Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Who'd Put the Everly Brothers above Elvis? Colin Larkin's Vast Encyclopedia of Popular Music May Be the Last Reference Work to Be Printed. but Its Critical Edge and Idiosyncratic Voice Will Give It New Life on the Internet

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Who'd Put the Everly Brothers above Elvis? Colin Larkin's Vast Encyclopedia of Popular Music May Be the Last Reference Work to Be Printed. but Its Critical Edge and Idiosyncratic Voice Will Give It New Life on the Internet

Article excerpt

Byline: NORMAN LEBRECHT

Who'd put the Everly Brothers above Elvis?

AS THE media environment melts 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condition, who, in our crowded living space, will spare a shelf for a set of uniformly bound books whose content is out of date before it is out of cellophane?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 [pounds sterling]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 subscriptiononly website. DNB's 55,000 lives are now online at most public libraries and the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is being uploaded even as we speak.

Make space, then, one last time, for 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 windup 78 rpm turntables, he 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, deliriouslyfor 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 judgment is called for - as in the case of G G Allin, author of You Scum, Eat My Diarrhoea, whose stage antics included hurling vomit, urine and faeces at his audience. …

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