Rockcritics Bookshelf: The Rock and Roll Reader’s Guide

The Rock and Roll Reader’s Guide: A Comprehensive Guide to Books by & About Musicians and their Music

Gary Krebs

Here’s a music reference book I don’t look at all that often, but which I’m grateful to own. I picked it up on a trip to New York several years ago, at which time I was not even aware that it existed (if I hadn’t found it during that trip, I’m pretty sure I’d still be unaware of its presence). Published by Billboard Books ten years ago, it is, as per its title, a reference guide to books on popular music. In a way it’s like the Christgau’s Record Guide of rock reads. Now, I admit that it’s thus far the only book about music books I’ve even heard of, but if there are others out there, I’d be hard pressed to believe that they’re anywhere near this extensive or well-organized. I don’t see a head count anywhere of how many books are actually reviewed, but the thing is 411 pages long, so I’ll take a stab and say there are probably around 4,000 reviews, and hundreds of other titles listed. The range of books covered is also commendably broad. I’ve yet to come across any serious omissions (in terms of the artists covered), and if one of the parameters of a useful “guide” type of book is the number of one-shots and weirdos and obscurities covered, Krebs catalog doesn’t disappoint: Pantera, Wolfman Jack, La Toya Jackson, Kansas, Deacon Blue, and Debby Boone all warrant their own sub-sections.

350 pages of The Rock and Roll Reader’s Guide is focused on books about specific artists, from ABBA to ZZ Top (hey, did you know that Deborah Frost wrote a book on ZZ Top? Neither did I!). This probably makes perfect commercial sense. There are 28 pages of capsule reviews devoted to the Beatles, and I imagine at least half of the audience for a book like this would be people who devote their lives to collecting all things Beatles, as well as to people who devote their lives to collecting all things Elvis (26 pages), Dylan (12 pages–which seems surprising, actually), etc. (The other half of its readership, I presume, are people like myself who cherish the music books on their shelves as much as they cherish the records in their Sealtest crates. All 26 of us.)

Unsurprisingly, my favourite section in the book is the one upfront on “general reference” materials, with its subcategories of “Reference Guides,” “Pictorials,” “Critical/Analytical Commentary,” and “Quizbooks and Quotebooks.” The section is frustratingly incomplete, by a longhsot, but as it’s not the focus of the book it’s kind of understandable. Someday someone (I bet) will do an entire book on that sub-genre alone.

Gary M. Krebs, not a rock critic himself far as I can tell (he’s listed as an editor for The Guinnes Book of Records), is knowledgeable about the subjects he covers, witty when he wants to be (though sometimes stilted, too), and certainly opinionated. As Amazon notes in its capsule description (the only online review I can even find), “One must accept a considerable amount of editorializing by the author as part of the bargain.” I disagree of course with loads of Krebs’s comments and much of his musical taste, but usually find him entertaining enough–and once in a while, he’s dead on. I could quote extensively, but I’ll limit myself to two, the first a headscratcher, the second a zinger worthy of a high-five:

1) On Christgau’s seventies record guide: “It almost goes without saying that this is quality work and has historical significance; however, since it doesn’t reflect CD packages (especially for remixes, sound quality, etc.), it’s ulikely to be of that much help for the serious fan.” Well, considering the book came out in 1980 or 1981, I think it would’ve been incredibly astute of Christgau to take CD packaging into account. I mean, how is this even relevant? And why or how such an oversight makes the contents of the book one iota less “serious”–that’s sort of like complaining that Kael’s I Lost it at the Movies will only be so useful to serious movie lovers, given that, you know, she doesn’t provide any information whatsoever about the extras on the DVD.

2) On Jimmy Guterman and Owen O’Donnell’s The Worst Rock and Roll Records of All Time: “Iconoclastic dogma from Guterman and O’Donnell, in which the authors attack much-beloved classic rockers with little cause–and even less effect.” Thank you.


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