In the modern world of Wiki and the Interweb, if you're going to produce an actual print-edition dictionary of pop music, you'd better frontload it with attitude. After all, all those "facts" are available elsewhere. Dylan Jones knows this, and his Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music: From Adele to Ziggy, the Real A to Z of Rock and Pop is proudly idiosyncratic, wise-ass, random, and even downright uninformative. Jones — currently editor of British GQ, with a long history of music books and journalism behind him — offers respect for the standard music encyclopedia, but he also finds them "obsessively objective and pathologically comprehensive."
No worries here — Jones skips through pop-music history as he sees fit: 75 words for Little Richard, 1800 for Living Colour, 116 on a combined Joy Division/New Order article, 6000 on Dean Martin. And why not? Dean Martin was the most important popular singer of Jones's childhood. This book is nothing if not personal — Nick Hornby on steroids. So one article begins: "The first time I met David Bowie, he asked me for a light." It's the first time he met Bowie, before becoming a journalist. Later, we'll get bits of Madonna and others culled from old interviews.
So yes, this book is as much about Jones as about his subjects, and the disproportions are part of its wit (a two-line admiring entry for Kraftwerk). His reminiscences are sometimes spiked with poetic insight — those old Dean Martin 7-inches at his parents' house "evoked a world of snap brim hats and patent leather booze." And the entry on Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell" even gets down to a good ol' rock-crit close reading. But I think the future of this book is in the e-book edition, where, we're told, there are hyperlinks to the artists' pages on iTunes.
THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF POPULAR MUSIC :: By Dylan Jones :: Picador :: 912 pages [paper] › $25
, Books, arts features