Scaruffi on jazz

In a follow-up to my already celebrated (heh) post on Piero Scaruffi, I decided to see what the great man had to say about jazz. This was prompted by his page on the Best jazz albums of the 1940s, which contains nothing by Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie or Thelonious Monk. Given that very few jazz albums were released in the 1940s, is this an unfair call? Well, no: even his Best jazz albums of the 1950s page doesn’t contain the two volumes of Thelonious Monk’s Genius of Modern Music for Blue Note, and it only has two of the more than a dozen classic albums Monk made for Riverside, including Thelonious Monk meets John Coltrane, one of the greatest albums ever made. Nor does it contain Charlie Parker’s even more awesome The Charlie Parker Story, released posthumously in 1956 but consisting of the classic November 1945 session that yielded ‘Billie’s Bounce’, ‘Now’s the Time’, ‘Warming up a Riff’, ‘Meandering’, ‘Thriving from a Riff’ and ‘Ko-ko’, and therefore one of the motherlodes of bebop. Nor does it contain the foundational texts of Bud Powell’s entire legacy, the first two volumes of The Amazing Bud Powell.

So that’s not a good sign. But let’s start with the single most important figure in the history of jazz, Louis Armstrong.

I take Armstrong’s pre-eminence to be not a matter for debate, for reasons I went into in my earlier post. I see no reason to disagree with the likes of Gary Giddins, Whitney Balliett, Stanley Crouch (‘if there was one musician who most completely wrote the Declaration of Musical Independence, it was Armstrong’) and basically every other jazz critic ever, even if I’d dissent from Hugues Panassié, who thought that jazz after Armstrong wasn’t even jazz, let alone good jazz.

To be fair to Scaruffi, he clearly has some admiration for Armstrong. But he combines immense condescension with an amazing inability to understand anything at all about Armstrong’s music, such as why it’s both good and important, or even what it was.

Armstrong’s trumpet solos were majestic, phantasmagoric and full of drama.

Majestic, good God yes. Full of drama, sure. ‘Phantasmagoric’? The OED defines the word as ‘Of, relating to, resembling or reminiscent of a phantasmagoria’ — ‘phantasmagoria’ itself, in all its meanings, has strong connotations of being an illusion or deception. So Scaruffi, whether he knows it or not, is suggesting that there is something essentially illusory or deceptive about Armstrong’s improvising, as if he was playing at being something that he wasn’t. It’s fair to say, I think, that this is not something that has occurred to anyone else who’s written about Armstrong, ever.

His experience with blues singers had prompted him to develop a trumpet style that was a mirror image of human singing. His trumpet was literally the instrumental counterpart of blues singing.

As misuses of the word ‘literally’ go, this can perhaps be put down to indifferent translation. But ‘literally the instrumental counterpart of blues singing’ would be blues trumpet. Armstrong knew how to play blues, but he was a jazz musician, not a blues musician.

Armstrong had introduced a dose on [sic] individualism in jazz that was the antithesis of its original socialist principles.

Jazz had ‘original socialist principles’? I would like to chalk this one up to appalling translation and assume that he means ‘collectivist’ rather than socialist.

Armstrong applied a similar technique to his vocals, which did more than just popularize “scat” singing (wordless vocalizing): they invented a way to sing without singing. His singing often sounded like a conversation. Sometimes his vocals were so estranged from the music that it sounded like he didn’t know what song he was singing.

If Scaruffi is implying that Armstrong really didn’t know what song he was singing, that amounts to calling the father of jazz an imbecile. If he isn’t implying that, then he must mean that Armstrong sang songs with a total insensitivity to their semantic and emotional content, which amounts to calling Armstrong an incompetent singer. Louis Armstrong carried a dictionary around with him on tour, wrote obsessively, developed a highly distinctive and effective prose style, and is to my knowledge the only jazz musician whose Selected Writings have been published by Oxford University Press. I feel like any attempt to defend his singing style would be an insult to his memory, and I personally resent the fact that Piero Scaruffi has such a tin ear that he would not only think something like this, but feel that his idiotic opinion is worth sharing with the world, thereby forcing me to rebut it.

Armstrong became famous with his improvisations on covers of blues and pop standards. In many ways, he taught the whole jazz world how to improvise on a theme. At the same time, the charming and flamboyant player knew how to entertain an audience with the humblest of musical tools.

Louis Armstrong had ‘the humblest of musical tools’?

Let’s just run that sentence past us again. Louis Armstrong had ‘the humblest of musical tools’?

Louis fucking Armstrong?

But his contributions as a composer are rather dismal.

This is where we get to the heart of Scaruffi’s failure. He thinks that the greatest musicians in the world are composers, of some sort or another. You can tell as much from his list of the essential classical compositions: it’s so predictable, it could be a playlist for Classic FM. (His much longer list of classical masterpieces only looks like it makes sense; for example, he lists William Byrd’s “Motets”, as if that’s a work, but leaves out Byrd’s Masses, which are the pinnacle of Byrd’s music. The same list doesn’t contain a single Bach cantata, or any of Handel’s operas. This is the kind of thing you come up with when you get your information not from an encounter with the music, but from reading outdated encyclopedia articles about the music.)

The point is, you don’t have to be a great composer to be a great jazz musician. What you have to be is a great improviser, and Armstrong was the first great improviser. That’s how jazz works, and it’s what makes it different from most other kinds of music. Scaruffi doesn’t understand this. He seems to think that greatness in music has something to do with the ability to be a great composer. It doesn’t, but he never argues the point, so there’s no engaging with him on this.

He was more of a popular icon and entertainer than an auteur. This too influenced generations of jazz musicians who cared more for the marginal contribution of their delivery (for the “look and feel” of their music) than for the core contribution of their compositions.

This is going into crazy-land, now. It seems as if Scaruffi doesn’t realise that jazz musicians improvise — or if he does, he doesn’t consider it a very important fact about their music, when it’s only the whole point of jazz. Without improvisation, jazz is unthinkable, but Scaruffi appears to have little understanding of what improvisation even is, let alone how it forms the lifeblood of jazz. Without improvisation, there is no jazz.

With Armstrong jazz became more style than substance.

I’m tempted just to say ‘We are talking about Louis Armstrong here, right? Not Kenny G?’ It has been argued that with Armstrong, jazz achieved substance for the first time. This is unfair on his predecessors; but what’s certain is Scaruffi applying this particular cliche, in this particular context, is a new low in critical inanity. To say that ‘with Armstrong jazz became more style than substance’ is the kind of statement that scientists describe as not even wrong, in that it’s so utterly confused that it’s impossible to tell what the author was even trying to say. Since Scaruffi is supposed to be a scientist, you’d think he’d have radar for this kind of thing. I suspect that this has to do with his general worship of composers and his contempt for improvisation, which, as should be obvious by now, rules him out as a serious commentator on jazz.

His influence was enormous, but it is debatable what kind of influence it was. He was certainly instrumental in making jazz music acceptable by the white middle class, and in making it a worldwide phenomenon.

The first sentence is only half-true; you can tell that Scaruffi basically thinks that Armstrong was an Uncle Tom who made a few OK recordings and then laffed it up for the white folks, of whom (needless to say) he is himself one. You can also tell that Scaruffi thinks that the reach of Armstrong’s music is a sign of how bad it was, because Scaruffi believes in the ‘masses’, and he thinks that they’re stupid, or at any rate fatally deceived by the culture industry, and so nothing that lots of people like can be all that good. So if Armstrong helped make jazz ‘acceptable by the white middle class’ and a ‘worldwide phenomenon’, that’s bad, because the only good stuff is the stuff that isn’t a worldwide phenomenon and isn’t acceptable by the white middle class. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Scaruffi that Armstrong’s popularity might not have been a capitulation to something, but rather a seed of its opposite. But he seems to have got his cultural politics straight from the Adorno of Minima Moralia , swallowing it whole without bothering to compare it against his own experience. Then again, I have my doubts about the extent to which Scaruffi is capable of having experiences, which I’ll get to in a minute.

If you still think that Scaruffi has made even the most polite effort to take Armstrong seriously, consider that in his list of capsule biographies of jazz musicians, from which the above quotes are taken, his entry on the jazz-folk violinist Darol Anger is, in the original Italian, 1,676 words long. (Presumably nobody is interested enough in Darol Anger to translate the whole thing into English.) His entry on Armstrong, in its English version, is 917 words long. I have no doubt that Darol Anger — a very fine musician, but not a game-changer of Armstrong’s stature — would be mortified at this.

That Scaruffi isn’t mortified is not, as he and his fans think, evidence of his sturdy independence of mind. It’s evidence of pig-ignorance.

Reading Scaruffi on jazz made me wonder for the first time whether he actually listens to any of the music he writes about. I have started to believe that he doesn’t.

So, okay, how about a more radical musician. I give you Scaruffi on Charlie Parker.

Parker extended both the melodic and the rhythmic range of jazz music in a systematic way. His solos seemed to have no rule, occasionally sounding arbitrary in the context of the group’s playing. Thus each solo appeared to be unique in nature, not the repetition of a distinctive pattern. The polyrhythmic essence of his playing was emphasized by the detours of his rhythm section, but made possible by his melodies, that toyed with beats and with the space between beats. Parker was an oxymoron of sorts: the player of a melodic instrument who indirectly focused on rhythm. His music was revolutionary because it was based on discontinuity instead of harmonious flow. His phrasing sounded hysterical and contradictory. His playing did obey a meta-rule, though: emotion. Whatever he was doing with the saxophone, he was trying to secrete as much emotion as possible.

Okay, to show that I’m willing to be fair-minded, here’s a critic I normally can’t stand, Ian Penman, writing about Parker in the London Review of Books:

I love Parker’s music, but it’s not what I’d choose to smooth anyone into jazz appreciation. It can seem hard-shelled, intransigent. (The two words of true-believer praise that crop up most are ‘virtuosity’ and ‘velocity’.) If you did have to play devil’s advocate, the brief might go: for all his technical verve and power, Parker’s is a limited palette; his playing, while breathtaking, rarely admits softer moods or qualities – anything of drift, reflection, loss. The one time he instigated a more calmly interpretative project – 1950’s Bird with Strings – it was not an unqualified success. Parker’s impatient stiletto tone guts the delicate membrane of his chosen mainstream standards; it doesn’t sound as if he is interpreting these popular songs so much as assailing them, giving them a hard time to see if they pass muster.

I happen to disagree with Penman — you do wonder, from the above passage, what on earth about Parker’s music he can possibly “love”, given how much he appears to find it repellent — but at least I can see where he’s coming from. The thing is, Penman wants music to be about emotions like drift, reflection and loss and doesn’t really like music bursting with power, vitality and cheek. He thinks it’s ‘intransigent’, or in the case of Frank Zappa, annoying. The interesting thing is that Penman, who is a real critic even if he’s fatally addicted to romanticism and anecdote rather than truth and analysis, comes to the opposite conclusion from Scaruffi. Penman thinks that Parker is too aggressive and not emotional enough. Scaruffi thinks that Parker is Ben Webster.

Scaruffi saying that Parker’s ‘solos seemed to have no rule, occasionally sounding arbitrary in the context of the group’s playing’ is completely inexplicable. Even when I was first listening to Parker’s music aged 14, and knew nothing of jazz theory or the song forms that he was playing in, his solos clearly made sense to me. I could hear that he was steeped in blues but also knew a lot of advanced harmonic stuff, and if I didn’t understand that he was altering chords and playing chromatically, I sensed that it was possible to learn how this was done and apply it yourself. It wasn’t just random tooting, as Scaruffi seems to experience it.

‘Thus each solo appeared to be unique in nature, not the repetition of a distinctive pattern’ — again, what the hell? It’s called improvising. Unless, of course, Scaruffi is claiming that each of Parker’s solos is idiomatically distinct from all the others, which is demonstrably not the case. Criticism is supposed to make things clearer, but as usual, Scaruffi is muddying the water.

‘The polyrhythmic essence of his playing was emphasized by the detours of his rhythm section, but made possible by his melodies, that toyed with beats and with the space between beats.’

Scaruffi uses technical terminology the way my seven-year-old daughter uses big words she doesn’t really understand; she throws them in there with more hope than certainty, because she wants to sound more grown-up. In her, it’s cute and I love it. In a grown man pretending to have things to say about music, I find it embarrassing.

To clarify: Parker didn’t have the same rhythm section for his whole career but, like most bebop musicians, played with whoever was available at any given time. Therefore, his rhythm section was not always consistent; he didn’t always have brilliant Max Roach and immensely reliable Tommy Potter at his back, but sometimes had nobodies. Therefore, his rhythm section wasn’t always taking ‘detours’, whatever that means, which could emphasise the ‘polyrhythmic essence of his playing’. Moreover, Parker’s playing was not polyrhythmic. For polyrhythm to happen, you can’t be playing a monophonic instrument like a saxophone; you have to be an ensemble, and in any case, polyrhythm is all over jazz from its earliest recordings, but it’s a characteristic of an ensemble, not of a solo player. Parker sometimes played in a contrapuntal way, suggesting parallel melodic lines by switching back and forth between them, but that’s not the same thing. Parker’s rhythmic innovations, while real, are not described here with anything approaching accuracy.

‘His music was revolutionary because it was based on discontinuity instead of harmonious flow.’ Parker’s music was revolutionary not because it was ‘based on discontinuity’, which it wasn’t, but because he brought an unprecedented level of harmonic and rhythmic sophistication into jazz.

Once again, and I say this as someone who considers himself on the political left, Scaruffi’s dunderheaded cultural politics are leading him by the nose, here. Scaruffi likes Parker; Scaruffi likes the idea of revolution; revolution is discontinuous; therefore Parker must be revolutionary in the same way. This is crap. You can read many, many testimonies to Parker’s influence on other musicians, but none of them liked him because they thought he was importing Trotskyism into music by other means. They liked him because he saw a way out of a stylistic dead end that jazz had got itself into. To other musicians, Parker stood for a kind of freedom, and you can make of that what you will, but to suggest that Parker’s music is some sort of direct analogue of, or substitute for, political revolution, is an insult to both music and the revolutionary impulse.

‘His phrasing sounded hysterical and contradictory.’ No it didn’t; not to the musicians it inspired, anyway. It sounded like that to the ‘moldy figs‘ who disliked it, but to musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Red Rodney and Thad Jones, it was the new thing that they knew was right and which they’d been waiting for without realising it. As Jones put it about both Gillespie and Parker, with remarkable generosity, ‘They spoke our minds.’

Scaruffi on John Coltrane is more problematic, in that I share his reverence for Coltrane, the only difference being that I know a little bit about what Coltrane was doing, whereas Scaruffi doesn’t:

Coltrane introduced elements of Indian philosophy (if not music) into jazz, as well as a much stronger and deeper spiritual dimension.

You don’t have to be Ravi Shankar to be able to hear the extent to which Coltrane introduced elements of Indian music into jazz. I would describe myself as someone with the most basic acquaintance of Indian classical music, in that I’ve (very) briefly studied it at college level. Nevertheless, even I can hear it. It’s blindingly obvious that Coltrane uses elements of Hindustani classical music in some of his improvisations; he starts using the additive technique of Hindustani music (playing short bits that you then repeat and add bits to) around the time of the 1961 Village Vanguard recordings; this is also the time that Coltrane started using drones (‘India’ being the canonical example) and playing long pieces on just one chord, another example of the influence of Indian music on his own music. If Scaruffi is implying that Coltrane’s spirituality was ‘stronger and deeper’ than that of everybody in the Indian subcontinent who has any kind of spirituality whatsoever, well, that would be highly unfortunate. Not to mention yet another example of the extraordinary, casual racism that his hipster fans seem to be blind to.

Next, his thoughts — no, wait, not ‘thoughts’, the shit he has to say — about the jazz musician most beloved to me because he was the first one I obsessively listened to, Bud Powell.

Earl “Bud” Powell (1924) was the pianist who adapted the bebop style of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to the piano. He boldly disposed [sic] of the left hand striding and of Art Tatum’s baroque embellishments to coin an anti-virtuoso style that relied more on melodic invention and on subtle irregularities, while releasing an almost demonic energy.

Once more, not even wrong: Powell developed his style alongside Parker and Gillespie, he didn’t ‘adapt’ their style to the piano. He didn’t ‘dispose of’ stride piano, and you can hear Tatum all over his playing. If Tatum wasn’t about melodic invention, Tatum was nothing. As for Powell’s ‘anti-virtuoso style’ … well, here’s Bud Powell playing ‘Tea for Two’. You tell me if this isn’t virtuosic.

Thank me later.

His playing was apparently schizophrenic, but in reality Powell was “drumming” with his left hand while unleashing phrases at breakneck speed with the right hand.

Powell didn’t have schizophrenia. He had undoubted mental problems, but not that particular illness. Nor was he ‘drumming’ with his left hand but, at least when he was at his best, playing the chordal accompaniment to what his right hand was doing. As usual, Scaruffi – who thinks that every musician he likes basically reinvented music – overestimates the degree to which Powell was doing something for the first time, and praises him for things he wasn’t doing, meanwhile failing to praise him for what he was actually doing, namely extending and expanding on an existing tradition and building something new using older materials. There is already a blurry line between composition and improvisation, but Scaruffi’s prioritising of composition, and his lack of any respect for (or even elementary understanding of) improvisation, cripple his already limited capacity to understand jazz.

Elsewhere in Scaruffi’s jazz pages, I find little but obsessive discographising and inane bullshit about stuff he doesn’t understand. He is sometimes, very infrequently, accurate: he describes Lennie Tristano’s music as ‘frigid and lifeless’, and even those of us who (like him) actually enjoy Tristano’s rather clinical take on jazz must admit that this is true, but even then he’s absurdly inconsistent: if he thinks Tristano’s music is so frigid and lifeless, how come he calls Tristano’s Crosscurrents album the best jazz album of the 1940s? A decade in which, as we’ve seen, bebop erupted and Ellington was at the peak of his powers. In his list of the greatest jazz albums of all time, Crosscurrents is No. 14, ahead of Bitches Brew, Brilliant Corners, Free Jazz, Mingus Ah Um, Saxophone Colossus, Giant Steps, Pithecanthropus Erectus and Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come. That should tell you something about the quality of his ear. If it doesn’t, it should tell you something about the quality of your ear.

I love Cecil Taylor at least as much as Scaruffi thinks he loves Cecil Taylor, but the statement ‘His fusion of exuberance and atonality was particularly influential’ is ridiculous; few great jazz musicians have been less influential, because hardly anyone has the nerve to be influence by Cecil Taylor.

Finally, in his biography of the greatest composer in the history of jazz, where you’d expect him to finally give nothing but unrestrained praise, he still manages to make Duke Ellington look like a failure: in writing about Ellington’s last albums, he says ‘He was trying to give a more organic structure to his genius.’ As if Ellington had not already proven his supremacy over and over again.

I am now done with Scaruffi, having proven to my own satisfaction that even if he does listen to the music that he writes about, which I personally doubt, he certainly hasn’t heard it, and if he has heard it, he hasn’t understood it. Comments on this article will be moderated, by which I mean, if you just want to see yourself calling me a dick in public, you will be disappointed.

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Scaruffi on jazz

32 thoughts on “Scaruffi on jazz

    1. Thank you very much. I kind of hate writing them. I would much rather write in praise of stuff I love than have to spend hours painstakingly pointing out someone else’s stupidity, but I can’t let that stuff just lie there. Someone’s got to put a ring-fence around the guy and warn people away.

  1. PistachioNick says:

    Hard to know where to start with this. You take innocent descriptions of style and analyse them as if they are cryptic hate messages. ‘Phantasmagoric’ means he thinks Armstrong is deceptive? Really? ‘Revolutionary’ means he thinks Parker is a Trotskyite? Really? “Schizophrenic” means he thinks Powell was actually schizophrenic? Really? “If Scaruffi is implying that Coltrane’s spirituality was ‘stronger and deeper’ than that of everybody in the Indian subcontinent who has any kind of spirituality whatsoever, well, that would be highly unfortunate.” – it would also be highly suggestive of a misreading by the mind of a hypersensitive conspiracy theorist…

    The idea that Scaruffi dislikes improvisation is utterly ridiculous (‘A Love Supreme’ is his second favourite jazz album!). His criticism of Armstrong is clearly based on the improvisation of ‘blues and pop standards’ (http://www.scaruffi.com/jazz/best100.html – “Incidentally, most jazz “standards” are not much better than pop songs, and often they actually “are” pop songs, something that, personally, I don’t find very interesting”).

    The importance of improvisation in jazz is an old-fashioned cliché, beloved by conservatives who wish to preserve ‘jazz’ as an alien art-form, an exception from white classical traditions. The truth is that the majority of great jazz records were heavily influenced by Western composition and avant-garde techniques.

    “I am now done with Scaruffi” – great! Have fun with all those Louis Armstrong masterpieces.

    1. “Innocent descriptions of style” — there’s nothing innocent about them. Incidentally, between Scaruffi and me, he’s the conspiracy theorist, with his explicit depiction of the Beatles as a tool of capitalist domination.

      “The importance of improvisation in jazz is an old-fashioned cliché, beloved by conservatives who wish to preserve ‘jazz’ as an alien art-form, an exception from white classical traditions. The truth is that the majority of great jazz records were heavily influenced by Western composition and avant-garde techniques.” If improvisation isn’t important in jazz, then jazz is just pop songs played impatiently. If that’s what you think it is, then your opinion of individual jazz recordings isn’t worth very much. I don’t much like contemporary dance, but do I wade into dance blogs with my ill-informed opinions? No. I keep my mouth shut. Scaruffi’s dismissal of pop music is of a piece with his dumbed-down-Adorno contempt for anything that’s popular, and it’s just stupid.

      And although Louis Armstrong may not be my favourite jazz musician, if you have the amazing insolence to diss one of the most important figures in the history of American music, your comments aren’t welcome on my blog. Criticise Armstrong all you like. Dismiss him? No. Not here.

  2. PistachioNick says:

    No one is saying that improvisation isn’t important – the point is that it isn’t the be-all and end-all of jazz. Far from it. The same is true of lots of progressive rock, jam bands, electronic music, etc. The jazz world is flooded with an avalanche of unimaginative, uncreative records full of improvisation and terrible compositions.

    As for the usual trope that Scaruffi has contempt for the popular: do Enya, Bruce Springsteen, Miles Davis, Doors, etc, etc not count as popular? He has contempt for the exploitative. The fact that popularity and exploitation often go hand-in-hand (see: Beatles, Presley, etc) is irrelevant.

    1. Scaruffi likes Enya? Good god. It’s worse than I thought.

      Explain your terms. How are the Beatles ‘exploitative’ and Springsteen not? Don’t make me go and look up his site again. Since you clearly speak for him, presumably you can explain what this means. There’s an essay by Richard Meltzer which rips into Springsteen for being a completely fake-ass mashup of 50s and 60s tropes, arguing that Springsteen is a moderately talented bar-band musician who borrows a sense of authenticity from a past that his listeners only half-remember:

      I have never liked the youth-demographic [Wayne] Newton/[Bette] Midler. I have nearly always loathed him. I’ve rarely been able to even look at the boring little prick without muttering expressions like “master of ersatz”, “the absolute voice of the status quo”, or “the emperor’s new jeans & workshirt.”

      Meltzer goes on to write (highly amusingly) that when a friend played him a lot of Bruce in an attempt to impress him (Meltzer) with Springsteen’s authenticity, Meltzer couldn’t resist bursting into Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma”. I think there’s something in that, personally. As for what Scaruffi hears in Enya … well, I had a good old chuckle, anyway. Enya, avant-garde, eh? As opposed to music for executive lounges in airports? Righty then. That’s us told.

      This is getting highly amusing, I must say. With each new revelation of the man’s taste in music, I am astonished.

      You contradict yourself. You said in your earlier comment ‘The importance of improvisation in jazz is an old-fashioned cliché’, then in your last comment you said ‘No one is saying that improvisation isn’t important’. Does that mean that you are uttering old-fashioned cliches? Either you think that improvisation is important in jazz, or you don’t. The jazz world is flooded with bad music; so is the classical world. You have literally no idea how much second-, third- and tenth-rate classical music there is. My point is that Scaruffi doesn’t even know the good stuff. His list of classical masterpieces contains just one single Bach cantata – BWV 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, which is probably the most famous Bach cantata on account of how it contains one of the most famous Bach tunes, better known in the setting ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’. That’s one cantata out of over 200 surviving. He doesn’t list a single Handel opera. I wonder if Scaruffi knows that Handel was an opera composer for decades before he ever wrote an oratorio, and that some of them are as good as anything Handel wrote. Bach wrote his cantatas under remarkably exploitative conditions; does that mean that they’re shit?

      No, I don’t even know why I’m bothering to reply to you except to repeat my belief that Scaruffi says nothing about any of this music that you couldn’t get from reading reviews and scanning encyclopedia articles. I’m sure he’s listened to some music. Just not most of the stuff he writes about.

    2. Btw I never thanked you for the initial comment: apologies. Thank you for that. I was checking this blog in mid-afternoon after having got up at 6.30am for an early flight and tiredness made me rude.

      Thinking back I see that Scaruffi presumably doesn’t mean music made by musicians who were being exploited, but music that exploits popular taste in an attempt to be commercially successful. Interestingly, that’s the exact charge that Meltzer aims at Springsteen, and that Stanley Crouch aims at the post-1967 Miles Davis. Crouch loathes Davis’s later music because he thinks that Davis deliberately dumbed his music down in order to get the rock audience to buy it. Again, there’s something in that, except that Stanley Crouch hates the result and I, like Scaruffi and probably like you too, enjoy at least some of Davis’s fusion recordings. (I have a fondness for Jack Johnson, partly because of the groove and the mood but also because Sonny Sharrock is on it; I’m a big Sharrock fan.)

      Of course, if you know your Stanley Crouch, then you’ll know that he’s something of a corporate shill; I’ve just been reading his collection of writings on jazz, Concerning Genius, in which he reprints numerous liner notes he’s written without pointing out that that’s why they were commissioned in the first place. His sponsorship of Wynton Marsalis as the supposedly greatest living jazzman is well-known. Crouch can write like an angel and some of the things he has to say about jazz are really worth saying, but he suffers from one major problem as a critic, which is a lack of judgment about his own contemporaries, as opposed to the music of the past. This may have something to do with his own ventures as a musician; he was a free jazz drummer at one point, and I’ve read at least one critic who said he was a good one, but he gave it up, apparently intimidated by how much better he considered other musicians to be. Which, if I’d been him, would have prompted me not to give up, but to practice harder.

  3. PistachioNick says:

    My point was that improvisation is important (in general), but its importance *in jazz* is a cliché (i.e. the two fairly common perceptions that 1) jazz must have improvisation and 2) improvisation only happens in jazz).

    http://www.scaruffi.com/music/vocal.html – 8 Bach cantatas
    http://www.scaruffi.com/music/opera.html – Handel’s opera “Alcina”

    Scaruffi’s perception of originality and sincerity is an unusual one, for sure. You’ll not find many people who regard Springsteen or Enya as authentic voices. The point, though, is that you can’t pin him down – he’s not anti-pop, he’s not anti-improvisation. My problem is that you *do* try to reduce him to essentialist positions (as many not overly familiar with his writing tend to do)…

    1. Once again; if a person knew nothing about Bach’s cantatas or Handel’s operas, and wanted to find out which ones were considered the most famous by consulting encyclopedias, those are pretty much the ones such a person would choose. Although one measly Handel opera out of 42 is still, excuse me, pathetic. The real clincher is not so much that Scaruffi considers Bach’s cantatas worthy of his notice in the first place — oh, we Bach fans are so grateful! — as that when he compiles his list of essential classical masterpieces (sorry, can’t copy the link, I’m typing on an iPad) he can’t hear that the Brandenburg Concertos, good as they are, just don’t have the depth and reach of something like Ich habe genug, which is a heart-stopper. This is why I believe he hasn’t heard the music. Nobody with any musical sensitivity could possibly consider that the Brandenburgs, exhilarating though they are, are more essential as music than the St Matthew Passion. To me, that’s a sign of how the guy has a tin ear, so why should I investigate every other thing he’s written? It would amount to wading ever deeper into a sticky pit of stupidity. If somebody making a compilation of the best Beatle songs were to lead off with “If You’ve Got Trouble”, “I Should Have Known Better”, “What’s the New Mary Jane” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, I would think that that person doesn’t know good music from bad, because although I love the Beatles, those are not good songs.

      I still think that Scaruffi is a bullshitter. I don’t believe he’s listened to all that music, and I certainly don’t believe that his opinions about most of the music I personally am familiar with are formed from personal experience of the music, if only because they’re so banal. And actually, a lot of people consider Springsteen and Enya to be ‘authentic voices’. You know who? Springsteen and Enya fans.

      I still haven’t seen my main points successfully rebutted. The only person who’s pointed out where I fucked up is the guy who observed that Beefheart’s music career didn’t end because nobody wanted to play with him anymore; I implied that it did, and I was wrong.

      It’s easy to reduce Scaruffi to essentialist positions because he does it himself, all the time. Jazz must have improvisation. It is essential. Or, okay, to put it another way, jazz doesn’t have to have improvisation, but if it doesn’t have it, it’s bad jazz. I don’t for a moment believe that improvisation only happens in jazz, and I don’t agree that that’s a ‘common perception’ that it does. As a practising improviser, I am aware of many other forms of improvisation. Although I’ve studied jazz as a player, I wouldn’t claim to be a jazz musician — and, btw, I am well aware of the extent to which jazz musicians do and don’t rely on a lexicon of pre-prepared licks. Some do, a lot, even some of the greatest; others less so. (I don’t claim to be a ‘musician’; I describe myself as a guitar player and that’s what I am.)

      If Scaruffi were to do a simple search-and-replace on his entire site, replacing ‘masterpiece’ with ‘works I really like’ and ‘greatest’ with ‘favourite’, I don’t think I’d have a problem with it. It would just be a monument to one crazy guy’s bizarre taste in music and inability to fact-check. But instead he represents himself as an authority. And I think the evidence shows that that’s absurd.

      1. haharafafafafa says:

        What’s the New Mary Jane is one of the best Beatles songs. Too bad it was never officially released.

      2. haharafafafafa says:

        Of course, but I don’t think it’s fair to immediately disqualify someone’s musical taste for an opinion such as that one.

      3. Of course it isn’t fair to do that! Nor would I. But I always feel the need to explain myself in conversations like this.

        To me, the whole idea that you would condemn a person in some way for their taste in music is completely bizarre and offensive. This may seem odd, coming from a music blogger, but that’s how I feel about it. I do not believe for a microsecond that liking X rather than Y makes anyone a bad person. I am aware of the way that people use other people’s musical taste to classify those people. I am aware of it, but I condemn it, and I don’t practise it myself, as far as I know.

        There are a lot of reasons for this, most of which have to do with the fact that I have usually liked different music to most people around me. I have very little experience of the communal feeling of liking the same music as other people — at least, at the same time that they liked it. Now, some people may have decided to use this as some kind of badge of spiritual superiority (I like X and you don’t and so you are scum). I think that a lot of Morrissey fans, for example, view their boy as a sort of natural aristocrat, and view anybody who doesn’t ‘get’ it as irredeemably unworthy. I’m pretty sure that Morrissey himself has that attitude towards himself.

        I don’t feel this way, though. I like music not because it makes me feel like I belong to some group or other, but because of how the music itself makes me feel. Some musicians lack the power to make me feel anything in particular: Oasis, for example, whose music I am completely indifferent to (because I’ve heard other people do the same basic songs better.) Other musicians affect me because they make me feel how I don’t want to feel: The Smiths are an example. Insofar as I ‘get’ their music, I find it annoying, because it seems to me to be trying to enlist me into some sort of self-elected group of People Who Are More Sensitive Than All Those Other Scum. However, I recognise that that’s a particular stage of adolescence that we all have to go through, and so I don’t look down on people who like their music, because adolescence can happen at any age.

        I don’t like What’s The New Mary Jane because it sounds to me half-arsed and unfinished, and I like music to sound more confident and sure of itself. But sometimes we, as listeners, need music that sounds unfinished, and so I wouldn’t look down on anyone who likes that song; I’m willing to believe that you have good reasons for liking it, even if I don’t share them. If I needed everyone to like the same music that I like, I’d be the saddest bastard in the world. I’d be … Piero Scaruffi.

      4. haharafafafafa says:

        “If somebody making a compilation of the best Beatle songs were to lead off with “If You’ve Got Trouble”, “I Should Have Known Better”, “What’s the New Mary Jane” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, I would think that that person doesn’t know good music from bad, because although I love the Beatles, those are not good songs.”
        “I do not believe for a microsecond that liking X rather than Y makes anyone a bad person. I am aware of the way that people use other people’s musical taste to classify those people. I am aware of it, but I condemn it, and I don’t practise it myself, as far as I know.”
        Well, at least you know now.

        Well, the appeal of Mary Jane is how different it is when compared to the music from the time it was made. There are a lot of interesting and creative moments to be found there, kind of like a Jazz recording, where the best moments can be in some tiny bits from a solo.

        “If I needed everyone to like the same music that I like, I’d be the saddest bastard in the world. I’d be … Piero Scaruffi.”
        I don’t think Piero Scaruffi thinks this way… You are demonizing him a little bit with this. Sure, he’s not perfect, but that’s a little bit too much.

      5. I am not going to argue, and I haven’t argued, that people ought not to like those songs. I do argue that those songs ought not to be offered as representative if the Beatles at their best. I’m drawing a distinction here between enjoying something and making a judgement about its quality. I don’t hear anything creative or interesting in ‘Mary Jane’; if you do, good for you, tell me about them. Up above, I said that it would be folly to present those songs as being great Beatle songs, and I still think so, but it wouldn’t be folly to present them as a kind of ‘guilty pleasures’ list. In my view. In any case, I don’t like the idea of ‘musical taste’ because I think it interferes with the enjoyment of music. I enjoy plenty of music which I don’t think is all that ‘good’.

      6. haharafafafafa says:

        It’s alright, but that’s what I’m arguing with you. Thinking of those songs as the best doesn’t disqualify their views on what good and bad music is (as you literally said before). This isn’t about the music you enjoy or your favorites, but the ones you consider to be the bests.
        There are a lot of creative and interesting things on Mary Jane, and it’s not difficult to see why despite liking it or not. The use of free improvisation, tape music, avant-folk/freak-folk influences, and the diversity of screams (and the way those elements are used) is something interesting and creative. It’s one of the songs I consider to be one of Beatles best (probably around the best 15 or so), and it doesn’t seem fair for someone with no authority on such a subject to dismiss my discerning of good and bad music just because of this opinion.

      7. I’m listening to ‘Mary Jane’ as I write this, and it still sounds to me like a half-assed mess which was cleaned up later in the editing. It’s not especially convincing as a song; the ‘song’ element runs out by 2 mins 30 seconds, and the rest is mostly John and Yoko messing around with tapes. You praise the element of ‘free improvisation’, but I play free improvisation on a fairly regular basis, with musicians who are a lot more schooled and experienced than I am, and I can confirm from personal experience that it requires a level of musicianship that this lot just didn’t have.

        The improvisation here, if we can call it that, tends to maintain a regular key-centre throughout, namely D major. That’s not free improvisation, that’s jamming, and it sounds to me like they’ve created an impression of free improvisation by jamming on D and then isolating tracks to make it look more random than it actually was at the time. If we want to talk about free improvisation in European music, Peter Brotzmann had already issued Machine Gun by this point; more relevantly, Paul McCartney had been going to AMM gigs for some years by the time Lennon decided to record this thing.

        If we’re talking about how this music is innovative, well, I’ve already written about how I don’t believe that being the first person to do something makes you automatically notable, but in any case, when it comes to combining pre-composed music with live performance and tape, Milton Babbitt’s ‘Philomel’ is a fuck of a lot more innovative than this, not to mention being more artistically effective, and was done four years earlier. This could be one of those cases where you think this song is much more adventurous than it actually is; you’re not aware of anyone having done anything like this before, but that’s your problem. Yoko Ono was a veteran of the avant-garde and Lennon, once he’d fallen in love with her, leaped at the chance to try its techniques out for himself. A song like this was the result. It should be judged on its own merits, and those, I continue to insist, aren’t great.

        I’m not quite sure what you think I have ‘no authority’ about; it it’s music itself, I am not going to defend myself, on the grounds that to do so would make me sound like Eric Cartman. (‘RESPECT MAH AUTHORITEH!’) If you really think I have no right to write the way I do about music, then why the fuck are you even arguing with me? When I read stuff on the internet by people who I think are talking total shit, I ignore them. Nothing is to be gained by engaging with them.

        What this comes down to is this: The Beatles are my favourite band, but I think ‘What’s the New Mary Jane’ is a boring piece of shit, and for some reason, you don’t. You have yet to convince me that I am wrong. I also happen to believe that ‘Revolution 9’ is the reason why The Beatles, aka the White Album, is a masterpiece, for reasons I outlined in this article.

        I’d love to hear what you think the other 14 best Beatles songs are. I am not joking. I am enjoying this conversation.

      8. haharafafafafa says:

        Of course, the song runs out at two minutes and a half, but the transitiom between the song and the improvisation is very interesting. The growing intensity of the transition is exciting and features some of the most “visually” interesting Beatles’ moments. Feels like the climax on ADITL, while at the same time it sounds like a collage sounds taken from hell. No other Beatles song is as frightening as that one.

        Free improvisation doesn’t need to be played at a certain level of instrumental proficiency to be considered good or bad. Some free improvisation can be considered to be good without a specific level of musicianship being needed. The improvisation part, while it might have a regular key-centre, is still not jamming, since it remain free improvisation in style, and most of the free improvisation moments are being made with percussion instruments anyways.
        Yes, Machine Gun was already being recorded at that point, but the style of it was very different to WTNMJ. Yes, they probably took a lot of inspiration from AMM, but they didn’t use tape music at that point (as far as I know), so that makes them a little bit more different than them.

        When you talk about the music being innovative, it’s important to know what’s the context we are going to use to evalute Beatles’ songs. Since we are ranking Beatles’ songs, the best context would be Beatles’ songs and how they compare to themselves, instead of comparing them to other artists’ music.
        I already said why I think WTNMJ is a notable song, despite it not being the first of it’s kind.

        As for the authority thing, my point was mainly to not dismisss someones opinion (discerning of the quality of music), just because of a single opinion (thinking WTNMJ as one of Beatles’ best songs).

        I wouldn’t call WTNMJ boring in the slightest. It’s not dull nor does it features tedious repetition, but I can definitely see why some people can think of it as annoying or irritating (which are almost opposites of boring). Besides, something being boring is a personal attitude towards something. I can’t convince you of your feelings being replaced.

        I wasn’t prepared to make a list of the best Beatles songs, I said 15 as an estimate, but here it goes my first attempt (don’t expect it to be anything more than just a draft though).

        1. A Day In The Life
        2. Tomorrow Never Knows
        3. Helter Skelter
        4. What’s The New Mary Jane
        5. She Loves You
        6. Love You To
        7. Happiness Is A Warm Gun
        8. I’m Only Sleeping
        9. A Hard Day’s Night
        10. I Want You
        11. For The Benefit of Mr Kite
        12. Wild Honey Pie
        13. Revolution 9
        14. Strawberry Fields Forever
        15. While My Guitar Gently Weeps

        And thank you, I’m enjoying this conversation too.

      9. You’re right, of course: to say ‘X is boring’ is not a description of that thing but a description of your own reaction to it. To me, WTNMJ sounds like a third-rate band trying to sound like the Beatles being experimental, and I doubt I can be convinced otherwise.

        I can imagine listening to it as a kid, and finding it absolutely terrifying, but then I found a lot of the Beatles’ more experimental stuff terrifying as a kid (whenever my older brother wanted me to leave the room, he would put on our parents’ dusty 7” single of Strawberry Fields Forever.) Now, though, having listened to a lot more out-there stuff than WTNMJ, it doesn’t impress me. But that’s just me. I can’t hear what Lennon was trying to do; it doesn’t sound to me like he was trying to do anything in particular other than be ‘wacky’, whereas Strawberry Fields Forever sounds to me like a complete achievement. I have a bootleg called It’s Not Too Bad, which documents the making of SFF, from the earliest demo tapes bashed out in a Spanish hotel room right down to the final mixes of the very different takes that ended up being combined into the final track, and you can hear that Lennon is groping his way towards something that he has to say, but he can’t find the right form for it – and yet he’s got to keep on trying. (It’s well-documented that he wasn’t satisfied with the final recording and wanted to do it all over from scratch.) Nothing else explains why the song changes so much and yet still keeps certain elements. Whereas WTNMJ sounds to me like a self-satisfied hippy laughing at the squares and being deliberately ‘Oh, let’s stick some crazy tape noises in here, that’ll freak them out.’ None of its component parts seem to belong to the same song.

        That’s a very fair-minded list of best Beatles songs, I must say. I will comment as I go.

        1. A Day In The Life – no argument there. If I had to point to one recording that’s the best thing they ever did, it would be this.

        2. Tomorrow Never Knows – again, definitely up in my top five or so. A stunning piece of work.

        3. Helter Skelter – I disagree. I don’t think this works. They were trying to be heavy, but their amps and EMI’s recording techniques weren’t up to the job. I quite enjoy it, but only as a joke.

        4. What’s The New Mary Jane – well, we’ve been over this one.

        5. She Loves You – I fully agree. It’s one of their best singles and I think that the early Beatles don’t get enough credit, while their later stuff sometimes gets too much.

        6. Love You To – Nice choice. Not sure I would put it in the top ten, but I think it’s maybe George’s first really convincing song (after Taxman, anyway) and it’s one of the first times that a Western musician really shows that he’s absorbed the influence of Indian music into the structure of the song, and isn’t just copping the sound of it.

        7. Happiness Is A Warm Gun – again, I’m with you on this one. One of Lennon’s best songs and a true ensemble performance from the whole band.

        8. I’m Only Sleeping – I’m very fond of this song but not sure I would rank it among their best, although it’s immaculately crafted. Perhaps I think of it as being a bit narrow; I can’t really be inspired by a song in praise of laziness. But while I’m listening to it, all I want to do is lie in bed, so it certainly works.

        9. A Hard Day’s Night – once again, fully agree. Perhaps the most perfect piece from the Beatlemania era. From that opening chord to the massive wall of sound and the fadeout, it’s flawless and exciting.

        10. I Want You – I like it a lot and I think it’s a far more convincing attempt to be Heavy than Helter Skelter, but I’m in two minds. Maybe the big end section with the brutal edit is too self-consciously in-your-face. I think I prefer Come Together.

        11. For The Benefit of Mr Kite – cute song but I wouldn’t rate it among their best.

        12. Wild Honey Pie – don’t see why you like this. A cute piece of White Album filler.

        13. Revolution 9 – well, I happen to agree that it’s brilliant, but I wouldn’t put it as one of their 15 best.

        14. Strawberry Fields Forever – for me, this is up in the top five as one of Lennon’s best ever songs and one of their best ever productions.

        15. While My Guitar Gently Weeps – I like this as a song, but I don’t like the White Album version and much prefer the acoustic demo on the Anthology album. But I’m not sure it’s better as a song than, say, Something. It’s too preachy for my taste, the arrangement tends to plod and Clapton’s guitar solo is Leslie-d to the point of being almost out of tune.

        This list is very Lennon-centric: the only songs in there written solely by McCartney song are Helter Skelter and Wild Honey Pie, which I’m surprised you rated higher than Eleanor Rigby, I Saw Her Standing There, I’m Down, Yesterday and Hey Jude, to name but five.

        My own list of 15 best Beatles songs would look something like this:

        1. A Day in the Life
        2. Hey Jude
        3. Yesterday
        4. She Loves You
        5. Strawberry Fields Forever
        6. A Hard Day’s Night
        7. Penny Lane
        8. Tomorrow Never Knows
        9. Happiness Is A Warm Gun
        10. Come Together
        11. Day Tripper
        12. I Want To Hold Your Hand
        13. Help!
        14. Eleanor Rigby
        15. She’s Leaving Home

        However, a list of my top 15 favourite Beatles songs would be a bit different:

        1. A Day in the Life
        2. I Saw Her Standing There
        3. Strawberry Fields Forever
        4. Please Please Me
        5. Honey Pie
        6. Eleanor Rigby
        7. Tomorrow Never Knows
        8. Yellow Submarine
        9. Every Little Thing
        10. Hey Jude
        11. You Never Give Me Your Money (and the whole rest of that medley on Abbey Road, if possible)
        12. Boys
        13. Let It Be (single version on Past Masters)
        14. Taxman
        15. You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)

        This second list is a bit different and includes one song not written by them at all. This illustrates what I think is the important distinction between quality and pleasure; I think A Hard Day’s Night is ‘better than’ Boys, but I’d rather listen to Boys, for lots of reasons. You Know My Name is a deeply silly recording but it always makes me smile. And while I admire and appreciate George’s Indian excursions, I’d sooner listen to Indian classical music played by musicians who are properly schooled in it.

      10. haharafafafafa says:

        Ignore this paragraph.
        “When you talk about the music being innovative, it’s important to know what’s the context we are going to use to evalute Beatles’ songs. Since we are ranking Beatles’ songs, the best context would be Beatles’ songs and how they compare to themselves, instead of comparing them to other artists’ music.”

      11. haharafafafafa says:

        “3. Helter Skelter – I disagree. I don’t think this works. They were trying to be heavy, but their amps and EMI’s recording techniques weren’t up to the job. I quite enjoy it, but only as a joke.”
        Ohh, I just can’t not love that song! It’s some of the most intense stuff I have ever heard. From the opening riffs and the screaming, eventually getting to the anxious instrumental riffing at the end, which slowly fades out, only to come out again louder than before. My eyes get teary just by thinking about that moment.

        “6. Love You To – Nice choice. Not sure I would put it in the top ten, but I think it’s maybe George’s first really convincing song (after Taxman, anyway) and it’s one of the first times that a Western musician really shows that he’s absorbed the influence of Indian music into the structure of the song, and isn’t just copping the sound of it.”
        Well, this choice is very biased, since it’s the Beatles song that had the most intense reaction on me. I choose for the very ambiguous/subjective reason that I consider that song to be the first Beatles song that bring excitement using non-melodic elements.

        “12. Wild Honey Pie – don’t see why you like this. A cute piece of White Album filler.”
        Ignoring the like/dislike part, I don’t consider that song to be filler at all. If they wanted to add some filler, they could have just put another regular Beatles song (the pop-side of Mary Jane, for example. But they didn’t, because they probably didn’t think of WHP as filler).

        “This list is very Lennon-centric: the only songs in there written solely by McCartney song are Helter Skelter and Wild Honey Pie”
        How funny. It’s pure coincidence though.

        “Eleanor Rigby, I Saw Her Standing There, I’m Down, Yesterday and Hey Jude, to name but five”
        Other than Eleanor Rigby, I don’t consider any of those songs to be particularly good, despite like them a fair amount (especially ISHST). My criteria for considering what music is better or worse is very closely linked to originality and creativity, and in the case of those songs, I don’t see that much of that when compared to other Beatles’ songs (like Helter Skelter, which is seriously an amazing song for me). Maybe Wild Honey Pie shouldn’t have been on the list though, but just maybe.

        I think it would be fun to try to make an improved list of the best Beatles’ songs instead of trying to determine how good or bad Mary Jane is (seems futile at this point), but we could still see where that song fits once the list gets done.
        It would be the best to start with a Top 10 instead of 15 first, to make this easier.

        My candidates for the top of the list would be, leaving Mary Jane apart, and considering how original and creative those songs were at their date of release

        Tier A
        She Loves You
        Tomorrow Never Knows
        A Day In The Life
        Helter Skelter

        Tier B
        A Hard Day’s Night
        Eleanor Rigby
        Love You To
        I’m Only Sleeping
        Norwegian Wood
        She Said She Said
        Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite
        Revolution 9
        I Want You

        Any songs that you think should be lower/higher and/or added/removed? I left a lot of songs out, since this is just a starting draft, just in case.

        I didn’t share my list of favorite Beatles songs, so here I go.
        1. Love You To
        2. A Day In The Life
        3. Helter Skelter
        4. Got To Get You Into My Life
        5. What’s The New Mary Jane
        6. She Loves You
        7. I Am The Walrus
        8. I Want You
        9. Eleanor Rigby
        10. She Said She Said
        11. Fixing A Hole
        12. Revolution 9
        13. I Saw Her Standing There
        14. Good Morning
        15. A Hard Day’s Night

        Oh, and sorry for the late reply!

      12. Regarding the question of originality, I do not link the quality (good/bad-ness) of music to its originality. Originality is a characteristic of music, but music can be both original and uninteresting – somewhere I give Jacobo Peri as an example. He basically invented opera, but his operas aren’t very good. Haydn was not the first composer to write music for two violins, a viola and a cello, but he was the first composer to write masterpieces fir that combination of instruments. Bach was even less original than Haydn, and as great if not greater. So while I happen to think that Hey Jude is highly original, that’s not what I think is good about it.

    2. haharafafafafa says:

      There’s more to originality than just form or instrumentation though. If Bach was less original than Haydn, then why is Bach considered to be better?
      How is Hey Jude original though? I don’t really see it that way, but would like to understand.

      1. That’s a false premise: Bach is not considered to be ‘better than’ Haydn, at least by people who know anything about both. They have different kinds of virtues and it’s not like Haydn did something badly that Bach did well. They belonged to different generations; Haydn was well-travelled, Bach wasn’t; Haydn was a court musician, Bach was for most of his career a church musician; Haydn was (very) Catholic, Bach very Lutheran; Haydn’s greatest achievements were in instrumental music, where he was an innovator; Bach’s were in vocal music, where he wasn’t one, etc. Tell me who considers Haydn better than Bach, and let’s destroy that line of argument.

      2. As to the question of how Hey Jude is original, well, like I said, I don’t think that its originality is the most admirable thing about it, but it’s nevertheless a synthesis of pop and rock at a time (1968) when the two genres were diverging quite sharply. If you look at the charts the week Hey Jude came out, they are largely dominated by throwaway pop stuff; the biggest hit of that month was Tommy James and the Shondells’ mega-hit Mony Mony, good fun, but still mindless pop trash. Roughly half the top ten is similarly lightweight stuff such as Tom Jones’ Help Yourself, Herb Alpert’s This Guy’s In Love With You, Arthur Brown’s Fire!, Herman’s Hermits’ Sunshine Girl, etc. The closest there is to anything groundbreaking is Sly and the Family Stone’s Dance to the Music, which is hardly that band’s most incisive single (if only because it was one of their earliest.) Simon and Garfunkel’s thoughtful Mrs Robinson is at no. 11, but the most popular pop songs of that time were carefully avoiding saying anything serious or especially heartfelt. Then Hey Jude comes out, and the basic sentiment is a more grown-up version of She Loves You; the singer is exhorting a friend to commit to the woman the singer knows the friend genuinely loves, which is somewhat more grown-up than Mony Mony, which who the hell knows what it’s about.

        But that’s only half the song. The second half of the song is a kind of wordless hymn in which everyone joins in on encouraging Jude to follow his heart, with that endless repeat of the four-chord sequence and the lyric ‘naaaaaa, naa naa na-na na-naaa, na-na na-naaa, Hey Jude’. The Beatles take that sequence and repeat it long beyond the point of reason — they do it for so long that what was an intelligent pop song becomes, essentially, a rock song, if only because of its bloody-minded insistence on doing what it wants and not caring that a pop song should be three minutes long and not seven. That’s why Hey Jude is innovative; it used the pop song to try to say something more than just ‘Woo baby’, or ‘Let’s have a good time’, which were the dominant sentiments in pop music at the time, just as they are now.

        And, in my opinion, Hey Jude succeeds artistically. It’s not perfect: one of the things I don’t like about it is the way McCartney didn’t bother to finish the lyric. The line ‘The movement you need is on your shoulder’ was written as a placeholder, but when McCartney first played the song to John and Yoko, he said something along the lines of how he’d fix that line later, and Lennon, by McCartney’s account, urged him not to, insisting that he knew precisely what the line meant. McCartney deferred to his senior partner, and so the line stayed in the song, but it’s frustrating because it doesn’t particularly mean anything and, in the context of the song, it should rhyme with the previous line but one (‘You’re waiting for someone to perform with’), but it doesn’t. So to me, that line is slipshod work, and it’s a blemish on the song, if not a fatal one, if only because so much of the rest of the lyric is both beautifully crafted and genuinely meaningful (consider the spot-on internal rhymes on ‘And anytime you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain’; ‘For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool’; ‘And don’t you know that it’s just you, hey Jude, you’ll do’, and there are others) and that line sticks out, for the reasons outlined above.

        And then again, anyone can quibble with McCartney’s pseudo-soul shrieking on the latter part of the record, but while I quite like it, I admit that it might have been better to come up with something else to keep the listener interested. Hey Jude works for me because its swing and its emotional directness and its weight make it a wholly convincing recording, whatever its flaws. So I value those things above the fact that hardly anyone had written such a serious and yet non-pompous pop song before. In fact, the only band I can think of that had written a song like this before is the Beatles themselves, and they had never written anything quite like this before — but what they had done was master a particular way of writing pop songs that weren’t about the usual subjects.

        Here is a bonus is a link to their iconic performance of it, just to remind us all of what a pretty damn good song it is. George is playing a Fender Bass VI. I want one.

  4. PistachioNick says:

    Thanks for replying to my posts. I, too, wish he was less assertive/objective in his claims and I would never refer to him as a factual source. However, when every other jazz critic waxes lyrical over “Kind of Blue” and spends pages gushing over early standards, it’s refreshing to have a Scaruffi to point out the explorers, the Roscoe Mitchells, the Steve Lacys, the Anthony Davises… It’s like coming across James Joyce after the school curriculum of Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mocking Bird – a different world.

    That classical essentials list is for beginners and is a teaser (it’s been there for at least a decade). In the much more recent list here http://www.scaruffi.com/music/violin.html, only two of the Brandenburgs are mentioned. Here http://www.scaruffi.com/music/vocal.html, the Passions are both high and check out the composer of the number one… If you really explore these classical lists and, especially, the avantgarde pages, you will find a number of unconventional choices.

    Find me any other critic who ranks Shostakovich’s 15th symphony as his best, never mind as one of the masterpieces of the repertoire.

    1. I take your point; it’s boring to hear the same albums rehashed over and over again. Maybe I’ve just read different jazz critics than you, but a critic like Gary Giddins can write beautifully about both Armstrong and Parker and also someone like Matthew Shipp. I got into avant-garde improvised music as a teenager, via reading articles about it in Guitar Player magazine, so it’s hard for me to remember a time when I didn’t know about Derek Bailey or Fred Frith or Steve Lacy. (With James Joyce I was lucky; I grew up down the road from the James Joyce Tower museum in Sandycove and I used to play around there with my friends. I grew up thinking that probably every writer had their own tower, and I picked Joyce off my parents’ bookshelves and read it because nobody got around to telling me that it was supposed to be difficult.)

      I get that he’s a useful pointer towards obscure music. If I didn’t know the territory as well as I do, I would probably find his map of it inspiring. But, well, you know.

  5. Great stuff. It feels very good reading someone exposing Scaruffi for what he is: a complete idiot. I have reached that same conclusion as you. He doesn’t actually listen to the music he writes about, or if he does, he only listens to it once or twice while reading a book or cooking diner, because even the music he loves and rates with 7’s,8’s and 9’s can only produce short paragraphs about it.
    I find very odd that someone, who is supposedly a very ecletic person and claims to have such an affection for music, has such an hard time writting in detail why he loves so much i.e. “Safe as Milk” by Captain Beefheart.
    Reading what he has to say it’s a complete waste of time,

    1. To be fair to Scaruffi, English is not his first language so his writing in English is not as coherent as it might be. But there’s a kind of contempt in the way he writes about music. It’s as if he thinks that nobody has ever written about music properly, that every other music writer ever is a dupe or an idiot, so he’s going to invent music writing himself, and as a result he ends up talking gibberish or using weird metaphors.

      1. Yeah, he’s an academic, but his area of professional expertise is not music but artificial intelligence and cognitive science, at least if his Wikipedia article is anything to go by, which he would claim it isn’t. His article about Wikipedia being a ‘force for evil’ is one of the most unintentionally hilarious things I’ve ever read, not just because it shows up how little he knows about Wikipedia, but how little he knows about encyclopedias, and how little he knows about academia. One sentence begins ‘Since scholars and erudite people in general are less likely to get into a fight […]’. I laughed my ass off at that. It may or may not be that ‘scholars and erudite people’ in the computer sciences are not likely to get into a fight (Edsger Dijkstra is at least one example of why that’s not true) but in the humanities, that’s all they do. It’s how you get ahead, as countless academic literary critics can testify.

        Elsewhere he claims that no encyclopedia article ever has been mere official propaganda. He might want to check earlier editions of his beloved Britannica about that, not to mention the old Soviet Encyclopedia. Yes, wikipedia articles can be and are unreliable, but one of the great values of wikipedia has been to demonstrate the unreliability of all encyclopedias. Encyclopedias are for people who want to take shortcuts, and they always have some kind of intrinsic bias. If you are a serious researcher, you shouldn’t rely on them. The great virtue of wikipedia is that it can be revised quickly, whereas with professional encyclopedias, the same biases remain in print for years at a time.

        Speaking as someone whose entire academic education (except for a minor in classical Greek) has been in the study of music, I wonder if Scaruffi chose music as a subject to bloviate about precisely because the serious study of music is more difficult and demanding than the serious study of, say, literature (because every student can read a text, but in order to study music at anything more than the most basic level you have to learn how to read music, and the ability to read music is much rarer than the ability to read your native language), and he suspected that fewer people would have sufficient knowledge to challenge his wackier assertions. If he bloviated at such length about classic novels, I think that fewer people would have taken him so seriously. There would have been a lot more people ready to say to him, What the hell are you talking about?

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