The subtitle of Ben Yagoda’s latest book calls to mind the title of Nelson George’s 1988 book, The Death of Rhythm & Blues. The resemblance goes beyond that: neither book is really actually an obituary. In order to discuss the “death” of a type of music, both authors opted to offer compelling cases as to what made the music great in the first place. The paths to their conclusions are circuitous, sometimes distractingly so. It’s enough to make you think that The B‑Side could well have been subtitled “Brief biographical sketches of many great American songwriters and other delightful stories that pertain to them.” Or simply: “There’s a lot of great music out there.”
Nevertheless, there is much to recommend Yagoda’s book. He offers fresh insights into an industry that was once compartmentalized— dependent, among other things, on skilled songwriters such as Irving Berlin and Cole Porter to provide fresh songs. The music business was turned on its head soon after the end of World War II; within a generation, youth reigned supreme and much of the focus was on people like Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry, and The Beatles, who sought to be the complete package (songwriters, singers, musicians, etc.).
All of this was polarizing and had widespread consequences for the music biz: More immediacy, more regionalism, more sexuality, more diversity, but less professionalism. And a lot of the new songs simply weren’t as easy to hum. The changeover was not instant or uncontested, nor was it without bitter complaint and suggestions that the youthful audience was being cheated and/or brainwashed. (“Rock ‘n’ roll smells phony and false,” Frank Sinatra said. “It is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons.”) Yagoda walks the reader through this battle for the artistic soul.
The author is knowledgeable, thorough, and even-handed. Yagoda capably digs out great quotes and anecdotes while also incorporating explanations of larger trends, including how structural and technical changes in the industry had an impact on popular music. Unless a reader comes in hoping for a linear, lopsided ode to the virtues of the good old days, he or she will get a lot out of this complex, detailed, and thought-provoking book. Bibliography, footnotes.