To quote one of the lesser pop masters of all time: “only the good die young”. Best line that guy ever uttered, and a truer statement about Buddy Holly’s mere 22 years on this planet there could not be. In Lubbock, Texas on 7 September 1936 a tiny portal from another dimension opened up and out came Buddy Holly, smile gleaming, complete with horn-rimmed glasses and Stratocaster, singing in a voice broadcast from a far away plane of dust and tumbleweed, filtering through the small metal sieve of a transistor radio speaker. His music the ethereal lost soundtrack to The Last Picture Show maybe, but surely not songs made amid the mundane trappings of a recording studio. Of course, the fact remains he was indeed just a human like the rest of us, which make his achievements and subsequent status as one of the foremost American icons that much more remarkable.
But in the bent to make us all believe the music was miraculous, history omitted Holly’s very important, equally groundbreaking, band The Crickets. A recent article by Jeffrey Zaslow in the Wall Street Journal dealt precisely with this phenomenon and spoke of the second-class status afforded to most backup bands — from the Pips to the Miracles to the E Street Band, all of whom were denied entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame while their more famous frontmen (and women) waltzed right in to be immortalized in the pantheon with rest of the legends. The Crickets began as a group with no one member grander in status than another, and they wrote most of their songs together — “Peggy Sue” was actually written for drummer J. I. Allison’s first wife. Allison even admits, “I’d like some attaboys” (Wall Street Journal 31 March 2004). As well he should. Decca’s reissue of their very first album, 1957’s The ‘Chirping’ Crickets — complete with original cover and liner notes — does a nice job of highlighting the band as a band — not just Buddy Holly with some faceless musicians backing him up. The digital remastering gives each strum, each drum beat, and each one of Holly’s guitar licks its intended clarity, and the recording sounds as bright today as it did on wax nearly 50 years ago better in fact.
The “Chirping” Crickets is the sound of rock and roll hiccuping its way out of it’s primordial shell. To reiterate, the Crickets wrote much of their own material, a stark contrast to the other studio-formed groups of the time. This was a real rock and roll band with real virtuosos and songwriters and a new sound they dubbed “western bop” — a fusion of country and be-bop. But after Elvis tapped into the black American music canon with his self-titled debut album, mixing rhythm and blues with country, rockabilly was born and inspired the Crickets in a big way.
Their songs transcend any and all modern assessments, as they form the very foundation for the phenomenon of rock and roll — a musical art form that many argue died just about two decades after its inception. How could a song like “Not Fade Away” be any better? Holly cheerily belting out “I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be/ You’re gonna give your love to me”, over those jangly guitar hooks, keeping time with the bop-bop-bop chorus is an unadulterated slice of pop music perfection. Or “Oh Boy!” and “Peggy Sue”, the classic tunes that wore down the soles of millions of saddle shoes and penny loafers dancing the mashed potato or the bop or what have you. “Maybe Baby” is an optimistic declaration and a melancholy resignation: “You are the one that makes me gla-a-a-d/ And you are the one that makes me sa-a-a-d”. “It’s Too Late” gets right at the meat of a lost love, Holly’s voice adopting a teary, far away tone that swells to a heart-rending wail. A solo in the middle of “That’ll Be the Day” properly shows off Holly’s dexterity on the electric guitar and confirms the music’s deep root in the blues. Throughout the record, it’s apparent that these guys were really jamming and listening to each other, not just playing by rote, which lends an urgency to the music not commonly synonymous with this era’s sound. The four bonus tracks, recorded a few months after the cuts on the album, fit right in with the rest of the album. “It’s So Easy” is certainly the most recognizable of these but the opening guitar line of “Think It Over” is a standout and offers a glimpse of Holly’s future influence, sounding not unlike something that might have inspired Robby Krieger of The Doors — by way of Bob Dylan.
Buddy Holly and the Crickets can be credited for being the first truly independent rock and roll band, able to maintain their own identity and use their own material even after they had fallen into the hands of producers with dollar signs for eyes — the popular musician-as-artist was redefined for the newly-minted rock and roll movement. The choruses underpinning many of the songs have the tendency to date the music a bit, but ultimately the noise these boys from Texas made has resonated through many generations all over the world and has not lost any of its impact. Buddy Holly did not fade away, and thanks to reissues like this, neither have his Crickets. Perhaps now they will be more widely recognized for their incredible contributions to the birth of rock and roll and will be granted the immortality they deserve after too many anonymous years. And with the trends evolving at light speed these days, it may only be a matter of time before the neo-sleaze of ’60s and ’70s garage rock is replaced with the squeaky clean western bop of the ’50s — bands like The Vines and The Hives may need to make way for, say, The Gnats or The Doodle Bugs. Time will tell.
Niki Sullivan, guitarist for the Crickets, passed away on April 8th at the age of 66. This is dedicated to his memory. He will not fade away.