Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Did Beatles push black music aside?

By Elijah Wald
updated 4:07 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
The Beatles arrived in the United States 50 years ago and embarked on a history-making path of pop culture dominance. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/us/the-sixties'>Check out coverage of "The Sixties: The British Invasion,"</a> a look at how the Fab Four's influence persists. Click through the gallery for more images of the Beatles' first American tour. The Beatles arrived in the United States 50 years ago and embarked on a history-making path of pop culture dominance. Check out coverage of "The Sixties: The British Invasion," a look at how the Fab Four's influence persists. Click through the gallery for more images of the Beatles' first American tour.
HIDE CAPTION
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
America falls in love with the Beatles
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Elijah Wald: Familiar myth holds that Beatles introduced white kids to black music
  • Quite the contrary, Wald says: The rock scene had already integrated
  • He says Beatles created a bridge no one had imagined for youth pop and more adult styles
  • By 1965, the British Invasion had resegregated the pop and R&B charts, Wald says

Editor's note: Elijah Wald is a writer and musician. His books include "How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music," "Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues," and co-writer, with Dave Van Ronk, of "The Mayor of MacDougal Street," a posthumous memoir of folksinger Dave Van Ronk, which inspired the Coen Brothers' film "Inside Llewyn Davis."

(CNN) -- The Beatles invented rock music as we know it, and as pretty much everyone has known it since the mid-1960s. But because their success was so revolutionary, it's hard to remember where the music seemed to be headed before they arrived in the United States 50 years ago -- or to imagine what might have happened if they had not.

There are some familiar myths: One is that by 1964 rock 'n' roll had become insipid music dominated by teen idols like Frankie Avalon and Fabian, and the other is that the Beatles introduced white American teenagers to the power of black music. In fact, the rock 'n' roll scene had become increasingly integrated through the early 1960s, to the point that in late 1963 Billboard magazine stopped publishing separate pop and R&B charts because so many of the same records were on both.

Elijah Wald
Elijah Wald

The big new sound in rock 'n' roll was Motown, and James Brown was coming up strong, having broken onto the pop charts with his "Live at the Apollo" album.

Back then, pop prophets were divided into roughly two camps: Some predicted that African-American artists would increasingly dominate the rock 'n' roll scene, providing a joyously danceable soundtrack to the broader story of a triumphant civil rights movement. Others continued to optimistically predict the demise of rock 'n' roll, pointing to all the young people who were abandoning teen dance music for more mature and intelligent styles like folk and jazz. All agreed that the teens buying rock 'n' roll singles and dancing up a storm to the Supremes were the opposite of the serious folk and jazz fans buying LPs and discussing them endlessly in college dorms.

That divide seemed unbridgeable: People who loved rock 'n' roll thought of it as thrilling, fun, youth music, and expected adults to hate it, while people who appreciated adult styles considered them an antidote to the stupid noise on the radio. The few who imagined rock 'n' roll growing up thought it would take the path of jazz, getting hipper, blacker, and more melodically and harmonically complex. But most people assumed it would remain kid's music and even its most passionate acolytes would grow up to prefer other styles.

No one could have dreamed that rock 'n' roll would be reshaped as a sophisticated British import, or that anyone would want to mingle the already old-fashioned sound of Chuck Berry with baroque string quartets, Indian sitars and avant-garde poetry.

The Beatles were not only unimagined, but unimaginable.

50th Anniversary of Beatlemania
Ringo Starr's shout-out to Wolf Blitzer
Revoluntionary impact of The Beatles
Working for the Beatles

It took the Beatles a couple of years to evolve from peppy rockers to psychedelic culture-trippers, but they transformed Americans' image of rock 'n' roll within hours of stepping off the plane at Kennedy Airport. Previous rockers had been famously inarticulate -- in the movie "Jailhouse Rock," when a group of college professors asked Elvis what he thought of Dave Brubeck, his response was to sullenly slam out of the room, sure that they were laughing at him.

The Beatles, by contrast, were witty and urbane. When reporters asked them silly questions about their long hair and screaming female fans, they responded with elegant mockery. Their Liverpool accents may have struck Britons as provincial and working class, but to Americans they sounded dazzlingly sophisticated.

The Beatles backed up their exotic charm with brilliant music, but at least for the first couple of years that was somewhat secondary -- witness the success of fellow invaders like Herman's Hermits and the Dave Clarke Five. They had lovely harmonies and interesting melodies, but in retrospect those early records sound no more advanced or earthshaking than what was coming out of Motown, and "Yesterday" sounds positively archaic next to "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag."

The change that redirected the course of American pop was this: By 1965, the year those two records appeared, the British Invasion had resegregated the charts and no one was comparing the Beatles to James Brown. They are remembered as rock 'n' rollers, he is remembered as playing soul and funk. The Brits didn't do that on purpose -- they loved contemporary African-American styles (the Beatles told 16 Magazine that Brown was their favorite singer) -- but they couldn't manage the tricky new rhythms, so they fell back on older varieties of blues and rock 'n' roll.

For dancers, that made their music relatively boring, and after the first wave of Beatlemania the twisting, frugging girls abandoned them for Motown, then moved on to funk and disco.

But their blues-based, guitar-driven sound and increasingly adventurous lyrics created an unexpected bridge to the folk crowd -- they inspired Dylan to go electric, he inspired them to write obscure poetry instead of poppy love lyrics, and rock became music that boys discussed seriously in dorm rooms.

Every revolution has winners and losers. A generation of black musicians remembers the Beatles' arrival as an apocalypse, the moment when rock 'n' roll became white and they were banished to a lower-status ghetto labeled R&B or soul. On the other hand, millions and millions of listeners all around the world remember the Beatles as leveling the divide between high art and street pop, paving the way for 50 years of rock innovation, and making some of the most spectacular music of the 20th century.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Elijah Wald.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT