Saturday, October 9, 2021


Woah, such a tough project, this one, trying to come up with a theme with teeth, thinking my way through what if electricity had yet to be invented, what if Elvis were a vegetarian or what if Lynyrd Skynyrd went everywhere by train, all these imponderables begging to be answered, with nothing to write in response. And then I remembered that there were already a whole group of projects out there, who had already done their own spin on the question. These would often thinly drawn plots about lost valleys, of remote communities, adrift from the modern world, catching a glimpse of the outside world, and applying their own template thereto, with whatsoever was to hand. So we get Hayseed Dixie, supposedly Appalachian farmhands, who, having chanced upon a car crashed in their home hamlet (of Deer Lick Holler), and which contained a stack AC/DC records, they scrupulously set to absorbing and replicating the music thereof, albeit with the only instrumentation to hand. But ahead of them came Big Daddy.

The back story is that the band, whilst touring U.S. army bases in 'Nam, were kidnapped by Laotian guerrillas and kept in captivity until their rescue, in 1983. Thus, bypassing all the trends and tropes of musical styles for the two decades before. So, by the time they were able to restart their career, as a covers band, they only had the chops to play in the styles of the 1950's through early 60's. In truth, this meant splicing more modern material into the distinctive manifestations of much older songs. A studio trick in the first instance, ultimately they became a performing act, with any number of members passing through their ranks, most gainfully otherwise employed as voiceover artists, and capable of any amount of mimicry. 

The Safety Dance/Big Daddy (Meanwhile, Back in the States)

To all intents and purposes their first album, in 1985, was the (well titled) 'Meanwhile, Back In The United States', with a stack of 80s songs, encompassing any number of genres, all put through a 50's filter and regurgitated with some skill and attention to detail. Sure, as a novelty act, maybe not something you would find yourself returning to time and time again, but a good album to have by, and to chuck the odd song from onto mixtapes and playlists. 'What Really Happened to the Band of 59', three years later, took the conceit a step further and ran a little more knowingly with some of the juxtapositioning. By 'Cutting Their Own Groove', another three years later, it was becoming a little shaky, with sometimes the original 1980s source material lost in action, as the grooves of some arcane 1958 rockabilly hit were faultlessly recreated. The way around this developing diminishment of return was a masterstroke, by applying their brilliantine and bobbysocks to a single album, namely 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. This really was their flash in the pan, arguably opening up the market for similar projects, which have since become accepted twists of the route to steering yourself a novelty hit album. The Easy Star All-Stars have taken this to heart, with their dub-reggae tributes, also to Sgt Pepper, but also to Dark Side of the Moon and Radiohead.

Hotel California/Big Daddy (What Really Happened to the Band of '59)

I Want Your Sex/Big Daddy (Cutting Their Own Groove)

Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds/Big Daddy (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band)

Whilst a version of Big Daddy nominally play on, the idea continues to attract attention. One could say the the UK a capella band, the Flying Pickets, operating at much the same time as Big Daddy, were hitting on the same sort of thing, if limited by the smaller mutability of doo-wop. Perhaps the most implicit acceptance of this as a valid art(?!) form came as Pat Boone, one of the archetypal 50's into 60's crooners, returned the favour, interpreting metal hits of the 70's and 80's for his 1997 album, 'In a Metal Mood: No More Mr Nice Guy', but in more his style. This idea, or similar, was replicated again by Paul Anka for his 'Rock Swings', in 2005. All of this proving, in a way, that you just can't keep a good song down. Or, indeed, many a bad one, either. If you dislike the style, or the genre, pick another and just do it again.

Go fer it!!

Afterword: Following the success of Big Daddy, the team behind the band attempted another slice of the pie, deciding on Gregorian Chant as being untapped for the covers market. What do you think?

Theme From the Monkees/The Benzedrine Monks of Santo Domonica (Chantmania)

Thursday, October 7, 2021

What If: Buddy Holly Lived?

Buddy Holly: Crying, Waiting, Hoping (Apartment Tapes version)

This may be the hardest theme we’ve tackled here, and I’ll take responsibility for it, for better or worse. As a history major in college, and general history buff, I’ve also been a fan of “alternative history,” where one historical fact changes, and you speculate on how things might have been different. One good recent example of this was the HBO series, The Plot Against America (and the 2004 Philip Roth novel that it was based on), which launches from the premise that Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 election. I’ve also read a ton of “what if the South won the Civil War” fiction, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows me or has read my writing

But, as I often have to remind myself, this is a music blog, so we are going think about what would have happened if Buddy Holly’s plane hadn’t crashed on that cold February morning in 1959 in Iowa. I’m no Holly expert (although I’ve done some reading about his career), so I’m under no impression that this might be a “definitive” discussion. And because I’m not writing a piece of speculative fiction, and have to therefore pick one path and follow it, we’ll look at a few possibilities, focused more on Holly’s potential career than his potential effect on music as a whole (or the effect of the deaths of the others who were on the plane that day). 

In "American Pie," Don McLean famously referred to the crash that killed Holly, Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson, Jr.), and pilot Roger Peterson, as the “day the music died,” but while that’s a great and memorable lyric, of course, it wasn’t. Most notably, two big Holly fans in Liverpool had recently formed a band named after an insect, in tribute to Holly’s band, the Crickets, and had Holly not died that day, I’m pretty confident that Beatlemania still would have swept through the world a few years later, changing the musical landscape forever, and pushing aside the type of “rock ‘n’ roll” music that Holly and his ilk had made popular (even as the Beatles covered Holly’s songs live and on record). In fact, I’d wager that had Holly lived, he would have been a fan of the Beatles, and even worked with them in some form—maybe writing songs with or for them or performing with them, or releasing his own Beatles covers (everyone else did). But probably not producing the Beatles, since they already had a pretty fair producer. (And don’t forget that the Rolling Stones covered “Not Fade Away” on their first album.) 

Another huge Holly fan was Bob Dylan, who actually saw Holly on the ill-fated Winter Dance Party tour in Duluth, MN, about 3 days before the crash, and referenced Holly as his first musical influence in his Nobel Prize lecture. So, again, Holly’s death wouldn’t have prevented Dylan’s rise and influence on music, and again, I’d bet that they might have collaborated—or at least, become acquainted—particularly after Dylan began to perform regularly in New York. You can easily imagine Holly, with Maria Elena, and maybe a friend like Phil Everly or Waylon Jennings, trying to watch the young Dylan incognito from the back of the club, and being impressed by his talents. 

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. 

One way of looking at this question is by starting by analyzing Holly’s life and music before he died. In late 1958, Holly and wife Maria Elena, moved to Greenwich Village, in part to get a new start, but also to get involved in the New York music scene of the time. Holly, who was not only a musical genius, but appeared to have a more sophisticated business sense than many of his contemporaries, wanted to start his own label and open his own studio. So, maybe, part of Holly’s future would have been as a music executive and producer of other acts. 

During this period, Holly explored his love for jazz, regularly frequenting jazz clubs in the Village and elsewhere in the city. And he would go down to Washington Square Park and play with the other musicians hanging out there. The last formal recording session that Holly participated in was in New York, in collaboration with the Dick Jacobs Orchestra, recording four songs with heavy string orchestration. So, by some analyses, at this point, Holly was moving away from the stripped down rock ‘n’ roll that made him famous to a more sophisticated, smooth pop sound. For example, one of these songs, Paul Anka’s “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” might have presaged a future career for Holly as another Anka-style pop singer. 

At the same time, though, Holly was recording himself in his living room—what have later become known as the “Apartment Tapes,” and from these, you can hear Holly working both on his songwriting and lyrical craft, but also experimenting with tempo and styles. (Many of these demos were later overdubbed and released posthumously.) Add to this the reports that Holly planned to record with black artists such as Ray Charles, Mahalia Jackson and other soul singers (he was, memorably, the first white act to play Harlem’s Apollo Theater), and the prospect of Holly as a pop crooner becomes less likely. Nor do I see him turning to Vegas, like his friend Elvis Presley.

Another way to look at it is to consider the careers of two other musicians who were on the Winter Dance Party tour, but declined to get on the plane—Waylon Jennings, who was Holly’s bass player on the tour and gave up his seat to the Big Bopper, who was sick, and Dion DiMucci, who didn’t want to spend the extra money. There are some who think that Holly’s future, had he survived, would have been to move more toward country music, like Jennings, considering his Texas roots and twang. But I don’t think that Holly would have wanted to be so limited, because his musical tastes were so broad. Dion, of course, had early success, but when that faded, changed his sound to a more mature folk/pop approach, before moving through a Christian music phase, and more recently, focusing on blues, and I suspect that Holly, too, would have kept trying different things. 

Ultimately, I don't think that Holly would have become an “oldies” act, performing versions of his hits to aging fans. Instead, I think that Holly would have gone on to a varied career—writing songs for himself and others, in various styles that would have reflected his curiosity, interests and the new sounds that were developing in the 1960s and 70s, producing and nurturing artists, and continuing to perform new music for years.