Skyscraper Magazine » Rave on Buddy Holly
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Various Artists
Fantasy / Concord Music Group
Format: CD / LP / Digital
Release Date: June 28, 2011
By Doug Simpson August 19, 2011

Buddy Holly’s enduring legacy has continued to grow since his untimely death in early 1959. In the span of approximately 18 months – less time than Elvis was in the Army – Holly subtly but significantly changed rock’n’roll. Some of Holly’s influential resolve was not immediately recognized, but over the course of subsequent years and decades what he accomplished and did has inspired countless musicians, many of whom started out as fans and some who were born years or decades after Holly’s string of radio hits.

Rave On Buddy Holly – 19 songs spread over 51 minutes – manages to encapsulate much of what made Holly a hero for several generations of musicians, from The Beatles and Bob Dylan to The Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen. Among the important attributes which defined Holly – and also inform this project – were an independent streak, a willingness to take chances, dismissal of the usual visual trappings (with his bespectacled look and clean-cut, neighborly demeanor, Holly was the epitome of the nice guy next door) and a unique group sound which interlocked rhythm and lead guitars alongside multi-tracked vocals.

This tribute album is not the first homage and hopefully won’t be the last. Another planned tribute, Listen to Me: Buddy Holly, including contributions from Jackson Browne, Natalie Merchant, and others, has an early September release date to coincide with what would have been Holly’s 75th birthday. In 1995, MCA Records issued Not Fade Away (Remembering Buddy Holly), a fine, star-studded record honoring Holly, which featured Los Lobos and a bevy of country/folk artists such as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Joe Ely, and Nanci Griffith.

This compilation’s co-producer, Randall Poster (music supervisor for Wes Anderson, Todd Haynes, Richard Linklater, and other film directors), did an excellent job of coordinating a disparate artist roster who in turn crafted an array of genres, styles, and sounds to acknowledge and honor Holly’s artistry. The list ranges from Paul McCartney (who still owns Holly’s publishing rights) to Modest Mouse, from Graham Nash (his British beat band The Hollies were named after Buddy Holly) to The Detroit Cobras. Holly balanced his rockabilly ways with sensitive songwriting, and this collection also mixes those contrasts in an egalitarian approach.

The Black Keys open with a minimalist version of the relatively obscure “Dearest,” which Holly did as a mid-tempo, lightly rockabilly song similar to other efforts he crafted at the same time. The Black Keys slow down the tempo, add handclaps and a tempered drum beat and meager, scratchy rhythm guitar to provide appropriate backing for a plea and promise to treat the titular woman right. Simplicity and restraint is also a hallmark of Graham Nash’s album closer, a sublime, orchestrated treatment of “Raining in My Heart,” not written by Holly but one of several strings-saturated pop tunes Holly recorded during his lifetime. The arrangement has Nash’s best vocals in a long time and an unexpected, harmonica-like solo.

In between those pieces is music which vacillates between raw reworkings and complimentary remakes true to the source material, with several unpredicted and sometimes bewildering interpretations. The strangest translations come from McCartney, Jenny O., and Lou Reed. Macca tackles “It’s So Easy.” He pushes slightly distorted vocals and twinned guitars up-front to craft a straight-up rocker which initially starts out strongly. Unfortunately, McCartney inexplicably stops the tune twice to spout some banal drivel, as though he wasn’t really serious about playing an old Holly hit single. Quirky California psychedelic popster Jenny O. keeps the instrumental backing for “I’m Gonna Love You Too” close to Holly’s rendering, but her chirpy-bird vocals sink her translation into parody. Reed turns “Peggy Sue” into a post-punk grinder which blends fuzz-drenched guitars, a throbbing undercurrent of atmospheric darkness, and eddying keyboards. This approach worked well when Reed redid Doc Pomus’ “This Magic Moment” (from Till the Night is Gone: A Tribute to Doc Pomus issued by Rhino in 1995), where he delivered a reading which dripped with underlying dread. Here, though, Reed simply misses his mark: he might have done better if he had chosen something with interior menace such as “That’ll Be the Day.”

It’s left to Modest Mouse to give the song inspired by John Wayne’s character in the motion picture The Searchers a suitable twist-up. The indie rockers change “That’ll Be the Day” to blend folksy acoustics with a marshy electric emanation. Another noteworthy revision is Florence + The Machine’s electro-New Orleans modification of “Not Fade Away,” which effectively marries a Crescent City tone – complete with bumping percussion, sousaphone, and Ivan Neville’s Wurlitzer organ –  alongside Florence Welch’s soulful voice and her predilection for finding the path never taken before. Credit also goes to this track’s producer, Louisiana-born C.C. Adcock, who wily unites unconventional elements into a joyful concoction.

Another type of Southern soul permeates Kid Rock’s remarkably effective Stax/Volt-inclined variation on “Well All Right.” Kid Rock isn’t known for subtlety or savvy, but he does a masterful job with this horn-fronted arrangement which could have easily gone overboard but maintains a concise course. Patti Smith, Nick Lowe (who these days is sporting a Buddy Holly look), and Justin Townes Earle also supply memorable makeovers that display closer connections to Holly’s original intentions.

Buddy Holly was only 22 when he died in the 1959 Iowa plane crash which also took the lives of Ritchie Valens and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson – an event immortalized in 1971 by avowed fan and then-little-known singer/songwriter Don McLean, who became famous due to his epic narrative “American Pie” (the full-length song runs close to nine minutes), with a narrative configuration reinforced by the catchy hook “the day the music died.” It is no accident Holly became the first rock’n’roll star to be the subject of a career-spanning box set, The Complete Buddy Holly (MCA, 1979) – a year after the inaccurate 1978 Gary Busey bio-pic The Buddy Holly Story; and there has been a steady stream of Hollyiana, including musicals, plays, upgraded and audiophile reissues of Holly’s work, and more than one working tribute band, all of which continues to come out at a regular pace more than 50 years after Holly passed away. Buddy Holly wasn’t the first rock’n’roller, he didn’t actualize the music’s latent sexuality like Elvis Presley, and he didn’t celebrate the blues roots or American adolescent patterns like Chuck Berry. But as Rave On Buddy Holly makes plain, his influence was just as important as these others, if more indirect and more specifically musical in character and quality.

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