While there will always be a place for dry, fact-choked reference books like The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, they fail to capture the pop-music listening experience as it undeniably is—subjective. How the tunes weave through our lives is every bit as important as the names, dates, labels and producers; as important, even, as the way artists string together all those pretty chords and hummable melodies. Music compendiums that reflect this always feel most worthwhile.
British author and pop critic Dylan Jones’ new Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music sells itself as this kind of book, one that “treats subjectivity with respect … that springs from personal prejudice, contrary predilections and non-cognitive taste.” Though Jones covers many of the usual suspects, he never promises to be comprehensive or to adhere to any stock rock-journo or musicologist-sanctioned history of pop music. Even the introduction’s title proclaims—arrogantly, and hilariously—that “Everything You Know is Wrong.”
At its best, Dictionary clings to this contrarian, bias-embracing mission statement, Jones prattling on endearingly for 18-plus pages about childhood favorite Dean Martin while allotting a mere page-and-a-quarter to rock & roll King Elvis Presley (along with just three condescending sentences to underground heroes Sonic Youth). This is, after all, a biographical dictionary. It’s about the Dylan Jones Experience—how these musical trends and artists shaped and soundtracked the author’s own story.
This makes it so head-scratchingly odd that Jones includes so much mundane filler between his most personal, impassioned rants and riffs. Hendrix an innovator? Billie Holliday a junkie? We know. The less first-person subjective Jones becomes, the less interesting—and biographical—Dictionary gets.
Chopped in half, and framed differently (as a memoir perhaps?), this near-900-page behemoth would be far more compelling. That said, like skipping a track on your iPod, it ain’t that hard to just turn the page. And there’s much to turn to—whenever Jones invokes his fantastic fly-on-the-wall experiences and chance encounters with rock history, engaging the music on an unapologetically personal level, the entries sing just like the music. Tales of toting Keith Moon’s drumsticks, a listening session with Cat Stevens, an epic Hall & Oates concert overrun by satin-jacketed “hermaphrodites,” their honeyed mullets flowing in the Iowa breeze—it’s these singular moments that recommend Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music, despite its occasional lulls and rehashes.
How can you resist a book that uses The Peanuts Gang’s dour existential angst as a launch pad for exploring the psyche of Paul McCartney?
Steve LaBate was associate editor at Paste from 2003-2010. He is currently working on his first book, 40 Nights of Rock & Roll: A Life-Affirming Death March through the Heart of Rock Music on the Road in America.