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An Alternative History of American Popular Music

By Elijah Wald

Oxford University Press, 323 pages, $24.95US

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When Elvis Presley made his first appearance on Milton Berle's then-must-see-TV variety show in April, 1956, the other guests were Harry James and Buddy Rich, two big-band musicians. Berle remembered later that, when Elvis started strumming, Rich looked wryly across at James and "made a 'square' sign with his fingers."

This is one of my favourites of the countless tidbits that seize the standard back-of-a-napkin sketch of pop history and twist it into a Möbius strip in Elijah Wald's chronicle of the 20th-century American ear in How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll .

Most rock books would say James and Rich were being musical reactionaries, blind to the revolution grinding its hips in front of them. But you could also say they were two hip jazz musicians who had no respect for a typical backwoods blues shouter. In truth, both views are correct, says Wald, a Los Angeles-based musician and author of six previous books on blues and folk music, plus one on hitchhiking.

Buddy Rich, a foul-mouthed thunder-demon of a drummer, might even have been justified in feeling he could out-rock Elvis. But history didn't care how Rich felt. And it doesn't care how you feel, either, even if (like Wald, or me) you're the sort of bookish, white male connoisseur who typically takes it on himself to arbitrate pop history while disdaining the audience that almost always drives it: young women on dance floors.

As Wald says, what makes music timely is often very different from what renders it timeless, and if you look only at the latter, you get a distorted picture of music's development. We don't revise political history to suit our tastes, no matter how much we disapprove of Mussolini having been elected or the romantic Spanish Republicans losing the civil war.

Yet few music histories ever offer more than a quick dismissal of the fact that Pat Boone outsold Little Richard in the 1950s. Or that the pervasively influential figure in 1920s and 1930s jazz was not Louis Armstrong, as jazz critics tend to suggest: It was the aptly named Paul Whiteman, the king of early radio dance-band shows, who is often damned for orchestrating, formalizing and "making a lady" out of a black art form, and was also the one who commissioned a little George Gershwin number called Rhapsody in Blue .

One of the launching points for Wald's investigation was his realization that in making symphonic "art" out of dance music, in many ways Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was the 1960s version of Rhapsody in Blue .

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If you blame racism for Whiteman or Boone out-earning black musicians, he asks, where do you stand on the Beatles versus James Brown?

However, the moptop-bashing title (which, I can assure you, makes other music writers sigh in envy) may mislead readers into expecting quite another book: Wald's tome starts and ends with them, but in between there are 16 chapters, hundreds of pages, without so much as a mention of the Fab Four.

It's a book about the whole scope of American pop, from ragtime, swing and foxtrots to teen idols, disco and the Twist - not to mention how nightclubs replaced balls and barn dances; how radio ruined the sheet-music business; how small combos and DJs replaced dance orchestras; and particularly how records slowly became a bigger business than live music.

That switch took most of the 20th century; it was not really complete until the Beatles retired from touring into the studio. (And it might be reversing itself again now.) While dance bands were somewhat interchangeable, records are marketed on novelty and uniqueness, so a pop mentality that once centred on songs (which would often become hits in multiple versions) evolved to focus on individual musicians as artists and celebrities.

The industry resisted each of these changes, just as it fights YouTube and downloading today. But Wald sympathetically illuminates the reasons: As a musician himself, he gives special heed to how styles were shaped by changing conditions of music-making, such as Prohibition (when clubs hired quieter bands so as not to attract cops) or the Depression, not to mention musicians strikes and vinyl shortages.

The result is something of a jukebox version of the social histories of E.P. Thompson ( The Making of the English Working Class ) or Howard Zinn ( A People's History of the United States ), using archival documents (especially old issues of Billboard) to reconstruct what life might have been like for everyday musicians and listeners in eras not so distant and yet radically unlike our own. If all you do is listen to the records, he says, you'll probably get it wrong.

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Every creative "leap forward" is a loss for someone else, the destruction of a previous musical culture. It's commonplace to say that in the early 1990s, Nirvana jolted rock out of a mascara-blinded slump, for instance - but there are greying 1980s hair-metal fans out there who still hate grunge for ruining all their fun.

Wald's personal tastes may favour rough and raw blues, but he's open-eared enough to sit down and try to understand what some people (Louis Armstrong included) adored about mid-century Canadian superstar Guy Lombardo's "sweet" orchestra.

Wald's title is a catchy bid for controversy, but it's not only that. First, he is using the Beatles as a standard for comparison. You can't talk about 1960s music without finding their influence everywhere, as soul, funk, jazz and even classical composition rolled over like Beethoven. He contends that the same thing applies with Paul Whiteman and early jazz, except that it was twice as long ago and no one remembers. Yet the Beatles' producer, George Martin, considered Whiteman's arranger, Ferde Grofé, one of his role models.

Second, the title contains a tension that defines 20th-century American music: By rock 'n' roll, Wald doesn't mean the genre of rock so much as the way hard-swinging black dance styles repeatedly transformed pop music and were remade by it in turn. In that sense, rock 'n' roll was forever being destroyed and forever rising from the ashes - until, Wald claims, the Beatles, who rezoned it as young-white-male territory.

(I might counter that in this the British Invaders were mainly imitating the new U.S. folk-rockers and the book might more convincingly be titled How Bob Dylan Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll. But where would be the fun in that?) Wald laments that after the 1960s, although rockers continued to be influenced by blues and other African-American "roots" music, they no longer tried to keep up with current black styles - in part because they weren't playing in dance bands that needed to be able to cover them.

It's an intriguing thesis: Why isn't current rock, for instance, more influenced by hip-hop? Still, it's always a bit suspect when someone tracks the start of a cultural decline to the end of their own youth. Here Wald's eye and ear become much more selective, overlooking key counterexamples such as the 1980s crossover impact of Michael Jackson.

So the last part of the book lacks the skeptical rigour of the rest. But that's all right, mama, because he has already proved the worth of a longer-range view: As Harry James and Buddy Rich would learn before 1956 was out, those who know history don't place suckers' bets on who'll turn out to be hip or square.

Carl Wilson is a Globe and Mail writer and editor who kind of wishes he had staked his own revisionist book, Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, on condemning the Beatles instead of defending Celine Dion.

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