Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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You Could Look It Up

THE FABER COMPANION TO 20TH-CENTURY POPULAR MUSIC
By Phil Hardy and David Laing
Faber and Faber

THE OXFORD COMPANION TO POPULAR MUSIC
By Peter Gammond
Oxford University Press

THE PENGUIN ENCYCLOPEDIA OF POPULAR MUSIC
Edited by Donald Clarke
Penguin

If there were any justice--hell, any poetry--at least one of the three pop encyclopedias now descended upon us would have originated in the United States of America, which as all three acknowledge is popular music's proper home. But if America is a whorehouse where Africa was raped by Europe and named the baby ragtime, jazz, or whatever, England is a library where amateur scholars multiply like viruses. So we should count ourselves lucky that one of these books was overseen by somebody who grew up here, and count ourselves humbled that it's the worst of the three.

Not that I won't keep Donald Clarke's The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music within reach. It isn't what it claims to be, but its 3000 mostly biographical entries will certainly come in handy. Wisconsin-born Clarke covered more jazz, country, African, and Latin (though he's terrible on reggae) than his competitors, who don't bother with rockers as marginal as Sheb Wooley or the Merseybeats or Rare Earth or Andrew Gold either. And not even The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll or Norm N. Nite's three Rock On volumes expend space on 1965's eyeblink Ad Libs ("The Boy From New York City," over and out), U.K. jazz-rockers If (their third LP reached 171 in Billboard), twin-guitar sloggers Wishbone Ash (Clarke wisely hired a metal consultant), or proud Midwesterner Charlie Musselwhite ("probably the best living white blues harmonica player"). Normal people don't need such information, of course, but books like these aren't for normal people. Cobbled together--from libraries, files, and untraceable outside contributions--by obsessives who've converted fandom into a paying gig, they're aimed at obsessives who haven't been so lucky. And also, of course, at professionals like your reviewer, who was playing "The Boy From New York City" just last week--and who was piqued to learn that the Ad Libs came from Jersey.

One never knows, do one? As the '60s ended, how many rock obsessives would have guessed that two decades hence they'd be expending passion not just on jazz or country, but on prerock pop--the dreaded moon-June-spoon of the dreaded Tin Pan Alley? Hence a function formerly performed by reference works devoted strictly to rock and roll--by Lillian Roxon/Ed Naha, Brock Helander, Irwin Stambler--has now passed to books that seize upon the term and concept "popular music."

This is more than mere market-broadening. In its 1960 incarnation, Peter Gammond's Oxford guide to "popular song of all periods" virtually ignored rock and roll; Phil Hardy and Dave Laing, whose Faber & Faber guide began life in 1977 as a modest but exceptionally literate Encyclopedia of Rock that was never published Stateside, come out of the cultural studies movement, where permutations of the popular have long been a growth industry; and while Clarke is clearly a roots man, with all the authenticity nostalgia that implies, he writes about pre-World War II pop with more palpable enthusiasm than '80s rock (X but not Husker Du, Duran Duran but not--for shame--Culture Club). In Great Britain, the idea that rock and roll must share its story with the rest of popular music is now such a commonplace that even mouldy figs take it for granted.

But this vast assumption can obviously subsume an infinity of interpretive nuance, reasonable disagreement, arbitrary categorization, tendentious "history," and botched fact, all of which reflect not only on these books' ultimate worth, but on their usefulness. Gammond says James Brown "was imprisoned for six years on a drugs charge," and that's damnably wrong--the verb should be "sentenced," and, much worse, the charge wasn't drugs. But since Brown's music is the main reason we care, it does even more harm to classify him as a "gospel/soul singer"--his gospel career never got him out of Toccoa, Georgia, while "soul singer" Aretha Franklin cut whole albums of the stuff as unknown and star--and thus downplay his deep secularity (and sentimentalize the black church, a common fallacy these days). Not that this distortion is a surprise--except in musical comedy, The Oxford Companion is hopeless on recent developments. Though I believe Gammond is sincere when he defends rock as "simply a new phase in the American musical tradition," it's all too obvious that his genteel constitution can't handle anything raw. The essay headed "Rock; Rock and roll" loses steam in the mid-'60s, crucial artists (Neil Young, Iggy Pop, George Clinton, Al Green, the Clash) are mentioned in passing if at all, and many who do make the cut get short shrift--country-western geniuses Hank Williams and Bob Wills are awarded fewer lines than soundtrack composer John Williams, or Sandy Wilson, who wrote The Boy Friend.

What makes The Oxford Companion valuable anyway is first of all that it has Sandy Wilson while the other two don't. (All three list John Williams, as they should; Clarke also remembers John Williams the semiclassical guitarist, a touch I like.) Since prerock pop is not my area of expertise, I can't read as critically as I'd prefer, but I know its history well enough to wonder just who in that world Gammond could have missed, and am intimate enough with such test cases as Charles Harris, Bing Crosby, and Perry Como to judge their entries both accurate and warmly sympathetic. Nor does Gammond stop at biography--cramming more items than Clarke into half as many closely printed, thoroughly indexed pages, he offers brief coverage of many songs, shows, and musical instruments. (In the latter case, unfortunately, his age shows again: we learn plenty about the saxophone, something about the concertina, and nothing about the guitar. The world could use the lowdown on Martin and Gibson and Fender and Rickenbacker--not to mention a concise guide to synthesizers.) And his longer genre essays--for instance, those on his passions, "Popular song (British)" and "Popular song (USA)"--are masterful and sensible in a field where additional theoretical groundwork is always welcome.

The best of these books, Phil Hardy and Dave Laing's Faber Companion to 20th-Century Popular Music, states its theory per se only in a too-brief introduction. But there's no mistaking its comprehension and respect for both halves of a tradition that bifurcated around 1955, as well as for the art music that the bebop rebels made of jazz a decade or so earlier. My chief objections are its self-imposed limitations. Popular music does precede the 20th century--even they can't resist a tip of the hat to Stephen Foster. It also precedes the phonograph, but like anybody conceiving a potentially boundless work, they feel the need to preserve their sanity, and so confine themselves to biographies of "recording artists." Yet despite an approach more selective than Clarke's or Gammond's, their book ends up more comprehensive than either. Cultural studies mavens that they are, Hardy and Laing add perspective by crediting such powerful behind-the-scenes figures as managers, producers, and record executives. All three books list Hugo Winterhalter, for instance, but only they discusses his A&R philosophy at pre-Elvis RCA Victor. Their refusal to focus on Winterhalter's million-selling version of "Canadian Sunset" signals Hardy and Laing's transcendence of the nostalgia market. Scholarly though Gammond and Clarke are, both pander to memories-are-made-of-this.

Hardy and Laing manage considerably fewer entries than the competition--"nearly 2,000," they say. But they devote more words to most of them, and they make every sentence count--they're the ones who note that the secret of "Canadian Sunset" was Eddie Heywood's piano. Clarke writes in slangy, telegraphic sentences laden with semicolons, factoids, and unsolicited opinions. As he might put it: strong p.o.v. is fresh but often dumb, critical overview pretty perfunctory (e.g., says Winterhalter's Rhapsody in Blue "swung more than most"). Gammond's more polished prose is too measured by half, eschewing the evocative for the objective and favoring broad adjectives like "powerful" and "experimental" when it stoops to them at all. Cooler than Clarke but nowhere near as dry as Gammond, Hardy and Laing convey intimacy with a broad range of artists. The lead sentences are models of pith: "Among Mississippi singers of the first blues generation, Charley Patton has been the most celebrated in his own community and the most mythologized among blues devotees"; "[Rosemary] Clooney's big voice, clear diction and way with a novelty song made her one of the top female singers of the early fifties." One reason I wish they wrote more than biography is that I'd like to avail myself of their concise insights into all manner of definitions and historical conundrums.

Hardy and Laing aren't perfect. They're more U.K. chauvinist than Clarke--if "a certain level of commercial success" is a prime criterion, why include Brit revivalists Showaddywaddy, who scored a few U.K. singles in the mid-'70s, but not U.S. art-schlockers Kansas, who moved more product over a longer period? They're also more English-language chauvinist than Gammond--they remember Aznavour and Piaf (as does Clarke), but only Gammond gives us French cabaret pioneer Aristide Bruant or Germany's Comedian Harmonists, a major attraction all over the Continent until the Nazis expelled the Jews from the group. Because they grew up when they happened to grow up, they're unable to shuck their conviction that Doris Troy and Pearls Before Swine are artists for the ages. And like anybody who immerses in the past, they find it hard to keep up--they miss not just Hüsker Dü but X, and acknowledge no rap act more recent than Afrika Bambaataa. But in this as in most things they at least grasp the basics: where Clarke joshes "do you spell rap with a big or a small c?" and Gammond thinks it was a "dance craze of the 1970s," they know hip-hop was "the most important new black music of the 1980s." Faber & Faber's institutional support can't equal Oxford's or Penguin's, so I hope the promised "future editions" will be forthcoming no matter what level of commercial success is achieved with this one. It's a big job--they need to become yet more intimate with a past they didn't live through as well as more attuned to a present that's passing them by, trading Colosseum and David Ackles for the Casa Loma Orchestra, Jo Jones, and R.E.M. Hardy and Laing have found themselves a worthy lifework, and they deserve to expand and perfect it in perpetuity.

Village Voice, Sept. 3, 1991