Elvis Presley Challenge No 31 – Buddy Holly

The name is good.  Buddy is friendly and Holly suggests yuletide celebrations, optimism even.   Of course, the celebrations at Christmas are always short lived and before the week is out the death of another year has to be acknowledged.  The British deal with this as they do with allBuddy Holly unpleasant existential truths.  They turn their back on it and get plastered with alcohol.   So, the name Holly made sense for friendly Buddy, brief happiness and success before a wintry death in snowy February.   The big difference between the death of Holly and the bleak conclusion that occurs at the end of every year is the inevitability of the New Year.  Time passes, rock and rollers lose hair and put on weight and years end.   The heroes who die before they reach twenty four years are unusual and unlucky.   The man deserves plenty of sympathy and he has had it.   He provides the rock and roll tragedy that was imitated so brilliantly by Diana on behalf of the establishment.  Okay, that is too cynical but you know what I mean.  It is difficult to discuss objectively the merit of either individual because for so many real grief intrudes.   The death of Elvis was different.  He died when he was forty two and there were elements in his death that were self-inflicted and there were also compensations in his short life.   Holly was a rock and roll star for a mere eighteen months.  He met a nice girl and married.   At least, Elvis had a sex life that more than a few young men would have exchanged for longevity.

The obsession of Elvis and Holly fans is similar but their attitudes are different although I tend to avoid discussion with those fans of either who value themselves according to their loyalty.   Holly made some great records and my favourites are ‘Rave On’, ‘Not Fade Away’, ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’, ‘That’ll Be The Day’ and ‘Maybe Baby’.   But I was never as convinced as his loyalists.   It is interesting that this challenge has come from Nigeria.   I suspect that over there they can evaluate Buddy Holly more accurately and objectively than in the UK or than I can at least.   The culture here is rich and the British remain passionate about music, drama and literature although we are less well read than we were fifty years ago.  Supposedly, our Prime Minister avoids reading.  He is an expert on TV programmes.  Considering the record of his Government we should not be surprised.  Anyway, like Cameron, in Britain art and culture is always tainted by class.   This does not mean the triumphs are any less spectacular.  They exist in books, on the stage and sometimes in the movies.  But the taint is there.   What should be taste is often snobbery or aspirational identity, at least.

Elvis at the coliseum with Buddy Holley and Bob Montgomery looking on - June 3, 1955Buddy Holly arrived as an alternative to Elvis and although like everybody else I thrilled to the early black and white clips of Holly singing ‘Rave On’ I never quite identified with the clique that surrounded him.   There is an axis in rock and roll that travels from Elvis towards Dylan and that passes Holly and The Beatles.   Elvis was possible when rock and roll was dominated by the working class.  The rockabilly of Sun is the sound of rougher bars than that of Holly.   Americans with more understanding of their social milieu may dispute that but that was how it sounded to me as a young man.  In England, it felt like Elvis was listened to by the kids in the secondary modern schools, Holly was for the grammar kids who wanted to impress their teachers and Dylan was for the adolescents who attended University.  This is an unfair generalisation and has little to do with the talent of what were in all three cases exceptionally gifted performers.    But these three musicians all needed a market to be successful.   The hype which is fed by the media may be desperate to tell us different but nobody conquers the world.   For everyone, the world remains indifferent.   Scott Fitzgerald recognised in ‘Gatsby’ that human beings were too self-obsessed to worry too long about the worth of others.  Massive success and widespread ignorance are compatible.  The record company BMG has tried for years to place Elvis CDs in more than 10% of UK households.   So far they have not succeeded.  90% of households do not have one Elvis CD and, of the 10% that do, 90% of them have no more than one.   This is what is odd about fame, the famous wallow in glory whilst having to endure widespread contempt.    Success requires appealing to a limited number of individuals whose identity your music, books, paintings or movies either support or, at least, do not threaten.   Some people, of course, become obsessed with their heroes and reshape themselves in the image of those they adore.   Most of us, though, merely draw on what is available and take what is on offer when it suits.  Perhaps this is why the famous, faced with being patronised relentlessly, are obliged to turn a little crazy.

In his biography ‘Blue Monday- Fats Domino And The Lost Dawn Of Rock Bob DylanAnd Roll’ Rick Coleman argues that Dylan colonised rock and roll on behalf of the middle classes.  Listening to Dylan fans at University I suppose that was also how it seemed to me.    The triumph of Dylan felt like a defeat.   Progress that had been gained by people like Elvis was being lost.   But it may have been nothing to do with the middle class colonisation that Coleman describes.  Elvis, Holly, The Beatles and, finally, Dylan were also a consequence of  how the British working class spent more time being educated and progressed through grammar school to University.    Rock and roll has always been redefined by subsequent generations.   Elvis was an innocent who prospered when innocence was not only required but constituted protest and integrity.   Like Christmas celebrations, innocence rarely prevails, even amongst the innocent.    Holly was needed because rock and roll had to reflect grammar school certainties, the belief in the cerebral creative talent.   Much has been made about how Holly was the first rock and roll auteur.  Dylan suited the intellectual aspirations of undergraduates and his fans compare him to Shakespeare.     The music changes and something is gained but, inevitably, something is lost.

No doubt, Holly was influential.  The Beatles may have been Elvis fans but the model for them was Holly.   The vocals of The Beatles were modest compared to Elvis but like Holly they worked hard to give the songs a hook.   Holly was unusual amongst white rock and rollers to put so much emphasis on percussion and The Beatles or George Martin imitated this from the very beginning.   Listen to ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ which Elvis would play to his friends to show them what he wanted his own records to sound like and would have if RCA and Parker had not doctored his music against his wishes.

It is all a matter of taste.   I can spend an evening listening to Elvis without being bored.   Holly fans are the same and no doubt are happy with half a dozen tracks of Elvis like I am with Buddy Holly.   Some people take Holly seriously because he wore glasses; some find his image a real shortcoming in a rock and roll star.   If our passions reveal our craziness, our indifference too often exposes our superficiality.   There, I have convinced myself.  I need a box set.

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  1. Another really informative piece with an insight into Buddy and his music which was new for me. Whilst Buddy will never replace Elvis for me I can now listen to his music in new light.
    Thanks Howard.

  2. Great post thanks for the insight into Elvis, Holly and Dylan following. Elvis and Buddy were pioneers in many respects, Elvis broke the race barrier in rock n’ roll and Buddy was one of the first to experiment with orchestration. Even though Buddy had just 18 months to leave a mark, he left a very big one. Thanks, I look forward to more Elvis Challenges.

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