The Rough Guide to Rock

(Rough Guides/Penguin)

By Jim DeRogatis

As a high school senior and aspiring rock writer, I had the opportunity to interview one of my heroes, rock critic Lester Bangs, two weeks before he died in his sleep from an overdose of Darvon in the spring of 1982.

“What makes your opinion better than the average guy out there on Sixth Avenue?” I asked, kicking off an exchange I’ve never forgotten.

“Nothing. Let him do it!” Bangs said with typical gusto.

“So if anybody can play rock ‘n’ roll, then anybody can write about it?”

“Fuck yes!” he said. “And does!”

But when I asked if he was just lucky to be making a living at it, Bangs paused. “Well,” he finally said, “when I look back on it, it was obvious that I was going to end up doing this because my two big obsessions were always music and writing. It’s an outgrowth of being a fanatical record collector and a fanatical listener: You have fanatical opinions that you want to inflict on people.”

In theory, Bangs would have loved The Rough Guide to Rock. An impressively hefty tome, the Rough Guide (put out by the people who do the travel guides) looks like the record guides released under the imprimaturs of Rolling Stone, Spin, and Trouser Press magazines. But instead of farming out the entries to well-known bylines from the pages of national music mags, the editors turned to, in their words, “the people,” soliciting reviews of artists from their fans via the Internet, posting them on-line so other fans could comment, then compiling the entries in 1,002 pages that are being hawked as “the definitive guide to 1,000 artists and bands from then to now.”

The book isn’t definitive at all, but not necessarily because it was written by amateurs. Editing by amateurs is another can of worms: Biographical blurbs recount the artists’ histories in the flat, partisan prose of record-company press releases, and no one has bothered to attribute quotes or double-check often-told tales. Many of the writers are British, but there’s no attempt to correct the national bias, which is confusing when songs are reported to be top-20 hits without the contributors noting which country they’re talking about. Only select recordings are listed in the discographies, and the fact-checking process seems to have been nonexistent. Among the obvious gaffes: In captions to half-page photos, the members of Stereolab and Screaming Trees are misidentified and the Velvet Underground’s Doug Yule is labeled as Sterling Morrison, who is labeled as John Cale; Big Star’s Alex Chilton is called Alex “Chiltern”; and in the text Luscious Jackson is credited with both the Beastie Boys’ 1982 EP Polly Wog Stew and their 1983 single “Cookie Puss.”

All this pretty much defeats three of the primary purposes of buying a guide like this: settling arguments, answering trivia questions, and professional reference (is that Exile on Main Street or Exile on Main St.?). The other purpose is, of course, that of consumer guide. You could argue that the world doesn’t need another of these, and that innocent trees shouldn’t die for the cause–especially when the Rough Guide is accessible and updatable on-line at–but I disagree. The other books on the market tend to read the same because they’re written by the same type of people–professional rock critics–and they adhere to the conventional wisdom about good and bad albums by major artists while tending to slight lesser-known cult acts. (Of what’s out there, The Trouser Press Record Guide is the best; it’s sorely outdated, but a fifth edition is in the wings. The pretentious and faddish Spin Alternative Record Guide is a must-avoid.)

When Bangs was doing his finest work, in the mid-70s, rock criticism wasn’t really a career option–few people expected to make a long-term living doing it–and there was no reason to bother if you weren’t a fan with something new to say. But some time between the onset of punk and its mutation into alternative, “rock critic” became a real job title. This was partly due to the proliferation of music magazines and alternative weeklies, but also to conservative institutions like daily newspapers and mainstream newsmagazines, which realized that rock was a permanent part of the cultural landscape, and that readers expected it to be covered just like movies and television.

The result is a blatant careerism on the part of many members of the generation of critics ostensibly following in the footsteps of Bangs and his peers. Some got their starts in the 80s, writing for free in fanzines and staying up all night playing records on college radio simply because no one else was giving their favorite bands the exposure. But since the early 90s, a fanzine has as often been a means as an end: a resume for getting paying rock-crit gigs or a ticket for the major-label gravy train of free CDs and concert tickets. These new critics write the same things about the same bands, the “right” bands, and they avoid conveying their visceral, emotional response to the music or saying anything provocative or controversial for fear of offending their editors, the artists, or the record companies and damaging their own prospects.

Would that the Rough Guide contributors were free from such concerns and more like the fans who contribute to the sometimes spirited, smart debates on the better Internet forums. But the book’s biggest failing is that its 145 writers try to imitate the “real” rock critics, and they do much too good a job of it. Whether they viewed the book as their ticket to the big time, or they thought such an important assignment warranted a more “professional” approach, the contributors resorted without exception to hollow crit-speak: Nirvana’s Nevermind is “slick rock production meets grunge,” R.E.M.’s Murmur is “tuneful, innovative, and lyrically elusive,” and Stone Temple Pilots’ Tiny Music…Songs From the Vatican Gift Shop “has a fresh and open retro sound.” Entries like these are devoid of real ideas. They almost always mirror the opinions in other guides, and where the writing isn’t empty or cliched, it’s just plain dull.

A friend of mine teaches a course called Sociology of Rock at DePaul University, and from time to time, she asks me to come in to talk about the rock-writing game. Invariably, a student poses the question, “What makes your opinion better than the average guy out there on Fullerton?” Invariably, I echo the answer Bangs gave me 14 years ago. And invariably, my friend the professor tells me that’s just plain stupid. Not just anybody can write about rock, she says. I guess I knew that long before the noble but failed experiment of The Rough Guide to Rock, and I’m sure Bangs knew it too. But it’s important to encourage the true fanatics to keep trying, lest the careerists take over for good.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): book cover.