by Bruno McDonald
My son and his friends at school play this game with Wikipedia where someone nominates a start page, say, Julia Gillard, and then someone else nominates an end page, say, the Codex Veronensis, and then you have to use the links embedded in Wikipedia to move from the start page to the finish page. The person who gets there in the least number of clicks wins.
This book is kind of like a rock music, book version of that game. It lists a vast range of the major popular music artists from the 50s to the naughties, and then it uses a range of textual devices — stylised coloured picks, timelines, ‘play buttons’, numbered arrows etc — to link one entry to another.
It’s a bit confusing at first, but after a while, you start to happily follow these links from one page to another and the net effect is to give you a pretty decent overview of how the various artists are linked to each other. Who influenced whom; who has recorded whose songs; who has shared time in a band with whom; who has played a gig or recorded an album at a given venue, and the like.
In fact, it isn’t just artists. There are entries on music labels, venues and festivals as well, and that adds another layer of interconnection that fleshes out the whole six-degrees-of-separation thing nicely.
I was a bit dubious when I first looked at this book, concerned that it was a bit of a gimmicky, lightweight coffee-table tome, but those concerns proved, largely, unfounded. Yes, it does offer a fairly cursory glimpse of some bands, but it is still a hell of a lot of fun.
On the down side, I should point out that no major entry — whether an artist, a venue, a label or whatever — gets more than two heavily illustrated pages, and so these overviews are rather cursory. I’d also point out that the colour coding used to connect information can sometimes make the text very hard to read and I’d like to throw in a particular jeer for the white text on black background pages, or the black on hot pink, of which there are far too many.
On the upside, the most pleasant surprise I got was that the author allows his personal opinions to seep in. At first, the book presents like a bit of a dry take on the various artists, trying hard to be serious and authoritative, but every so often you find a line like this, from the Black Sabbath entry:
Purists hated Born Again (1983) for no good reason other than the singer Ian Gillan was not Ozzy Osbourne or Ronnie James Dio. The album itself is very heavy and very excellent.
Truth be told, I had a lot of disagreements with the interpretation of Sabbath (and other artists). The albums highlighted are not the ones I would’ve focussed on and, without really knowing, I’d guess it’s because the author is younger than me and so picked up on Sabbath at a different point in their career and so maybe he doesn’t understand the effect Sabbath’s debut had on those of us who were there (or maybe this is incredibly unfair), but at the end of the day a fan is a fan is a fan and comments like the extract above convinced me I was in the presence of one.
So look, overall, this is a pretty good book. Dip in and dip out and you’ll while away a pleasant few hours. I was also happy to hand it to my son. He’s thirteen, so the bulk of the book doesn’t cover the music he is into, but the very nature of it meant he found references to stuff he likes and was able to find some connections, between, say, Tori Amos (whom he loves) and Joni Mitchell (to whom he will now pay more attention).
That’s a very excellent thing.