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

Piero Scaruffi and truth

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.

Piero Scaruffi and truth