I hadn’t heard of Piero Scaruffi until I came across this TV tropes page on him recently, in which this Italian scientist who also has a website in which he’s reviewed, like, bazillions of albums, was said to have written a ‘controversial’ essay on the Beatles and how overrated they are. Well, I’m always interested in anyone wanting to have a go at the Beatles because so many try and so few do it well, so I googled ‘Piero Scaruffi beatles’, and I found what I take to be his best thoughts on the subject.
This is one of those situations where you dread even wandering into the line of fire, because the guy is obviously so sure that he’s right, and that anyone who disagrees with him is wrong. You can feel the stupidity clinging to you in sticky fronds even as you read. But since what I’ve read of his article is riddled with factually inaccurate assertions stated as if they were true, I can’t let it go unchallenged. I have not gone through his entire essay, which is very long. Just the top several pages.
First off, anyone who’s read this blog can tell what I think of the Beatles, but my opinion is neither here nor there. I am not arguing that Scaruffi is wrong to think that the Beatles are ‘trivial’ and ‘overrated’. He can think whatever he wants. He is, as they say, entitled to his opinion. What he is not entitled to do is insist that his opinion is worth anything, if it’s based on an inaccurate perception of reality. What I am saying — and let there be no ambiguity whatever about this — is that Scaruffi, intentionally or otherwise, and in the extracts that I have quoted, largely misrepresents the facts about the Beatles in an attempt to downplay the nature of their achievement. He may know that he’s doing this, in which case he’s mendacious. I prefer to be charitable, and believe that he doesn’t know he’s doing it; that he is, rather, intellectually inadequate to be a music critic. Nothing else I have read on his site convinces me that he has the intellectual tools that the job requires.
His basic technique is to report as fact something which he assumes that his listeners will be unable to contradict, but which anyone with basic knowledge of the subject knows to be untrue. Here we go:
Jazz critics have long recognized that the greatest jazz musicians of all times are Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, who were not the most famous or richest or best sellers of their times, let alone of all times.
Ellington and Coltrane are supremely important jazz musicians. However, jazz critics in the real world, as opposed to the imaginary jazz critics in Piero Scaruffi’s head, have long recognised that Louis Armstrong is as important, and possibly more so. Here’s Martin Williams in The Jazz Tradition: ‘If we take the most generally agreed-upon aesthetic judgments about jazz music, the first would undoubtedly be the dominant position and influence of Louis Armstrong — and that influence is not only agreed upon, it is easily demonstrable from recordings.’ And here’s Richard Cook in his Jazz Encyclopedia: ‘[…C]ontemporary jazz celebrities such as Wynton Marsalis have insisted on the primacy not only of the universally acknowledged early work but the rest of Armstrong’s oeuvre as a potent and powerful legacy. If the world’s music still swings today, it is in large part because of what he was first doing, eight decades ago.’ Here’s Whitney Balliett, writing in the Fifties: ‘For all that, he [Armstrong] has managed, as the purest of all jazz musicians, to be an infallible definition of just what jazz is.’ Here’s Ted Gioia, in his History of Jazz: ‘Surely no body of work in the jazz idiom has been so loved and admired as the results of these celebrated sessions, the immortal Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. In historical importance and sheer visionary grandeur, only a handful of other recordings — the Ellington band work of the early 40s, the Charlie Parker Savoy and Dial sessions, the Miles Davis recordings of the late 50s come to mind — can compare with them. Certainly none can surpass them.’ And here’s Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins, the author of a book-length study of Armstrong, writing in Visions of Jazz: ‘If the twentieth century has proven to be the American era in music — an assessment made with increasing frequency and growing confidence — it can also be characterized as the Armstrong era.’
Why does Scaruffi omits any mention of Armstrong? Because Armstrong was an indisputably great musician who was also wildly popular and commercially successful. Scaruffi’s contempt for the ‘masses’, which we’ll see more of later, means that he cannot accept that any musician who’s been broadly successful with the public has any merit; if the ‘masses’ love it, it can’t be good. The flipside of this is that he will downplay and even misrepresent the popularity of musicians that he likes. The idea that Ellington and Coltrane were in any way unpopular or obscure is completely inane. Ellington during his lifetime became as famous as any jazz musician gets, winning nine Grammies, appearing on the cover of Time magazine and receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969. Coltrane’s A Love Supreme sold in the hundreds of thousands, and an abridged version of his cover of ‘My Favourite Things’ was even a hit single. But Scaruffi never lets the facts get in the way of what he wants to say. In fact, his contempt for fact is all over this piece.
Classical critics rank the highly controversial Beethoven over classical musicians who were highly popular in courts around Europe.
Who are the musicians that these ‘classical critics’ rank Beethoven ‘over’? Could he mean Haydn, who was enormously popular in Europe and who has been routinely regarded as one of the greatest composers in history? Haydn doesn’t appear in Scaruffi’s remarkably unadventurous list of great classical works. And to what degree was Beethoven ‘controversial’, anyway? His personal behaviour could be controversial; the quality of his music was much less so. He was generally agreed to be a genius, and when he died, thousands followed his coffin.
In passing, let’s take a look at Scaruffi’s list of the greatest pieces of classical music you’ll ever hear:
• Ludwig Van Beethoven: Symphony 9 (1824)
• Franz Schubert: Symphony 9 in C Major “Great” (1828)
• Wolfgang Mozart: Concerto 21 in C K467 (1785)
• Johann Sebastian Bach: Mass in B Minor (1749)
• Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony 15 (1971)
• Gustav Mahler: Symphony 9 (1910)
• Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (1859)
• Giuseppe Verdi: Requiem (1874)
• Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburger Concertos (1721)
• Bela Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra (1943)
• Johannes Brahms: Symphony 4
• Franz Schubert: Quintet for 2 Violins, Viola and 2 Cellos in C major, D956 Op. 163
• Bela Bartok: Quartet 4
• Ludwig Van Beethoven: String Quartet No.14 Op.131
• Shostakovich: Quintet in G minor for Piano & String Quartet, Opus 57
• Ludwig Van Beethoven: Triple Concerto C major
• Leos Janacek: Glagolitic Mass (1926)
• Igor Stravinskij: Le Sacre du Printemps (1913)
• Antonin Dvorak: Symphony 9 (1893)
• Antonio Vivaldi: Il Cimento dell’Armonia op 8 (1725)
• Hector Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique (1829)
• Olivier Messiaen: Quatuor Pour La Fin Du Temps (1940)
* Claude Debussy: Jeux
What’s striking about this list is how amazingly conservative it is. There is nothing earlier than Bach, and nothing later than Bartok. Everything on it could be programmed by the least ambitious director of the least adventurous provincial symphony orchestra, with no fear that subscribers would be frightened away. (If that Vivaldi looks unfamiliar to you, he means the Four Seasons — he’s just using the title of the larger set to which they belong to make himself look like he knows about classical music.)
Scaruffi professes to despise the Beatles for being ‘mainstream’, but this list is mainstream with a vengeance: no Gesualdo, no Schoenberg, no Webern, no Stockhausen, no Babbitt, no Ligeti; but more interestingly, not a single Bach cantata, when the general consensus these days is that Bach’s cantatas are far more central to his achievement and career than something like the Brandenburgs, which, great as they are, are nowadays most often heard as pre-flight music on Ryanair planes. Only one work by Mozart, and that not an opera; nothing by Haydn, Sibelius, Handel, Palestrina, Gabrieli, Victoria, Tallis, Byrd or anyone else from before the 17th century; no Britten, no Berg, no Henze, no Birtwistle, no Partch, Cage, Feldman or even Glass or Reich.
Rock critics are still blinded by commercial success: the Beatles sold more than anyone else (not true, by the way), therefore they must have been the greatest.
Freesheet reviewers might do this when explaining the success of the most recent Beatles compilation, but serious rock criticism, which was invented partly in order to deal with the Beatles, has never made a simple equation of popularity with merit. The Beatles’ popularity is, if anything, something that serious rock criticism has had to explain away. More to the point, if the popularity of popular music has nothing at all to do with its merit, then it doesn’t matter how many records the Beatles sold.
Beatles’ “aryan” music removed any trace of black music from rock and roll: it replaced syncopated african rhythm with linear western melody, and lusty negro attitudes with cute white-kid smiles.
Leaving aside the eye-popping racism and unforgivable inanity of this characterisation of ‘black music’, insofar as it tries to describe what the Beatles did with the styles of black music that the band knew, it’s the reverse of the truth. The Beatles married Western harmonies and melodic techniques to rhythmic foundations learned in part from rock & roll and in part from black American pop music — not ‘african rhythm’, of which they, like most of the black American musicians they admired, knew nothing at all. No British pop musicians before the Beatles had such a grounding in black American pop, and not many white bands since have been able to match the Beatles’ groove — e.g., ‘The Word’, ‘Drive My Car’, ‘She’s A Woman’, ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’.
Contemporary musicians never spoke highly of the Beatles, and for a good reason.
The Rolling Stones disliked the Beatles so much that they begged Lennon and McCartney to write a song for them; went to the Beatles’ parties; attended the Beatles’ recording sessions; appeared on the Beatles’ records and got the Beatles to appear on their own. Eric Clapton, a principled hero of rock, showed his loathing for everything the Beatles stood for by becoming one of Harrison’s best friends and jumping at the chance of playing on a Beatles session. Jimi Hendrix despised the Beatles so much that he was playing the title track of Sgt Pepper within a couple of days of the album being released. In short, the contempt with which the Beatles were regarded by their peers is familiar to nobody who knows anything at all about the history of popular music.
They could not figure out why the Beatles’ songs should be regarded more highly than their own.
Yeah, the stupid ones probably couldn’t.
They knew that the Beatles were simply lucky to become a folk phenomenon (thanks to “Beatlemania”, which had nothing to do with their musical merits). That phenomenon kept alive interest in their (mediocre) musical endeavours to this day.
The meaning isn’t clear, but he seems to be suggesting that people only go on listening to the Beatles because they are historically interested in the phenomenon of Beatlemania. Which is the same reason why Charles Manson’s album continues to sit at the top of the album charts, all these years later.
Not to mention the American musicians who created what the Beatles later sold to the masses.
You can’t accuse the Beatles of selling other people’s music and simultaneously accuse them of changing the same music before they sold it. If they changed the music, then they transformed it into their own music; if they didn’t change it, then in selling it to the masses, they can’t have wrecked it.
The Beatles sold a lot of records not because they were the greatest musicians but simply because their music was easy to sell to the masses: it had no difficult content, it had no technical innovations, it had no creative depth.
While it’s true that difficult (i.e, non-catchy) music is seldom very popular, there is no reason to suppose that the ‘masses’ automatically reject technical innovation; if a record is hot enough, people will buy it, no matter how innovative it is or isn’t, and the truth is that most listeners neither know nor care about the level of technical innovation in a record. In any case, it is demonstrably untrue that the Beatles’ music was not technically innovative. Among the techniques that they pioneered in popular music were: controlled feedback, automatic double-tracking, use of tape loops, use of Indian musical techniques, use of chance techniques, creative use of studio technology (feeding Lennon’s voice through a Leslie speaker on Tomorrow Never Knows), etc. And those are just their innovations in recording technique; their innovations in musical style and songwriting are too numerous to go into.
Among the Beatles’ songs to have no ‘creative depth’ are: Eleanor Rigby, Strawberry Fields Forever, A Day In The Life, Hey Jude, Blackbird, I Am The Walrus, Happiness Is A Warm Gun, Something, Help!, Ticket To Ride, Long Long Long . . .
They wrote a bunch of catchy 3-minute ditties and they were photogenic. If somebody had not invented “beatlemania” in 1963, you would not have wasted five minutes of your time to read a page about such a trivial band.
Beatlemania was not an invention, but the name given by the media to a real historical phenomenon.
For most of their career the Beatles were four mediocre musicians who sang melodic three-minute tunes at a time when rock music was trying to push itself beyond that format (a format originally confined by the technical limitations of 78 rpm record). They were the quintessence of “mainstream”, assimilating the innovations proposed by rock music, within the format of the melodic song.
You say that like it’s a bad thing.
To be serious, once again Scaruffi has it backwards: later rock music picked up on what the Beatles were doing (unusual harmonies, studio experimentation, serious lyrics, emotional intensity) and continued to do it, but no other band did all of what they did. Prog-rock bands extended the musical range, largely at the expense of emotional intensity; hard rock ramped up the intensity, but at the expense of melody and concision. As Joe Carducci put it, the Beatles were simultaneously the biggest pop group in the world, and the world’s first rock band.
The Beatles were the quintessence of instrumental mediocrity. George Harrison was a pathetic guitarist, compared with the London guitarists of those days (Townshend of the Who, Richards of the Rolling Stones, Davies of the Kinks, Clapton and Beck and Page of the Yardbirds, and many others who were less famous but no less original).
There are no instances in the Beatles’ official recordings of Harrison not being up to the task before him; he wasn’t a virtuoso because he wasn’t required to be one. He understood that his role was to serve the song, something which all of the above, with the possible exception of Richards, forgot from time to time. A guitar hero of the Clapton sort would have had no place in the band. What Dave Davies, of all people, is doing in this company, is anyone’s guess.
The Beatles had completely missed the revolution of rock music (founded on a prominent use of the guitar) and were still trapped in the stereotypes of the easy-listening orchestras.
What this means, if it means anything at all, is not clear. Is he trying to say that he Beatles didn’t use guitars?
Paul McCartney was a singer from the 1950s, who could not have possibly sounded more conventional. As a bassist, he was not worth the last of the rhythm and blues bassists (even though within the world of Merseybeat his style was indeed revolutionary).
This is the same Paul McCartney who sang Long Tall Sally, Helter Skelter and Oh! Darling, in case you were wondering, and the same bass player responsible for the bass parts in Taxman, Rain, Come Together and I Saw Her Standing There. What ‘rhythm and blues bassists’ Scaruffi is talking about, I doubt even he knows; presumably he has some shadowy awareness that people played on Motown records, but I doubt he could tell you Jerry Jemmott from James Jamerson, since they’re all ‘african’ to him.
Ringo Starr played drums the way any kid of that time played it in his garage (even though he may ultimately be the only one of the four who had a bit of technical competence). Overall, the technique of the “fab four” was the same of many other easy-listening groups: sub-standard.
What ‘other easy-listening groups’ is he talking about? Since he can say nothing about Starr’s actual technique as a drummer — such as Starr’s mastery of timbre and tempo — I think we can assume that this faint praise is not in good faith.
Theirs were records of traditional songs crafted as they had been crafted for centuries
I think he’s mistaking the Beatles for Fairport Convention, here.
yet they served an immense audience, far greater than the audience of those who wanted to change the world, the hippies and protesters. Their fans ignored or abhorred the many rockers of the time who were experimenting with the suite format, who were composing long free-form tracks, who were using dissonance, who were radically changing the concept of the musical piece. The Beatles’ fans thought, and some still think, that using trumpets in a rock song was a revolutionary event, that using background noises (although barely noticeable) was an even more revolutionary event, and that only great musical geniuses could vary so many styles in one album, precisely what many rock musicians were doing all over the world, employing much more sophisticated stylistic excursions.
Since the Beatles’ level of fandom was unique precisely because it crossed all boundaries of age, class, sex, nationality, political inclination and race, it’s impossible to lump all their fans together in this manner.
While the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, the Doors, Pink Floyd and many others were composing long and daring suites worthy of avant garde music, thus elevating rock music to art, the Beatles continued to yield three minute songs built around a chorus. Beatlemania and its myth notwithstanding, Beatles fans went crazy for twenty seconds of trumpet, while the Velvet Underground were composing suites of chaos twenty minutes long.
When the Beatles were sticking baroque trumpet on ‘Penny Lane’, the Velvet Underground’s first album hadn’t even come out yet. By the time the first Velvets album came out, the Beatles were finishing Sgt Pepper. The Velvets album that contains the closest thing to a ‘suite of chaos twenty minutes long’ is White Light/White Heat, whose final track ‘Sister Ray’ is a seventeen-minute jam on one chord, and if Piero Scaruffi seriously thinks that it’s the greatest thing the Velvet Underground ever did as opposed to a juvenile art gesture, he’s got a tin fucking ear. Incidentally, Scaruffi’s earlier crack about how the Beatles removed all traces of ‘black music’ from their music is far more true about the Velvet Underground than it is about the Beatles. Almost alone among great 60s rock bands, the Velvets never, ever swung. They were a white folk-rock band turned up to 10.
Actually, between noise and a trumpet, between twenty seconds and twenty minutes, there was an artistic difference of several degrees of magnitude. They were, musically, sociologically, politically, artistically, and ideologically, on different planets.
Yes, the radical political awareness in the Velvet Underground’s songs is well known to all.
The Beatles had the historical function to delay the impact of the innovations of the 60’s.
Again, this is quite a long way away from meaning anything, but insofar as it reflects a perception that the Beatles were not at the forefront of change in the 1960s, the historical record shows that people at the time felt that the opposite was the case. They might not have liked the change much, but nobody doubted that the Beatles were part of its vanguard.
Between 1966 and 1969, while suites, jams, and long free form tracks (which the Beatles also tried but only toward the end of their career) became the fashion, while the world was full of guitarists, bassist, singers and drummers who played solos and experimented with counterpoint, the Beatles limited themselves to keeping the tempo and following the melody.
Like on A Day In The Life.
Their historic function was also to prepare the more conservative audience for those innovations. Their strength was perhaps being the epitome of mediocrity: never a flash of genius, never a revolutionary thought, never a step away from what was standard, accepting innovations only after they had been accepted by the establishment. And maybe it was that chronic mediocrity that made their fortune: whereas other bands tried to surpass their audiences, to keep two steps ahead of the myopia of their fans, traveling the hard and rocky road, the Beatles took their fans by the hand and walked them along a straight path devoid of curves and slopes.
That’s why they kept touring until the very end, and didn’t spend hours in the studio trying to find new ways of making music.
The Beatles are justly judged for the beautiful melodies they have written. But those melodies were “beautiful” only when compared to the melodies of those who were not trying to write melodies; in other words to the musicians who were trying to rewrite the concept of popular music by implementing suites, jams and noise.
Once again, we’re skirting meaninglessness here, but he seems to be saying that the Beatles’ melodies were only beautiful compared to melodies by musicians who didn’t write melodies.
Many contemporaries of Beethoven wrote better minuets than Beethoven ever wrote, but only because Beethoven was writing something else. In fact, he was trying to write music that went beyond the banality of minuets.
There is nothing intrinsically banal about a minuet, as Beethoven knew perfectly well, writing many of them throughout his career, such as the ones in the third Razumovsky Quartet and in Piano Sonata No 18, to name two off the top of my head. Scaruffi would know this if he’d listened to anything by Beethoven besides the Ninth Symphony. When Scaruffi tries to talk about classical music, he comes across like a pompous twelve-year-old who’s read the liner notes of his dad’s CD collection and thinks that that makes him Donald Tovey.
Moreover, Martin undoubtedly had a taste for unusual sounds. At the beginning of his career he had produced Rolf Harris’ Tie Me Kangaroo with the didjeridoo.
He means Sun Arise (1961). Far from being made at the beginning of Martin’s career, it was made eleven years after he joined EMI.
At the time nobody knew what it was. Between 1959 and 1962 Martin had produced several tracks of British humor with heavy experimentation, inspired by the Californian Stan Freiberg, the first to use the recording studio as an instrument.
He means Stan Freberg, but if he’s trying to suggest that Stan Freberg was the first person ever to muck around in a recording studio, he should take it up with Spike Jones. In any case, the history of experiments in sound recording is as old as the history of recorded sound.
Those of us who write about music in more than a dilettante way believe that writing about music is subject to the same rules as writing any other kind of non-fiction. You should write so that your meaning is clear. You should strive to be consistent. If you have an argument to make, you should base what you have to say on solid evidence. You should avoid writing badly, unclearly or illogically. You should try not to be dull. Piero Scaruffi flouts all these rules, but that wouldn’t matter so much because lots of people break them. But there is one rule in writing music criticism, the breaking of which is the only truly unforgivable error, and it’s the one that I’ve tried to demonstrate Piero Scaruffi breaks all the time, it would seem compulsively, perhaps without even knowing or caring that he does so.
You are not allowed to make shit up.