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Monday, December 30, 2013

Buddy Holly: The "Chirping" Crickets

BUDDY HOLLY: THE «CHIRPING» CRICKETS (1957)

1) Oh Boy; 2) Not Fade Away; 3) You've Got Love; 4) Maybe Baby; 5) It's Too Late; 6) Tell Me How; 7) That'll Be The Day; 8) I'm Lookin' For Someone To Love; 9) An Empty Cup (And A Broken Date); 10) Send Me Some Lovin'; 11) Last Night; 12) Rock Me My Baby.

If you listen to all of the Beatles' officially released recordings in chronological order, the very first song you are going to hear will be ʽThat'll Be The Dayʼ, pressed by the Quarrymen in 1958, approximately one year after the song had appeared on the Brunswick label as the first official single by The Crickets. Naturally, this is no matter of coincidence since, by all accounts, Buddy Holly was the single greatest influence (out of many) on the Beatles, at least up until the band's «musical globalization» in 1965.

At first, it might even seem a little bizarre. When Buddy made the world aware of his ex­istence, in mid-1957, «rock and roll» had already been firmly established — Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Elvis, even Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis were all recognized stars, with a bunch of hit singles safely tucked under their belts; Buddy was a relative latecomer to this parade of flashy, rebellious personalities. Compared to each of them separately, he did not seem to stand much of a competitive chance. Never a technically great singer; never a particularly gifted or fluent instrumental player; definitely nowhere near an «onstage volcano» in terms of performance — just a normal, quiet Texas kid, happy enough to wear a neatly pressed tuxedo and bowtie, with a proper haircut and with those silly thick glasses that really made him look more like an aspiring Ivy League freshman than a rock'n'roller.

So what exactly did Buddy Holly bring to the table that was not already on it? Hope, I'd say. For all those thousands of kids who were not blessed with the vocal cords of an Elvis, or the natural dynamism of a Jerry Lee, or the cool looks of a Gene Vincent, it was Buddy who conveyed the message — what matters is not the flashiness of style, what matters is substance. Buddy's major achievements all lie in the field of songwriting. Had he mostly stuck to covering other people's material, he would have remained but a small footnote in the history of popular music, as his first LP proves without a doubt: out of the 12 numbers on Chirping Crickets, the ones that stay with you are almost always those where Buddy is credited as chief songwriter.

I will not shy away from saying that I almost always prefer other people's covers of Buddy's material to the originals. Even that early Quarrymen cover of ʽThat'll Be The Dayʼ sounds almost as good as Buddy's (and would have sounded even better had the lads had access to better studio equipment). ʽNot Fade Awayʼ would eventually be expropriated, toughened up, and set for early anthemic status by the Stones. And when John Lennon later covered Buddy's interpretation of ʽSend Me Some Lovin'ʼ on his Rock And Roll album, he raised the bar tenfold in the vocal de­partment, adding explicit emotional torment where Holly only hinted at it.

But none of that mattered back in 1957 — and even though it matters today, it is also a pretext to try and figure out why, in the long run, these early songs have survived and are still listenable to­day. Sure enough, there is some stuff on this Crickets debut that is not all that listenable. In par­ticular, «The Picks», a New Mexican family vocal outfit, provide a rather awful doo-wop-style backing, spoiling much of the ballad component of the album (ʽLast Nightʼ, etc.) — not that Buddy Holly himself was ever made for doo-wop, of course, but it also has to be kept in mind that, like everything else at the time, The Chirping Crickets was really just a bunch of cool singles surrounded by obligatory filler.

We will disregard the filler, then, and focus all the attention on the classics: ʽThat'll Be The Dayʼ and ʽNot Fade Awayʼ as the best known; ʽMaybe Babyʼ, ʽTell Me Howʼ, ʽI'm Looking For Someone To Loveʼ as their lesser worthy brethren. First and foremost, this is not «threatening» music: Buddy was not a «rebel», he had a thoroughly «pop» conscience through and through, and the music avoids dark bass lines, distortion, aggression, etc., as much as possible (just look at how the «spooky», «tribal» Bo Diddley beat is niftily transformed into a happy celebration of love and fidelity on ʽNot Fade Awayʼ). At the same time, it is not «cheesy» pop — it is jangly, guitar-based pop, no strings, pianos, or production slickness attached, something that even the rough'n'tough garage-rock crowds of the early 1960s would find easy to appreciate. Most importantly, it all just sounds natural and realistic. Where Ricky Nelson (whose public image appeared the same year as Buddy) gave the impression of «glossy manufacture» from the start, Buddy simply is as buddy does.

What I really mean to say is that Holly compensates for his technical flaws with evident charisma — present everywhere, not just in his looks (always clean, never glossy), but also in his sweet, shaky, naturally-stuttery vocals, and in his guitar playing, with delicate, memorable phrasing that sometimes mimicks Carl Perkins or Scotty Moore, but just as frequently consists of original lines (unfortunately, «The Picks» too often overshadow them — ʽMaybe Babyʼ could have been so much better without all the waah-waahs and the pa-da-dams). The songwriting ideas might have been replicated and enhanced, but the personality could not: Buddy Holly offers that perfect compro­mise between the «gruff rocker» and the «teen idol» that is actually much harder to attain than it might look upon first sight.

As for the rating, The Chirping Crickets has way too much filler on it for a regular thumbs up, but if we introduce «The Fifties' Correction» and only rate it in accordance with the quality of the singles, which we should, things will obviously change. That said, unlike the self-titled follow-up, Chirping Crickets is hardly worth hunting for if you already have all the best stuff on a com­pilation — filler is filler, and nobody should be obliged to associate Buddy with doo-wop ballads (or hear him sing songs written by Roy Orbison, for that matter).

2 comments:

  1. I love this album (well, the singles at least). Together with The Sonics' debut, it's my fav early-rock heroes album. (Yeah, technically The Sonics came on mid-1960s but I never see them as a Beatles peer.)

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  2. I wonder if the backing vocals were used mainly to establish the songs as "Crickets" songs rather than "Buddy Holly" songs - the legal quagmire that Buddy was into with his multiple recording contracts was truly horrifying.

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