Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Buddy Holly: The "Chirping" Crickets (1957)



In a recording career that barely lasted three years, Buddy Holly released material on as many labels. Following his abortive and unsuccessful run with Decca, Holly nabbed two contracts -- one with Brunswick, for material with his band the Crickets, and one with Coral, for his solo work. The Decca songs are clearly a different beast, but the distinction between the Brunswick and Coral records is purely academic, akin to Parliament and Funkadelic fifteen years later. That is, until you sit down with either of the full-length LPs Holly made, one for each outlet. This is the prehistory of the rock album, but The "Chirping" Crickets and Buddy Holly present fascinatingly distinct portraits of a great artist and his range.

The disappointments that confronted Holly throughout 1956 failed to crush his innovations, as his songwriting and thunderous fusion of rockabilly, soul and pop became ever more economical and impressive. When on May 27, after a decision to ignore Decca's block of future recordings of the songs Holly'd made for them, Brunswick released "That'll Be the Day" back with "I'm Looking for Someone to Love," the entire remainder of the story was essentially written in one day -- up to and including Holly's death.

The confusion of what's a Crickets song and what isn't is a fool's errand to parse out, but the Crickets deserve more than the credit they receive as simply Holly's backing band. It is significant that they were credited with no individual's name out in front on their 45's and this LP, common in doo wop but not in rock & roll. All of the band members share equal prominence on this album cover. This is the invention of the rock band as we know it. But the Crickets matter because of Holly, humble though he may have been. It is his writing, singing, and guitar playing that drove the Crickets, that made them so mostrously influential, and that gave them the business savvy necessary to exist in a business cruel to teenage music.

In August, Holly and the Crickets played a legendary series of shows at the Apollo Theater, having been (legend has it) accidentally booked by someone unaware that they were a white group. The entire tour consisted of stops in neighborhood venues typically used by black performers, but inevitably the residence at the illustrious New York theater has a stranglehold on the Holly mythology. Stories vary regarding how long it took for Buddy to win over a suspicious crowd, but what is not in dispute is that he and the Crickets ultimately did so. It's a symbolic moment, perhaps now only intellectually, but it drives home the forgotten point that rock & roll was finally a music that transcended race in its beginnings, through a glorious period that would end all too quickly.

The "Chirping" Crickets is not a complete document of what Holly was doing in 1957. There's no sign here of "Words of Love" or "Peggy Sue," those introspective numbers reserved for Holly's solo LP. What Crickets has is roaring, booming momentum through its first eight tracks, a juggernaut of five major rock & roll songs interspersed with three solid ones containing major moments, a run not even eclipsed by anything on Chuck Berry's first three albums, which consistently dispersed their filler throughout rather than reservering it all for the end like Holly. No, an album is not really the way to be introduced to Buddy Holly or generally even the way to listen to him or any '50s rock & roller -- it's difficult for us to understand, but the album as a rock & roll format simply did not exist in 1957. That's why it's so impressive that this one is as well-crafted and pleasurable as it is. The same goes for Holly's followup, but it can't quite plow a person over the way the first two thirds of this one can.

Within the first fifteen seconds of The "Chirping" Crickets, before the proverbial needle dropper has even had time to sit down, we are through the first verse and chorus of the massive "Oh, Boy!" -- a propulsive, emotional rocker that's basically about getting alone with a lover for the first time, the enthusiasm of its titular exclamation mark shorthand for the same heavy petting and digital-vaginal contact the Everlys blushed about on "Wake Up Little Susie," confronted with unembarrassed aplomb by Holly. Buddy's voice and its catalog of clucks and chirps and grunts inaugurates the record like an alien signal, but the guitar solo on the bridge -- writing the next several decades of guitar music in a matter of seconds -- could scarcely have caused anything but awe.

After that brash introduction, "Not Fade Away" comes on gentle without canceling out any propulsion or sexuality, in contrast to the more crooning tenderness of the Coral 45's. The song reframes its debt to Bo Diddley as the stage for a complex, inarticulate yearning, all in evocative incomplete sentences. "You know my love not fade away," he sings in a different way -- a different voice, it seems -- each time, though perhaps nothing is as challenging and naked in its emotional depth as the way the line "A love to last more than one day" seems to control him, as powerful and rich a moment of rock singing as has ever been laid down to this day. And of course, guitar. Again, guitar.

The remainder of side one certainly lives in the wake of those two gargantuan numbers -- even the sassy, nerdy, androgynous hit "Maybe Baby," sensual as it is -- but it never ceases to cause astonishment, now at Holly's performance skills more than his songs. "You've Got Love" is a playful Roy Orbison number that calls back to Mickey & Sylvia's "Love Is Strange," a record Holly loved, with his oddball read of "I like the spin I'm in," an irresistible moment of incongruous whine and drone. (Never let it be said John Cale learned nothing from Buddy Holly.) Later, he reframes Chuck Willis' blues standard "It's Too Late" as street corner doo wop, a relatively minor prospect until the astounding echoed vocal on the bridge begins to demand attention, and all you want for the next minute is for him to do it again, wailing and crying like never before.

"Tell Me How" is the lost classic of the album. Despite its sped-up Johnny Mathis vocals, another haunting bridge, and some goofy chords in the verse, it is basically punk rock: hopping nasal confidence, detailed abrasion and thudding, and a prophetically basic guitar solo. Even on such an obscure LP cut, Holly is disinterested in slowing down his flood of ideas.

Side Two opens in a time warp of sorts, with the double-sided monster that effectively began Holly's career early in the same year (an eternity in '50s rock & roll). There is, of course, heavy competition, but is this the most beautiful rock & roll 45 of the '50s? "That'll Be the Day" is the most complete creation anyone had conceived in the form -- and I mean anyone. Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino all had enormously vital records just as good as this one, but all seem to exist as documents of their moments and none seem cut from its cloth of heavily considered popcraft. And in contrast to "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Maybellene," no one knows or cares what it's about (a playfully bickering couple challenging the depth of one another's love, revealing both a mutual devotion and a mutual disdain, an interesting enough lyric that recedes completely into the background) -- because what it's about, first of all, is the swagger and sex in Holly's bewitching vocal performance. And then the frighteningly prophetic big beat interlude on the second part of the bridge, the in and out drops of the guitar, the tolling of the nonstop and quite inventive backing vocals. That moment when, apropos of nothing, the Crickets decide to preserve the perfect moment just a bit with that knockout slowdown of "you. make. me. cry-hi" near the end. But everything still seems secondary here to Holly's own flooring performance, right up to his closing whispers of "That'll be the day / Woo-hoo."

Though far less celebrated, "I'm Looking for Someone to Love" is easily the equal of "Day." And this time, the words matter. Holly was only 20 when it was recorded, but its adult love problems are a far cry from the puppy affections frequently associated with malt shop rock & roll. In the end, "That'll Be the Day" was about fucking, about teasing and turning on; "Looking" is about being cuckolded and not at all willing to accept it -- the anger, the ferocity and force of his heartbreak, add up to 1:58 of delightful rage, with a deadly accurate rollercoaster of feelings. "Caught myself / Thinking of you... You can't love me and another one too!" It's revelatory to hear Holly's expressive chirps and calls in service of thoughts so far from "Everyday" and "Not Fade Away." The backing vocals and guitar are no less exciting than in "That'll Be the Day," and are more pronounced if anything in their insistence, even if the total package isn't as intoxicating as on the A-side.

And then splat. There's value to everything Buddy Holly recorded, every bit of his tiny catalog, but The "Chirping" Crickets trails off dramatically in its final four selections. Roy Orbison wrote "An Empty Cup (And a Broken Date)," one of the few direct lines to the Sun rockabilly artists whose illustrious work Holly fast eclipsed, and it's far more suited to his style than to Holly's. Holly was not and never could have been the resigned romantic that Orbison was, at least not convincingly, nor does he wish he was dead or for an end to all love the world over like Everly Brothers; see the prior song, which confronts these broken dates and threats with intense bitterness at the suffering, striving to move on immediately in the face of being wronged.

There are some fantastic, compulsive Holly tics in "Send Me Some Lovin'," which charmingly lets Holly work around a doo wop ballad, but the Crickets tend to annoy here and the song doesn't give them much to do instrumentally. "Last Night" is the same thing with a marginally more interesting melody. The "What'd I Say" ripoff "Rock Me My Baby" is a slight improvement and the Crickets do their best, but the material is beneath them, free of the substance and eroticism of the hits. The chorus is basically a nursery rhyme, which makes for a laughable comparison with the more evocative branches of the LP.

One wishes that the album could cause intense reflection on how this was the beginning of it all, looking back on where Holly led us. But sadly, this album was released barely a year before his death. He would get remarkably far in a very short time, but not far beyond this; the ballads would get refined on the next album, and alone at home he would continue reinventing the pop wheel in ways that are still being dealt with, but as a studio creature The "Chirping" Crickets is really the tower of his work in his peak year, 1957, in totality. We can never know how it would have fit in a broader context. Regardless of that, it still sizzles.

Greatest Hits (1957-59)

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