It may sound cold or callous, but the reason Buddy Holly never put a foot wrong was because he never had the chance. Just 22 when he died in 1959, with the money rolling in from an extraordinary run of hits over a period of less than two years, he might have, had he lived, directed his burgeoning wealth into misjudged or meandering projects.
Fame and a cosy family life could have made him soft, opting for the easy lot of a mainstream balladeer. Strings and orchestration were already creeping into his later material (Raining In My Heart, True Love Ways, It Doesn’t Matter Anymore), already a country mile from the back porch rattle of Peggy Sue or That’ll Be The Day. If the decline of rock’n’rollers such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard is any kind of yardstick, who’s to say Holly wouldn’t have deteriorated into a MOR embarrassment, a lounge-suited showbiz crooner on the supper club circuit? But no. Buddy’s death, while tragic, was also kind of perfect.
Much has been written down the years about Holly as a pioneer, a hungry musician keen to experiment in the studio and push the available technology to the edge. It’s evident on the multi-tracking of his voice on the likes of Listen To Me and Words Of Love, but his curiosity also stretched to wringing out noises from his guitars that the manufacturers never realised were there. Even something as seemingly mundane and “back room” as microphone placements around a drum kit didn’t escape his attention, as he pursued the sounds in his head that he often found hard to articulate to others in words.
It’s Holly’s sense of sonic adventure that holds the key to this box set of 203 tracks. Obviously, the same songs crop up again and again in varying formats (including a dozen or so previously unreleased takes) but, for the most part, each one represents a building block towards the finished magnificent wall. Beach Boys fans will recall the 1997 box Pet Sounds Sessions, an exhaustive dissection of the raw components which made up that landmark album. Working one’s way through these six discs can be almost as revealing – arguably more astonishing, when you consider that recording processes were still in their relative infancy.
Of course, the 21st-century studio is a different place, where the prettier but tone deaf girl group members will have their day in the sun thanks to the gadgetry of autotune, and mixing desks resembling spacecraft can tweak notes and drop in replacements at a moment’s notice. Buddy Holly had no such luxuries, but he clearly revelled in the limitations of his equipment and took a spirited run at every hurdle in his path, leaping over them to great heights that still, half a century later, have us staring skywards in awe.