Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Holly Hop and Berry Pickin’: Buddy and Chuck and the Invention of Rock & Roll’s Future

The package was completely unexpected: he was white, geeky, gangly, bespectacled. His hair was a little oily-looking, but neatly cropped in contrast to the wild pompadours that Elvis, Jerry Lee, and Little Richard favored. He wore a conservative two-piece suit in contrast to those guys’ baggy trousers and flashy lamé. None of this fit the Rock & Roll image. Nonetheless, Buddy Holly was one of its great innovators. And if Elvis was the face of Rock & Roll, the cat who struck the genre’s most iconic image, Buddy was the guts. He wasn’t gorgeous and groovy; he was the content in the grooves. With Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly revolutionized Rock & Roll music more profoundly than any other artist of his era. And, yes, that does include Elvis.


Without question, Elvis Presley deserves more credit for popularizing Rock & Roll than any other artist in the genre’s history. He created a tizzy with his beautiful face, beautiful baritone, and gritty sexuality. Yet his greatest influence on Rock & Roll is the inspirational role he played for a new breed of musicians whose music bore little similarity to his. He may have dazzled Lennon and Jagger and Townshend and Dylan and the rest, but most of those artists appropriated few of his records’ signatures. The 2/4 beat of Elvis’s Sun recordings is evident in much of Dylan’s mid-‘60s electric work, but it was hardly pervasive beyond the ‘50s. On the odd occasion a singer attempted to mimic his baritone—as Dylan did on “Lay Lady Lay” or Robert Plant on “Candy Store Rock”—the results sounded more like parody than tribute. That Elvis was never a songwriter further limits his personal impact. As an icon, he was without peer. As a force that would instigate Rock & Roll’s most radical musical developments, he is overshadowed by a pair of audacious trailblazers.


The music of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly constituted the two main ingredients of Rock & Roll, the bullion in a soup that would brew The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Ronettes, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Who, The Kinks, The Velvet Underground, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Ramones, The Clash, Elvis Costello, Holly Golightly, The White Stripes, The… well, if they plucked a guitar or crooned into a mic, they likely owe these two guys a tip of the hat and a pint of lager. Berry brought the pace: revved up like a ’57 Thunderbird, gunned along on power chords accelerated with a pinky swing to the sixth. With his limber riffing, Berry took Rock & Roll’s most essential tool and zapped it to life like Dr. Frankenstein. Richards, Clapton, Hendrix, Page, and Beck were listening. He also brought something to Rock & Roll that would crop up in the work of all the followers mentioned above and every other rocker who mattered: literate flair. Berry didn’t spew moon and June clichés; he spun yarns. Saying he loved a girl wasn’t adequate for the duck walker; he needed to convey his frustration about being unable to undo her seatbelt while fumbling in the front seat of his car. He needed to protest being inundated with bills, fast-talking salesmen (you listening, Jagger?), schooling, the military, and all the other monkey business. He needed to create fully fleshed characters: the road-bound daddy distraught because he can’t get a phone call through to his daughter back home, a prehistoric monkey who raises the ire of all the other animals in the jungle, the hot-picking country boy with dreams of being “the leader of a big old band.” Berry’s tall-tales were the seeds that sprouted “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, “Like a Rolling Stone”, “Janie Jones”, too many others.

Buddy Holly was not as fleet-fingered on the frets as Chuck Berry. His lyrics didn’t display as much panache. He was a moon and June guy, not a storyteller. But whereas Berry was content to repeat the same tune, guitar riff, and chord-progression over and over and over again, Buddy was a restless composer and musical innovator. No two Holly songs sound the same, and the same cannot be said of any other rocker of his generation. He made Rock & Roll the one thing its early proponents never expected it could be: eclectic. He could pump out a Bo Diddley beat on “Not Fade Away”. Flip that record over and find the twee pitter-patter of “Everyday” (surely the first Rock & Roll song to feature the celesta!). The fatalistic “That’ll Be the Day” is a soulful swing; “I’m Looking for Someone to Love” is euphoric, finger-snapping pop. Listen to “Words of Love” to hear the invention of jangle-pop, because The Beatles and The Byrds sure did. Listen to “Listen to Me” to hear the invention of Latin-Rock nearly a year before “La Bamba”. Listen to “Well…All Right”. Yes, you are hearing the birth of folk rock. And with the last tracks he recorded, something even more fascinating was taking place. Employing the strings of arranger Dick Jacobs on “True Love Ways”, “Raining in My Heart”, and “It Doesn’t Matter Any More”, Buddy Holly invented the orchestral Rock & Roll that would seem so innovative when The Beatles started using violins and cellos in the mid-‘60s.

Those final tracks also revealed the development of Buddy Holly’s compositional skills. Breaking away from the limitations of the I-IV-V blues progression, he took his music in adult territory that probably still didn’t endear him to late ‘50s adults. Yet he certainly endeared himself to the young writers who would enact the innovations Holly’s untimely death on February 3, 1959, prevented him from doing himself. That maturity is evident in Roy Orbison’s work of the early ‘60s. Formerly a rock-a-billy raver, Orbison expanded his vocabulary of chord-changes and arrangements with “Only the Lonely”, “Running Scared”, and “Crying” that sound like the next logical step after Holly’s late-career work. Incorporating instruments beyond their four-piece line-up was still in The Beatles’ future, but the influence of Holly’s inventive melodies and harmonies are already present in “Please Please Me” (originally conceived as an Orbison-eque torch song), “From Me to You”, “She Loves You”, others.


Had Buddy Holly lived, would he have taken those next steps before his students did? Miles from the prude his image implied, he might have led the psychedelic brigade before John and George’s dentist spiked their coffee with LSD in early ‘65. Or maybe he would have put his zeal for instrumental experimentation and studio trickery, such as overdubbing, to use as a producer. Most likely, he would have continued writing and singing and performing and recording. And though he may not have remained consistently at the top of the charts, he would have remained consistently popular and influential. And we don’t need “maybes” or “what ifs” to qualify that last point, because it’s the stone truth. It’s in the hiccups of Ronnie Spector and Joey Ramone. It’s in the thump of Keith Moon’s cardboard kit on “See My Way” and the heavy, black frames on Elvis Costello’s face. It’s in The Everly Brothers’ “True Love Ways”, The Rolling Stones’ “Not Fade Away”, The Beatles’ “Words of Love”, Blind Faith’s “Well… All Right”, Blondie’s “I’m Gonna Love You Too”, The Raveonettes “Everyday”, and all those tracks on the Rave On Buddy Holly tribute album released just a few months ago. Buddy Holly did not live to experience his own legacy, as his fellow pioneer Chuck Berry did, but it exists and it persists, never to fade away.

Buddy Holly was born 75 years ago today.
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