[1 July 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
I’ve often wondered how ‘50s rocker Buddy Holly would have evolved had he not unfortunately and tragically died young at the age of 22 in a 1959 Iowa plane crash that not only dimmed his bright light, but also those of Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. Would he have gone on to even bigger fame and success, or would he have simply burned out and faded away like many of his ‘50s brethren like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis? Would he have joined the army, just like Elvis Presley, and dropped out of music for a time? Would he have, as I somewhere read, gone on to make music that was much more ornate and orchestrated, moving more and more in line with pop sensibilities? What would have happened? Alas, thinking about how Holly, a rockabilly and rock pioneer, would have evolved is mere conjecture. All we have is a spate of songs that he recorded essentially over a truncated year-and-a-half period, and that’s it, that’s all.
So what makes this recent tribute compilation of covers, Rave on Buddy Holly, so interesting is that it offers a bit of a peek of insight into what it would have been like if Holly had been born in 1989 instead of 1936. This collection of 19 songs, covered by the likes of rock and punk legends from the 1960s and ‘70s such as Paul McCartney, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Nick Lowe, and John Doe of X fame, as well as a bevy of A-listers in the indie rock scene such as Modest Mouse, My Morning Jacket, She & Him, The Black Keys, and others, is interesting in that it throws a modern template on the songs of Holly: while some of the tracks don’t move very far from the original DNA of Holly’s tunes, some—such as Kid Rock’s soulful cover of “Well All Right”—offer a bit of a twist on the formula, forcing one to wonder just what Holly could have done with modern recording technology at his fingertips. That’s the most valuable thing that can be gleamed from this variable collection, which has its share of highlights and lowlights.
There’s a reason why a bevy of different artists have been collected here on this compilation tied to the 75th anniversary of Holly’s birth, ranging from rapper Cee Lo Green to soulful indie rocker Florence + the Machine. Holly simply had a profound and lasting impact on many different musicians spanning many different styles of music. Without Holly, there might not be any Beatles—or Beatles that we recognize in their popular early incarnation. Without Holly, it wouldn’t have been cool for Elvis Costello to wear glasses on stage. Without Holly, Weezer’s most famous song wouldn’t even exist. Holly has been covered by everyone from Linda Ronstadt to the Rolling Stones to John Mellencamp to Bruce Springsteen to the Grateful Dead to, believe it or not, power-rock trio Rush. (Their debut 1973 single, which the band is now more or less embarrassed by and has never properly re-released on compact disc, featured a cover of Holly’s “Not Fade Away” as its A-side.) Holly might not be talked about as much as Elvis Presley—and I’m hard pressed to remember the last time I heard Holly on oldies radio—but he’s an important figure in the annals of early rock and roll, which is particularly astonishing when you consider he was barely out of his teens when he wrote his most famous compositions. You have to figure that a wide plethora of artists were champing at the bit to cover him.
On Rave on Buddy Holly, the general rule of thumb seems to be that the better reinterpretations generally, but not always, go to the younger indie rockers. I think the reason for that is that, with a greater distance away from this rock idol that they possess, they were probably less reverent than some of the old timers who had been born when Holly was still around. It simply seems that some of those from the older generation had put Holly on a pedestal and didn’t want to stray too far away from the roots of Holly’s sound, which tends to make their contributions a little less interesting. In fact, one of the more intriguing contributions comes from, of all people, Kid Rock. His take on “Well All Right” might just be the one thing on this compilation that you can really put under the microscope and marvel at with its big brassy horns, gorgeous slide guitar, and a mere shaker and handclaps providing the base beat. It’s really soulful and transformative, and utterly remarkable. I can’t believe that I’m actually defending the former foul-mouthed rap-rocker in print, but his involvement in Rave on Buddy Holly is one of the things that make you stop in your tracks and really wonder if this would have been the route Holly would have gone off in had he lived longer.
Another highlight is Modest Mouse’s soft and swampy take on “That’ll Be the Day”, which is great precisely because it sounds like it could be a bona fide Modest Mouse song off of 2004’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News. It swoons and careens with a fuzzed out guitar, and delicious strings that swoop in about two-thirds of the way through the track. “That’ll Be the Day” is a sterling example of a band using the basic groundwork of Holly’s material and transforming it to sound remarkably contemporary. However, some of the younger stalwarts don’t ramble as far from the beaten path as Modest Mouse. “Everyday”, covered here by Fiona Apple—whom we haven’t heard from since 2005’s Extraordinary Machine—and her frequent collaborator Jon Brion, is a fragile cover with vibes at the forefront, making it extraordinarily cute, just as the original is. It doesn’t stray from the earlier recording, which was an astute decision: the song simply didn’t need any further dressing up. Additionally, the rollicking cover of “Oh Boy” by She & Him doesn’t really fall far from the tree, aside from the fact that female vocals are at the forefront, but is utterly captivating.
Meanwhile, the rock and roll elite tend to stumble right out of the gate on this collection. “It’s So Easy”, performed here by Paul McCartney is a straight-up rocker, but suffers when the pop legend stops the song to spout cod-rock gibberish as though he forgot that he wasn’t playing the cut in front of a live audience. To give him some credit, it sounds like he’s at least having a bit of fun, but his appearance here is not merely a charitable one—he owns the rights to Holly’s publishing catalogue, so it just seems perfunctory that he’s here at all. (Personally, I’d take the Ronstadt cover over this one.) Punk legend Patti Smith turns in a decidedly non-punk cover of “Words of Love” that is maudlin and string-dripped, making it sound more like an ‘80s soft rock song that really doesn’t carry any sort of emotional heft. Whether or not that has anything to do with the aforementioned sense of reverence is debatable, but it really sounds like Smith is simply trying too hard. However, worst of all is Lou Reed’s straight-up reading of “Peggy Sue”, which is a particular embarrassment. It sounds like Reed has trouble staying in tune, as he warbles all over the place, and the hard rock stylings of the track are just limp and uninteresting. I know the guy is getting older and there would be a presumable decline in his ability as a result, but his take on “Peggy Sue” is really cloying and nearly unlistenable.
At 19 songs deep, there’s a lot to take in with Rave on Buddy Holly. There’s much more here that’s worth touching on, such as the great My Morning Jacket version of “True Love Ways” that is absolutely spartan and stunning thanks in part to Jim James’ soaring vocals. While it is hard to top an utter master of songcraft, there is an admirable attempt at some reinvention going on here that makes for a compelling listen. While some of these reinterpretations don’t work, this collection of songs is still crucial and invaluable for introducing a younger generation onto the utter genius and brilliance of Buddy Holly, something that seems to be sorely needed because it just seems that Holly doesn’t seem to command the respect and admiration that he once did. Holly has seemingly become a forgotten artist, so it’s nice to see that there are musicians who are enthusiastic about keeping the late songwriter’s memory alive. While Rave on Buddy Holly is no substitute for the real McCoy, it is a serviceable collection of songs that serve as a sad and profound reminder of the loss that popular music as a whole suffered on the Day the Music Died. One that will hopefully turn younger listeners onto the brilliance of some of rock and roll’s earliest material.