I’ve been reading - for the first time since it was new - Dave Laing’s fine little book Buddy Holly, published by Rock Books/November Books in the UK in 1971.
Its atmosphere is, savoured today, soaked in the modesty of the pre-Google age: when we knew we had access to limited knowledge and that finding things out meant taking pains to explore around a subject. Laing’s personal style tends to the beguilingly tentative in any case, but this sense of limitation, of there being room for doubt, of learning being something demanding care and time, is also a symptom of the era.
Perhaps too there was a special compatibility between subject and book because back then there were only a very small number of books about rock music, a subject still regarded with disdain by broadsheet newspapers and the vast majority of publishers. The rock writing of the early 1970s was as far from mainstream as rock’n’roll when The Crickets cut ‘That’ll Be The Day’.
So we may know more about Buddy Holly’s life and work now - and of course we have easy access to hearing every aspirated glottal stop he ever put on tape; but the spirit of the book gets us closer to Holly’s own. It was published only 12 years after that plane crash, and when Dave Laing was only 24: hardly older than Buddy had been. Book and subject occupy a more similar world than ours can do, and comparable niches within it.
One of Laing’s observations, which I’ve not encountered elsewhere, is that Holly differed from the other major rock’n’roll stars in having a long, slow route to success whereas the others found stardom more or less from the start. He failed to get anywhere with the ‘Buddy and Bob’ Nesman Studio sessions at Wichita Falls, and again with the 1956 sessions for Decca in Nashville, returning to Lubbock still an unknown both times:
“In this Holly is unique, for the first records of most of the young white rock’n’roll singers were their first hits.”
He could have omitted the word “white”, since the same virtually instant success happened for rock’n’roll’s biggest black stars too, Little Richard and Chuck Berry.
It may be an obvious thing to say, too, as Laing does, that “in most rock’n’roll records...sound dominates meaning” - and that typically a Holly record exemplifies this: “the themes of the words on the page need not necessarily relate to the way the words are sung on the record.” But if this seems obvious, it is at least usefully specific. To say “sound dominates meaning” is a brilliantly economical statement of a truth that applies not just to 1950s rock’n’roll but throughout the whole of pop. I’m drawn towards words, and always have been, and find them infinitely easier to write about than music, yet when I listen back now to 1959-1963 records I bought and thought were great, not only do the words make me cringe but they show me that I never absorbed the verbal import of the words at all then.
I heard them as sounds, and as a kind of expressive colouring for the singer. Only by doing so could I not have found them risible. The last thing the teenage me would have said to my girlfriend was “Bless you - bless every breath that you take”, and yet it splashed through me cheerily enough on the hit single by Tony Orlando, himself only sixteen when he made the record.
(It’s a charming quirk of this book, then, that having insisted on the secondary importance of Holly’s lyrics on his records, Laing pays quite close attention to those lyrics.)
The exception was Elvis, whose records before he came out of the army tended to have lyrics that were either so striking as to break through the sound (‘Heartbreak Hotel’ - and what a sound the lyric had to break through!) or they had meaning that impinged because it augmented and played upon his smouldering image of the dangerous, rebellious sexpot.
Which was, of course, the last thing you could say of Buddy Holly. What he and the Crickets did instead, more significantly, was, as Dave Laing summed up long before most, to open up “new possibilities for guitar-based rock’n’roll groups, and directly [foreshadow] the way many groups of the mid-’60s came to function as self-contained composing and performing units.”
That’s one hell of a prototype to have offered the music, in the early years of rock’n’roll and ever since.
To declare an interest - I've known Dave Laing off and on since about the same time this book was published. He was editor of Let It Rock when we were members of the Let It Rock Writers' Co-operative; he took me in, and we ate toast together a lot, to save me being homeless in London at some point in the 1980s, and in the late 1990s he organised the first Robert Shelton Memorial Conference at Liverpool University at which I was a speaker.