The Book That Will Make the Internet Obsolete: 'The Onion Book of Known Knowledge'

Leave it to the bulbous-headed brainiacs at The Onion to cram more meaningful information about our universe into one 250-page book than Google or Bing or Alta Vista can on their seemingly endless web pages.

The Onion Book of Known Knowledge: A Definitive Encyclopaedia of Existing Information

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Length: 256 pages
Author: The Onion
Price: $29.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-10

After far too long, there is finally a credible competitor to the Google hegemony that heretofore has controlled the Western world’s access to information. (The enigmatic East holds its own secrets, of which we know so very little.) And it comes in the form, surprisingly enough, of a previous generation’s technology: print on pleasantly mildew-scented paper.

Leave it to the geniuses at The Onion, who have revolutionized the science of sarcasmic infoengineering in the weekly print newspaper format, to do the same for the venerable encyclopedia. Miraculously, in only 250 or so pages, they have managed to cram more meaningful information about our universe into one book than Google or Bing or even Alta Vista have been able to do with several times that number of “web pages”. No doubt, there may well be a modicum of future utility in the Internet for communications purposes (such as the so-called “e-mail”), the remote purchase of small kitchen utensils, and the surreptitious perusal of young Eastern European women wearing little more than skimpy bathing suits and shawls, but when it comes to hard, factual information, all you’ll ever need henceforth is The Onion Book of Known Knowledge.

Among literally tens of others, let me cite one example of how the Onion not only surpasses, but supersedes, the Internet. On an online “encyclopedia” known as “Wikipedia” (the “Wiki”, incidentally, is a reference to the “Wiccan” witch cult that is its primary source of funding) a “tornado” is defined as a “violently rotating column of air that is in contact with both the surface of the earth and a cumulonimbus cloud or, in rare cases, the base of a cumulus cloud. They are often referred to as ‘twisters’ or ‘cyclones’, although the word ‘cyclone’ is used in meteorology, in a wider sense, to name any closed low pressure circulation.”

Over-explain much? And yet these thoroughly objectionable Wiccan pedants ramble on for another 60 or so paragraphs! By refreshing contrast, here is the Onion’s infinitely more-useful definition, in full: “(a) violent column of rotating air that is in contact with the ground, the potentially fatal and damaging effect of which can be safely negated if one spins rapidly in the opposite direction of the tornado’s rotational force as the storm passes overhead.”

If you’re not quite convinced yet, consider that I placed a glass of bourbon on the rocks (light ice, twist of lime) on top of The Onion Book of Known Knowledge and deliberately jostled it. The resulting spill was immediately soaked up by the book’s handsome, cardboard-based “hardcovers”. When I tried the same thing on my IPad (the “pad” part, apparently, is a misnomer), a goodly portion of the Internet was flooded.

Indeed, as The Onion accurately notes, everything was better before the Internet came along. Its succinct definition of “espionage,” for example, describes it as “another thing that used to involve sex but now just happens on computers.”

And, really, what more needs to be said than that?

Speaking of the shortcomings of the online “community”, here’s another startling revelation that only this invaluable “solid encyclopedia” would reveal. In its entry under “Secretariat”, the muckraking compendium-makers at The Onion note that this “American Triple Crown-winning racehorse” was “stripped of his titles in disgrace for gambling on his own races throughout the 1970s.” Try finding that kind of myth-busting news on a booze-soaked bumble through the “lame-stream” online “media”.

No one is perfect, of course, and sometimes even the Onion stumbles. Its editors define “sexual intercourse”, for example, as “a four-hour-long physical act conducted three to five times a day.” Maybe if you’re suffering simultaneously from a cold, a killer migraine and gaseous gangrene, I suppose, but otherwise the Onion’s definition of “duration” is, I’m sorry to say, woefully, almost comically, short.

But “by and large” (to use one of those irritatingly ubiquitous slang expressions recently popularized by the Internet), the bulbous-headed deep thinkers at The Onion get it exactly right. Consider their definition of Hell:

"Vast, warehouse-like space bathed in an eerie fluorescent light whose seemingly endless aisles are lined with discounted consumer goods, including food, apparel, electronics, and toys. The entrance to hell is manned by an old, white-haired man or woman in a blue vest who greets visitors as they arrive and alerts them to the existence of a number of unbeatable values in the lifeless expanse before them… at predetermined intervals a disembodied voice announces 'rollbacks,' sending the denizens of hell toward one specific area of the building, at which point they are instructed to load various off-brand appliances and beauty products into a blue cart…"

While The Onion oddly neglects to mention that the entrance to this lifeless and soulless pit of horrifying agony is in fact located in the general vicinity of Wilmette, Illinois, in every other respect it accords almost exactly with the unacknowledged nightmares of everyone who has ever shuffled helplessly to their awful, inevitable fate.

And what, exactly, is that fate? The Onion knows all, so let us leave this brief and inevitably inadequate appreciation with what they (along with all of the honest religions) have to say about the nature of our existence on this violently spinning orb we call the Earth (“the only planet in the known universe capable of supporting life that is trying to kill it.”) The definition of “life”, in The Onion, requires but one word: “Suffering”. It would take an entire evening of tooling around on Internet political conspiracy chat boards or lying on the couch watching television dramas about psychic detectives, improbably imperturbable forensic investigators and raven-haired sex-crime investigators to reach that same conclusion.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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