The B‑Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great Amer­i­can Song

Ben Yago­da
  • Review
By – April 6, 2015

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.

Relat­ed Content:

David Cohen is a senior edi­tor at Politi­co. He has been in the jour­nal­ism busi­ness since 1985 and wrote the book Rugged and Endur­ing: The Eagles, The Browns and 5 Years of Foot­ball. He resides in Rockville, MD.; his wife, Deb­o­rah Bod­in Cohen, writes Jew­ish children’s books.

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