Released: 1992, Guinness Publishing
In the late 80’s Colin Larkin founded a small company with the intention of accurately documenting popular music. Over time he and his team have become one of the world’s leading authorities on popular music. His 4th Edition of THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF POPULAR MUSIC is 10 volumes long! There have been many, many sub-genre specific publications and this is one of them. In conjunction with Guinness Publishing, (Yes, the beer and world record tracking company) Colin and his group released THE GUINNESS WHO’S WHO OF HEAVY METAL in 1992.
This slightly over-sized paperback is about 280 pages long and has several dozen black and white photos of various bands. Larkin edited the book but there are many writers who contributed entries into this book. It starts with an interesting overview of the history and development of Heavy Metal in an essay that spans 17 pages. Next up is a seven-page glossary written by Ian Kenyon which in hind-sight is sort of quaint, amusing and really out of date! Kenyon uses terms that have fallen out of favour or terms that were more specific to England such as, ‘Pomp’, ‘Pub Rock’ and ‘Grebo’. I find it very interesting to go back and read these types of discussions and see how the terminology and classifications of Metal have evolved in two decades.
On that same point, the evolution of the definition of what constitutes metal carries over in the criteria for inclusion in that actual encyclopedia itself. In this book, pretty much, anything goes. Many bands in many styles are included. Randomly flipping to a page (178) I see Vinnie Moore, Morbid Angel, Mordred and Mother Love Bone all on the same page! The entries are alphabetical and each band gets a small write up and a simple discography of album titles and year of release. In that sense it’s not all that comprehensive in terms of technical detail. There is no information on record labels, catalogue numbers and so on.
There is certainly uniformity in the writing style with many, many entries starting the same way saying, “This (Melodic, thrash, death) band from (California, Sweden, Australia) were founded in ..etc, etc, etc… It’s pretty simple, and often the entries are marred by opinion. Encyclopedias (and editors) should hold themselves to a higher standard instead of providing contributing writers a soapbox to pontificate on their favourite (or least favourite) bands. For example the entry for GWAR concludes that, “This is amateurish thrash complete with unintelligible vocals’ (p. 121) and on page 207 the entry for Pretty Maids suggests that the bands, “...delivery, image, attitude and song-titles verge on Spinal Tap like parody!” There are many examples of opinion being presented as fact.
There are many, many little mistakes littered through the book and I think these detract from the books overall credibility. Dates are wrong, album titles wrong, even bands names are spelled wrong! It really needed another round of editing. On the plus side there is good international representation in the encyclopedia with a surprising number of bands from Japan getting the nod. Overall, the choice for inclusion is odd. For example, Testament, W.A.S.P. Venom and Grave Digger don’t make the cut but Gay Bikers On Acid, Fandango, Glen Burtnick and Stan Bush do make the cut. It’s all over the place!
I tend to be a bit more lenient with older books and their criteria for what constitutes “Metal’ as the genre was in massive flux in the early 90’s. I’ve often slagged newer books that attempt to document Metal, for including clearly non-Metal bands, but for this title I can at least tolerate and understand the editors choices for inclusion, even if I don’t agree. For example, I was much harsher in my assessment of Larkin’s second attempt to document the genre, which appeared in 1999 as THE VIRGIN ENCYCLOPEDIA OF HEAVY ROCK, which I also reviewed on this site back in 2001. He and his team had eight or more years to fix all the mistakes in the Guinness version and they still screwed it up. Click here for a review of that title.
I’ve owned this book for many, many years and this review is certainly tainted (for lack of a better term) by my hindsight and experiences. At the time I thought it was a decent book but I didn’t revisit it very often. Reviewing it today in late 2011, I feel that THE GUINESS WHO’S WHO OF HEAVY METAL is a flawed and dated snap-shot of a distant era. At the same time the book has some limited value in Larkin’s noble (but vain) attempt to document a rapidly growing, incessantly morphing genre and now we can now use it to look back 20 years in time at the development of Heavy Metal.