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In a media environment that is melting faster than the Arctic icecap, the multi-volume encyclopaedia is heading for extinction. When search engines cough up 50 URLs in a nanosecond and medical databases provide an instant second opinion for every known condition, who, in our crowded living space, will spare a shelf for a set of uniformly bound books whose content is out of date before it is out of cellophane?
Even a reference junkie like me, who reads Be-Br in the bath and compares old and recent Dictionaries of National Biography (DNB), must accept the march of progress and admit, tear in eye, that the fourth edition of Colin Larkin’s Encyclopedia of Popular Music (EPM), out this week at £555, is going to be the last major cultural reference work ever to be rolled out in print.
The end of civilisation as we know it? By no means. The arts are outstandingly well referenced on the internet, pop music especially so. Key in Michelangelo on Google and you’ll get 13 million results. Try the Beatles and the yield is 53.4 million. Somewhere in that cyber mass you will find that elusive micro-fact, either free of charge or for a small card-swipe on a subscription-only website. DNB’s 55,000 lives are now on-line at most UK public libraries and the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is being uploaded even as we speak.
Make space, then, one last time, for Colin Larkin’s 10-tome EPM - one man’s bid to set on paper all human knowledge in his field. Larkin, 56, is an English prototype, heir to the Doctor Johnson tendency of relentlessly defining every object of interest. Raised as a fairground child among Wurlitzers and wind-up 78 rpm turntables, Larkin acquired a respect for popular music, which critical consensus deemed ephemeral. ‘I had a working-class chip on my shoulder that popular music wasn’t taken seriously,’ he explains, ‘so I set out to cater for the kinds of music that Grove’s Dictionary didn’t do - anything that is not opera or classical, after 1900.’
His first attempt, in four volumes 16 years ago, stood worlds apart in its studious sobriety from fanzine gush. After pushing him to the brink of bankruptcy, it won investment from the info-giant Muze and, lately, the imprimatur of Oxford University Press, which will load the 8.5-million word EPM onto the same search engine as Grove, providing a one-click solution to all musical questions and, deliriously for Larkin, equal status with ‘serious’ music. From his house in a Suffolk village, he now directs a small update team who speak his particular language.
For, like every great encyclopaedist since Diderot, Larkin has invented a language appropriate to his purpose. The exotic lives of rock musicians are described in terms that are both dry and wry to accommodate the excess that is integral to their art. Only rarely does a life run so far off the Larkin scale that stentorian judgement is called for – as in the case of G G Allin, author of ‘You Scum, Eat my Diarhhoea’, whose stage antics included hurling vomit, urine and faeces at his audience. Although Larkin ranks Allin as an icon of early punk, he decides that ‘there is little point in attempting rational artistic judgement of his long and often painful career’ - a career ended by a drugs overdose after a naked New York rampage in June 1993.
Larkin’s precise and finely-tuned critical apparatus allows him (and us) to form a judgement that transcends the fleeting character of many acts. He champions, for instance, the short-lived Nick Drake (1948-74) and Tim Hardin (1941-80) and deserves a good deal of credit for their posthumous recognition. He considers the ‘fabulous’ soul king Howard Tate to be ‘as important as Marvin Gaye’. He is sparing on the whole with adjectives and it takes a degree of forensic skill on the reader’s part to detect that Larkin considers the Everly Brothers more interesting and influential than Elvis Presley. He has a secret technique, he tells me, of ‘warming’ or ‘chilling’ a reputation to convey a hint of personal favouritism. He prefers Lennon to McCartney and Stephen Sondheim to Andrew Lloyd Webber, whom he suspects of Arthur Sullivan-like frustrations.
The whistle test, for EPM as for all modern reference works, is how it fares against the rapacious and unstoppable wikipedia, which is written and edited by a ‘community’ of pseudonymous volunteers, some of whom clearly know their stuff. Science on wikipedia is, I am told, safe, true and up-to-the minute. History is reliable and politics strenuously balanced.
Wikipedia has the edge of immediacy over printed reference. It records deaths within hours and new-breaking acts in weeks. Lily Allen, who rose too late for Larkin’s print deadline, has an eight-chapter wiki entry that takes us right up to her BBC debut three weeks ago on Never Mind the Buzzcocks – all this on the strength of one number-two album and three singles. How can quality EPM compete with such industry?
Triumphantly, as it happens. What wikipedia lacks by definition is a point of view, since any opinion put up by a contributor is dulled or deleted by others. Its lack of critical perspective does not affect entries on empirical science, but the arts depend on sifting genius from dross – which artist and work is important, which less so. Larkin, at his most opinionated, confidently dismisses the recent Britney Spears as ‘laboured’ and Whitney Houston as ‘desultory’, guiding us to their early work and to superior alternatives. All wikipedia can offer is a list of releases and incidents, leaving music lovers floundering without a lifebelt in an ocean of pop flotsam. EPM may be the last of its kind in print but it will soon be the first of its kind on the internet to unmask the demotic uselessness of the wikis and stake out a critical measure for the future of musical appreciation.
CD of the week Norman Lebrecht
Noel (DG) Anne-Sophie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Bengt Forsberg (piano) ****
The Swedish mezzo-soprano has taken a lot of stick this year for singing the hits of Abba and passing them off as art, but there is no faulting her taste in this choice album of seasonal songs, drawn as if from an antiquarian bookseller’s junk box. Nordic fireside melodies jostle the high devotions of Bach and Cornelius, interspersed with carols from Sussex mummers and Parisian aesthetes and the meditations of solemn Bavarians: I was bowled over by a Joaquin Nin set of Spanish tunes and a lullaby of Max Reger’s. In an exceptional gesture of singer goodwill, Otter allows five intermezzo solos to Forsberg, her long-suffering accompanist, culminating in the plangent wonder of Busoni’s grave transcriptions of two great Bach chorales.
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]