“Listen to the songs on the first three Beatles albums. Take their voices off, and it‘s Buddy Holly” – John Mellencamp
Let‘s talk about B sides. They were often looked at as throwaways, since there was no percentage in putting out two great sides on a 45 rpm single. After all, a single was short-lived, perhaps 2-3 months at most, and then there would be a call for another hit. Many pop careers in the 50s and 60s lasted only a couple of years. Why not stretch it out and double the sales?
A few groups used the B side of a single to demonstrate other facets of their talents. If the A side was a vocal, they‘d show off their instrumental skills on the B side. And vice versa. Get 3 or 4 hits in a row and you could issue an album called “Greatest Hits of — or “Best of “etc. It was a racket, a carefully planned scheme run by record companies and the backroom boys.
Then you‘ve got Buddy Holly. He had a surefire hit when he recorded ‘Heartbeat’, a younglovetruelove number that was mainstream pop. For the flip side, he made one of the greatest recordings ever made by a pop/rock singer, one that deserves study, acclaim, and yes, envy. The song is called ‘Well Alright’ and if you don’t know it, we recommend it highly as an essential track.
The tune features Buddy strumming his guitar, Jerry Allison on brushed cymbals and triangle, and Joe Mauldin on bass. It‘s a deceptively quiet number, with Buddy singing rather softly and straight ahead, without his usual hiccupped would-be Elvis manner. The song is more than lovely; it is a masterpiece of dynamics.
Most rock and pop music is recorded at one level, and it‘s meant to be played at one level – usually that means loud. And that works for party music, dance music, protest music, and the usual narrow range of emotions.
Truly great music has dynamic range: by that I mean there‘s a change that may move from a quiet sound to a loud sound, from a moderate sound to an immoderate sound, from diminuendo gradually (or suddenly) working its way to crescendo. It‘s this change that affects the listener emotionally.
Bach, for example, often composed for the harpsichord, an instrument of modest sound production, but he wrote with dynamic range in mind. As a consequence his harpsichord sonatas still can move the listener. It‘s the same with any decent classical or flamenco guitarist: they use all the dynamics (and tonal colour) of a quiet instrument to produce an experience that goes far beyond merely playing the notes. Bach is of course the favourite classical composer of dozens of jazz musicians.
We‘ve been bombarded by high decibel levels for so long that we‘ve forgotten how to feel what quiet sounds can do. Maybe it‘s because the modern audience is capable of feeling only one thing at a time – sadness or lust or excitement or rage, for example. A true artist produces a complex multi-layered experience.
The common criticism of rock music (made by Frank Sinatra among others) is that it‘s a one-dimensional event, appealing only to the lowest common denominator. Frank happened to be blessed by working with some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century: big bands, splendid arrangements, and people who mostly could read music charts and perform to high standards, both in the studio and onstage. Trouble is, after the advent of Elvis Presley, most people found Frankie boring. They preferred something unsophisticated, visceral, and exciting. There was no going back, but in the best pop/rock music, there was a sense of going forward. Buddy Holly exemplifies that growth that built upon the excitement of rock music with the strength of solid songwriting and an appreciation of how to build a song through dynamics. Too bad it didn‘t last; by the late Seventies we were easing into the formulaic dance of Saturday Night Fever and the decadence of the early Eighties. Subtlety disappeared in favour of the completely obvious. Music since then has both lost its soul and its importance.
It goes farther than that, though: not only is most contemporary rock/pop music recorded at one level; it has a sameness of sound texture and tonal colour that is extremely boring. Kids these days don‘t know why the music of the Sixties and Seventies is so good; they just know, instinctively, that they‘re not getting their money‘s worth with most of the current stuff.
From Bach to Buddy: somewhere along the way Buddy learned these lessons and came up with a “classical” approach to the pop song. It‘s common knowledge that the Beatles were devout fans of Holly, but what isn‘t often discussed is why. They kept this to themselves. I believe though (along with Dave Marsh who wrote about this song in The Heart of Rock and Soul) that both Paul and John were inspired by ‘Well Alright’.” Marsh claims that “If Buddy Holly had lived to see the Seventies, he would have been heralded as the Father of the Singer/Songwriters.” His performance on ‘Well Alright’ is unadorned, unpretentious, and says to me that Buddy was capable of both strength and tenderness.
More than fifty years after his death, Buddy‘s music continues to inspire. There is so much more in his work than meets the eye. Listen again to ‘Well Alright’ and see if you don‘t conclude that in this case the B side is truly the A side.
Watch: Buddy Holly ‘Well Alright’