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BOOK REVIEW

Pop revisionist looks beyond the charts

By Carlo Wolff
Globe Correspondent / July 3, 2009
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Elijah Wald is a sharp, fair critic eager to right the record on popular music and the idolatry that often shields it from clear analysis. In the sensationally titled “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll,’’ he recasts history to spotlight unjustly overlooked figures like bandleader Paul Whiteman, smooth jazz godfathers Guy Lombardo and Glenn Miller, early crossover megastar Harry Belafonte, and Frankie Laine, a gruff, bluesy singer who came into his own under the guidance of Mitch Miller, the key Columbia Records producer of the ’50s. And while Wald considers the Beatles a seminal group, he suggests that their retirement from performance put an end to pop music as a spontaneous, engaging expression.

Wald’s revisionist work, based on music, charts, articles, books, and his own experience, argues that consideration of jazz and pop must take into account not only what music made it onto the charts but what bubbled under them. One of its missions is to resurrect the notion of jazz as popular music, of ragtime as the prototype for rock.

Although he had written about the music of the ’20s, Wald had never listened to Whiteman, a giant of the Jazz Era, who debuted Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,’’ which Wald calls the “Sgt. Pepper’’ of its time. So Wald went back to the source, listening to Whiteman in order to recapture a period when big band music was intensely social and danceable. Radio was in its infancy, and television didn’t exist.

He also illuminates the links between musical expression and the evolution of recording technology and between city and country. Race, of course, plays a part:

“It is a paradox of twentieth-century American music that although black audiences consistently pioneered and adopted new styles faster than white ones did, they also stayed closer to rural styles,’’ he writes in a chapter on the birth of rock ’n’ roll. “The buffer between country and city was much thinner in African-American culture, because whatever their tastes or successes, segregation meant that longtime black city dwellers were crowded together with their newly arrived country cousins, and economic discrimination meant that they were often stuck in the same jobs.’’

This is Wald’s first book on pop; he has written about the blues, folk music, and Mexican drug ballads and is a self-styled folk-blues musician. He clearly relished writing this deeply reported but accessible work, which blasts the male-dominated field of music criticism and “boys’ club’’ record collecting that keeps women out.

He tracks the devolution of popular music from public to private, from the time of the big bands (and Louis Jordan’s smaller, rhythm ’n’ blues groups), when people danced together, to the elevation of the Beatles to rarefied and nondanceable status. In his introduction, he says he loved “Meet the Beatles’’ and played it over and over; but, while he recognized “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’’ as a work of genius, he didn’t want to hear it often and considered it adult music.

And he doesn’t trash anyone, despite the book’s title. On the contrary, Wald deepens the appreciation of American popular music by broadening its context and erasing the canonical lines that have made many boy geniuses specialists in the niche approach to criticism. This is a work of celebration, not destruction.

Cleveland freelance writer Carlo Wolff is the author of “Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories.’’

HOW THE BEATLES DESTROYED ROCK ’N’ ROLL: An Alternative History of American Popular Music By Elijah Wald

Oxford University, 323 pp., illustrated, $24.95

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