The Billboard Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music
Paul du Noyer, general editor
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Buy *The Billboard Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music* online

The Billboard Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music
Paul du Noyer, general editor
448 pages
October 2003
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars
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From Watson Guptill Publication's Billboard Books imprint, this is a glossy, high-quality presentation of an across-the-board representation of various types of music, ranging - as the title suggests - from hip hop to mainstream rock, from classical to jazz. Indeed, this is an adventurous undertaking, making the attempt to compile under one title all the dozens of styles of music that might fall beneath one major category. Normally, a single volume would be, for instance, dedicated to jazz - and even then the genre would be broken down more succinctly into modern, vintage, fusion, lyrical, instrumental, and a gaggle of others. Or rock - metal, grunge, metal grunge, melodic, anharmonic, grindcore - and a laundry list of others that must be covered in order to annoint the specific book with a sense of importance or all-'round validity.

Here, genres embody the relatively minimal aspects of gospel, electronic, soundtracks, and popular/novelty, while ramping up to the important areas of pop (broken down into several dozen areas ranging from this style from various decades dating back to the Fifties), to New Wave, Merseybeat, Surf Music, Brit Pop, and a final category as outlined in the Contents as Artists Index. Rock is divided up into 27 sub-categories (including the Artists Index) winding all the way from hard, psychedelic, prog, and glam, to shoegazing (My Bloody Valentine is this category's main proponent), black, Southern, jam, grunge, and funk.

A quick look at Hard Rock reveals the opening statement: "Hard Rock is a cross between rock'n'roll, but played louder - everything on "11" or 'one louder,' as guitarist Nigel Tufnell in spoof rock band Spinal Tap would say. Does Spinal Tap honestly deserve to be mentioned in this first block of writing as it attempts to define a category? In truth, it downgrades the authenticity of textual content, making us wonder if we're supposed to believe in what we're reading or take it with a grain of "rock" salt. The electric guitar is the prominent instrument in hard rock, and most hard rock songs are based on a guitar riff: "The classic example of a hard rock guitar riff is the 'dur, dur dur ...' beginning of Deep Purple's 'Smoke On the Water' from Machine Head (1972)" - gloriously simple and yet spectacularly effective and memorable. A few other lines finish out the paragraph. A second paragraph tells us "The first hard rock bands such as the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, and Led Zeppelin, emerged at the end of the 1960s." The paragraph talks about Jimi's monstrous influence and then the importance of Cream and Led Zeppelin.

Yes, these are true enough statements, but where is the real insight, that small tidbit of info with which I can enthrall my friends? There are none. Because the book deals with so many disparate elements, it is all but impossible to dive into each section, each band, each song, each riff, and uncover the unique pieces that make each of the groups so special.

Each major heading lists the "Leading Exponents," and under Hard Rock they are:

  • Deep Purple
  • Jimi Hendruix Experience
  • Cream
  • Led Zeppelin
  • Aerosmith
  • Queen
  • AC/DC
  • Guns 'N' Roses
This chapter makes a big to-do about Van Halen's impact on the style, yet they are not included in the list. Bewildering. And does Queen really belong in this category or one more attuned to the bridging of orchestrated sections with the operatic stylings of Freddie Mercury's voice? G'N'R was a true harbinger of rock music and the importance it would play in coming years, but, as much as AC/DC, they were little more than a cranked-up blues band pounding out blues-based licks on Les Pauls and Marshalls. And no Black Sabbath? No Mountain?

Each section also includes a four-bar example of a heavy riff, and surely this space could have been better utilized in more fully definining the concept of style. If you can't read, and presumably most encylopedia readers can, this bit does little more than to add a sense of shiny veneer to a book already overloaded with too much veneer.

As a work of art, the Encyclopedia has the grace and grandeur of a coffee table offering; pictures convey the content around it and the graphics blend seamlessly into the context. But if you're looking to replace all your other reference works with this one, don't make the move just quite yet. By simply perusing a small chapters, you'll understand the underlying direction and come to understand that this is in no means meant to be the end all/be all of rock guides. As an addition to your library, it would be nice. Some of the historic pictures alone are worth the cover price.

Noyer, along with a troop of assistant editors, has assembled a jumping-off place for those of you who not only love music but find it necessary to know where it came from, how it developed, who were the main purveyors, and the like. This, then, is an excellent springboard. By the time you make the literary leap, the water should feel comfortable and exhilirate you in the hopes that you'll be able to swim to out to deeper bodies, exposing yourself to more and bigger creative creatures. And, in time - if you've read/listened/learned enough - ultimately you'll be identifying these objects yourself and not having to rely on the simple explanations of data divers who, in truth, may know no more than you do about a particular species.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Steven Rosen, 2005

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