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Music

Buddy Holly showed his truth on 'That'll Be The Day'

It’s no wonder the world was never the same after the release of Buddy Holly’s second, and final, album. It’s the sound of a singer abandoning the trappings of American folk music for something livelier, and decidedly more frisky in nature. A raconteur in the studio, and a nervous leader outside of it, Holly nonetheless inspired thousands of fans, many of them British, helping to create a new form of music that was geared to the teenage market: rock and roll.

By modern standards, the album sounds safe, solid, and even pedestrian, but in the late 1950s, it sounded like a lightning bolt, creating a new form of angular, arch recordings that were deeply immediate and laced with some degrees of sexual intent. It woke Paul McCartney up to the possibilities of writing from deep within the heart, and the songs were all the richer for his work.

Asked in 2020 what he would have asked Holly, the Beatle replied, “It would have been, ‘How do you do the riff from ‘That’ll Be The Day’?’ But we [The Beatles] worked that one out. I’d probably ask him why he took that plane flight.” McCartney purchased Holly’s entire catalogue and produced Holly Days in close collaboration with Wings guitarist Denny Laine in the late 1970s.

The power of the work came from its simplicity, whether it was the unique beauty of ‘You Are My One Desire’ to the trembling sincerity that soaks ‘Blue Days, Black Nights’. Sparsely produced, and recorded with great interest in the vocal melodies that centre the album, the record is refreshingly free of the trappings of the indulgences that would segue into rock less than a decade later. There are no protracted keyboard solos, and whatever frenzied guitar hooks are kept to a solid backbeat.

The Beatles’ cover of Buddy Holly’s ‘That’ll Be The Day’ during 1958 recording session

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The songs are a mixture of covers and originals, and although the title track is the undisputed highlight, there is a great deal to get stuck into throughout the album. Indeed, on any other album ‘Love Me’ would prove to be the masterpiece, but ‘Don’t Come Back Knockin’ ‘ holds great impact, precisely because it is so sincere and solid.

At 25 minutes, the album is little longer than an early Genesis track, but Peter Gabriel was almost certainly inspired by Holly’s projection, especially his mastery from loud bellowing screams, to more stoic, silent stylistic vocal melodies. No doubt about it, Holly was gifted, never underestimating a song, no matter how brief the tune was, or how simple the arrangement was.

The singer was professional, singing every tune as if presenting it to a paying audience for the first time, clearly investing his soul, as well as his intellect into the work. The characters that emerged from the work weren’t the figments of someone’s imagination, but deeply realised persons who understood the pressures of the environment, still happy to invest themselves into the world as it presented it to the world at large.

It was a deeply truthful work, and truth serviced the acts that came up behind Holly’s lead, whether they were traipsing in the lead of a sprawling, spiralling keyboard line, or singing in the name of a countercultural revolution that advised listeners to cast off the aprons left to them by oppressive governments.

It’s to Holly’s credit that he showed he could take a moment to laugh at himself, with the delicious irony of ‘Ting a Ling’. ‘I’m Changing All Those Changes’ furthered the metaphor, as Holly worked himself to tackle the challenges a new decade awaited him. Who knows what he could have sung in the 1960s because a plane crash robbed him of that experience. But in a lightning style fashion, he created a legacy that still burns, and his vocal style can be heard from every Miles Kane to Alex Turner. McCartney remains one of the singers’ most ardent fans and even paid a little tribute to him on his first solo work. That was something!