Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 4, 2009

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 6:42 pm

From time to time, people question my right to blast a movie that I walk out of after 5 minutes, and occasionally refuse on principle to see. Well, this is a twist on that. I am going to recommend Elijah Wald’s new book “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll” without having read a word of it. How can I do something as outrageous as that, you ask? Okay, to start with Wald worked with folksinger Dave Van Ronk on “The Mayor of MacDougal Street”, a book that really knocked me out when I read it as background research for an article on the folk music revival of the 50s and early 60s. That plus an interview with Nora Flaherty on WFUV that you can listen to in its entirety here convinces me that this is a book for anybody with an interest in American popular music and who enjoys a good read.

Here’s how Wald summarizes the points made in this book on his website, which get a lively presentation as well in the WFUV interview:

1. Most music histories concentrate on jazz or rock, and on artists the writer thinks are great, rather than on the most popular and influential stars (for example, we get Louis Armstrong rather than Paul Whiteman, and Buddy Holly rather than Pat Boone). These canons are fine as far as they go, but leave us with a warped sense of the world that produced all of those artists. Wald tries to leave his own tastes out of the picture and instead understand the tastes of mainstream dancers and listeners, and the changes in lifestyles and technologies that shaped the evolution of American popular music.

2. Wald puts dancing and dance music at the center of his history, arguing that shifting fashions in dance–for example, the appearance of public dance halls and, fifty years later, the appearance of record-driven discoteques–often had more to do with the ways music changed than any musician did.

3. Pop music is almost always driven by female tastes, but almost all the history has been written by men–and not just by men, but by the sort of men who collect records rather than going dancing, and consider most mainstream pop to be junk. This book puts women’s tastes at the center of the story, from the flood of young female office and factory workers who sparked the dance crazes of the Jazz Age to the early 1960s when “twisting girls changed the world.”

4. Another central story is the evolving technologies–records, radio, juke boxes, television, LPs–and how they affected both listeners and musicians. The recording strike of the 1940s is placed at the center of a larger story of live musicians being replaced by mechanical devices, and Mitch Miller is given his due as the man who realized that this could open the way for records that would be more than simply sound-pictures of live performances.

5. The Beatles’ success marked a split between older rock ‘n’ roll and modern rock–and the moment when the interracial world of rock ‘n’ roll was divided into rock (white) and black (soul) styles. Wald argues that this ended a pattern of interracial give-and-take that had produced every previous major American pop style, from ragtime to rock ‘n’ roll.

Many historians have described that “give-and-take” as white musicians taking from black musicians, but Wald paints a more complicated picture, in which black jazzmen aspired to play classical music, Duke Ellington defended Paul Whiteman’s title as the King of Jazz, and Harry Belafonte was America’s most popular folksinger–while also tracing the bitter fruit of racial segregation, and the extent to which racism shaped the music both black and white fans were hearing.

In the WFUV interview, the discussion of point 5 begins around 30 minutes into the podcast. It was the most interesting observation for me, having been a huge fan of Black music in the mid 50s just as rock ‘n’ roll was taking shape. In putting “women’s tastes” at the center of his narrative, Wald’s version jibes with my own experience as this would indicate:

It was probably 1956 when my classmate Joan Seleznow invited me to listen to the new 45’s her father had been stocking in his hardware store. Now these weren’t pistols, but 7-inch pop records that were played at 45 rpm, as opposed to the 12-inch 33-rpm mostly classical records.

I remember the records to this day. She first put on Little Richard’s “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and followed up with Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill”. I told her that I loved the sounds. They were nothing like the insipid songs that were featured on the weekly television show “Hit Parade” like “How Much is that Doggy in the Window”.

But she saved the best for last: Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog”. I didn’t know it at the time but Big Momma Thorton, who recorded the song before Elvis, was an African-American like Fats Domino and Little Richard. That being said, the song was written by a couple of Jews, Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber.

A few months later I joined the RCA record club and got Elvis Presley’s 33-rpm debut album, which had “Hound Dog” and his other greatest hits that still had the immediately recognizable influences of African-American rhythm-and-blues and white country-and-western.

In the late 50s, do wop was king at my high school. We had parties once or month or so where slow dancing was a substitute for sex. The parties were always at girls’ houses since they were the ones with the best record collections. We didn’t distinguish between African-American and white groups. All that mattered was the music. This was around the time of dance shows on television hosted by either Alan Freed or Dick Clark. The dancers were racially integrated, even if this only meant that black couples and white couples shared the same dance floor.

Interestingly enough, the only place where interracial dancing took place back then apparently was at functions organized by civil rights activists connected with the Communist Party, as historian Thomas Sugrue points out in his “Sweet Land of Liberty: the forgotten struggle for Civil Rights in the North”:

The intense rights consciousness of wartime black workers moved seamlessly from support for public housing, to demands for black union leadership, to efforts to integrate union-sponsored bowling leagues. Over the course of the war, black workers became increasingly confrontational, engaging in walkouts over shop-floor discrimination. Black and white Communists, who made up a small but highly influential minority in the UAW, socialized after union gatherings, part of a deliberate strategy to build interracial solidarity. Even interracial dancing—which could provoke a lynch mob in the South—was not taboo at UAW events. At a meeting of workers at the Dodge Main plant, just before a union-sponsored dance, a Communist official pronounced, “If whites and Negroes want to dance together at the social, they will dance… Those who don’t want to see this don’t have to come.

Just around the time that Joan Seleznow was introducing me to rock ‘n’ roll, Communists in my little village in the Catskill Mountains resort area were joining the UAW in terms of breaking racial taboos. A local couple Lou and Rae Young, who had been witch-hunted out of New York City, launched an NAACP chapter that included dances at the Young’s home. In junior high school, racist kids would gossip about how “the niggers” were dancing with white people at such occasions.

The Youngs had a son named Allen who would go on to edit Liberation News Service in the 1960s and become a founding father of the gay liberation movement later on. In 2000, Rae died at the age of 89. The local paper’s obit mentioned a bit about her involvement with civil rights and the trade union movement:

She was a sales clerk at Macy’s Department Store and participated in the labor organizing movement of the 1930s in New York City. An active member of the American Labor Party of New York State in the 1940s and 1950s, she helped organize a successful civil rights campaign in the 1950s to improve the conditions of migrant African-American laundry workers in Woodridge.

Ironically, that laundry was owned by the grandfather of a woman named Laura who was a close friend in high school and who joined the beat generation just around the time that I did. Unlike me, she failed to be radicalized by the war in Vietnam and veered instead toward the post-hipster milieu around Andy Warhol. She would eventually move into the Hotel Chelsea with her husband Frank Cavestani, a Vietnam veteran who was credited for directing the street protest scenes in Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July”. At one point, Frank and Laura were working as screenwriters in Hollywood and had a pet project that never got off the ground. That was to write a screenplay about the Brill Building in New York, the home of some of America’s greatest pop music composers, including Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

A couple of Jews, Leiber and Stoller pretty much epitomize the halcyon days of early rock ‘n’ roll when it was all about dancing and when collaboration between Black and white musicians was a given. This is from the Wiki on Leiber and Stoller:

Leiber came from Baltimore, Stoller from Long Island, but they met in Los Angeles in 1950, where Stoller was a freshman at Los Angeles City College while Leiber was a senior at Fairfax High. Stoller had graduated from Belmont High School. After school, Stoller played piano and Leiber worked in a record store and, when they met, they found they shared a love of blues and rhythm and blues. In 1950, Jimmy Witherspoon recorded and performed their first commercial song, “Real Ugly Woman.” Their first hit composition was “Hard Times,” recorded by Charles Brown, which was a rhythm and blues hit in 1952. “Kansas City,” which was also recorded in 1952 (as “K. C. Loving”) by Little Willie Littlefield, became a No. 1 hit in 1959 for Wilbert Harrison. In 1952, they wrote “Hound Dog” for Big Mama Thornton, which became a hit for her in 1953; it became a much bigger hit for Elvis Presley in 1956, although in a bowdlerized version. Their later songs often had lyrics more appropriate for pop music, and their combination of rhythm and blues with pop lyrics revolutionized pop, rock and roll and punk rock.

They formed Spark Records in 1953 with their mentor, Lester Sill. Their songs from this period include “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” and “Riot in Cell Block #9,” both recorded by The Robins.

The label was later bought by Atlantic Records, which hired Leiber and Stoller in an innovative deal that allowed them to produce for other labels. This, in effect, made them the first independent record producers. At Atlantic, they revitalized the careers of the Drifters and turned out hit after hit for The Coasters, a spin-off of The Robins. Their songs from this period include “Charlie Brown,” “Searchin’,” “Yakety Yak,” “Stand By Me” (written with Ben E. King), and “On Broadway” (written with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil), among numerous other hits. (For the Coasters alone, they wrote twenty-four songs that appeared in the national charts.)

Those were the days.


  1. Coupla points. Elijah Wald is the son of George Wald, the Harvard biologist who gave a famous speech against the Vietnam War. And Wald had a piece in the Financial Times the other week – excerpts here http://mailman.lbo-talk.org/pipermail/lbo-talk/Week-of-Mon-20090824/011926.html.

    Comment by Doug Henwood — November 4, 2009 @ 6:50 pm

  2. Dave Van Ronk…back in the day I was told he was a member of the Workers League (the Wohlforthites) …true?

    Comment by ish — November 5, 2009 @ 2:58 am

  3. http://www.wsws.org/articles/1998/may1998/dvr-m07.shtml

    Van Ronk, a lifelong sympathizer of the socialist movement, was a member of the Workers League, the forerunner of the Socialist Equality Party, in the late 1960s. I spoke to him recently in Greenwich Village, where he still lives.

    DW: What were the social circumstances under which you grew up?

    DVR: If you asked anybody in my family, they would have very stridently proclaimed themselves middle class. My mother and father were separated, so he doesn’t count. My mother was a stenographer, a stenographer-typist. My uncle and my grandfather both worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He was an electrician and subsequently became something of an aristocrat of labor. My great grandfather admired Eugene V. Debs. My great grandmother hated Debs because she said he was leading my great grandfather off the straight and narrow, and getting him drunk. She was probably right. In any event, the family, mostly Irish, was working class. I was born in Bushwick, but I grew up in Richmond Hill, in Queens. I went to Catholic school.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 5, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

  4. Van Ronk died a couple of years ago. He’s got 1/2 of a great album of Brecht songs I’ve got somewhere. Nothing like Van Ronk’s Mack the Knife.

    Comment by jp — November 5, 2009 @ 8:07 pm

  5. The record is “Let No One Deceive You” Frankie Armstrong and DVR – Aural Tradition Records, Vancouver,BC 1984(?) don’t know if it ever made it into CD

    Comment by Jack the Bear — March 19, 2010 @ 12:23 am

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