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 1:54 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT