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Buddy Holly and his Apartment Tapes

My Board of Trustees has informed me that this blog is in dire need of a youthful makeover. My esteemed colleagues voted yesterday on a measure that will undoubtedly make this blog the premier place for the young to go and “hang”, as they say. The Board, a group of twelve aging white men in matching suits, have been in the blogging industry their entire lives: a combined 14,879 years! They know a thing or two about keeping this blog relevant and “hip” to the “hippity hop” generation, and all those who will follow.

This post will be about a popular performer of rock ‘n’ roll music, Buddy Holly.

I don’t know much about the life of Buddy Holly. What I do know is that his music is as catchy today as it was back in the 1950’s. Some of my favorite songs are by him: Everyday, That’l Be The Day, Maybe Baby. Simple lyrics, sweet melodies. When a song of Buddy’s comes up on my ipod’s shuffle, it fits right in with the current music I listen to. I suppose the real difference is in recording quality; the songs do have an older production aesthetic. Just like music from the 80’s always sounds canned and tinny to me, Buddy Holly’s work sounds like it was recorded in the 50’s. This is not a problem, it just takes getting used to.

My only real problem with some of his music is that his band, The Crickets, sing backup vocals in the whitest possible way. You know what I’m talking about. They sound like the blandest, most clean-cut barbershop quartet ever. If I could strip away those backup vocals Buddy’s music would, I think, sound positively modern.

Which brings me to The Apartment Tapes. A little while before his untimely death, Buddy bought a tape recorder and took it to his apartment in New York City. He recorded 12 songs, plus an alternate version each of two songs (14 total). This is Buddy at his most relaxed. You can hear him trying new methods, new styles. The sound quality is amazingly good; I guess when you don’t have any overdubs the tape itself can sound crystal clear. There is something very present about these songs. There is no distance between the listener and the performer. It is the closest you can get to a ‘live’ Buddy Holly album. If I would compare it to anything, I’d say it makes the same impression as John Lennon’s home recordings when he was living in the Dakota building (also in New York, coincidentally). These songs benefit from a lack of studio futzing. They haven’t been altered in tone or speed to sound like a commercial record. They just are what they are.

I was first alerted to the existence of these songs when I saw ‘Juno’ last year. One of the unaltered songs is used in that movie: Dearest. When I heard it, I was floored. I knew it was Buddy Holly right away, but it sounded different from any of the music I’d heard already. I wondered why I’d never heard this before.

It turns out these tapes have never been commercially released. I did a little reading and found out.

After Buddy Holly died, his producer got his grubby, cash-stained hands on these tapes. He took exactly what made the tapes special and pooped all over it. Specifically, he hired a band to fill out the tracks. What came out was a sometimes okay, sometimes creepy version of each song. What I mean to say is, the vocals sometimes sound so isolated, so different from the style in which the band was playing, it really sounded like Buddy Holly was dispatching his vocals from beyond the grave. Later in the 60’s, some other producer had a crack at the songs. The results were a little better (they didn’t feature that doo-wop backup vocal that I mentioned before), but still not as good as the original tapes themselves.

For some reason, the original tapes remain available through other sources, but you can’t just walk into a record store and buy them. Why is this? There are lots of unreleased albums out there. My friend Alec recently discussed a Weezer album that never was. Brian Wilson’s epic Smile album was never released until he redid the whole thing a couple of years ago. I digress.

I’ll end this with a request: seek out Buddy Holly’s music and give it a listen. Go a step further and seek out a CD with those apartment tapes. You’ll find a musician who was not only good in his day, he is good to this day.

For the last word, I’ll turn to Bob Dylan. This is a great little aside from his Grammy acceptance speech when Time Out of Mind won Album of the Year in 1998:

And I just want to say that when I was sixteen or seventeen years old, I went to see Buddy Holly play at Duluth National Guard Armory and I was three feet away from him…and he looked at me. And I just have some sort of feeling that he was – I don’t know how or why – but I know he was with us all the time we were making this record in some kind of way.

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