One of the best things I did when I was at Britannica was encourage one of our associate editors who was a passionate music fan to revise our coverage of rock and roll, and to get the most interesting people he could to write for it: Elvis Costello on Buddy Holly, for example. (I wrote a short, sad piece about Emerson Lake and Palmer, and how they had been brilliant at one time but later came to epitomize the creative bankruptcy of rock music in its maturity. Maybe it was too cruel: at least they never lent their songs to, say, Oldsmobile ads– or maybe they couldn’t find any takers. That would have been as weird at H. R. Giger (who did the Brain Salad Surgery cover) doing art for a Budweiser or Playtex ad [shudder].)
One thing we struggled with was the fact that any rabid reader would take the articles, see who was written about and not, and criticize us from leaving out– just about anyone. How could we devote more words to Eric Clapton than James Brown? How could we have an article on the Pet Shop Boys, but not on the Pixies? Eventually, we decided that for this subject, the controversy was unavoidable, and indeed was part of what would make it valuable. (I can’t tell you how radical the notion of generating conversation rather than awed silence was at EB. Our whole purpose was to be the last word, to end discussion rather than stimulate it. In some ways, I think that captures in a nutshell the whole problem that encyclopedias have had in the digital age– that, and pricing.)
I’m reminded of all this because the recent issue of Rolling Stone top 50 list written by musicians: Bono on Elvis, Eddie Vedder on The Who, David Grohl on Led Zeppelin— and Elvis Costello on The Beatles. (Costello, by the way, is a skilled and insightful writer, and takes editorial suggestions well. He’s all pro.) Some of them are better than others– did Britney Spears really write the Madonna article?– but the best ones are terrific. And of course, it’s a list that you can argue with endlessly. Patti Smith, but no Radiohead? Come on. And can anyone really argue that Prince (#28) is more important than Johnny Cash (#31), David Bowie (#29), or Peter Gabriel (not even in the list)? Go read it and find your own self-evident gaping holes, lapses in judgements, and unforgiveable omissions.
[To the tune of The Who, “Long Live Rock,” from the album The Ultimate Collection (Disc 2).]