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Monday, January 20, 2014

Buddy Holly: The Buddy Holly Story, Vols. 1-2

THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY, VOLS. 1-2 (1959/1960)

Vol. I: 1) Raining In My Heart; 2) Early In The Morning; 3) Peggy Sue; 4) Maybe Baby; 5) Everyday; 6) Rave On; 7) That'll Be The Day; 8) Heartbeat; 9) Think It Over; 10) Oh Boy; 11) It's So Easy; 12) It Doesn't Matter Any­more.
Vol. II: 1) Peggy Sue Got Married; 2) Well... All Right; 3) What To Do; 4) That Makes It Tough; 5) Now We're One; 6) Take Your Time; 7) Crying, Waiting, Hoping; 8) True Love Ways; 9) Learning The Game; 10) Little Baby; 11) Moondreams; 12) That's What They Say.

As every respectable conspirologist is aware of, or should be aware of, if he is in need of respec­ta­bility, what happened on February 3, 1959, was that Roger Arthur Peterson, piloting the Beech­craft Bonanza N3794N, was discreetly bribed by one Paul McCartney, a suspicious (but hand­some)-looking British teenager seriously envious of the songwriting abilities and competing good looks of Buddy Holly, to crashland the Bonanza in some swamp, ravine, or cornfield, an opera­tion carried out successfully, although, to this very day, no one knows why the pilot never thought of his own survival, or where Paul McCartney got the money. But at least this is a more fun conspiracy to think of than blaming the FBI / CIA, as usual. (Those, of course, were too busy anyway setting Chuck Berry up with an underage waitress at the moment).

Whatever the circumstances, the bad news were that Buddy (along with Ritchie Valens of ʽLa Bambaʼ's fame and J. P. Richardson of ʽChantilly Laceʼ's fame) was, indeed, dead, and that we were therefore deprived of satisfying our curiosity as to where his talent would have led him in the golden decade of rock music. The partially consolatory news were that, prior to dying, he left behind an impressive stockpile of unfinished recordings — one that would keep the small market satisfied for years and years to come, even though most of the recordings had to be tampered with in order to acquire «commercially viable» form, and the tamperings were not always up to par (a rather unpleasant side of the music business here, with the same story to be repeated a decade later for the prematurely departed Jimi Hendrix).

The vaults were opened less than a month after the funeral, although the first installation was modest: The Buddy Holly Story consisted almost entirely of A- and B-sides released during the artist's lifetime, with only one exception (ʽIt Doesn't Matter Anymoreʼ / ʽRaining In My Heartʼ only came out at about the same time as the LP). Less than a year later, in response to the high chart performance of the album, Vol. 2 followed — an entirely different story altogether, consis­ting mainly out of «from-the-vaults» stuff, much of it coming from Buddy's last acoustic session on December 8, 1958, where he was laying down demos, armed with nothing but his voice and guitar. Naturally, it was deemed that the sound had to be brought up to standards, and... well, at least those results were significantly better than some of the sacrileges to follow.

Since the two LPs have this fundamental difference, it is a bit of a cheat to write about the first and second volumes in the same review, but, actually, an entire half of the songs on The Buddy Holly Story proper were already present on LPs released in Buddy's lifetime, and mentioned in earlier reviews, which would make a separate entry a little superfluous. Out of the other six, the cover of Bobby Darin's ʽEarly In The Morningʼ is fun, but not particularly interesting, being es­sentially a re-write-lite of Ray Charles' ʽI Got A Womanʼ; ʽThink It Overʼ is a bit of 12-bar blues redone in a pop format, cute, catchy, but achieving pop perfection only a little bit later, in 1961, when Ernie Maresca and Dion recast it as ʽThe Wandererʼ; and ʽHeartbeatʼ shows some Cuban influence in its melody, even though Buddy's vocals remain quite steadfast in «folk-pop» territory, making for a fun contrast.

The veritable masterpiece here is arguably ʽIt's So Easyʼ, which very much sets the standard for the «inventive upbeat guitar-based pop song» of the next decade: catchy (and multi-part) chorus, multi-part verse, highly melodic solo, and a certain vocal/guitar unity, working towards making the listener feel alright. Not to mention the Crickets' usual roughness-round-the-edges to put a dense checkmark in the «for rebellious teenagers» rather than «for respectable middle class audi­ences» square — those ragged guitar licks are definitely for kids, not their parents.

By the time of his final official sessions, however, Buddy was showing some disturbing signs of agreeing to «water down» his sound: not only was ʽIt Doesn't Matter Anymoreʼ written by Paul Anka (not particularly frightening, since the song is very much in the folk-pop idiom and could just as well be sung by, say, the Everly Brothers), but it also featured the orchestral overdubs of Dick Jacobs, while ʽRaining In My Heartʼ, with the same orchestration, was credited to the song­writing team of F. and B. Bryant, resident hitwriters for the same Everlys. Jacobs' arrangements are careful and moderately tasteful, with interesting and memorable parts written for the harp, but Buddy's vocals are too weak to properly handle the demands of either song — he does his best, yet he still has to strain and stretch on all the complicated bits — and it only goes to show that, songwriting being his greatest gift, he has very little business integrating his own persona into songs written by other people.

This is why Vol. 2, almost entirely consisting of Buddy originals (with the exception of Bobby Darin's rather inane ʽNow We're Oneʼ and Norman Petty's overtly sentimental ballad ʽMoon­dreamsʼ, exacerbated with a wannabe-Heifetz salon violin solo), is, in a way, more con­sistent than the hit-laden original, and perhaps even more indicative of those artistic roads that Buddy might have followed. Granted, ʽPeggy Sue Got Marriedʼ was a rather silly idea for a follow-up to ʽPeggy Sueʼ proper (although back in 1958-59, the habit of releasing an inferior «sequel» that had the same melody as the major hit was still an absolute commonality). But its follow-up on the re­cord is ʽWell... All Rightʼ, a song so ahead of its own time that it would sound perfectly in its right place a whole decade later when Blind Faith integrated it on their own self-titled album — a successful attempt on Buddy's part to add a «thoughtfully mature» component to the usual «teen­agers in love» subject. Not only is the melodic structure here highly unusual even for the folk-pop standards of the era, but there is also an attractive philosophical ring to the way Buddy mumbles "we'll live and love with all our might... our lifetime of love will be all right", indicating that "those foolish kids" might actually be far more ready than their own parents.

Another well-known highlight here is ʽCrying, Waiting, Hopingʼ, a song particularly famous for its clever overdubbing by the rest of the Crickets, who had to work with Buddy's demo and fill in the «echo» vocals for the title, one of the few «post-Buddy» creative decisions on his work that has become universally accepted even after the original demo had surfaced — probably because without the echo vocals the little ladder that Buddy has constructed in the place of the vocal me­lody seems to be naturally lacking several steps, which his co-workers are only too happy to be able to fill in. This particular tune the Beatles did not improve on, when they played it live on the BBC — maybe because they highlighted the wrong George on it (Harrison, whose vocal perfor­mance was quite flat compared to Buddy's, instead of Martin, who may have given them a few clues on how to gloss it up properly).

A deeper dig will, however, also uncover less familiar highlights — such as ʽLearning The Gameʼ, with its melancholy-meditative flair, ʽTake Your Timeʼ, with an inventive organ backing (probably posthumous as well), and ʽThat Makes It Toughʼ, with another strained vocal delivery, but curious in how it borrows the basic structure from generic country and tries to fuse it with the grandiose flair of anthemic pop balladry.

In between all of these, the two volumes of Story do an excellent job of showing just about all of the man's strong and weak points alike — where the man comes from, where he's been to, and where he would be a-headin' if fate had been kinder. Speculating on the issue is useless; there is no evidence that, out of all the early heroes of the rock'n'roll era, Buddy could have been the one to overcome the «Fifties' Curse», but it is also true that, of all his contemporaries, he showed the least interest in clinging to an established formula, experimenting with words, chords, and moods to the bitter end, and not letting success go to his head. Would that have helped him retain vitality and relevance in the British Invasion era? I guess only Paul McCartney can tell.


  1. Very well said, and it is frustrating to not know what Holly would have done had he lived longer. Never has such a small body of work had such a huge impact: certainly Lennon and McCartney took their first songwriting lessons at Holly's knee.

    You're a daring man to poke conspiracy theorists, George. Many don't have a discernible sense of humor.

  2. Nice review, George, but it would be nice if you could review a 1950s rock/pop/R&B artist just once and not make reference to The Beatles?

    Also, the "golden age of rock" was the 50s! (If you don't believe me, ask The Beatles.)

    1. Thanks, but of course I couldn't. The Beatles and the Stones currently remain the basic point of reference for 1950s rock and, most likely, will always remain that way, whether we like it or not.

    2. Could you explain what you mean by "The Beatles and the Stones currently remain the basic point of reference for 1950s rock"? Whether I like it or not, I can't see how that makes any sense.

    3. Thought it was rather self-evident, but since you ask: ever since the 1960s, most people in the world get acknowledged with Fifties' rockers through the legacy of the Beatles, the Stones, and other similar artists, not vice versa. We may like it or not, but that's just the way it is, and there are no signs that the tables are going to turn any time soon.

    4. I guess I can only speak for myself (born 1976) and my parents (born 1950), but neither of 'us' became familiar with 50s' stars through The Beatles or Stones, or indeed any 60s' rockers. Certainly it would be absurd to say that most people became familiar with say, Elvis's early hits via, The Beatles' covers. Certainly The Beatles' sheer popularity and sales (mainly of the early stuff) enriches our appreciation of the early rockers of the 50s, but I definitely don't think it's at all self-evident that most people become familiar with the earlier material this way. In fact, I am fairly sure that's entirely wrong.

      It would be interesting to get other perspectives on this, but we may be well off-topic...

    5. Elvis is a natural exception from this rule, given his cultural image, but I would be very much surprised to hear that anybody born in 1976 (like myself) was subjected to the music of Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, or even Chuck Berry before the Beatles and other giants of Sixties' rock. I don't have any statistics, but I do feel safe to say that most of the people I am familiar with have only heard Buddy's 'Words Of Love' after (sometimes long after) they had perused their copy of Beatles For Sale. Perhaps the preposition "through" is a little inadequate, but chronological priorities cannot be shaken, not to mention the relative notoriety (google "Beatles" and "Buddy Holly" and compare the results).

  3. I'm not arguing that Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry are more popular than The Beatles -- by law of sales averages, obviously more people of the post-60s' generations are going to grow-up hearing more Beatle hits than almost any other artist's on (classic?) radio. On the other hand, how many Beatle A- or B-sides are 50s' covers, and how many album tracks on the Beatles' biggest-selling albums in catalogue (Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, White Album, Abbey Road) are 50s' covers? The answer of course is 'zero'.

    Even those Beatle fans who investigate the earlier albums might learn only one or two songs by Little Richard or Buddy Holly.

    And remember the enormous 70s' retro period that was all over mainstream North America in the 1970s? 'American Graffiti', 'Happy Days', 'The Buddy Holly Story', etc.?

    Everyone's cultural/family situation will differ. I think it's wrong to assume that most people of our generation learn of 50s' rockers via The Beatles.

  4. (Of course, I meant to type "50s' retro period" above, not "70s retro period.")

    1. Even a teenager coming to the movies to watch American Graffiti in 1973 was, by all accounts, prone to being exposed to the Beatles prior to that. This does not imply that the teenager must have, by all accounts, already heard all of their early records with the covers, but his perspective on rock music would already be fleshed out by more modern sounds. Then there's "classic rock radio", which usually plays only a tiny handful of pre-Beatles songs, and has operated that way ever since it began. Google it up and you will find statements like "I discovered Buddy Holly via the Beatles" all over the place (I challenge you, though, to find a single "I discovered the Beatles via Buddy Holly", unless the speaker is a contemporary of Buddy's). I don't even see how this can be a point of debate - and it has nothing to do with the actual musical merits of the artists concerned, or the fact that some people might actually like Fifties' rock more than Sixties' rock (why not?). It's just a statistical average, whose reasons are not that difficult to understand.

  5. Clearly, it is a point of debate. It's your insistence that it isn't a point of debate that I strongly disagree with. (Honestly, I have never met a 50s' music fan -- I do know several -- who came to that music via The Beatles.)

    Great reviews as usual, by the way. The breadth of your music-listening is admirable. Although I personally couldn't invest my time in listening to Beyonce or Avril Lavigne's albums, I respect the fact that you do.

  6. Most people old enough to have been from eight-ten years old to their mid-teens when the Beatles and Stones first hit were old enough to remember 50's music first hand. Anyone older than that certainly did though they may not have been fans of the English bands.