An Alternative History of American Popular Music
HTBDR&R is an exhaustively researched history of popular music, analyzed in excruciating detail from its rural African-American songbook, through jazz, swing, and R&B, all the way up to relatively modern times.
Unfortunately for readers, it’s also an exhausting read (as 75 pages of footnotes attests to), appearing in the form of a thesis written for undergraduates to wade through, quote from, and pretend to agree with before racing home and crankin’ up ‘She Loves You’ on their laptops and ipod docks, dancing their bespectacled tushies around dorm rooms until the last of the Red Bull wears off. Afterwards they remove the elbow padded tweed jackets and enter the land of golden slumbers where Blue Meanies sing duets with bands named after wolves and bears. I digress.
The book never quite lives up the potential of its fantastic title, which the publisher warned us before mailing out a copy, “is meant to attract attention, debate and controversy.”
Nor does the promise ever realize the heights touched upon in the brilliant opening remarks by the author,
The idea of a steady progression from ragtime to rap is tempting to a historian because it shows a clear live of development over an extended period of time. And if one accepts that continuum, then the Whiteman orchestra and the beatles played very similar roles: not as innovators but as rear guarding holding actions, attempting to maintain older, European standards as the streamlining force of rhythm rolled over them. Within the small world of music nuts, there have always been some who regard the beatles in just this way. In their view, rock is rooted in African-American music, and it’s evolution was from blues and R&B through Little Richard, Ruth Brown, and Rat Charles toward James Brown and Aretha Franklin, and on to Parliament/Funkadelic and Grandmaster Flash.
By the time the beatles hit, still playing the rhythms of Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins, that style was already archaic and their contributions were to resegregate the pop charts by distracting white kids from the innovations of the soul masters, to diffuse rock’s energy with effetely sentimental ballads like “Yesterday” – paving the way for Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Elton John, and Billy Joel – and then to drape it in a robe of arty mystification, opening the way for the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, Yes, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. 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.
The incredible scope of this tome can’t help but draw the author in meandering circles, distracting his focus and causing him never quite hit the mark, instead he only glances a few limp wristed blows against the broad side of the creaking old plastic surgery enhanced, steroid impregnated barn we call the FF.
Nevertheless, books on subjects as important as this are rare. These pages contain a wealth of interesting material, and some strong points are touched upon. It happily reinforces the fact that the FF whitewashed rock music by sweetening it with an unthreatening candy coating, causing white America to listen to the same songs which had been shunned when performed by the original artists with energy, emotion, inspiration and real danger, all of which horrified and repulsed them.
It’s hard to say anything negative about a book which Tom Waits claims, “nailed me to the wall,” and is “suave, soulful, ebullient and will blow out your speakers.” Then again, Tom Waits also once said, “The stories behind most songs are less interesting than the songs themselves,” and this may be the story of this book.
If you’d like to read more about the beatles and learn how to distinguish between articulate, cutting edge rock ‘n’ roll and bombastic, bubblegum claptrap, I heartily recommend our dear friend Gary Hall’s insightful treatise on the subject:
If you order directly from Gary your copy will be lovingly signed by the author.