Aware, but not with it

The Virgin Encyclopaedia of Music - The Virgin Encyclopaedia of Popular Music
November 28, 1997

Any encyclopaedia has to face the question of what is and is not canonical, and then, having decided this, whether or not to celebrate or question the canon. Despite the small body of criticism of pop/rock music, compared to classical music, there is neverthless a recognisable pop/rock canon. It starts with Elvis Presley and the first generation of rock 'n' rollers in the 1950s, moves into the 60s with the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Motown, the 70s with the Rolling Stones, but then there is something of a gap until punk. The jury is probably still out on the 80s, but the big names are the arena rock boys (U2, REM etc) and the three lasting pop icons, Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince. This constitutes a body of work of predominantly male, white, album-based music that peters out in the 90s, either because not enough time has passed to identify correctly what is important, or because popular culture has fragmented to the point where there is no agreed linear narrative, or because they don't make 'em like they used to, depending on your point of view.

These four books, edited by Colin Larkin, derive from his well-known six-volume Encyclopedia of Popular Music published in 1992. Three detail a decade each, and the last is a concise edition of the original encyclopedia. All closely follow the received wisdom:this is the history of pop music as per Q magazine (or the BBC's Dancing in the Street documentary). That becomes more obvious, and more disappointing, as the entries draw closer to the present.

The rating system for albums is a case in point, being frequently so predictable as to render it pointless. Genres that are critically shunned but are nevertheless popular (teen pop, heavy metal) are included but badly rated, which seems to undermine the system whereby albums are supposedly marked "according to the artist in question's work".

The 60s volume is the best, as the canon here is at its least controversial. The format is alphabetical, with each listed artist followed by an album discography and a list of any relevant books, films or videos. In addition to entries for individual acts, there are listings for important labels, producers and managers, which, given that the space is available and the choices are apt, widen the scope of the book admirably. Occasional errors occur but, crucially, the writing style and the selection of artists shows a real feeling for the period. Mixing the factual, the critical and the anecdotal, the text is fresh and easy to follow. When so much of the material is familiar, to present the essential information in a way that is interesting is tricky: it is easy to bore the reader about the Beatles with another trundle through the same facts. This is not the case here. And a wealth of little touches - such as Scott Walker singing "My Death" on the Billy Cotton Band Show, or Dusty Springfield punching Buddy Rich for a lack of respect - provide fascinating dabs of colour. I repeatedly found myself forgetting what I was "supposed" to be looking for, instead flicking idly through entries on bands I do not even like. With a book such as this, likely to be used as much for entertainment as for research, that is a great asset.

The 70s volume follows the same format, with almost as much success. The task of siphoning the information from the parent volume has been sensibly carried out: entries are not limited precisely to the years 1970-79, and, while certain entries are necessarily repeated, most acts are covered just once in whichever book is most suitable. Unlike the first volume, however, the 70s book has some serious omissions, such as Neu! and Suicide, who not only do not receive individual entries as they deserve, but are not mentioned at all. These groups are not personal favourites, but they are surely - irrespective of one's taste - worthy of mention in an encyclopaedia. Despite this, and the exclusion of an entry on Elvis (who died in 1977), the 70s volume is still not far from excellent, and the entries on Roxy Music and David Bowie, in particular, capture their subjects perfectly.

The 80s volume, however, is positively disappointing. The contributors appear to be less comfortable with some of the genres they discuss. While acts who are, broadly speaking, still playing in styles similar to works of theirs that are in the canon (eg REM, Elvis Costello), are adequately covered, there seems an increasing tendency to patronise, marginalise or misrepresent less canonical artists and genres. There is something pretty unconvincing in the talk of the "enormous respect" supposedly enjoyed by prolific pop production team Stock, Aitken and Waterman, and the "instantly hummable hits" they wrote and produced for Kylie Minogue. Techno - the whole genre - is covered in one entry of a size similar to that for the adjacent band Television Personalities. House gets slightly better coverage, but there are no entries for Detroit pioneers Marshall Jefferson, Carl Craig, Jeff Mills or Derrick May. And hip-hop, while covered in reasonable detail as a genre, suffers from some nonsensical value judgements: there are entries for DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, but none for Public Enemy; De La Soul's seminal 3 Feet High and Rising is dismissed in two sentences; and a distressing social worker-style pervades, with NWA being castigated for "blurr(ing) the generally positive influence of the ... movement".

The impression in this volume is that Larkin knows roughly what should be included, but, like someone getting by in a second language, the nuances sound wrong to a native speaker. (The description of Todd Terry's mix of "Missing" by Everything But The Girl as a "drum and bass remix" is a really glaring error.) But, as already said, the 80s canon is still up for debate - witness the inclusion here of Danny Wilson and Julia Fordham, and the exclusion of Pet Shop Boys and Public Enemy.

A number of these complaints are sorted out by The Virgin Encyclopaedia of Popular Music, a hardback obviously intended less for home use and more for research than the other three (paperback) volumes. As a single tome covering the three decades discussed above and more, it has a breadth and consistency denied to the other books, and its scope includes artists whose absence from the smaller volumes is sad but understandable (David Ackles, Lee Hazlewood etc), as well as acts as recent as the Spice Girls.

There is still no room, however, for Derrick May, Todd Terry, Neu! or Suicide; while the gushing entry for Sheryl Crow - who has released just two albums - is inexplicably longer than those for Kraftwerk, Nirvana and Otis Redding, and almost as long as that for the Sex Pistols. Once again, Larkin seems a great deal happier with acts who do no more than mix and match established elements of the canon, rather than attempt to step outside it. Again there are serious omissions that imply a distinct lack of understanding of contemporary popular culture: entries for 3 Colours Red and Mansun, but none for DJ Shadow, Goldie or the Wu-Tang Clan.

While the tone of the writing is usually appropriate and occasionally poignant - as in the entries on Scott Walker and the Beach Boys - it is sometimes Mills and Boony ("The world's premier living rock guitarist will be forever grateful to his grandparents, for it was they who bought him his first guitar"), and also has a tendency towards pointless overstatement ("The Beatles are universally and unconditionally adored"). One is occasionally directed to "see also" entries in the shorter volumes that do not exist (such as Bodycount or Richard and Linda Thompson). The rating system for the albums is at times both confused and confusing: The Beatles (better known as The White Album) is described as containing "some average songs ... and ill-advised doodling", but then awarded five stars, which means "outstanding in every way", while all of Geoff Love's 80 listed albums are rated identically. Some entries (such as Curve and Red Crayola) exclude important recent developments that occurred before the deadline of July 1997.

Finally, there are factual errors, which, while probably unavoidable in a work of this size, are still annoying. In addition to misquoted lyrics and incorrect chart positions, some of the mistakes are more substantial: Tusk by Fleetwood Mac is not an instrumental; George Martin intended "How Do You Do It?" to be The Beatles's first single, not their second; Oasis's split with drummer Tony McCarroll was by no means amicable, and so on. Not vital errors, true, but enough to make one wonder how much trust can be put in the entries on artists one is not familiar with.

If these books are, as the dust-jacket quotes Q magazine as saying, "possibly the best rock reference ever", then this confirms the truth of Larkin's comment that pop music has not hitherto been deemed worthy of "serious reference". As a source of information these books are probably upwards of 99 per cent accurate; as entertainment they are, while occasionally frustrating, never less than enthralling; and as a source of discographies and other listings, they are unmatched. The problem is that with a work as important as this considers itself to be, nothing less than perfection is good enough, and, in the present edition, the volumes fall progressively shorter of that mark.

Roni Dutta is a journalist specialising in popular music.

The Virgin Encyclopaedia of Music: 1960s, 1970s and 1980s (individually)

Editor - Colin Larkin
ISBN - 0 7535 0149 X; 0154 6; 0159 7
Publisher - Virgin
Price - £16.99 each
Pages - 512 each

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