Arguing with Piero Scaruffi

Piero Scarrufi has run an internet site since the 1980s, covering not only music, but travel, film, politics, and pretty much everything else. He’s a fascinating character, and he’s created an alternative canon of challenging albums from outside the mainstream of rock music. He’s a champion of avant-garde acts like Captain Beefheart, Robert Wyatt, and Faust, who often are overlooked by the mainstream, and his list is a goldmine of gems for adventurous music fans.

But at the same time, he’s often difficult to take. He’s most infamous for his Beatles takedown, which seeks to deflate the myth behind the group, but does so with a series of wrong-headed arguments and assumptions, starting with the often quoted:

The fact that so many books still name the Beatles as “the greatest or most significant or most influential” rock band ever only tells you how far rock music still is from becoming a serious art.

While The Beatles are by no means infallible, there’s always an underlying criteria behind Scaruffi’s critiques which informs his view point. He favours artists who are experimental and who create albums with a cohesive sound – because The Beatles had multiple songwriters with their different styles, and generally write succinct songs, they’re not valued by his criteria. A strength of The Beatles was that they were able to present challenging new ideas in pop songs, like sampling and Indian instrumentation, while still retaining a mass audience. Scaruffi’s criteria also overlooks song-writing ability – Lennon and especially McCartney are very talented songwriters who are able to work complex chord structures into accessible pop songs.

Effectively Scaruffism is an extreme form of rockism, and I find that it’s often trying to twist rock music into something it isn’t; Scaruffi has stated “The problem is that rock music is still being interpreted as pure entertainment and not art”. Accordingly, Scaruffi’s choices in jazz and classical are often relatively mainstream – in jazz his two top albums are by Mingus and Coltrane, established critical favourites, and his classical favourites include multiple works by Beethoven and Brahms – while his rock choices are decidedly esoteric.

Despite all this, I don’t mind Scaruffi’s site at all – it’s a very useful resource for finding challenging rock music to listen to. But unlike any other critic I know of, Scaruffi has a determined band of followers who parrot his opinions and I find them infuriating. Scarrufites often act as through Scaruffi has given them the Rosetta Stone to judge the quality of music by. In my understanding music, like any artform, is subjective – it depends on things like cultural context, and trying to judge it by an objective criteria is limiting at best.

From experience, if you respectfully differ in opinion from a Scaruffite, they’ll tell you that you’re not familiar with Scaruffi’s canon of great albums. If you tell them you’ve heard most of them, they’ll tell you that you’re objectively wrong.

For example, I’ve had an argument with a Scaruffite about the relative merits of The Beatles and The  Velvet Underground. I used McCartney’s ‘Penny Lane’ and The Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’, both from 1967, as case studies. They’re both among my favourite songs of the 1960s, and they’re interesting for entirely different reasons, whereby trying to compare them is a futile exercise. On one hand, ‘Heroin’ works with its taboo breaking material and palpable feeling of desperation, but ‘Penny Lane’ is far more musically sophisticated.

Penny Lane
Abm7 Dbm7 Gb7
On the corner is a banker with a motorcar

Abm7 Bm7
The little children laugh at him behind his back

And the banker never wears a mac

Gb7sus7 Gb7 E
In the pouring rain, very strange

A/C# D
Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes

A/C# D
Wet beneath the blue suburban skies

Bbdim Gb7
I sit, and meanwhile back in Penny…

I have made a big decision
I’m gonna try to nullify my life
Cos when the blood begins to flow
And it shoots up the dropper’s neck
When I’m closing in on death

I don’t think you can compare two well executed, but completely different pieces, but any Scaruffite worth his salt sure can. I was told verbatim “However, if we’re comparing harmony, any of the Beatles songs are a far cry from Bach, or Mozart, or many great composer’s. Listen to, say, Haydn’s or Mozart’s late symphonies and you will find much more impressive and exhilarating rhythmic changes, much more emotionally resonant, ingenious melodies and crescendos, compositional prowess, with fugues/counterpoint, multi-layered harmonic progressions, multi-dimensional lines of action interweaving between the foreground and background among each other, etc. The Velvet Underground borrowed very little from Rock music of the time and were certainly not trying to compose harmonies. Their “music” is more a “documentary” of hyper-realism, immersed in expressionist theater than songs with catchy melodies. It is oppressed, deaf toned noise, repetitively tribal, contemplative and poetic, ritualistic and majestic, minimalist, atonal, chaotic/free-jazz, darkly expressionist, harrowing and nightmarish, claustrophobic, oppressive and bludgeoning.” Huh?

These Scaruffites are surprisingly common in some Internet circles and I was frustrated enough to seek out other opinions on them. In an illuminating article on Perfect Sound Forever, Nathan Osbourne wrote:

What troubles me however is that his style seems to encourage uncritical copy-catting, seems to manipulate reader’s anxieties over musical sophistication and impresses arbitrary tastes as if they somehow otherwise. Worst case scenario, Scaruffi’s obscurity might foster a snobbishness that is not able even to clearly articulate its own positions. Certainly, no man should be blamed for the actions of all of his followers, but in Scaruffi’s case, the pretentiousness seems almost certain to consistently produce these results. I would suggest, too, that Scaruffi-ism possesses an almost cult-like vibe; cults, however, have the added benefit of having at least some social dimension.

Scaruffi has a distinctive aesthetic and lots of interesting albums featured on his site, but arguing with a hardened Scaruffite is an extremely frustrating experience.


  1. Certainly are interesting lists beyond the 1001 Albums book. Thanks for introducing me to Scaruffi whom I wasn’t aware of. Besides covering music in many different genres, apparently he also follows/rates cinema. Just googled the site which looks like a fun resource for list geeks .

    Brings to mind The Wire’s 100 Records That Set the World on Fire (While No One Was Listening) Lisa blogged about the 100 here, scroll down to the bottom of the page:

    • I had a look at the Lisa Thatcher blogs of the Wire list, and there’s lots of interesting stuff there I haven’t heard. She’s also able to write without dollops of condescension, unlike Scaruffi.

  2. I’m aware of this chap through the Beatles essay. Even as someone who doesn’t dig the band, I could see that his argument was flawed and littered with nonsense that was inaccurate, irrelevant, or convenient. Definitely an interesting chap. His acolytes sound just as interesting… though I guess they’d have to be, right?

    • He’s cool for avant-garde recommendations, but his pretentiousness and claiming objectivity have rubbed off on the acolytes I’ve seen online. I feel like pop music is primarily an entertainment medium, and comparing a three minute pop song to a classical work is silly. Originality doesn’t equal quality.

  3. At first I thought this post was a metaphor for born-again Christianity or some other cult, but then I realised it wasn’t. Not quite sure whether I’m relieved or disappointed.

    I’ve often toyed with the idea of giving much more space to some of the lesser known music I love (Univers Zero, Thirsty Moon, Richard Pinhas, even less edgy artists such as Jade Warrior or Klaus Schulze), but you’ve offered a very helpful cautionary tale here, Geoff. Thanks.

  4. Boy, I tell you what. Life is too short to deal with a site like that whether it be about music, politics, movies or whatever, I like the blogosphere that I inhabit where we just shoot the breeze about stuff. Who needs that crap? BTW, of course, my all-time favorite album is Klaus Schulze’s Irrlicht. Whose isn’t? 🙂

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