The Crickets | The “Chirping” Crickets (November 1957)
Rock and Roll / Rockabilly 25:59
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
Where does our inspiration come from? What is it that gives us a spark of creativity which compels us to make or build? Is there really “nothing new”; are we really just recycling old ideas and passing them off as our own innovative thinking? Certainly the wise speaker of the quote taken from the Bible above (possibly King Solomon, although there is some debate which I won’t get into here) seems to think so. Even geniuses like Shakespeare borrowed heavily from other sources to create their masterpieces. And listening to the current music chart, there are plenty of times when it feels like it is made up of nothing more than hits from my youth regurgitated for a new generation (and not just the tracks making heavy use of ‘sampling’, like those made by the great Mark Ronson).
Thinking of some of the musical innovators who I admire, I am forced to admit that, more often than not, they have not come up with these new sounds themselves. Take a look at any of the big hitters of the 1960s, for example: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones. As their music developed, they all made a mark on the scene which can still be felt – and heard – today. Despite the insistence of John Lennon that The Beatles were “just a band” (contender for biggest understatement of the century), they were consistently pushing music in new directions. Yet each one of those had their own influences; their own musical heroes who they admired and emulated. And the name which comes up more often than any other as one of their biggest inspirations? Step forward Charles Hardin Holley – better known as Buddy Holly.
It’s hard to argue with the view of critic Bruce Eder that Holly was, despite his too short life, “the single most influential creative force in early rock and roll”. Both Lennon and McCartney emulated him with their early work – not just with covers of his songs (an early recording of That’ll Be the Day by The Quarrymen can be heard on their first Anthology album) but down to their very name, cheekily riffing on The Crickets to come up with The Beatles. Dylan saw Holly play live just two days before the singer’s death in 1959, with Bob continuing to feel his influence decades later (he insisted that he felt Holly had been present during the recording of 1998’s Time Out of Mind). And one of the Stones’ biggest early hits was a cover of Not Fade Away. When Don McLean sang of The Day the Music Died in 1971, there was no doubt that many agreed the world had lost a truly great singer and songwriter when Buddy’s flight crashed, killing all those on board (including fellow singers Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper).
But does the music meet the hype? Was Holly – who only made three full albums before he died in that February aged just 22 – really that good? The truth is, as the first song begins to play, after almost 60 years, The Crickets still sound amazing. I first heard Buddy Holly as a pre-teen, playing a greatest hits compilation on cassette owned by my parents. It became a well-played recording, with me often putting it into the player and doubtlessly wearing the tape thin. At the time, I didn’t know what it was that attracted me to it (I had only begun listening to songs in the charts a few months earlier), but I like to think that it was the genius of the songwriting and talent in the playing which kept me coming back. Certainly I realised I was listening to something very special.
The first song on the recording I’ve got is Rock Me My Baby (some recordings put this as the last number on the album, starting instead with Oh Boy). As the guitars start to twang, a shiver runs down the spine. While I know many of Holly’s numbers, thanks to that cassette of my parents, this is the first time I had heard this particular track. And what a number – I suddenly hear the revolutionary sound that those teenagers had heard so many years before. The brilliant numbers keep on coming: Oh Boy, which for a Crickets’ song is a throwaway number, is still head-and-shoulders above most. Then comes Not Fade Away; the song which the Stones chose to cover. It’s not hard to hear why; the staccato guitar playing and the incessant beat make this a number that screams instant classic. Even hearing it now, it is like capturing a once-in-a-lifetime experience in music. This is a man who could not only play, not only turn out hit after hit, but who could push the boundaries of music. The only response, even at my age, is to want to pick up a Fender Stratocaster (Holly’s guitar of choice) and start playing.
You’ve Got Love sounds slightly old-fashioned (particularly after the previous three songs on the album) but that doesn’t stop it being a sweet number. But just when you wonder if the group has peaked too early, comes along Maybe Baby. The musical ability on the slower It’s Not Too Late, which may not match the virtuosity of other numbers, still manages to draw a breath of awe, while Tell Me How could be released by any band between then and now and still sound fresh and original. As for That’ll Be The Day, the introduction on guitar is still something that any guitarist would be happy to master. The apparent simplicity of the numbers, an assumption easy to make from the lyrics, hide a brilliant talent on the instruments. There is a tightness to the playing which belies Holly’s young age (he was barely 20 when he recorded this, his first album).
As the album heads towards its end (the whole thing wraps up in just 25 minutes), Looking for Someone to Love keeps things moving, demonstrating that even The Crickets’ less known songs are still nothing short of masterclasses in writing and playing. Three slower numbers wind the album down, perhaps an anti-climax to the preceding tracks (although don’t let that fool you into thinking they aren’t worth a listen). While some aspects of the recording may have dated slightly (the backing vocals sound like they should be used in songs from the 1940s than the late 1950s), this is still an amazing debut that deserves to live on. If it can influence some of the greatest artists from the last 50 years, many of whom have gone on to redefine music, then The “Chirping” Crickets needs to be played to any aspiring musician; without the work of Charles Hardin Holley, modern music would sound very different – and certainly be a lot less exciting. Listen to this album and you’ll soon realise that this was a man who changed the world.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to the album here:
Next time: The Atomic Mr Basie by Count Basie