We’re not having that

It appears to be fashionable among pro-war and anti-war types alike to write lists of what one likes about the US. Presumably in the former case this is to convince people of American greatness; in the latter case, to remind people that you’re not a shrieking Septic-hating fanatic.

Alan Johnson‘s list goes too far, however: "I love the ridiculousness of the fact that one square mile of Manhattan has produced more great music in the last thirty years than the entire European continent"

What? I mean, what? How can anyone with even vestigal levels of hearing and sanity possibly make that claim? I assume he doesn’t count the UK and Ireland as part of Europe here, otherwise he actually needs to be imprisoned indefinitely without trial for his own safety and the safety of those around him.

But even if you only look at the mainland, his claim is flamboyantly mentalist. Yes, New York managed to produce Patti Smith, Blondie and Television in the punk boom at the tail-end of the 1970s, and we’ll be enternally grateful for that. But what’s it produced recently – The Strokes? Compared with continental Europe’s utter mastery at innovative electronic music, New York’s scene of derivative rock and up-its-own-arse jazz pales into insignificance.

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33 thoughts on “We’re not having that

  1. Not "all jazz is up its own arse", but "NYC jazz from 1975-2005 tends to be up its own arse".

    Had Johnson said "in the last 60 years", this would have been harder to refute…

  2. Then you haven’t listened to "The Bad Plus". Although I’m not entirely sure if they’re from New York.

  3. (on the other hand, the idea that Manhattan specifically has produced a lot of good music is really quite strange; I would certainly set the single country of Sweden against it in any category, including English-language pop music). The only possible explanation I can think of is that Johnson is a massive hip-hop fan, but even then very little good hip hop comes from "one square mile of Manhattan"; Brooklyn was its spiritual home. What the hell is he talking about?)

  4. If he is discounting the British Isles, what’s the competition here? Abba? Glen Medeiros? This claim looks to me suspiciously like "Our music is marginally less pish than yours!"

  5. Apart from anything else, the claim, even if it was true, wouldn’t be particularly ‘ridiculous’ since Manhattan is probably the cultural centre of the US and is therefore bound to be responsible for a large proportion of its decent musical output. It isn’t much greater than a claim that the music coming out of the US has been better than that coming out of Europe.

  6. Then you haven’t listened to "The Bad Plus".

    Well said, Jez. The Bad Plus utterly rule.

    Although I’m not entirely sure if they’re from New York.

    None of them are from New York, but I think they’ve spent enough time there to be considered well and truly part of the NY jazz scene. Everyone should hear them, their covers of anything and everything from Aphex Twin, to Queen, Ornette Coleman, and Nirvana are really spectacular.

    Then there’s Dave Holland, the Mingus Big-Band (still awesome post-Mingus), Keith Jarrett,… New York is still the world-capital of amazing (that’s "amazingly good") jazz.

    I also highly recommend Gutbucket’s debut album "Dry-humping the American Dream".

  7. "Yes, New York managed to produce Patti Smith, Blondie and Television" and Suicide! and Velvet Underground and White Noise. elsewhere – the Residents, Zappa, Tuxedomoon, Red Crayola, Pere Ubu etc. All innovated rock music, and most of them before Europe caught up. especialy VU’s 1966 Banana lp. Why is it that so many ropean bands cover Sister Ray?

    "Compared with continental Europe’s utter mastery at innovative electronic music"

    Again, innovative is not the right word. Kraftwerk were innovative and so Cabaret Voltaire, maybe Richard James or some others, but today all is a derivative of what people did 30 years ago. Boring.

  8. In related news, Frank Zappa was not from Manhattan and only rarely visited the place.

    btw, I have never fucking heard of "Tuxedomoon" or "Red Crayola" and suspect that there is probably an obscure band somewhere in Mitteleuropa which has exerted every bit as trivial an influence on the course of rock music as they have. Laibach, probably.

    Parenthetically, people who like "The Bad Plus" have usually mistaken "play covers of modern tunes" for "innovative". They’re the Mike Flowers Orchestra with O-Levels.

  9. One of the tragedies of American music since the war has been the loss of regionality. A record made in Chicago now sounds like one made in LA. (this may not be true of hip-hop. But I bet it’s truer now than it was in 1989). This wasn’t the case with the Impressions. The only band that were actually *from* Manhattan that I can think of were the Left Banke.

  10. Gillian Welch was born in Manhattan, but isn’t "from" Manhattan in any meaningful sense.

  11. Parenthetically, people who like "The Bad Plus" have usually mistaken "play covers of modern tunes" for "innovative".

    Peripatetically, you can bugger off and die as well.

    Forget their covers then, their original compositions are highly innovative and exciting.

    They’re the Mike Flowers Orchestra with O-Levels.

    Is Mike Flowers that cheesey australian twat in a wig? Well the Bad Plus are phenomenally talented jazz musicians, and Mike Flowers is a cheesey talentless twat in a wig.

    So I’d say that comparison was slightly less accurate than comparing [enter your favourite nobel-prize-winning economist or statistician] with Timbeaux.

  12. Well the Bad Plus are phenomenally talented jazz musicians

    I think you’ve misspelled "identikit post-bop noodlers". Sorry but this one really gets my goat. Take a bog-standard piano trio, give ’em a funky haircut and what you’ve still got is a very average piano trio. Give them the latest Boston Pops collection to play and what you’ve got is muzak. Tell them to spice it up with "demanding" modern harmonies, and what you’ve got is intentionally unlistenable muzak. I think they’re horrible. But there you go.

  13. identikit post-bop noodlers

    I guess you must never have heard them then. You’re entitled to the view that "they’re horrible", but they are very far from "identikit" anything. You’re similarly way off the mark when you suggest that all they do is spice it up with "demanding" modern harmonies – they do do that of course, but they do a hell of a lot more to boot, and not in a remotely smart-ass way, but in a riotously entertaining and musically inventive way.

    To call them a very average piano trio or muzak suggests simply that you don’t know what you’re talking about, here’s a short review of their second album.

    You may not like them, but to deny their raw talent is to strip Kydland and Prescott of their nobel prize, polish it up, and hand it to Timbeaux.

  14. I can’t speak of the jazz scene, but New York’s rock scene is the laughing stock of the other 49 states – okay, maybe not quite all of them, but still. The most laughable thing about NYC "post-punk" is that a genre dead for most of two decades has been reheated and pretends to be relevant despite the fact that punk itself is just a faded and debased memory.

    I’ll take Los Angeles or Montreal over New York any day. And as for the Continent, I’ll take Air, Phoenix and Daft Punk over the Strokes, Elefant and Interpol.

  15. I saw them when they played at the Barbican last year and maintain that there are dozens, just dozens of equally talented piano trios playing largely similar stuff without the haircuts and the pop tunes. I just don’t like them.

  16. To be honest, I’m somewhat bigoted on this subject because I hate piano trios. All of them, without exception, including Oscar Peterson. I’ve tried and failed to like them.

  17. "I’ve tried to like piano trios…I’ve tried and failed to like them."

    Then there is no hope for heathen soul. ;)

    "They’re trying to be Brad Mehldau".

    Insofar as Brad Mehldau has a piano trio and has done a couple of "jazz" (in the loosest sense of the word) covers, (including a spectacular version of Paranoid Android) amongst other original compositions.

  18. Seriously, though, listen to the version of "Teen Spirit" on Dave’s link and tell me that there isn’t a place in hell for those buggers.

  19. I wasn’t thinking of Britain as being in ‘Europe’ when I wrote that! (Clash, Fall, Pistols, Elvis Costello, Wire, Gang of Four, Graham Parker and the Rumour, and of course the mighty Van ger Graaf Generator, and Stan Tracey, Pete King, Art Themen, etc). I was a student in Manchester 1980-84 so I take Alex’s point. You could see the Fall one night and then Stan Tracey at band on the wall the next andf then bump into that bloke who became James in the middle of the night back at the flat. I saw New Order’s first ever gig: they were soooo late on stage but kicked in and everyone breathed a sigh of relief that, well something, wasn’t over. And yes, I really should have said ‘post-war’ to get in the jazz greats, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Billy, and the rest, whom I had in mind in making the claim. I dont do techno; give me a CD title to lsten to, please. Have you seen the Lenny Henry sketch about techno music compared to soul music? I didnt even mention soul!: aretha, martha, the supremes:

    soul. luuuuuuuuuuuuve, …bambambambamabam.

    Otis, and the rest. Otherwise, seems fair comment to me. Has Europe produced one moment, just one, like Horses? or Astral Weeks? Or London calling? Or Slates? Or Darkness on the Edge of Town? Or any of the four Gillian Welch albums? Or David Rawlings guitar work? Or the first Velvet’s album? Or Exile on Main Street? Or Kind of Blue? Or Billy’s duets with Lester Young? or Wilko Johnson eyes and Lee’s voice as they kick into Back in the Night? The Defence rests.

  20. Oh dear … apparently the status of the proposition "Manhattan has produced more great music than Europe in the last thirty years" rests on the following artists:

    (using the code "NM" for "Not Manhattan", "N30" for "not recorded in the last 30 years" and "NGM" for "Not great music", using here the criterion that a reasonably well-informed European listener, ie me, has never heard of them and presuming that Europe also has loads of obscure bands with their own passionate advocates)

    The Clash (NM)
    The Fall (NM)
    Elvis Costello (NM)
    Wire (NM)
    Gang of Four (NM)
    Graham Parker (NM)
    Van der Graaf Generator (NM, NGM)
    Stan Tracey (NM, NGM)
    Pete King (NM, NGM)
    Art Themen (NM, NGM)
    New Order (NM)
    Charlie Parker (N30)
    Lester Young (NM, N30)
    "Billy", I presume Billie Holiday (NM, N30)
    Aretha (presumably Franklin) (NM, N30)
    Martha (presumably Reeves) (NM, N30)
    (or possibly "and the Muffins", NM, NGM)
    The Supremes (NM, N30)
    Otis (presumably Redding) (NM, N30)
    "soul, luuurve": Detroit is not in Manhattan, nor is Muscle Shoals and nor are the Stax studios, nor is Philly.
    "bambambambam": possibly a reference to Afrika Bambaata, but unfortunately he made most of his music in Brooklyn.
    Horses (yes! Manhattan and recorded in 1975!)
    Astral Weeks (Van Morrison, N30)
    London Calling (Clash, NM)
    Slates (The Fall, NM)
    Darkness on the Edge of Town (arguable. Springsteen is definitely NM because New Jersey, but this particular album was recorded at the Power Station studio)
    "Gillian Welch albums" (NM, Nashville is not in Manhattan. Also NGM as entirely obscure country & western)
    "David Rawlings" (NGM for sure, I think also NM as google seems to list him as a collaborator of Gillian Welch)
    "The First Velvet’s album" (N30)
    "Exile on Main Street" (N30, NM, actually recorded in France)
    "Kind of Blue" (N30)
    "Billy’s duets with Lester Young" (N30)
    Wilko Johnson’s eyes and Lee (presumably Brilleaux) voice (Dr. Feelgood, NM)

    I think someone could draw a Venn diagram of the ways in which you’ve missed the target here. Your main problem appears to be thinking that Manhattan is bigger than it is, followed by thinking that the last thirty years began in 1965 (this is a common problem among men of a certain age). I think that the defence here has

  21. A few errata crept in above. I have heard of Van Der Graff Generator so they shouldn’t really be "NGM". Lester Young and Billie Holliday did record a few things in Manhattan, and Lester Young might even have recorded something there in the last 30 years, but not the recordings which might sensibly be called "great music". Aretha Franklin has recorded music in the last 30 years, but I maintain that it was mostly dreadful. I think that’s all.

  22. Much as I hate to disagree with my CT-collaborator dsquared, nobody with ears could apply the NGM label to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (but then you seem to have done so entirely on generic genre-related grounds – have a listen!!!)

  23. No good music in continental Europe? Sorry, but that’s a load of old arse. Our blinkered, monoglot Anglo-Saxon prejudices prevent many artists being successful here and in Yankland because people simply can’t get past the fact that they’re not singing in English.

    There’s a thriving Scandinavian jazz scene at the moment – Bugge Wesseltoft, Esbjorn Svensson Trio, Sidsel Endresen etc. – equally as innovative as the Manhattan scene myself and Larry are claiming to exist. So there.

  24. That was in response to Alan, by the way. And I know you didn’t say there was no good music in Europe, and in answer to your question "Has Europe produced one moment, just one moment like..[list]…?"

    Yes. Plenty. The artists just aren’t marketed properly over here, because they’re minority interest.

  25. Chris; it’s not so much a lack of ears as a lack of any Gillian Welch CDs to use them on. I’m sure she’s fantastic, but as I say, I’m sure that there are equally fantastic Portugese fado singers who I’ve also never heard of. I’m trying to use an at least in principle objective criterion.

  26. I saw them when they played at the Barbican last year

    I heard them live last year too, and apart from anything else I was struck by the singular virtuosity and originality of their drummer.

    there are dozens, just dozens of equally talented piano trios playing largely similar stuff

    Well you’ll be wrong then, particularly re drummer. They’re top-notch.

    I just don’t like them.

    Fair enough.

    They’re trying to be Brad Mehldau

    No they’re not. BM is largely restrained, subtle, intricate and wonderful. The BP are largely unrestrained, full-blown, intricate, and wonderful.

  27. Anyone see the latest research that shows that one’s native language has a marked influence on one’s melody-writing? English-speakers actually write a qualitatively different type of music to Dutch-speakers, whose music is in turn qualitatively different to that of Sanskrit-speakers, etc etc. Fascinating.

    So there is a possibility that people’s not liking French or Spanish pop music could actually be for reasons other than the language. In some cases. Maybe. A bit.

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