainstream hits and, if it had broken into the broader market, would instantly have been covered by a half-dozen pop vocalists. In 1943, though, Dexter had the song to himself at least on records from the time it entered the national charts in June until Decca signed the AFM contract in September. The first new disc Decca waxed was a cover of "PPM" (by then the trade press just used the song's initials) by Crosby and the Andrews sisters, and by the beginning of 1944 their version was outselling Dexter's even in places like Fort Worth. In the interim, though, he had established himself as a national star, and four of the twelve records that reached number one on Billboard's new "Most Played Juke Box Folk Records" chart in the next year were his.

Timing is everything. In a few graceful sentences, Mr Wald discusses both art and commerce: the popular reception of music alongside the constraints that produced or channeled it. The only objection that one might make is that the information is very dense, even though it doesn't feel difficult to read. Shorter than 300 pages, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'N' Roll could probably have been expanded for another hundred without evidencing bloat. The concision of the published text, however, matches that of the three- to six-minute songs that, for the most part, constitute Mr Wald's raw material.

As for Mr Wald's title, it appears to have survived the transformation of a chapter-length essay into the broader history that we have here. It applies fairly narrowly to the last chapters of the book. How did the Beatles destroy rock 'n' roll? They sophisticated it, and, for all their emulation of the black blues singers who had gone before, they cut the ties that kept black and white musicians running neck and neck during rock's early days. They also retired from live performance necessarily, thanks to their wild popularity and created on the level of the album, not the song. When they were through, the vernacular white rock that they had played early on but left behind sounded fractured and dry; black rock became soul; and disco took over the dance floor. Mr Wald stops there, but he leaves us with an armature for considering subsequent developments, even though what has happened to pop music since 1985 looks like an unintelligible splintering thanks to the very technology that makes it possible for us to hear what Paul Whiteman was up to.

Of all the ways in which music changed over the course of the twentieth century, the most fundamental was the shift from being something people played to something they consumed and from being part of a larger experience to being a thing that is often heard alone and out of any set context. ... Until recording, music did not exist without someone playing it, and as a result music listening was necessarily social. There was no way to hear a musical group without other people being present to play even a duet, there had to be two people in the room. It is hard to think about how different that must have been, as everyone reading this book has listened to music alone. Indeed, with Walkmans and MP3 players, it has become common to use music to shut out the rest of the world.

This is one of the top books of 2009, and, for anyone with the slightest interest in music of any kind, one of the great gifts to the canon of histories.

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